As I noted in a previous post, I was in Apia all last week on an itinerary bookended by great celebrations of independence. I arrived in time to attend Samoa’s independence day festivities and caught a flight back to Wellington 10 days later after an exciting (and early) American Independence Day celebration on the flight deck of the USS Pearl Harbor. In between, I barnstormed Upolu and Savai’i, visiting Pacific Partnership projects mounted by the ship’s crew. It was an exhilarating, heart-warming week.
I started my visit on Thursday, May 30th, arriving in time to attend the Special Olympics Ball, dubbed “A Night with Champions.” A black-tie affair with live entertainment, the event was intended to raise funds for 30 Samoan athletes to take part in the first-ever Asia Pacific Games for special-needs athletes in Australia later this year. I was joined by two dozen of my colleagues from the U.S. Navy, all turned out in their dress whites to escort the athletes into the Ball.
Also in attendance were His Highness Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi, Her Highness Masiofo Filifilia, and Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi. The highlight for me was when the athletes themselves took the stage, introduced themselves, and talked about their backgrounds, goals, and athletic activities. There was a lot of heart and personality on that stage. Director of Special Olympics Samoa Tusitina Nuuvali, her team, and the sponsors certainly produced a powerful, moving event. Malo le galue.
Independence celebrations began the next evening with a worship service at the Government Prayer House, Palisi,led by my old friend the Rev. Kasiano Leaupepe, Chairman of the National Council of Churches. Palisi was packed with officials in Sunday white and filled with powerful preaching and glorious singing, as is the norm in Samoa. I was accompanied to the service by my new friend Commodore Wallace Lovely (Mission Commander of Pacific Partnership 2013), my Apia Chargé Chad, and his wife Anne.
Immediately after the service I drove across town to attend a beauty pageant hosted by the Samoa Fa’afafine Association. A popular annual event attended by large crowds, the pageant celebrates the charitable works of the Association and is always raucous good fun. This was the event’s 30th year. In part because the primary sponsor this year was the Ministry of Health, the theme was healthy living, slyly titled “Basket of Fruits,” with each contestant representing a particular vegetative bounty.
The Association’s patron, Prime Minister Tuilaepa, opened the pageant with remarks that had attendees clapping and laughing. Also in attendance were my friend Lt. Governor Lemanu Peleti Mauga of American Samoa and his wife. I served on the panel of judges along with a senior official of Samoa’s Ministry of Health and a visiting officer of the Society of Fa’afafine in American Samoa. The finalists were Misses Apple, Banana, Cherry, Orange, Pineapple, Strawberry, and Watermelon, with Miss Banana taking the crown in a photo finish with Miss Strawberry.
Despite being out late the night before, I rose early the next morning to get to Malae o Tiafau, Mulinuu at 6:30 a.m. for the start of official Independence Day ceremonies. As I have each year since becoming Ambassador, I joined dignitaries on the large outdoor reviewing stand for the police band review, raising of the flag, cannon salute, Head of State’s address, and an independence procession comprised of groups from school, churches, other NGOs, and government ministries from around the country.
As is our custom, my Embassy colleagues and I donned our special red-white-and-blue Samoan elei shirts, mustered with our Peace Corps volunteers and other Americans present, and marched in the parade behind a banner celebrating the long history of U.S.-Samoa friendship. This year we were joined by the Commodore, a unit of the U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet Band, and contingent of French sailors participating in Pacific Partnership. We marched past the reviewing stand to the Band’s Dixieland version of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” pausing in front of the Head of State to salute him in Samoan.
Shortly before our contingent marched past the reviewing stand, the USS Pearl Harbor arrived in Apia, gliding beyond the sea wall just in from of the parade grounds. It was an impressive sight and helped put a bit of extra spring in our steps. (The ship’s arrival had slipped back a day later than scheduled because of difficult weather en route, so the Commodore and Navy musicians had flown in ahead of time to prepare for the mission and participate in the festivities.)
After the morning ceremonies concluded, the Head of State and Prime Minister hosted the customary Independence State Lunch, followed by an afternoon of exuberant cultural performances back on the malae. I always look forward to seeing the large groups from villages and schools around the country sing and dance in traditional attire with extraordinarily complex movements, rich harmonies, and often satirical lyrics. The Commodore was particularly intrigued by the traditional post-performance gifting, which as usual involved impressive fine mats, bounty from the sea, and several immense slaughtered hogs.
Official festivities concluded with a retreat by the national police band, the lowering of the flag, and the departure of the Head of State. His Highness, Her Highness, the Prime Minister, the Lt. Governor of American Samoa and his wife, the First Lady of American Samoa, and approximately 100 other dignitaries then joined Commodore Lovely and I dockside at USS Pearl Harbor for the opening ceremony officially launching Pacific Partnership 2013. Also in attendance were officers from the French ship participating in the Samoa segment of the mission.
As I described in my prior post, Pacific Partnership is an annual deployment of forces from the Pacific Fleet of the U.S. Navy with our regional partners including France, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Canada, and Malaysia, intended to increase interoperability and disaster preparedness. Working in close collaboration with host nation governments, the mission conducts hundreds of preparedness exercises, skills trainings, and medical, dental, veterinary, humanitarian, engineering, and infrastructure projects over a period of approximately 3 months.
This year’s mission started here in Samoa, followed by Tonga, with Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Papua New Guinea, and Solomon Islands still ahead. Because the effort is collaborative and the goal is interoperability, military personnel from 13 different nations are on the ships, and various partners will command different portions of the mission. I believe that a Kiwi officer will assume overall command for the Kiribati segment of the mission, and that an Australian officer will command the Papua New Guinea segment.
The next day, Monday, teams from USS Pearl Harbor fanned out across the country for clinics, trainings, rehabs, and other projects. (At any one time about 500 of the 750 people from the ship were working on shore.) I took the Commodore and a bus full of young sailors to Mulifanua, a village on the west coast of Upolu, for the day for cultural immersion and a bit of fun. We were joined by Mulifanua’s Member of Parliament, Ifopo Matia Fritz Jahnke, as well as some of New Zealand Minister Judith Collins’ in-laws, who live in the village.
The Mulifanua chiefs greeted us with a traditional Samoan ‘ava ceremony, followed by a demonstration of the making of the umu and other Samoan delicacies. Our sailors jumped in to assist with the preparations and to learn weaving techniques. And then we ate. As always, I greatly enjoyed the palusami. I discovered another favorite, though, when I tried faausi (taro dipped in sweetened coconut cream) for the first time.
During our feast we were entertained by two of the village dance groups composed of students who greatly impressed us with the energy, precision, and power of their dancing and singing. They rocked the fale with their enthusiasm, drawing more villages over to say hello. To reciprocate, several of the U.S. Navy musicians performed American traditional and pop songs for the villagers. As usually happens, the groups mixed and folks ended up dancing and singing together.
To wrap up the sit-down portion of the day, I presented the chiefs with sporting equipment, backpacks, and t-shirts brought by the sailors for the children of the village. Moved by the power and passion of the village orator’s words, the Commodore presented with a couple of special gifts. We then adjourned to the grounds of the London Missionary Church to test the sporting equipment with a few hours of volleyball and basketball with village youth. It was a great day, and the sailors present continued to talk throughout the week about what they learned in Mulifanua.
I felt a bit guilty about my Monday schedule. While the Commodore and I were eating, being entertained, and playing volleyball, elsewhere that day teams of Navy and NGO nurses and doctors conducting medical, dental, vision, and lifestyle clinics in several villages on Upolu and Savai’i, Samoa’s two largest islands. Pacific Partnership also ran a public health fair on Savai’i in collaboration with Special Olympics Samoa.
The health fair program included screenings, trainings, and public information sessions on a wide range of healthy living issues including personal hygiene, eye care, diet and nutrition, disease vector control, and the importance of exercise. The day also included sports and games for and with Special Olympics youth who live on Savai’i. I’m told that several hundred people participated in the events of the day.
Tuesday and Wednesday continued the heavy schedule of medical clinics throughout the country, with Pacific Partnership doctors, optometrists, and dentists working in conjunction with the National Health Service and Ministry of Health. The teams screened many hundreds of patients at various locations. Another team conducted a Nurses Conference at which 56 local nurses participated in trainings in emergency medicine and nursing with Pacific Partnership nurses and doctors.
Because we aren’t medically trained, my Chargé Chad Berbert and I briefly visited a few clinic sites but devoted most of our time to assisting Navy teams deliver supplies to a range of medical and educational organizations. For example, we presented wheelchairs and other medical supplies to the Diabetes Association in Samoa, an association run by local nurses and heavily dependent on donations for its critical operations. The presentation was made at the Ministry of Health, with CEO Palanitina Toelupe presiding.
My three favorite visits were to Loto Taumafai (a school for children with disabilities), Children’s House of Hope (a home for abandoned and abused children run by the Samoa Victims Support Group, under the leadership of the indefatigable Lina Chang), and Mapuifagalele (a home for the elderly run by the Little Sisters of the Poor). At each place we delivered hygiene and medical supplies, and the Navy Band entertained staff, residents, and students.
The donations at Loto Taumafai included hundreds of science and social studies books as well as microscopes and slide sets for use in class. The truckload of supplies for the House of Hope included an army of stuffed animals. It was a day of big smiles, warm hearts, and a few tears all around. My favorite moments included seeing the children dancing, singing, and helping play percussion, as well as meeting a vibrant woman of 105 years at Mapuifagalele who firmly refused to share with me her secrets of longevity.
People weren’t the only focus of Pacific Partnership ativity. Other teams composed of veterinarians and animal health specialists worked with the Animal Protection Society of Samoa and the Samoan Animal Production and Health Division on skills-building exercises, trainings, and health surveys.
The teams also conducted public information sessions about animal health and performed free surgeries for pets and stray animals. With stray dogs posing a significant challenge in the Apia area, there was a special focus on canine non-proliferation. I’m told that the team set a national record by conducting more than 40 stray dog “de-sexings” in a single day.
Despite persistent rain, Thursday was a particularly special day. Commodore Lovely and I flew across to Savai’i to visit project sites and participate in ribbon-cutting ceremonies at Asau Primary School and Tuasivi Hospital. In both locations joint Pacific Partnership teams of American and French sailors and marines had been working on construction, rehabilitation, and engineering projects for the past month.
The team at Asau Primary School built a library and computer lab for the school, refurbished and upgraded the lavatory and shower blocks, installed water tanks, and painted and repaired other buildings. The principal, children, teachers, and village elders welcomed us with singing, dancing, prayers, speeches, and a grand lunch of local delicacies. In one of my favorite, unexpected moments of the visit, the women of the village dressed our traveling party, American sailors, and French marines with brightly colored lava lavas and beads as thank-you gifts.
The celebrations in Asau were difficult to leave, but we had other project sites to visit. We said good-bye to the principal and students and then drove the 2-1/2 hours along the coast road to Tuasivi Hospital, the primary hospital serving the population of Savai’i. There we found another integrated team of U.S. sailors and French marines who had been working on site for the past month building a fully-enclosed family fale to house relatives of patients from distant villages, repainting the children’s wards, and completing other projects.
The hospital director and nursing staff greeted us with more music and food. After a short ceremony, the director gave us a tour of the hospital’s facilities, showed us the various projects handled by the Pacific Partnership team, and described a couple of emergencies handled by our visiting medical staff. The Commodore and I spent time in the dentistry clinic which was being staffed for the week by dentists and dental surgeons from USS Pearl Harbor. Then of course there was more food, and we danced the siva before heading back to the airstrip.
As always, I thoroughly enjoyed my time on Savai’i. Unfortunately, because of the weather and time constraints, we were unable to visit all of the Pacific Partnership project sites. In addition to the two projects I’ve just mentioned, other teams hosted medical clinics in Tuasivi, Foailalo, and Safotu, and renovated and upgraded schools in Falealupo and Neiafu. It was a highly productive week on the big island for the Partnership teams, capping a busy month of construction and engineering work.
While were were on the big island, back in Apia the crew of the USS Pearl Harbor continued to host ship tours for school groups, non-governmental organizations, and any members of the general public interested in seeing what life aboard a large navy ship is like. Over the course of the week more than a thousand Samoans explored the ship and talked to our sailors as well as mission personnel from our partner nations, including New Zealand, Australia, and Canada, deployed on the ship.
I was particularly pleased to host a private tour for my four Fa’atuatua College student friends and their two coaches who had recently returned from a deaf athlete exchange program that we sponsored in Washington. I presented the athletes with Ambassador medals, they shared with me the highlights of their trip, and we took turns sitting in the Captain’s chair and searching for their homes and other landmarks with the ship’s telescopes.
Intrigued by tales of their legendary rowing prowess, the Commodore invited my friend the iconic Vaimasenuu Zita Martel and 40 young men from Don Bosco Technical Center to the ship. During their visit could he formally challenged them to a fautasi (longboat) race against an enthusiastic but unseasoned USS Pearl Harbor team. The challenge was accepted, and the teams enjoyed getting to know each other on the flight deck before leaving for a joint practice session.
In addition to the construction and humanitarian work, Pacific Partnership teams focused on disaster management and response coordination and capacity building. For example, I visited the site of a joint disaster management exercise expertly led by the very impressive Filomena Nelson, head of Samoa’s Disaster Management Office. Pacific Partnership collaborated in an advisory role as part of our commitment to help Samoa respond to future events such as the tragic 2009 tsunami and more recent flooding.
In addition to table-top exercises, a Pacific Partnership team coordinated a large-scale field casualty drill with the Samoa Red Cross, Disaster Management Office of the Ministry of Natural Resources, Ministry of Police and Prisons, and Samoa Fire and Emergency Services Authority. The simulation impacted a wide area and demonstrated how numerous entities should and would work together to respond to urgent needs effectively. I visited one of the triage sites and was impressed at how successful the exercise played out.
My week with Pacific Partnership in Samoa flew by, ending last Friday evening with a gala celebration of the 237th anniversary of American Independence on the flight deck of USS Pearl Harbor, hosted by the Commodore, Commanding Officer of the ship, and me. Yes, I know that last Friday was almost a full month early, but I couldn’t persuade the Commodore to sail back on July 4th. And if you want to throw a celebration the right way, you have to do it when the ideal venue is available.
Of course, USS Pearl Harbor was the ideal venue because of the historical Pacific event for which it is named, because its current mission reflects and confirms American core values and commitment in the region, and because of the great views of Apia and the ocean from the flight deck. The great ship was strung with lights and decorated in red-white-and-blue bunting. Guests were piped aboard and escorted down a red-carpeted receiving line by uniformed sailors as the Navy Band performed. Crew members conducted personal tours of the ship, and there was plenty to eat and drink.
More than 300 guests from government, civil society, church, education, sports, media, and business circles enjoyed the evening, including a contingent of fellow Americans who traveled over from Pago Pago for the event. Among the guests were His Highness, Deputy Prime Minister Fonotoe Lauofo Pierre Meredith, former NFL star Richard Brown, Zita, Lena, many of the other folks I’ve already mentioned above, the Attorney General of American Samoa, and the head of American Samoa’s Department of Homeland Security.
USS Pearl Harbor Commanding Officer Michael Harris served as master of ceremonies. A Navy honor guard presented the colors. The Navy Band played the national anthems of the United States and Samoa. Commodore Lovely, the Deputy Prime Minister, and I gave brief remarks. There was plenty to eat and drink, and the Navy Band played throughout the evening. Conversation was constant and robust (even during the speeches), with folks peeling off occasionally for tours of the ship. The two-hour event ran for more than 4 hours because guests were having so much fun.
I left the party before the extended ending time so that I could have dinner with the senior Kiwi officer currently on Pacific Partnership, Group Captain Darryn Webb of the Royal NZ Air Force. Captain Webb is serving as the Deputy Mission Commander, which is essentially the number two command position on the ship. He and I talked about expedition philosophy and details, including his thoughts on the work ahead in Tonga, and then we veered off into lighter topics as groups of sailors from the ship arrived at the restaurant for post-party libations.
After a couple rounds of margaritas, I took my leave and made my way to the airport for the unfortunately scheduled 1:50 a.m. flight back to New Zealand. I very much regretted leaving Apia before the ship did, but business called farther south. Of course, Chad ably picked up where I left off. Later that morning he took part in the U.S. Veterans Marathon with many of the sailors from the mission. He also visited clinics where medical screenings continued throughout the day Saturday.
As anticipated, the Saturday highlight was the fautasi race between the U.S. Navy and Zita’s fearsome Don Bosco crew. Media reports and strong word of mouth raised expectations, and large crowds gathered on shore to watch the race. The weather cooperated, producing a perfect setting for maritime competition. As usual, Zita commanded her crew on the Segavao. In his longboat debut, Commodore Lovely took the helm for the Navy team.
Although the visitors rowed valiantly, last year’s national Independence Race champions dominated the contest. I declared partial victory in absentia when I confirmed that the Navy team finished the course without capsizing its borrowed longboat. Camaraderie was high, and I understand that a great time was had by all. The Don Bosco students honored the visiting Navy personnel with a farewell performance at the ship after the race.
The Samoa segment of the Pacific Partnership 2013 mission officially concluded later Saturday evening at a ceremony hosted by the Commodore and my Chargé Chad, capping a hectic, impactful, highly valuable, unequivocally successful week of collaboration among friends. Long-term partners from America, Samoa, and several other nations worked together seamlessly, celebrated the common values that distinguish and unite us, helped others in need, and prepared to respond together effectively if and when misfortune befalls one of us.
Sunday was spent recalling project teams from around the country, repacking tools and equipment, and preparing USS Pearl Harbor for its voyage to Tonga. And then, on Monday morning, the ship steamed out of Apia harbor. I’ve communicated with the Commodore and others by email since then, and I know that the crew would have stayed in port much longer if that were possible. It’s clear that Samoa cast quite a spell, as it always does, and that many of the sailors and fellow mission travelers will be returning for vacation as soon as they can.
My Embassy colleagues and I are deeply grateful to Commodore Lovely, Commander Harris, the crew of the USS Pearl Harbor, and the many doctors, nurses, dentists, medics, veterinarians, engineers, managers, trainers, and others on the mission for their tireless efforts and good works. We are also deeply grateful to Admiral Cecil Haney, Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, for his unwavering vision and commitment to the Pacific Partnership program, and for including Samoa this year.
Whenever I come back from Samoa I always have more photos than I can use in my blog. This trip posed a particularly difficult editorial challenge because my Embassy colleagues and the ship’s photographers took literally hundreds of photos. As I conclude this post, I thought I’d share just a few more snapshots from the great week gone by:
To all on board USS Pearl Harbor and the vessels of our partner nations along for the mission, best wishes for success in the next phases of your expedition as you visit five more island nations.
Ia fa’atasi atu le Alii ma outou. Bon Voyage.