UN Volunteer helps build homes for needy Samoans
02 May 1931
Apia, Samoa: Known as the 'Heart of Polynesia', Samoa preserves strong Polynesian culture and customs. About 180,000 people live on Samoa's two main and seven smaller islands. Samoa has become a tourist destination in the South Pacific due to its scenic beaches and sea, rugged forest mountains, waterfalls and lava fields from recent volcanic activities.
Palagi (foreigners) often comment about the friendly Samoans and their hospitality. At first look, one may doubt the need of any overseas assistance in this country.
However, Mata Schuster, Director of Habitat for Humanity Samoa (HFH Samoa), sees things differently. "Although in general, the quality of life for Samoans is good, there are problems that urgently need to be addressed," she says. "I have seen many families who are living in houses that really need improving. Housing as one of the basic needs for people, I feel that Habitat for Humanity is doing a great deed to the ordinary and low income families in Samoa."
Habitat for Humanity Samoa is a recently registered, non-profit organization based in the capital of Apia which provides affordable, low-cost housing for families in need. It is also an affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International; a US-based non-profit Christian housing organization that seeks to eliminate poverty housing worldwide by supporting people in low-income bracket to build decent and affordable housing.
Mata Schuster has been involved in HFH Samoa since it was formerly established in February 2000; however, members of the Samoa community have been very actively involved in setting up the organization since 1998. Ms. Schuster says the first three years of HFH Samoa were very challenging. "What HFH Samoa brought in was a new concept to Samoa," she says. "We were trying to come up with a suitable design that was appropriate for Samoa and at the same time low cost, and trying to help the International office understand some of the cultural issues involved particularly as it relates to land tenure systems, such as Samoan customary versus freehold land. During these three years of effort thanks to the support of hard working local and overseas volunteer and our two Habitat for Humanity International Partner, Trish and Mike Williams, we were able to establish a Board and an office and to train volunteers. However, we did not have a house built. It was a frustrating time."
HFH Samoa's break through came when Jesus Puerto, a former Peace Corps volunteer, returned to Samoa to take up a one-year assignment as a UN Volunteer in April 2001. As a volunteer with Peace Corps Samoa, Mr. Puerto was an active founding member of the HFH Samoa organization. As a UNV, Jesus was initially asked to serve as the Programme Officer and to manage the HFH Samoa Global Village Programme -- an initiative to mobilize volunteers abroad to work in teams on HFH houses. However, when one of the international partners and Director became ill and had to return to America, the Board voted Mr. Puerto in as Director within a few weeks of his arrival. In addition to his HFH Samoa experience, his knowledge of the country, culture, customs and language while a Peace Corps volunteer served him well.
Beginning with his own circle of acquaintances and with the help of the other Board members, Mr. Puerto rapidly expanded the network of people willing to partner with HFH Samoa. "Jesus started the ball rolling when he returned to Samoa as a UNV," Ms. Schuster says. "In his very persistent way, he and the other HFH Samoa members worked hard to recruit more volunteers."
They increased the size of the Board and raised considerable financial and in-kind support both locally and overseas. "During his service as a UNV, three houses were built or renovated with more on the way. The first HFH Samoa annual golf tournament was launched. These initiatives drew participation from the highest levels. Even the Prime Minister expressed support by breaking ground on the first HFH Samoa house and teeing off on the first annual HFH Golf Tournament. With these achievements, donors were encouraged to give financial assistance and the budget increased considerably. More people were also interested in applying for an HFH Samoa house," Ms. Schuster says.
One of the Habitat house recipients is Faleseu Pita in Apolima-uta village. "Although the house is not a big one, I felt that I completed something for my family." He is living with his sister, her husband and their eight children. "I am the only one in the family earning an income, and Habitat's support was very fortunate," he says. As part of HFH's policy, recipients of the Habitat houses are encouraged to provide volunteer work for the construction of other Habitat houses. "My sisters and niece helped the construction of a Habitat house in a nearby village even before we were supported for our house building," Mr. Pita says.
HFH Samoa members have encouraged homeowners to utilize low-cost, sustainable and renewable resources. Many rural families have access to the poumuli trees, a strong hardwood that makes good posts and is traditionally used in Samoan fales. Rocks and lava rocks found on the family land is also used to build the foundation of the house. HFH Samoa, in partnership with the Department of Agriculture, provide fruit tree seedlings to each Habitat recipient to plant on their property along side their new home. HFH Samoa's design for an appropriate habitat includes incorporating the traditional design which is appropriate for the culture and climate with some important features to make houses more safe, especially in times of heavy wind and rain.
"If there is one point that Jesus stressed over and over with us" concludes Ms. Schuster, "it was that local ownership was key for a programme to be both successful and sustainable. Jesus was instrumental with his open-mind and flexible approach to getting our houses built and building credibility for the organization. Thanks to Jesus, to UNDP, HFH International's dedicated staff, our board and staff, our volunteers, our homeowners and all our donors we are confident we will do well in the months and years ahead."
Harumi Kobayashi is the UNV Programme Officer in Samoa.