My W&L: Kiki Martire '15
To say that studying abroad in the South Pacific radically reshaped my understanding of knowledge and poverty would be an understatement. One weekday afternoon early on in the semester, a couple of friends and I were sent on a local Samoan bus to explore. We rode around the main island of Upolu for nearly an hour before getting off at a random village stop and realizing we were most certainly lost. With only a little language training under our belts this early in the term, we were thrilled when a Samoan woman approached us who was visiting her family from Australia and spoke perfect English. With typical islander hospitality she brought us to her home to meet her nieces, sister and sick mother, and invited us to stay as long as we liked. "Stay for dinner! Spend the night," she crooned with a smile that looked as if she had never been so excited to have company in her life. This might seem odd to Americans, the idea of a complete stranger beckoning you into their home and offering to feed you, but for Samoans, and Pacific islanders in general, giving to others is a way of life--the only way of life.
I was overwhelmed by the family's kindness and it wasn't long before my friends and I were playing with the children and eating the most delicious bananas "fa'i" we had ever tasted, picked just for us off of trees in their backyard. As we said our goodbyes to catch the next pasi back, I caught my foot on a rock, stumbled forward, and broke my sandal. The shoe was clearly broken and unwearable. The stone laden road was as hot as lava in the blistering midday sun and I would have had to hop on one leg all the way back unless my friends somehow managed to carry me. The family, however, seemed completely unconcerned with my dilemma. In fact, they weren't even looking at us. As soon as my shoe broke they all began searching for something, bent over picking through the stone rubble on the ground. We stared at them bemused until one of the sisters jumped up, gleefully holding a bent, rusty nail in her hand as if she had found a diamond. The woman grabbed the sandal from my hand and began manipulating it with the nail. They say necessity is the mother of invention, but it would have never occurred to me to fix a shoe from discarded rubble in the street. Sure, I had five tala to buy a new pair of shoes in town, in fact back at my room I had three more pairs, but I allowed these excesses to make me wasteful, lazy, unresourceful. This family had something more useful than surpluses of money or possessions... ingenuity.
When I returned from abroad I was afraid of two things. First, that when people heard I spent four months in developing Pacific islands, the only thing they would be concerned with asking me is how "poor" the people or villages were. Second, that they would see the photos of me with friends and fellow students from the South Pacific, families I lived with, or the children I grew to love like nieces and nephews, and see just another obligatory photo of Americans abroad spreading images of colonialist propaganda and racism. The pervasiveness of that dominant story about Americans abroad became more apparent to me during and after my travels, and I do not want to add to that void. I did not go to Samoa, Fiji, or American Samoa to somehow "fix" or improve their way of life. I went to learn. I went because I believe that there are values barren from the American way of life that cultures vastly different from our own can offer us. I went because as a Women's and Gender studies student, I wanted to observe the lives of women and their access to leadership and equality halfway around the world. But more than anything, I went to test my ability to grow as a person, to step far outside my comfort zone, and respectfully come to understand the wisdom of people quite different from myself.