Friday, June 15, 2012

Slapping, Fighting and Bullies

I can’t say often enough that Samoa is a very physical culture.  Slapping, punching and rock throwing are very common among people of all ages.  Sometimes for fun, sometimes in anger.

The kids are always after each other.  Girls have long braids and the boys love to pull them.  Someone makes an unpopular comment and he gets slugged for it.  A brother slaps a younger sister so she throws rocks at him.

At assembly today I noticed one of the boys looked “funny”.  Then he faced me and I realized his face was a mess.  Two black eyes, swollen lips and cheeks along with bruises on his chin and forehead.  The other teachers noticed at the same time and brought him up to explain what happened.  Seems he got into a fight with a boy from another village who happens to be a year older and clearly, a better boxer.  He got whupped.  The teachers talked for awhile about how horrible it was that this boy was hit by another boy and what they should do about it.

Ten minutes later, assembly was over and the kids were going back to class.  Except one girl who had almost shoulder length hair that she had not pulled into a pony tail.  The Year 1 teacher screamed in her face for a couple of minutes, much like Marine Drill Instructors I’ve seen in movies.  Then she slapped the girl across the face, hard enough to leave a handprint.   The girl is six.

I walked upstairs to find a dozen boys sitting on the floor in the office, waiting to be beaten by the Year 7 teacher.  They had not had their hair cut before coming back to school.  He used a 2” by 2” stick to hit them on the bare backs of their knees and calves.  Hard enough to leave bruises.

The teachers see no connection between hitting the children and the children hitting each other.  Or their spouses and children, as they get older.

With all this physical violence going on, one thing has surprised me.  I’ve never seen bullying with Samoan kids.  They will play fight and get mad and fight for real, but they never gang up to either physically or verbally abuse someone.  Well, except for the taxi drivers who hang out at the grocery store in Salelologa and like to, as a group, make fun of my Samoan.  At least they used to.  A Samoan friend (a large Samoan friend) let them know that’s not cool.

Yes, occasionally some girls will make unkind remarks to another girl, but it seems to be a one-off, not a pattern of harassment or torture.

And usually, if a couple of kids are fighting, while others might watch, they aren’t usually cheering them on and if it’s a sibling, they’ll step in to stop it.  Of course, then they’ll smack the bejeebers out of the sibling for getting into a fight.

I’ve only intervened in fights twice.  Once was shortly after I got to Savaii, before school started and before most people knew who I was.    I was waiting for the bus outside the Tuisivi store when  I noticed a group of boys fighting and wasn’t paying much attention until I saw a boy push a smaller kid to the ground.  As the boy lay there, defenseless, the larger boy started kicking him in the head and face.  He was barefoot but even so could have done some serious damage.

I don’t think they knew quite what to make of an avenging palagi wading into the pile and grabbing kids by the scruff of the neck, while yelling at them in Samoan.  The boy doing the kicking didn’t go to my school.  He attends a private religious school in the village.  I gave all of them a talking to and told them to go home or I’d follow them and talk to their mothers.  They scattered like fall leaves in a stiff breeze.

The other time was during interval at school.  We were having tea and I was watching the kids play while the other teachers gossiped, which is a primary form of entertainment in a small village.  I noticed one little kid got knocked over and wasn’t getting up.  Usually when that happens, the other boys will rally around to help him up, even if they’re the one who just clocked him, intentionally or accidentally.

In this case, the game played on while a tiny body laid there.  I jumped up and ran across the playground.  By the time I got there, so had some older children, who were helping the little boy stand up.  Thankfully, he’d just had the wind knocked out of him.

When I got back to the teachers someone asked why I ran outside.  Running is not something you are ever likely to see a Samoan woman over the age of 30 do.  I explained and they told me I should have just ignored it.  They explained that unlike the little American wimps we raise, Samoan children are strong and can take a hit.

I just wish they didn’t have to.

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