I have always enjoyed exploring new places and cultures. It’s not about sightseeing but about embracing the wild diversity of the fascinating planet on which we live. In the course of my duties as Ambassador, I have been blessed to visit virtually all precincts of New Zealand from Cape Reinga to Bluff, travel to Samoa more than a dozen times, spend an intense week on Rarotonga, and even venture to Pago Pago, Vanuatu, and Manila. Many of my posts talk about my experiences on the road, and picking a favorite was impossible. So, I wrote the titles of the six top contenders on slips of paper, and drew one from my Māori Television baseball cap.
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MY FIRST VISIT TO SAMOA
March 18, 2010
I am just back from my first trip to Samoa to present my letter of credence from President Obama to the Head of State of the Independent State of Samoa, His Highness Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi. I had been very much looking forward to the trip, not only because Samoa is such a beautiful place but because the visit offered a chance to relive the invigorating process of entering a country for the first time as a foreign Ambassador, as I had done earlier in New Zealand.
Those two “arrivals” were unlike anything else I have experienced. There is potent cocktail of high energy, anticipation, curiosity, apprehension, expectation, scrutiny, and ceremony that creates intense focus rather than intoxication.
As a former disputes lawyer, I very much appreciate that heightened degree of awareness and connectivity. (Being so constantly photographed and documented will take some getting used to, though.)
There is also a sense of great possibility when stepping into a new position in a new place. Life is too short to drive in ruts in the road – physically, personally, or intellectually — and sometimes the greatest needs and the most exciting opportunities are off road, in the weeds. To the occasional dismay of my new colleagues, I like exploring what’s out in the weeds as well as what has always been sitting in the middle of the highway.
My welcome at the Tuaefu House for the presentation of my credentials was particularly meaningful. I appreciated the cultural gravitas of the ava ceremony and was happy to be able to participate in Samoan instead of English. I felt the same tingle as earlier in Wellington when I addressed the Head of State with remarks on the status of the bilateral relationship and presented to him the letter in which President Obama asked that I be received as his personal emissary and U.S. Ambassador.
Upon accepting my credentials, His Highness and Masiofo Filifilia invited me to tea, which turned into 90 minutes of the most vigorous intellectual discussion that I have had in many years – ranging widely over topics such as strategies for reducing teen suicide, approaches to reconciling science and religion, the challenge of preserving culture without allowing it to calcify, Asia Pacific regional architecture, and the joys of organic gardening. I very much look forward to continuing those conversations with Their Highnesses.
My first-day schedule also included an enlightening conversation with Prime Minister Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Sailele Malielegaoi. In part because my top priority as Ambassador is youth outreach and education, I was then delighted to visit (along with our Deputy Chief of Mission) the wonderful Samoa Primary School, recently established and financed by its founders through personal credit card debt. Located outside of Apia, the school contains a computer lab that we had contributed so that the students could learn computer skills at an early age.
An open challenge is that Samoa Primary is a bit too far outside the city limits to have internet service, which seriously reduces the educational potential of the computer lab. We are working on a few ideas to address the problem, but if someone else has suggestions – or funds – for getting the school connected to the net, please let me know.
I also had the great pleasure of speaking at the opening of an Embassy-funded American Corner containing 1,000 new books and a computer lab at the Nelson Memorial Library in Apia, and of touring the National University of Samoa (NUS). A roundtable discussion about culture, politics, and aspirations that I had with a group of students at NUS was as useful in teaching me about Samoa as anything else I experienced during my trip.
I also made it a point, as I do whenever I travel, of visiting other venues and groups that don’t usually see foreign Ambassadors. For example, a colleague and I spent an interesting hour at the Samoa AIDS Foundation, which faces great challenges in the important work that it does. I unfortunately missed the Samoa Fa’afafine Association this trip but will be sure to meet with its board when I’m next in town.
My Embassy colleagues and I also joined the crew of the visiting U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Walnut in digging foundations for new fales at a Habitat for Humanity project in the tsunami-damaged village of Poutasi, Falealili on the south coast of Upolu. Kudos and thanks to Commander Jeffrey K. Randall for contributing to the effort (and for hosting a welcome reception for me that evening onboard).
Three days later the Chilean earthquake struck, and warning sirens went off across Samoa at 4:00 a.m. I joined the orderly evacuation of the city as Apia’s residents moved through the darkness to higher ground. I hope that the ill-informed ex post complaints from some commentators about the evacuation being “unnecessary and “wasteful” do not dissuade people from continuing to act prudently in the future.
Finally, I very much enjoyed visiting the big island of Savai’i. It was a pleasure meeting the U.S. Peace Corps volunteers based there. They are exactly what I had expected from a group of young Americans overseas – smart, articulate, committed, personable, irreverent, good humored, and focused on doing good things in a culturally sensitive way. We had a series of great conversations, and I look forward to seeing them again. If you see one of these folks on the street, give him or her a hug for me (and buy him or her a drink).
I also had the pleasure and privilege of attending Sunday church services with one of the Peace Corps volunteers at the Congregational Christian Church of Samoa in the village of Sapapalii, at the spot where Christian missionaries first stepped onto Samoan soil. The choirs were wonderful, and the congregation was warm and inviting. Rev. Esera Esera graciously hosted me for lunch to introduce me to the village elders, which involved an extraordinary amount of food and great ceremony. I very much look forward to returning to Sapapalii whenever I am on Savai’i.
In closing, kudos to the Governments of New Zealand and Australia for deciding to underwrite public, parochial, and special needs school attendance fees in Samoa, thus essentially creating universal free primary and secondary education – one of the most powerful drivers in any society for improving living standards, creating personal opportunity, advancing human rights, elevating the status of women, and deepening economic development and equity. Building air-conditioned buildings for adults is often nice, but putting students at desks is always the real point.
Thanks, Samoa, for a great first visit. I look forward to returning soon and frequently. Fa’afetai tele lava.