Thirteen new United States Peace Corps Volunteers were sworn in last week and have taken up residence in various villages across Upolu and Savaii where they will live and work for the next two years. I could not fly up to greet them because of Cyclone Evan, but my Chargé Chad Berbert tells me that the group is enthusiastic, excited to be in Samoa, happy to be finished with their intensive 10-week Pre-Service Training, and ready for the field.
During their extended time in Samoa the volunteers will work on a variety of projects, with a strong focus on improving primary school students’ English literacy. Several of the volunteers are going to villages that were severely affected by the cyclone, and they will help repair and rebuild schools as well as teach students and assist their adopted communities in additional ways.
Because of recent events we did not have a public arrival ceremony. Instead, the volunteers were sworn on my behalf by Chad at our offices in Matafele and then immediately deployed. The new arrivals spent their first day with Chad and our Embassy colleagues helping the Samoa Victim Support Group (SVSG) clean out its facility at the old police building, which had been badly battered by the storm.
The work was quite a challenge because the mud which innundated SVSG was more than a foot high in some places. Getting SVSG’s facility back into shape was a priority because in addition to everything else it does, SVSG had tacked immediately into assisting Samoans impacted by the cyclone. We were happy to pitch in. You can learn more about SVSG in the profile I posted earlier this year.
Our new volunteers are part of an extraordinary progression. Since President John F. Kennedy founded the Peace Corps on March 1, 1961, more than 200,000 Americans have served in 139 countries, spending two years or more of their lives working on health, education, water, food security, and development projects that have opened new horizons for children, extended and improved people’s lives, and uplifted entire communities.
For more than 45 years of its history the Peace Corps has been present in Samoa. During that time more than 2,000 Americans have served here, living and working in villages and making a strong postive difference.
Neither the Peace Corps nor the volunteers always get the recognition and support that they deserve, but President Kennedy’s goal wasn’t to attract attention, generate indebtedness, or win thanks. It was simply to help people.
For that reason I’m a vigorous partisan of the program. I think that more folks back in the United States and abroad should learn about its history and current work.
So, when you have a moment, please check out my pertinent prior posts, including a warm remembrance of founding Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver and notes about my visits with volunteers when I’ve been in Samoa.
I’ll end today with one of my favorite quotes from Sargent Shriver, spoken at the University of Notre Dame in that turbulent year 1968. The words could be the Peace Corps’ — and indeed America’s — motto:
“We need to make a national examination of conscience. Why do we need a national examination of conscience? Because suddenly we Americans seem to be panicking. It’s time to stop moaning and wringing our hands. It’s true, the country is in a crisis. But we have always been in a crisis. We ought to thank God we are. Because then we always have something to test us — like a piece of steel that stays strong precisely because it is enduring great pressure.”
I’m a big fan of the Peace Corps, and I enjoy hearing about the great work that volunteers are doing around the world. In chatting with a Peace Corps friend recently, I learned that Camp GLOW has reached Samoa’s shores. GLOW stands for “Girls Leading our World,” and the initiative is intended to help build self confidence and challenge campers to think beyond traditional gender roles.
The first Camp GLOW was held in 1995 when Peace Corps volunteers and local teachers in Romania spent a day together addressing the particular challenges that local girls and young women were facing. The girls and everyone else involved considered the gathering a big success, and word of the model spread. Since then, Peace Corps volunteers elsewhere have run Camp GLOW programs for thousands of young women in more than 60 countries.
In Apia, a team of local Peace Corps folks in partnership with UN Women assembled a group of 50 dynamic young female students from school years 7 & 8 for a daylong conference led by successful Samoan women professionals. There were career panel discussions, a leadership workshop, small group sessions about health and sports, and a short dramatic performance. The girls were encouraged to speak out about the challenges they face and how to overcome them.
Organizing committee member and Peace Corps volunteer Karen Corey explained to me that the first Camp GLOW in Apia had two main goals: “First, we wanted to expose the young women to different careers and career paths so they could see how women got to where they are today. Second, we wanted to provide the campers with knowledge and information that could be useful in the future to help them overcome obstacles and reach their goals.”
Karen was very pleased — but not at all surprised — by the high quality of the presentations and the high level of interactive engagement by the campers. I’m told that particularly useful and dynamic were goal-setting exercises at the end of the day, as well as a session in which the girls prepared presentations about the day’s discussions and lessons to give to other female students when they returned to their respective schools.
At the heart of the Camp GLOW initiative are the imperatives of promoting women’s empowerment and cultivating the potential of young women to be future leaders in their communities.
The model is easily adapted to local needs and circumstances. In some places the camps are one-day events. In other places they have grown into a full week of learning, skills-building, and fun. Boys as well as girls have been included.
The most powerful common element, however, is bringing young women and girls into direct contact with successful female role-models from their own locales and cultures. Sometimes there is even a special guest from overseas, as when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke at Camp GLOW Malawi in August.
If you are interested in learning about different approaches to Camp GLOW employed in other locations, you can take a look at blog posts written by participants in camps held in Burkina Faso recently and in Macedonia a couple of years ago.
I could not be more proud of our Peace Corps team in Samoa for organizing and running Camp GLOW Apia. I’m glad that local media covered the event and gave the girls the encouraging visibility that they deserve. Plus, I was particularly pleased to hear that the volunteers and UN Women are planning to institutionalize the Camp and expand to Savaii.
From everything I’ve seen and heard, it’s clear to me that this year’s event is the start of something exciting. I am very much looking forward to Camp GLOW Samoa 2013, and to seeing what the future holds for the campers who participated this year and who come through the program in the years ahead.
Malo lava tama’ita’i ma teine Samoa.
I just landed back in Wellington after a hectic week of ceremonies, official functions, speeches, and meetings in Apia in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of Western Samoa, now known as the Independent State of Samoa. Before I turn my attention to the mountain of correspondence, memos, and other work that piled up on my desk while I was away, I thought I’d share a few more photos from Step Afrika!’s Samoa performances.
Stepping is a unique dance tradition created by African American university students. As explained on Step Afrika!’s website, stepping involves using the body as an instrument to create intricate rhythms and sounds through a combination of footsteps, claps, spoken word, and chants.
The tradition grew out of dance rituals practiced in the early 1900s by fraternities and sororities in historically African American schools to communicate affinity and allegiance to the group. The art form has grown rapidly in popularity and can now be widely found in primary and secondary schools, churches, and other community organizations as well as universities.
Founded in December 1994, Step Afrika! is the first professional step company in the world. The group is renown not only for its dynamic performances but for its work to promote stepping as an educational tool for young people worldwide. Step Afrika! reaches tens of thousands of Americans each year and has performed on many hundreds of stages in North & South America, Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, and now Samoa.
Step Afrika!’s first performance in Apia (at the National University of Samoa) was a major challenge. The airline lost the group’s baggage containing their costumes, equipment, and musical instruments. The steppers had only the clothes on their backs, literally, when they drove into town from Faleolo Airport. Rather than disappoint, however, the group scoured the markets of Apia en route to the venue and purchased clothes and basic props for the show.
The audience of more than 200 students waiting in NUS’s ornate fale, though, didn’t seem to notice any problem. They swayed, clapped, cheered, and at times joined in the stepping. As is Step Afrika!’s custom, the group followed the show with a collaborative workshop with local Samoan artists.
The next day – still without any luggage – the group drove over the mountain to the southern shore of Upolu to perform and hold workshops in Sataoa and Poutasi villages. Again the shows were dynamic, engaging, collaborative, and well-attended. The steppers thoroughly enjoyed the enthusiasm of the audiences and the beauty of the mountain drive, the beaches, and the sea.
That evening Step Afrika! had the special treat of performing at the annual beauty pageant sponsored by the Samoa Fa’afafine Association. Considered in certain island cultures to be the third gender, fa’afafine occupy a respected position in Samoan society. … And they throw a great party. Held in a sports arena, the pageant drew an exuberant crowd of about 6,000 people. Step Afrika! performed halfway through the show and brought much of the audience to its feet.
Over the next few days the group performed and conducted workshops in several other villages including a wonderful show that Dr McWaine and I attended in Moataa. More than 250 people packed the church hall, and dozens more watched from the parking lot and nearby trees.
Step Afrika! raised the roof for two hours, after which the local Moataa performance group shared traditional Samoan songs and dances. It was an absolutely wonderful evening filled with warmth, respect, music, and goodwill. The steppers and village youth were still talking, laughing, and sharing moves when we left close on midnight.
On June 1st, although they already had a very full schedule, the steppers generously marched with my Embassy and Peace Corps colleagues in the official Independence Day parade. Dr McWaine, Congressman Faleomavaega of American Samoa, and I stepped down off the reviewing stand to join the American contingent.
We were all decked out in our new Embassy elei (aloha) uniforms, marching behind a banner carried by my Chargé’s two young sons. When we reached the central dais, Step Afrika! performed a step salute to Samoa’s Head of State, His Highness Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese, who responded with a broad smile and generous applause.
Step Afrika! performed several other times at official events, including in a float parade along the waterfront and concerts on the main stage in front of the Government Building. One of the shows drew more than 1,500 people.
Another performance during an evening-long national variety show of Samoan and American Samoan acts drew a crowd of more than ten thousand, including many young people perched in trees, on car roofs, and atop light poles. Despite intermittent rain, the large crowd clapped, swayed, and cheered with the performers, including Step Afrika! It was an electric night, and Dr McWaine and I had a great time.
The men and women of Step Afrika! represented the People of the United States in superb fashion throughout Independence week in Samoa. Wherever they went they lit up the room (or stage or street) with positive energy, delighted audiences with the universal language of rhythm and dance, and collaborated in ways that underscored just how much our different cultures share in common.
I’m delighted that these marvelous steppers were able to take time away from their busy performance schedule in the United States to join us in Samoa. They brought fun, laughter, and warmth with them, and they left many new friends and stronger relationships in their wake … as all good ambassadors should.
And, yes, their luggage did finally arrive.