Cool Stuff To Check Out From J and B

Saturday, April 16, 2011


Samoa: One of the Pacific islands in the time zone "island time".
The motto: "Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow?"

This small group of Pacific Islands called Samoa were injected into our itinerary late in our trip, by way of volunteering for Project CURE. This Denver-based humanitarian organization collects medical supplies and equipment in the U.S. and disseminates them to developing countries based on need. That was our job. To assess the needs of the country's hospital system. We had five days to do it. Our host would be Ali, a second-career medical student in the newly accredited program at Oceania University of Medicine. He picked us up by storm at the airport at 2 am, and didn't stop talking until he dropped us off a week later. Ali, born and raised in Iran, and later a resident of Los Angeles where he became a chiropractor and successful business man, was a true force of nature. His rich patch worked history is the perfect companion to his frenzied pace and head full of intentions for changing the world. His sassy Latino wife, Ketty, who had risen out of poverty in South America as a girl and immigrated to L.A., works in the lab at Oceania, while teaching her funky Zumba workouts in the evenings. They decided to leave their privileged life in California and head to Samoa with little more than the clothes on their back and a commitment to their faith. I couldn't have made up a story or a couple as colorful and energetic as them. But that is a different tale.

Samoa was surprisingly not the tourist trap that typifies so many Pacific islands. The Samoan culture and village life is still intact, with a preservation of what they call fa'a Samoa, or the Samoan Way. The verdant islands are flanked by rocky volcanic beaches and reefs, not the kind one would seek out for swimming, surfing or cocktails under an umbrella, but beautiful in their own rugged way. The islands are littered along their edges with tsunami-induced ghost towns. The Samoans are very large people. Large in personality, and large in size. And very tough. Brett was warned not to join a group of guys for a pick-up game of rugby unless he wanted his ass kicked. Even the fafafine, the cross-dressing third gender of Samoa, were not the kind of people you wanted on your bad side. The fafafine are actually quite accepted in the culture of the Samoans, and often take on caregiver roles and provide the family glue. We spent an evening at the fafafine show, where large men lip sync in evening gowns, changing elaborate costumes with each set, to music ranging from lounge, to Bett Midler to Shania Twain. They had the performers down to the quiver of the lips, the toss of the hair, the bump of a hip. Lovely!

Unfortunately, the largeness of the population contributes to a huge problem with diabetes and heart disease. Since Samoa's Christianization by missionaries, the totem of their culture is their faith. On Sundays, the townsfolk can be seen walking along the roadside, donned in white, to and from the glorious churches scattered throughout the islands. Lucky for us, on the Sunday we spent in Samoa, Ali was looking for an excuse to visit the newer Baha'i temple. We were happy to oblige. If I were to make up a religion, I would create Baha'i verbatim. With one gross exception: just like a belief in the afterlife must precede Buddhism, a belief in God must precede Baha'i. Nevertheless, if we talk about women's' equality, the provision of aid to the needy, an acceptance of all the great religious texts, a desire for unity of all humanity and a belief in self-actualization, it is all there. The people we met at the temple embodied these concepts. And the great irony is that this religion was created by a man, or "messenger of God" in the Middle East during an era and culture in conflict with all the precepts of the religion.

So, our work. Brett and I buried our heads in interviews with everyone Ali could grab an appointment with...the nurses (who "really" run the show, as they say), the physicians, the managerial staff, the Chairman of the Board for the National Health Service, the local Rotary Club, and other titles and figure heads. We got the wish lists of each department, often receiving the feedback "the last time someone asked us what we needed, we never heard from them again". Oh, we are different. But I got the vibe that they weren't so sure. I tried to tread lightly by mentioning that this was just an assessment, and that all the pieces had to be in place before any supplies could actually be shipped. At times I felt I was contributing to false hope, coupled with a growing sense of ownership and extreme interest in making this shipment of a 40-foot container of gifts a success. By the end of the assessments, the appointments, the luncheons and the dinner meetings, our brains were swimming with questions about the facts, the rumors, the needs, the wants, and the overall status of the health care system in Samoa. All of this, compounded by the fact that Samoa is receiving a large amount of aid from China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand; and other projects, details unknown to us, were coming down the pike.
A few things we know for sure. They need doctors. They need specialists. They need help educating the people of Samoa against relying solely on traditional medicine. Many a patient had come in for treatment holding a leaf over a wound that when examined turned out to be a severe infection, cancer, or broken bone not properly set. They want a lot of expensive equipment. More data-finding for us. Having equipment does nothing if you have no one who knows how to use it and to maintain it. And, as with a mammogram machine, if you can diagnose breast cancer but don't have the resources to treat it, the technology could prove harmful. There also was an insinuation of corruption within the health care system under the ugly face of self-interest. Still, there were many people we felt were genuine and well-meaning. But we began to feel like we were in a game of Clue. We never knew quite what to believe, whom to trust. In the end, you put all the clues together as best you can, you designate accountability through certain trusted actors, and you provide the help that is most needed.

 After becoming intimately familiar with both major hospitals and their contents from IV catheters to echocardiogram machines, Brett and I decided to spend a few days resting and exploring the less-inhabited island of Savai'i. We drove the perimeter of the island exploring volcanic blowholes, tsunami-decimated churches, and rural fales, or thatched huts. We spent hours swimming in the calm surf, exploring reefs and sea life through our goggles. And we watched the sun set in the last place on earth, the western-most point of the world at Fafa O Sauai'i, holding each other and sitting atop a black outcropping of rock while shiny lizards slipped in and out of the sharp rocks around us.


  1. What a hard decision to have to make. What did you decide to do about aide?

  2. The report was very accurate with what is going on in Samoa. From the culture to their government curruption and the life style of it's people that they live on a daily basis. This is a very fair article because it dicoverred both positives and negatives of Samoa as a whole.