Housing is one of the most important things for a PCV and one of the hardest for the PC to control. The village, represented by the school committee, is responsible for our housing. No matter how often PC tells them that it is not good to have a volunteer live with the pulenu’u (mayor) or the faifeaou (pastor) because it makes it harder for the volunteer to integrate, it still happens. They tend to have the best houses and that’s what the village wants to provide.
Volunteers usually want to live on their own, to be able to cook for themselves and have some privacy. That’s challenging, too. In accepting a volunteer, the village is accepting the responsibility of protecting the volunteer. So they want the volunteer to live somewhere they can be watched over.
I have been very lucky. I live in my own enclosed house (palagi fale) in my family’s compound. I have my own attached shower/toilet and a nice kitchen. They have gone out of their way to give me privacy and space. They are good company when I’m feeling lonely and a great source of information, from village gossip to the best place to get whatever I need.
When I first moved in, though, they were concerned about me sleeping alone. Every night, they offered to let me sleep in the open fale with them. I declined and explained that for 58 years I’ve been sleeping alone. “Why?” my brother asked in horror. “Did your parents hate you??” They just can’t imagine anyone wanting to sleep alone.
Here are the typical housing options, along with pros and cons:
House on the school compound. The pluses are the house is usually fairly new and complete, with private toilet and shower. Sometimes, though, the toilet is shared with all the teachers. Another plus is that this is usually the quietest housing option, except when school is in session. No loud music from family/neighbors at night and on weekends. By the way, just because you have the day off, school may be in session for some classes. Or the kids just like to hang around the school and you.
The downside is that you’re living at work. In some cases that means that teachers will want to use your house and stuff, since its right there. Even though I don’t live on the compound, because I live nearby I used to be asked to store cold water and bring my hotplate or electric kettle.
The biggest negative for this living option is safety and security. Without a family around to watch over you and your stuff, you’re more prone to be bothered by “night creepers” and burglars. Night creepers are guys who have a bit too much to drink (or are just brazen) and decide to make a booty call, even if uninvited.
Another negative is that because you don’t have a “family” it’s harder to be integrated and get all the news on what’s going on in the village. Family is your link to the coconut wireless.
The least preferred option of most volunteers is living in a room with a Samoan family. Having said that, the volunteers currently living with families seem happy with the arrangement. You just have to set boundaries and get accustomed to each other’s ways, as with any roommate. Of course, language and culture make this scenario more challenging. Rumor has it that most of you will be living in a room in a family's home.
Some pros of living with a family are that you will likely have better language skills. You’ll likely also have a deeper insight into fa’asamoa. You may save money because your family will likely feed you. You may lose weight because your family may feed you, depending on how picky an eater you are. You may gain wait because your family may feed you!
There will be rules about your comings and goings, but that’s true even if you have a house in a family compound, as I do. And no matter where you live, there will be gossip. Even after two years people still seem interested in what I do, where I go and who I might be sleeping with.
If you read my early posts, you’ll read about my frustration with housing. I’d been promised a house of my own in a family compound. I’d visited the house. At one point I cleaned the house and had the keys. But it didn’t work out. It took six months and made me really appreciate the house I have now.
Bring lots of patience to Samoa. And flexibility.
The best advice I can give is to have low expectations. Peace Corps may ask about your preferences but they can’t pull rabbits out of hats. Their priority is to make sure you are as safe as possible. Indoor toilet, privacy, view of the ocean and cooking facilities are icing on the cake. Plan on bugs. Lots of them. Plan on noise. Samoans tend to be exuberant and express enthusiasm loudly. Plan to make your living situation work for you.