Talofa! I can hardly believe that I am writing this from Samoa, the “Treasured Islands of the South Pacific”. I hope you will bear with me over the next 13 weeks as I share my experiences of working at the South Pacific Business Development (SPBD), Kiva’s partner MFI on the island.
Departing Los Angeles on a direct red-eye to Samoa, I arrived in the wee hours of the morning, weary and excited. The humid island air and a light rain were the first things to greet me as I stepped off the plane. I was later informed that my arrival coincided with the first signs of precipitation in several weeks. Since then, not a day goes by without at least the falling of a light shower. Fortunately, the onset of rain is considered an auspicious event, saving my journey from an ominous start.
You might be wondering if island life is all that it’s cracked up to be. Well, in a lot of ways, it truly is. The people are incredibly friendly and welcoming, the pace of life is nice and slow, and the beaches are just gorgeous. However, Samoa is far from a tropical paradise. Poverty on the island is real and apparent. According to the UN, Samoa is one of the 49 least developed countries in the world. Most of SPBD’s clients, before their first loan, lived on less than $2 USD per day, and 48% of Samoan families were assessed to be living below the poverty line. The pacific islands tend to be left out of the discussion when people talk about world poverty, but the islands’ struggles are very real.
The presence of religion on the island really made an immediate impression on me. I couldn’t help but notice the number of ornate churches, dwarfing all other nearby structures, populating almost every corner of every village throughout the island. Even at the airport, advertisements for local churches appear next to ones for mobile phones. Perhaps less traditional faiths are starting to make inroads as well, as I had to rub my eyes in disbelief when a large box marked with Scientology literature rolled past me on the conveyor belt during baggage claim.
Being of Chinese heritage myself, I was very surprised by the noticeable Chinese presence in Samoa. Throughout the streets of Apia (the capital and commercial center of Samoa), many restaurants have shops have alternate signs written in unmistakable Chinese characters. I was told that Chinese migrant workers arrived en masse before the First World War, during colonial rule (not sure if it was German or British then). Many stayed behind, started families, and have built some of the most successful local restaurants and trading businesses around. I tested out a couple of the local Chinese restaurants, and while it didn’t exactly taste like home (by which I mean Chinatown of course), it’s never a bad thing to have quick access to some fried rice!
Well, that’s it for introductions and first impressions. Until next time, Tofa Soifua!