Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Samoa
Your mailing address as a trainee is:
“Your Name,” PCT
Private Mail Bag
Your address remains the same throughout your Volunteer service. Outgoing mail from Samoa to the United States leaves on Tuesdays and Fridays every week. Incoming mail from the United States to Samoa arrives on Mondays and Thursdays. An office messenger picks up Peace Corps mail on Tuesdays and Thursdays every week, and then places it in Volunteer boxes in the hallway outside of the resource center. Mail for Volunteers on the island of Savai’i is taken over once a week.
Mail transit between the United States and Samoa (and vice-versa) averages two to three weeks. Family and friends should be forewarned that the postal workers in the U.S. may get confused between Samoa and American Samoa. If the post office wants to include a zip code with the address, then chances are the item will be sent to American Samoa and may or may not eventually make it to Samoa. Adding “Western” or “Independent” in front of “Samoa” often helps to cut down on the confusion.
During training, telephone access is possible, usually with a local village telephone. When in Apia, you can use the telephone at the training hotel or at the Peace Corps office for receiving calls and for making local and collect calls.
Collect calls from Samoa to the United States and abroad are quite expensive. If making a collect call, Volunteers usually relay the number to which the person can call them back directly. Rather than making collect calls, except in an emergency, Volunteers normally make arrangements ahead of time via e-mail, letter, or previous phone conversation with family and friends on a date, time, and number to call them in Samoa.
Overseas phone cards do not work from Samoa. There is, however, an international call center in Apia where you can buy phone cards and make direct calls to the U.S. Internet calling cards and Internet calling are the least expensive option when it comes to conversing.
There have been recent, major improvements to cellphone service, and a majority of Volunteers now have a personal cellphone with good service. Cellphones are available fairly inexpensively in-country, or a SIM-card ready phone from the U.S. can be brought and a phone number acquired in Samoa. Most Volunteers receive phone calls from overseas easily, and can even text message back home. Volunteers are responsible for all related expenses.
Computer, Internet, and E-mail Access
Computer, Internet, and e-mail services are available at local Internet cafés in Apia, which trainees and Volunteers can access when they are in town. Computer and limited Internet and e-mail access are also available at the Peace Corps office once trainees become Volunteers. Many Volunteers bring their own laptop computers, but if you bring one, you will need to take steps to protect it from humidity and power surges, which occur often in Samoa. Vacuum-seal space-saving storage bags, such as the Space Bag, can come in handy for storing and protecting the computer from humidity and can double as an overnight bag for short trips. Storing your computer with a dehumidifier can also be a life saver if your computer is prone to failure in high humidity. Since the tropics are hard on appliances, many Volunteers pay extra for a good warranty on their laptops or other expensive appliances so they can get them repaired or replaced when they later return to the U.S. Theft may also occur.
Housing and Site Location
All Volunteers are provided with adequate and safe housing. As part of their contribution to having a Volunteer, host country agencies and/or communities must provide adequate housing.
Capacity-building Volunteers live in houses provided by the Samoan government or a local nongovernmental organization (NGO). Most Volunteers in Apia share a house with another Volunteer or, in some cases, a Samoan counterpart. All houses in and around Apia have electricity and running water. All houses in the urban area have indoor toilets and showers.
Volunteers working in the village-based development project, either live in a room with a Samoan family or in a small house on a family compound. Volunteers in this project need to be prepared to live with or very close to a family for their entire two years of service. This is a requirement of working in the project. Most (but not all) villages have electricity. Most (but not all) villages have running water within the family compound, but not necessarily inside of the house.
Most village houses will have flush toilets, but a few will have water seal latrines. Living with a family enables Volunteers to gain important insights into the Samoan culture and helps to minimize safety and security concerns. You will likely develop a love and respect for your Samoan family and an appreciation for having a second family away from home.
Living Allowances and Money Management
Every trainee and Volunteer has a local bank account where their monthly living allowance is deposited. Presently included in the living allowance payment is $24 each month for leave allowance. Volunteers accrue two days of vacation time for each month of active service after being sworn-in as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Since the amount of the vacation leave allowance is legally fixed in dollars, it must be adjusted monthly to the local currency. Therefore, the amount may vary slightly, reflecting a change in the exchange rate. ATM machines are available in Apia at the Westpac Bank where you will have your account. Your living allowance is sufficient to cover the purchase of food, transport, other essentials, and some entertainment for the month. You are encouraged to live on the living allowance provided to you by the Peace Corps. Volunteers are expected to live at the same level as their local counterparts so additional money you choose to bring with you from the U.S. should be reserved for vacation travel, not day-to-day living expenses. ;l.jkhjbv
Food and Diet
Those living in or near Apia have a greater choice of foods: fresh meat, vegetables, fruits, and seafood. Rural areas have less in the way of fresh foods, but canned, dried, or packaged foods are readily available. Locally grown foods (e.g., papayas, bananas, taro, and breadfruit) and fish are generally available everywhere. The staples—rice, flour, sugar, salt, and bread— are relatively inexpensive. Butter and meat are also reasonably priced. Beans, tomato paste, tomato sauce, sour cream, cheese, cottage cheese, and yogurt are available in the main towns, but may be more expensive. Good-quality powdered milk and high-temperature treated milk in boxes that have a long shelf life are available and are reasonably priced.
Vegetarians are sometimes challenged in Samoa, but it is possible to remain a vegetarian and eat a healthy diet. In Apia, you can do pretty well, as cheese, granola-type cereals, peanut butter, and fresh vegetables are available. Tofu is also available sporadically, but tends to be expensive. Thus, it serves as a nice treat, but not necessarily a regular source of protein. Six different kinds of beans (soy, black, kidney, garbanzo, lentils, and split peas) are usually available, but they can be expensive. Grains readily available are oatmeal, brown and white rice, and barley. A few of the bakeries make whole wheat and whole grain breads, and pasta is readily available and affordable. Ice cream bars, salsa, fancy salads, nuts, and other goodies can be found, but like other imported items, they tend to be more expensive. When initially getting settled into a host family situation or receiving an invitation to a gathering, vegetarians find that patience and understanding go a long way. Although they may have explained to their hosts what they mean by vegetarianism, they may find that they are still served foods with canned or fresh fish, soups made with meat broths, or eggs and vegetables fried in lard or meat drippings. Having a stash of peanut butter and crackers in your room or at the training site for those early adjustment days can help as longer-term strategies are developed.
The Peace Corps issues bicycles to Volunteers who need them as a principal form of transportation. A bicycle helmet is issued to all Volunteers who receive a bicycle. Helmet use is mandatory. Buses in Apia are fine, reasonably priced, and fairly quick. Most run from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Buses to rural villages are often crowded and generally uncomfortable, but usually reliable. Taxis are plentiful, and the fare can be split between riders. Volunteers are not allowed to drive a vehicle during their service, except in rare job-related or vacation situations. (This requires the country director’s advance written approval.) Motorcycle use is not permitted.
Buses in rural Savai’i are usually unpredictable. Volunteers who plan to travel to the main town and wharf area of Salelologa early in the morning for shopping or travel to Apia must allow at least two hours before the normal departure time, in case the bus leaves before the scheduled time. Also, ferries sometimes leave early, especially during the peak public holidays when they get crowded quickly.
Volunteers living and working on the island of Manono-tai are required to carry life jackets with them every time they travel to and from Manono-tai to any of the other Samoan Islands. If Volunteers are planning to engage in deep-sea fishing or other water-related activities, they must inform the Peace Corps medical officer or safety and security coordinator and obtain a life jacket in advance. Failure to do so may result in administrative separation.
Geography and Climate
May through October is considered the cool, dry time of year in Samoa. Temperatures drop by an average of a few degrees, and it only rains a couple of times each week. Nighttime temperatures during this period are generally very pleasant.
The rainy season begins in November, and you can expect some rain almost every day. Luckily, much of the rain comes at night. The temperatures are not that much higher than during the cooler season, but the additional humidity can be intense as can be the direct sunlight. People tend to avoid being out in the heat of the day. Cyclones (hurricanes) can also occur during the rainy season, although Samoa does not lie in the normal path of Pacific cyclones. On average, one to two cyclones hit every 10 to 11 years. The rainy season also brings occasional spells of hot and humid weather with little to no wind—especially at night. However, the southeast trade winds help cool the islands for most of the year.
Village life is generally relaxed. The men go to the plantations in the early morning, while women tend the house and children, wash clothes, and gather shellfish at low tides. Families rest in the heat of the afternoon. In the late afternoon, fishing, yard work, sports, and food preparation take place. Evenings are filled with prayer meetings (lotu), choir practice, easy conversation, bingo, evening strolls, dominoes, and the ubiquitous card game—suipi. Apia, on the other hand, works on a schedule of 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, and 8:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Saturday. Few shops are open outside of these hours. Sundays are incredibly quiet in Apia, with most people attending church services and enjoying Sunday afternoon to’ona’i (traditional umu feast) with their families. Only a handful of stores, bakeries, restaurants, and movie rental places open for a few hours. Employment in the numerous businesses, shops, and government offices provides people with an alternative to fishing or working on the family plantation. In the evenings and on weekends in Apia, people rent movies to view at home or go to Magik Cinemas, dine at local restaurants, walk on the seawall, and dance at local clubs.
Social activities in the village and Apia also center around families, the church, and the village (most Samoans living in Apia still maintain close relations with their villages). Some important social activities for Samoans include preparing for a wedding or funeral; opening a church or school; playing cricket, rugby, soccer, or volleyball; hosting visiting village members or dignitaries; learning traditional songs and dances for festivals and celebrations; and playing bingo for leisure and/or fundraising for the church.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
A lot is said by the way you dress. To rephrase an old saying, “A new book is judged by its cover.” Follow your co-workers’ examples. Appearance is an issue that can easily get in the way of building trust and credibility within your community. Clothes for office, school, and village meetings are along the lines of slacks or the local lava lavas (wraparound skirts) and sport shirts rather than jeans, cut-offs, and T-shirts for men. Women are expected to dress modestly. Knee-length or longer skirts and dresses are appropriate, as are short-sleeved shirts rather than tank tops or sleeveless shirts. Normal common sense works well in the village. Dress should always be modest, as your appearance reflects not only on you, but also on your host family. For female trainees and Volunteers, immodest dress (by Samoan standards) could lead others to misread your intentions. Clothes in Pacific styles can be made inexpensively by local tailors and having clothes made in-country can be a source of enjoyment as you can choose your own fabrics and designs.
As far as male/female relationships go, you should exercise caution. The term “friend,” or uo, usually denotes something far different in Samoa than what it typically means in the States. In a village, you should not have friends of the opposite sex stay overnight in your home. If they want to visit you, it is best if your Samoan neighbors make arrangements for their sleeping accommodations. Your neighbors may be curious to know just who your overnight visitors are, and there will always be talk about your lifestyle. Privacy in the U.S. sense does not exist in the villages. Remember, everybody knows everyone’s business here.
The lifestyle of a female Volunteer in Apia is not as confined as it is in a village, but it still calls for sound judgment in culturally sensitive matters. The various nightclubs in the area may be an attraction to you, but do not go to or leave them by yourself. The best policy is to be in the company of at least one male friend or a small group of men and women. Bars can present sticky situations where tact is a useful tool. Some specific strategies in this area will be discussed during pre-service training. Samoa provides the perfect setting for living in the proverbial fishbowl. Your own personal discretion in keeping with your role as a Peace Corps Volunteer and good judgment in culturally sensitive areas should enable you to live in reasonable harmony within the Fa’a Samoa.
More information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is outlined in the Health Care and Safety chapter, but it is an important issue and cannot be overemphasized. As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (oftentimes alone), having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Many Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon, and incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, although most Volunteers complete their two years of service without personal safety issues.
The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help Volunteers reduce their risks and enhance their safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive at staging and in Samoa. At the same time, you are expected to take responsibility for your own safety and well-being.
Rewards and Frustrations
Although individual work situations may be as varied as Volunteer living conditions, there are several important threads of commonality. The influences of New Zealand and Australia affect life and work in Samoa. Thus, Volunteers working in government departments or offices will encounter New Zealand/Australian administrative systems and procedures. Volunteer teachers find themselves teaching Australian/New Zealand-oriented curricula. Some Volunteers have supervisors who are expatriate personnel contracted from the British Commonwealth.
Most Volunteers are faced with the frustration of limited equipment, materials, supplies, and lack of funds to repair the equipment that is available. Lack of trained or skilled counterparts also causes concern among many Volunteers. In cases where counterparts are available, different attitudes toward work can be frustrating. However, what may appear to be apathy on the part of some co-workers may actually represent embarrassment from not fully understanding the concepts or rationale in a certain task.
If you are a village-based development Volunteer, you will be challenged and sometimes frustrated by living with a Samoan family. Your privacy and individualism will probably be compromised, and you will be expected to participate in family activities and share in family expenses.
Samoa is a country that benefits from high remittances from abroad. As family members living overseas send money home, families can often purchase Western goods or items that are expensive on the local market despite the lower salary levels in-country. This often causes a disparity in standards of living, and oftentimes gives the superficial appearance of wealth. Like most places around the world, there is a difference in lifestyles and living conditions between the capital and rural areas.
Are there rewards for Volunteers who sacrifice so much? Of course there are! Among them are learning to speak Samoan, becoming intimately familiar with another culture, and making friends with people whose life experience is vastly different from your own (including other Peace Corps Volunteers and Volunteers from other nations). You will also be playing a role in the development of another country, and, of course, will achieve some level of personal satisfaction in knowing that you were able to meet the unique challenge of two years of Peace Corps service in Samoa.