By George Turner
Something of a history book, George Turner offers his observations of the traditions, beliefs, behaviors, and routines of Samoan people sometime around 1880-90 (ish). He describes everything from the geography of the island chain (including American Samoa which was, at the time of publication, part of the country of Samoa instead of a U.S. territory) and the political and decision-making systems of village and district chiefs down to common foods (and how to prepare them) and attire for day-to-day use as well as special events. He even delves into the creation myths from indigenous gods and belief systems, and also the stories behind the names of various islands and villages. If it can be observed and written about by a white guy, Turner documents it.
“Samoa, A Hundred Years Ago and Long Before” is organized in a straightforward fashion without any preamble, probably similar to other writing at the time of publication (I haven’t read many documents from 1880-90, so it’s hard for me to compare). Each chapter is titled with an entirely self-explanatory heading, and subheadings indicate the specific topic to be addressed in the following paragraph. Chapters are fairly short, which makes it easier to put down and pick up the book for bite-sized reading. Differences in grammar and sentence length sometimes make it difficult to follow the topic of a sentence, which can make it hard to find flow when reading (but certainly make for interesting meta-analysis of the writing and content!).
I read this book mainly because I am an RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer) from Samoa and wanted to know more about the pre-missionary history of Samoa, and partly because the recently released “Moana” movie addresses myths and gods with which I was unfamiliar from my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Clearly, my knowledge of Samoa has gaping holes. I found answers to some of my questions, and was particularly fascinated by the chapters detailing the histories of island and village names (to the point of feeling giddy and making exclamations out loud while reading the origin stories). Much of the book I read with a grain of salt because Turner writes with a colonial attitude toward the Samoan natives, frequently referring to their “heathen” behavior. If your interests fall within the very specific range of material addressed in this book, then it is worth the read. For the general public, probably not.
By Mike Tidwell
As a Peace Corps Volunteer stationed in Zaire in the 1980s, Mike Tidwell worked as a fisheries extension agent teaching rural farmers how to build and maintain tilapia ponds as a sustainable source of protein. Tidwell recounts his journey as a PCV starting with the grueling trial of pre-service training all the way through two years of building understanding, trust, and ponds in rural Africa. Not only does Tidwell encounter stark differences between the life he knew in the States and the life thrust upon him by the African bush, such as the alternating dry and wet seasons, hunting parties, and housing structures that do more to reflect a communal lifestyle than provide privacy, but his understanding of personal relationships also undergoes a significant transformation. Removed from everything familiar and isolated by difference, Tidwell reexamines his ideas of how people build relationships as well as what goes into maintaining relationships (material resources as well as non-material energy), and adjusts his behavior to ensure success not only in his fish pond endeavors but also his personal survival. From the Western lens of possibility and opportunity, Tidwell carves out a unique existence and feels that he receives so much more than he gives to this deeply impoverished bush-African community.
“The Ponds of Kalambayi” by Mike Tidwell is a deeply reflective and thoughtfully recounted story of service as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Tidwell encapsulates the essence of Peace Corps service, touching just long enough on the logistics of training and bureaucracy to provide a framework for how Peace Corps operates, and then devotes much more detail to the importance and difficulty of finding ways to create meaningful existence and contributions as a PCV. His honest and heartfelt recollections convey the ambiguities of the Peace Corps experience, giving life to the in-betweens of love and hate, give and take, and the clash of cultures. Much more than some extended journal rehashing the daily life of a stranger in a strange land, Tidwell conveys his experience in the context of the village, country, and historical era of his time in Kalambayi. His writing is human, entertaining, brutally honest without being provocatively so, and relatable. This is not the tale of some hero out to save the world. This is the story of one person’s encounter with difference and how he made meaning out of it.
I absolutely love this book. I read it for the first time as a PCV while still in Samoa and felt that my experience was absolutely reflected in this writing despite the fact that nothing about my service was even remotely similar to his, the most significant differences being that I was at the complete opposite end of the Earth doing entirely different work. Rereading it brought waves of nostalgia and sent me down a rabbit hole of looking at pictures and reading letters and blogs from Samoa. Whether or not you were in the Peace Corps or have any kind of connection to it, this book is a must read.