Talofa Lava from Samoa

Talofa Lava from Samoa

With two months down, volunteer electrician Richard Harris settles into Samoan life, finding healthy challenges to our own perceptions.

Talofa Lava. Greetings from Samoa.

I have been at Don Bosco Technical Centre (DBTC), Alafua, Samoa since 29th January 2015 as a volunteer teaching the electrical trade.

DBTC is run by The Salesians of Australia, a branch of The Catholic Church, whose devotion is to Youth Development. The Campus is headed by Father Petelo, School Principal Father Chris, and Religious Teacher Father Paselio. Also Living on site is Father Filipo, Brother Antonio, Brother Pati, 5 other novice Brothers studying theology, my daughter, Tash, and myself.

DBTC is a learning facility where boys who have not completed formal secondary education are given the opportunity to gain some skills to enable migration into the workforce and/or further studies. This year the school has 180 students enrolled who come from all over Samoa and a few from Tokelau, an atoll province of New Zealand. The staff includes English, Maths, Religion, Computer, Business Studies and Trade Teachers as well as Trainee Teachers, Workshop Assistants, Finance Officer & Administration Officer. In all about 25 staff are employed here, of which Father Chris, Tash and me are the only non-Samoans. The school has a vast history of attaining volunteers from Australia, Japan, and USA to help grow their trade programs.

Don Bosco is highly regarded in extra curricular activities, in particular entertainment.

They are recognised in performing Siva Sasa, a traditional “slap” dance, which they have customised & personalised to make it their own, and also pese (singing) to such a high standard as to be invited to provide entertainment at official ceremonies and international events. Supreme effort and commitment is given by all students and staff to these activities ensuring professional quality performances follow. Hence, this week the school is in American Samoa, by request, to provide entertainment (singing & dancing) for Flag Day Celebrations. While in American Samoa the school will also compete in The Fautasi – a long boat rowing race with a crew of 45 rowers, captain and drummer. The crew have been in camp for the last 6 weeks training in preparation for this competition. It has been another huge commitment by the staff to be here 24/7 with the crew – training, supporting, mentoring, feeding, caring for the boys who are absent from their homes and families all this time.

The Don Bosco Team rowing in Pago Pago, American Samoa
How long is my longboat? The Don Bosco Team rowing in Pago Pago

The trades on offer here include: Motor Mechanics, Metal Fabrication, Woodwork/Furniture Manufacturing, Plumbing, Electronics and Electrical. Years One & Two have a rotation system where they sample each of the trades and then select their preferred trade to complete in Years Three & Four. Some small income is produced from the workshops with orders for furniture, steel fabrication, mechanical repairs & servicing, and electronic equipment repairs.

It is a challenge for the Plumbing & Electrical Departments to earn some income for the school:

  • Licensing is required to carry out these works
  • We are not set up to do contracting work
  • We are not set up to do motor rewinding
  • We are not qualified or experienced in refrigeration
  • Appropriate test equipment is scarce or not available onshore
  • Sourcing of customers willing to have students work for them

My goal is to try to address these.

The staff and students are friendly and accommodate my lack of Samoan language by speaking English and not belittling my ignorance of their language. Tash and I are undertaking Basic Samoan Language Lessons on Saturday mornings with a group of 10 other expats from Australia, Zimbabwe, Fiji & India. This course is well worthwhile – Tash is progressing very well whereas I am having difficulty with the sounding of words and the grammatical structure & phrasing of sentences. I realise, now, the English language has been manipulated and contorted by me in everyday use in Australia.

My teaching of the trade to second-language-English speaking students has also brought that to my attention especially where I have to translate technical & jargon terminology to simplified English and then try to find a Samoan equivalent in order for our students to understand what is meant by these terms – this has been a great opportunity for the whole class to collaborate our ideas through discussion as to the best option to describe what is meant by these terms.

The Samoans have an “easy-going” nature. That is, if it cannot happen now it does not matter. It will happen when it happens. I believe that they are content with their “lot in life”. It appears that “if it is working it is good!” While I appreciate and commend these attributes it “goes against my grain” professionally. We (Australians/Westerners/Palagis) understand the inherent dangers of electricity –fire, property damage, electric shock, injury, DEATH. I take it upon myself, as a trained, qualified and licensed electrical tradesman to ensure electrical safety, integrity & compliance in the works I undertake. I carry that mentality into my newly started teaching career and, as such, try to instil these values into my students.I am starting to think that I am trying to change their cultural fibre by being so pedantic – that is not what I am here to do.

Although the temperatures here are hot, I have not been too distressed by it. Every day is reported to be 31 or 32 degrees Celsius – that is heatwave conditions at home – but if you find some shade and the breeze the conditions are sensational. The hottest part of the day runs from about 1pm till 5pm and then starts to cool to beautiful evenings. It has started to cool down quite a bit overnight to the point where I don’t need the ceiling fan on all night, need to don a t-shirt and even slip under the bed-sheet. The wet season is fading now, too, I think.

I am trying to curb my personal expectations and achievements to fit the environment where I live. My ideas and methods and thought patterns are foreign to my students and peers. It is a distinct  challenge for me to change my internal system to adapt for the betterment of the students. I am starting to realise some of the issues raised in our “Crossing Cultures Preparation Course”, particularly the Time Oriented Society versus the Event Oriented Society. I am a Time Oriented Person where I like things to be done here & now or, at least, plan the process & procedures to make that happen – experience helps me to have the plan or process ingrained and estimate the outcome and/or the shortcomings. Being a novice classroom teacher with no electrical back-up or support is stifling to my confidence that what I am doing is the right thing or that I am going about it the right way. I need to do more self-reflection at the end of each lesson to be conscious of the small achievements and areas for improvement.

To be continued.

Would you like to volunteer in Samoa like Richard? Communities there are requesting qualified teachers, admin staff and tradespeople to pass on skills. Please call Christine on 02 9560 5333 for details or email [email protected].