Here in American Samoa, people don’t talk about the latest drama coming from the Mainland. People don’t talk politics and no one mentions international affairs. We are quite literally an island.
One day, just recently, Nate came home from work and asked me if I’d heard about everything going on in Hollywood. I responded that I had not. Nate proceeded to tell me all about the rumors and allegations flying around. I felt conflicted. It seemed unfair that anyone could make an allegation and the accused party would have no way of proving their innocence. But, of course, there is never any excuse for one human being to use his/her position of power, whether physical or professional, to make another feel coerced into sexually compromising situations, and the victims of such abuse should feel secure and empowered to come forward with the truth.
It seemed like an impossible situation.
I felt keenly grateful to be living on an isolated and untouched island in the middle of the South Pacific.
On the Surface
There is something to be said for not dwelling on negative thoughts. When we surround ourselves with the good and positive, we feel happy. We feel productive and at peace with humanity.
There is a reason the phrase “ignorance is bliss” exists. When we are naive, we are free from cares, from worries, and from sorrow.
I’ll admit, after first hearing about the tumultuous environment surrounding Hollywood, I felt happy to be able to bury my head in the sand. I am blessed to not have to deal with these issues in my own life. I get to live a relatively care-free life, where my biggest worries are figuring out what to make for dinner when our stove goes out again, or how to get our scooter running after a downpour when the engine is flooded.
When I see friends and acquaintances, I have the luxury of offering a greeting of “Malo” and a kiss on the cheek with no residual complicated feelings, or wondering if they have been victims of abuse, too. After all, I’ve never heard or seen anything to suggest they have, so I go on in my ignorant bliss.
Similar to learning of the affairs in Hollywood, when I hear about shootings or terrorist attacks in other parts of the world, I feel safe in my island home. When I hear about racism and sexism, I feel relieved to know that we do not hear about those things here on the news reports.
Dig a Little Deeper
If I don’t hear about these issues, does that mean they don’t exist here?
Here, I am part of the minority. According to Wikipedia, the lowest ranking ethnic group on the island is white, at just 1.2%. When I am driving with the windows down and come to a stop, I often hear people yelling, “Hey Palagi (off-islander or white person).” I have never felt threatened because of the color of my skin, but I do feel like I stand out. Strangers will reach out and run their fingers through our kids’ hair because they are all blonde. Everyone is so nice to us and our children, but we are not welcomed into inner circles because we are not family and because we are different.
Usually, you hear people referred to by their ethnicity: Filipino, Korean, Palagi, Fijian. There is no sensitivity or political correctness. You can see a definite separation between groups. Only within international groups do people of different ethnic backgrounds mix, and not always then either.
Before coming here, I worried about sexism because it seemed like a patriarchal society. As I did some research, I learned that this was not the case, women could hold all the same titles as men. Seeing the culture more closely, I see that this is not the whole picture. True, women can hold the same titles, but many times, the honor is handed over the husband. Men are at the forefront of most of the leadership positions in government and within the Matai (chief) system.
A Dark Underground
After feeling so happy to be living on a safe, isolated island, where people were kind and friendly, I started to pay a little more attention. I started to hear stories of abuse, physical and sexual. One day, I heard a news report about the counts of rape and incest within both Samoa and American Samoa. Hearing those words suddenly made me feel sick to my stomach. This place that I thought was so sheltered turned out to be as abominable as everywhere else in the world. What seemed like a paradise, a safe-haven, was really just thinly-veiled, and even here, we live in the real world.
Due to the thriving Matai system here, many crimes are handled within the individual villages. If word gets out, the territorial justice system steps in, but it seems that it is usually preferred to keep village issues within the village to avoid airing dirty laundry. The Samoan people have great pride in their families and to have someone accused of such serious crimes is a disgrace to the family and to the village. Victims of sexual abuse are often strongly discouraged from reporting their abusers or from ever talking about the abuse.
As I lack the personal experience with this to be considered a reliable source, I will link to another blogger, who has first-hand experience of how these issues are dealt with. Lani Wendt-Young was born and raised in Samoa. A published author and blogger, she has recently come forward to give her own account of the stigma and consequences associated with being a victim of sexual abuse. To read her story, head over to her blog and read Your Sexual Abuse is Disgusting and Has Brought Shame on Our Family from 2013 and Remove Shame, Secrecy and Silence from Sex in Samoa from the National Inquiry into Family Violence in Samoa, earlier this year.
All Things Considered
After conducting the research for this post, I found myself having a hard time looking at the people around me without wondering if they were the offenders of these heinous deeds. But as I looked around, I began again to see the kindness, generosity, and charity of the Samoan people. They are people who value family and faith, just like me. They try to do what is right, just like me. There are some individuals who choose to abuse those who are weaker than they are, but that is no different than anywhere else in the world.
We tell our children that most people in this world are good and kind, that there are just a few who want to hurt others and make them feel afraid. We have heard from people that we should be careful traveling with our kids, or not travel with them at all, because there are people in this world who would try to hurt them or take advantage of them. I tell those people that these bad things happened in our own hometown, too. But if our family stops traveling, or if I stop loving and appreciating the Samoan people, then we are giving up on this beautiful gift of life, love, and discovery that we have been given.
After all, I still believe what we teach our kids. I still believe that this Earth is worth exploring and that the people on it are worth loving. I pray for those who have been a victim of abuse or injustice; I pray that they can heal, feel loved and feel love for others. I pray that through my example of strength and love, I can protect my own kids from being hurt and teach them not to hurt others.
“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” -Toulouse-Lautrec, Moulin Rouge
Samoan Language Study