We gathered at 7 in the morning at the trainer’s fale with supplies for the feast in tow. We had all received a note from HP to deliver to our families with the items we were to bring for “Culture Day” written out in Samoan. On my list read: one coconut tree branch, two s (shorn coconuts), two taro, two taro leaves and either one fish or one cleaned uncooked chicken. My tina had everything tucked into a woven coconut leaf basket, everything except the tree branch, which had to be carried.
All the volunteers walked through the open field in the middle of the village with their coconut branches balancing on their shoulders, the long green leaves sticking out everywhere and the length of the thing dragging on both sides of the volunteer. Most had a relative with them, a brother, sister or mother carrying their woven basket of food alongside them.
Once we were gathered completed at Manu’s house, we were separated into two groups. The majority of the women would stay and prepare the cocoa-esi (cocoa and papaya soup) to be served to the matai of the village in the “ghost fale”. It’s not really called the “ghost fale”, but since a few of us were told that the fale was rarely used because it was built on top of old graves and that there had been frequent ghost sightings, the volunteers just started calling it that. The men would travel out to the taro plantation and collect firewood, large leaves for the umu (the Samoan oven) and unshorn coconuts. Since there were only four men in our group able to go, one of which was recovering from a basketball injury, a few of us girls were chosen to join them.
Corina, Lili, Alli and I went to the plantation. It was a thirty-minute walk from the trainer’s house to the cleared patch in the jungle with identical stout fan-like leaves popping out of the ground attached to green and white thick stalks. Fighting swarms of mosquitoes all the while, we split up into three groups. One group went to chop down tree branches for firewood, another group were to gather fallen coconuts, and we were to find smaller branches to attach and carry coconuts with. We must have been quite a site to see swatting away mosquitoes and hacking awkwardly at tree branches with machetes. Where to stand, how to hold the machete, not knowing these in addition to how best to cut the branch so it didn’t take an hour to finish. The trainers who went with us were patient and cautioned us not to swing the machete to wildly, as there was a chance of it flying out of your hand and chopping a piece of your nearby comrades.
Soon we were all laden down with large pieces of wood on our shoulders or thinner pieces with coconuts tied to each end and we made the trek back through the jungle, across the small bridge over the dried up stream and back to the training house.
The group that stayed had bowls of cocoa esi (cocoa and papaya sweet soup dish) ready for the matai and by the time we had been cheered and had unloaded our baggage we were carrying trays of the chocolate papaya soup to the “ghost fale” to serve the awaiting matai. As soon as they had been served, the servers were able to grab a bowl for themselves and enjoy the hot liquid before returning to Manu’s.
Next were the preparations for the umu. There were several stations around the outside kitchen fale that volunteers could rotate around to and try out. One station was gutting and stuffing a dead piglet with coals and leaves, another was husking coconuts with sharpened sticks, another was ripping apart dead chickens to throw into a gigantic soup tureen, another was scraping and peeling taro and breadfruit using old tin cans. Needless to say, the piglet stuffing and the chicken ripping I avoided but I got the hand of husking the coconuts and peeling the taro. Those of us who sat around scraping the taro and breadfruit started playing a game where one player would imagine a person that everyone knew and the rest of the group would try to guess who it was by asking questions like “if they were a shoe, what would they be”, “if they were a genre of music, what would they be?” or “if they were an animal, what would they be?”
When all the ingredients had been finished, they were piled on top of hot rocks inside the kitchen, along with the smoking stuffed pig. Large leaves were layered on top of the taro, whole fish wrapped individually in leaves, the breadfruit and the pig to keep the heat in and create an oven effect. We wove plates and baskets out of the huge palm leaves that we had all brought to serve the food in. Dan commented in mock distress that his career as a basket weaver would continue to be just a dream as he struggled to braid the long green leaves.
While the food cooked, we gathered for an Ava ceremony in the “ghost fale”.
Matt was voted the tulafale (orator) for our group, and Kyle got to be the Ava runner. The matais talked over each other for about 10 minutes and each made a short speech before Matt began to call out the recipients of the Ava, in order of status. The real village tulafale was whispering what to say to Matt, and he was doing his best bless him, but the Samoans had a few good laughs when he changed something like “honored person” to “my wife” or when he botched a Samoan name. I guess a year or two before, the volunteer that was chosen to do the orating for the Ava ceremony ended up calling someone an asshole on accident. Samoans have a great sense of humor though, and just laughed their heads off.
By the time the Ava ceremony was finished, the food inside the umu was ready. We drew titles out of a bag, and our roles during the meal were decided. I had a food preparer title along with the majority of the other volunteers, Leah got the high chief title, some other people got matai titles and these volunteers got to go to the ghost fale and be waited on, Leah first.
We went back to uncover the piglet and the taro, breadfruit and pulusami (coconut cream wrapped in taro leaves) from under the leaves. The chicken soup was also ready and myself and most of the other volunteers who had drawn food runner positions out of the bag took bowls of chicken soup, with the chicken feet sticking straight out of the bowl talons red and curled in protest, and a plate with pieces of the roast piglet, taro, breadfruit and pulusami. I was in the front of the line and had the best plate, one with two chicken talons, and the foot of the piglet and Leah having pulled “high chief” out of the bag was the first to be served. I quickly looked back at the plates Dana was carrying behind me and whispered urgently, here you go ahead and serve Leah first. The second person to be served was the faifeau, Alli’s dad. So he got the plate with all the feet on it, an extra good plate I was told.
The food runners sat in front of those who were eating and fanned their plates to keep away the flies and just watched while they ate. I’ve been in the opposite position several times, as a Peace Corps and a guest, I’m always sitting with matais when in a group or near the head of the table with my folks at home and the kids or other younger members of the community fan my plate, so it was a nice change of pace to be the server and the fanner. I especially got a kick out of fanning my host dad. He’s so funny and humble and he’s always laughing and cracking jokes, I think he was a little bemused to have me sitting there subordinate to him.
After we servers cleared and went back to the kitchen to grab a plate and eat our fill, we sat around in a circle with our Thanksgiving Day meals, each saying in turn what they were thankful for. Most of us said something similar, about how we were thankful for each other for how great our host families are, etc. What everyone said was so touching and the meal was so welcome after all the work we put into it, and the fact that we were eating together outside of our own country with the Samoans who welcomed and taught us their way of life, it really felt like the first Thanksgiving (or how we romanticize it was anyway).
But the amazing day doesn’t end there, after the feast we handed out strawberry and banana ice cream cones to all the ladies that helped with the preparing and the cooking. It started pouring rain and we had all planned on playing ultimate Frisbee or some other sports. But instead of resigning to our houses, I went and grabbed the baseball equipment from the trainer’s fale and a handful of us walked out into the rain carrying the bases, mits, balls and bats. Once we got the field set up, others joined us out in the rain and the game began. I haven’t gotten the impression that baseball is incredibly popular here nor have I seen any Samoans play baseball, most likely because it takes a lot of gear to put together a game and I feel like Samoans prefer games that allow the most opportunities for everyone to play, games like rugby and volleyball especially. But, as could have been predicted, the Samoans who came to play with us were naturally talented. They hit every ball and sped around the bases, knocking into the other team mercilessly. The grass was so wet and everyone was soaked, so there was a lot of sliding and slipping accidentally when trying to round the bases. It was SO fun. I slid into third where Alli was manning on the opposite team a few times, once knocking her over with me. Sua, one of our trainers, slid on his belly into third once. Another time Dan slid into second and knocked Sua over, who fell on top of him.
We played a couple games of volleyball before having to practice our song for the Saoluafata church choir contest that was Sunday, we were chosen by Manunu to represent and somehow, when I got frustrated and took over Sua’s conducting, which wasn’t quite making sense to us, I ended up conducting the choir the entire time. With the help of Lasela and Corina, who both have quite a bit of choir and musical performance experience, we added dynamics and worked on harmony parts and warm ups with our group and really turned ourselves into a decent choir! But that will be Sunday’s journal entry.
Happy Thanksgiving from Samoa!!