Clean Water and Safe Streets: What do we take for granted?

By Adria Orr | KF17 | Samoa

Of course, home doesn’t look like this…

A huge part of choosing to move to another country, even temporarily, is leaving behind the comforts of home. There are several levels to this–the ease of familiar environs, the social security of friends and family, relatively cushy lifestyle (hot water, I’m thinking of you), and of course, sometimes, your physical security. When I think about the privilege I’ve enjoyed growing up in a developed country like the United States, the first things that come to mind are abundant food, clean water, and comfortable housing. Secondarily, I consider my political freedoms and my (relative) level of equality as a woman. Finally, although it is less overt (no one ever ran infomercials with a non-corrupt cop with big eyes and a sad face saying, ‘sponsor me!’), I encourage myself to not take for granted the basic level of security and lawfulness that I experience.

Most Kiva Fellows hail from countries where there is not much cause to worry about their safety. At least, you can have the expectation that if someone commits a crime and they are caught, they will be held accountable for it. Certainly, coming from the United States, I often watch international news and feel grateful that, though police and security forces are not perfect by any means, I do feel comfortable walking down the street knowing that I won’t get hit by an errant airstrike, almost certainly won’t get arbitrarily kidnapped and held for ransom, and can expect a general level of law enforcement in everyday life. (Although any increase in my TV consumption causes a similar increase in my conviction that I am about to be attacked in the street. Thanks, Law & Order.) 

My placement in Samoa is definitely not a risky one by any measure. Other fellows may post pictures of barbed wire mounted on top of brick walls, or regale stories of robberies and attempted muggings. My biggest danger (albeit occasionally a daunting one) is the packs of stray dogs that materialize after dark. This is not a place where random violence or crime is common. However, a recent event here made me think more deeply about some of those non-tangible things we take for granted back home.

Again, can’t make this stuff up.

Last Monday, the police mounted a raid on a family compound in the early hours of the morning. At the end of it all, one man from the family was shot dead and three cops were in the hospital. Let me stress that news of this kind is extremely unusual here. Recent headlines from the paper include, “Stale Bread Anger” and “Sisters Make Mother Proud”, “Real-life Mermaid Swims With Whales Using Very Own Fish Tail” (no, I’m not making that up). Gun violence is also extremely rare–police officers don’t carry weapons and must put in a special requisition for armed missions. Drugs, unfortunately, are not as uncommon, with marijuana use widespread among other substances–and it was ties to this illicit side of the Samoan economy that sent police into this village.

Sadly, it was not the violent end of this confrontation which gave me cause to think–after all, it’s all too easy to open up the news and pluck any number of more violent incidents in better known countries–but some of the facts about the situation that surprised me, and probably shouldn’t have. Fact one, the Samoan police officers, while sent on this armed mission, were not wearing bulletproof vests. The rationale is simple: the police force does not own any. Whether this is a product of living in NYC where the appearance of of fully armed and armored military in public transit hubs fails to raise an eyebrow, I was stunned. Thirty officers sent on a raid, given guns but no protection against them.

An uncharacteristically dramatic headline.

One might argue that since guns are not legal here, the police had no reason to suspect they would need such protection. Enter fact two: the family who was the subject of investigation was previously involved in the shooting deaths of 2 (two!) police officers, with no legal consequences. To me, it was unimaginable that it could be public knowledge that two cops had died at this family’s compound, yet no one was ever punished for it and police still launched an ill-equipped raid. Granted, the government in Samoa is a combination of the traditional village ‘matai’ chiefs and a Westernized parliamentary system, and it’s unclear to me under which system’s jurisdiction this would fall. Still, from what I’ve heard, neither of these forces took action against this family, either by arranging ifoga (seeking forgiveness from the families of the slain cops) or formal legal retribution. Furthermore, the three police officers who were shot turned out to not be covered by the force’s insurance policy. (No insurance? Now this is starting to sound more like the US…I kid, I kid.)

In fact, the exact circumstances of the shootings remain somewhat unclear. Each side tells a different version of the events. But that is not the point here.

The point is that this event was a stark reminder to me that all that intangible ‘stuff’ that I take for granted back home–for example, a functioning, largely effective police force and legal system–may well be just as important as food, water, and shelter. There are many criticisms of the police force back home in the States, some well-deserved, others probably less so. I believe this is healthy–as engaged citizens, we should demand our police to carry out their duties with equality and transparency. Similarly, we expect our security forces, police and otherwise, to be well-trained, well-provided for, and operating under certain standard of professionalism and safety.

This should be the right of any society, not a privilege. 

Adria Orr is a Kiva Fellow in Apia, Samoa working with SPBD by day, playing rugby by night, and sure could use your help funding some of our hard-working ladies!

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