Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Samoans

A few weeks ago the TV show, '60 Minutes' had a segment on why so many outstanding football players come from American Samoa. They showed the teenage boys preparing and training for football in American Samoa. Without shoes and equipment they play on 'fields' of lava rock. Genetically they are large and strong, and are formidable players. A coach said, describing the teenage boys, 'they are gentle and kind until they get on the field, then they turn into monsters.'

Why do I write about this? Watching this segment brought me right back to the time I worked with Samoan twins. I already had a very full case load, but a case manager said she had these fraternal twins who were born prematurely, and needed to be monitored. I protested, saying I had more children than I could handle, but then she told me their names, and I couldn't resist! Of course I cannot disclose their names, but believe me, they were cute, perfect for a fraternal twin.Think along the lines of "Eric and Erica" and you will get the idea.

The first time I went to their home in the Iron Triangle area of Richmond I parked on the street outside and gathered my clipboard and paperwork. A pitbull dog jumped up and scratched the passenger side window. A strong looking man with flowing black hair reined him in, and they walked on the down the street. That was dad, I learned later.

I climbed up the 6 steps to the front door and knocked. A woman with the same wavy flowing black hair as the man came to the door, and introduced herself as the mother. I walked into the small living room behind her. She sat on a chair and gestured to me to sit. I sat on a sofa and looked around. An enormous color photograph of a black eyed, black haired good looking young man was on the wall. The photo was surrounded by strings of dusty plastic lilies. On the floor in front of it stood pots containing palms. The fronds were covered in dust. In front of the sofa on the carpet stood two walkers, and in each one sat a 5 month old prematurely born, low birthweight boy and girl. But something was very wrong with this picture. Each child looked at least like a large 10 month old chid. They both had a smattering of dark hair, and large dark brown eyes framed by long lashes. The girl's hair was sparser than that of the boy, but I knew she was a girl because she had a tiny pink ribbon clipped to a few sparse strands. Their faces were dirty, their noses snotty. The rims of the walkers were covered in spilled milk and crumbs.
The back of the little girl's head was flat - probably from lying constantly on her back. It was good she was up, but not in the walker, where she and her brother hung, their legs dangled and their heads bobbed around, but they were contained! Parents love these walkers because the kids appear content and happy inside, and they cannot get in anyone's way, but they are not good for the child's development. Their posture is wrong and they aren't using their muscles correctly. I explained that I would work with them on the floor, in this case a carpet, and requested that on subsequent visits she lay down a sheet or blanket. I explained to her that I would come once a week, at a time which was convenient for her, when the twins were awake, and ready to play. We agreed upon a time, Friday at 3.00 p.m.

Mom told me they were children numbers 5 and 6. The other children were in school. Mom was large and quite beautiful, resembling the women in Gaugin's paintings. She had on jeans and a T-shirt. On her left hand was a striking ring made out of what appeared to be bone, with colorful lines and symbols on it. She seemed to me amazingly laid back for someone with such a large brood. Her parents also lived in the home, but worked during the day. The boy in the photo was her brother who had been killed in a driveby shooting in San Francisco the year before. Toward the end of my visit dad and dog returned, and him and mom conversed in a language unfamiliar to me, Samoan.

The following Friday a tousled hair girl opened the door when I knocked. I told her who I was and that I had come to work with the twins. She held the door ajar then ran off shouting "Mom, a lady is here." The response was immediate and loud, 'FUCK." This was the response I received on each and every visit. Mom never remembered, apparently, that I was coming, despite the fact that we had agreed upon the time, and it never varied. From the 'FUCK' which emanated from within the home anyone would have sworn that I had come by to permanently remove the kids. I became accustomed to this friendly welcoming greeting, and walked into the living room calling to Mom that it was me and I am not here to hurt anyone.
Are the kids ready? They never were. They were always in the walkers, sometimes crying, sometimes cooing. Often the little girl pushed a bottle or pacifier in her brother's general direction, or vice versa. These two babies cared for each other, but obviously, being only a few months old, they were unable to do an outstanding job!

No floor covering was ever laid down. I brought my own sheets, as well as a pile of freshly laundered bibs. These two babies, and their walkers, were extremely dirty, filthy is a more apt word. Nothing in the house was free from dust, cigarette residue (the parents smoked), and particles of food. On my second visit, no sooner had I placed each large and heavy infant on the floor than I felt someone shaking my arm. I looked down to see the tousled hair little girl, or another child the image of her, for suddenly the living room and sofa were swarming with kids.

"Lady, lady" she shook my arm. "Pookie hit me so I hit Pookie. The poh-lice came for Daddy." Children everywhere, grabbing my toys, shaking my arm to tell me of mishaps at home and in school, boys, girls, climbing and running around in circles, and jumping over the little ones, no mom in sight. Utter pandemonium. Mom came in a little later, not saying a word to any of the kids, like "do you want something to eat?" "play with your own toys," or "do your homework" or "stop hitting Pookie," nothing. She asked me whether I would like a cup of coffee (I refused) and said that some of the kids belonged to her sister who was on drugs, so they were caring for them.

Sometimes mom wasn't there, the babies were alone with the swarms of kids. "Mom went with the neighbor to the store," or "mom is visiting someone." Dad apparently really had been taken to prison, again. This seemed like something the family was quite used to. This was not, of course, an ideal situation to be monitoring two little babies. I explained the situation to the case manager. We agreed that as soon as the kids were one year old they could begin our program, because these kids needed a structured environment. As far as their development was concerned, they were progressing very well, and would be doing even better if they were ever taken out of their walkers. I explained this to mom, when she was there, ad nauseum.

Over the next few months my work week ended with my Samoan nemesis. I couldn't wait to get home, bathe, and throw my clothes and the sheet into the washer. I scratched imaginary itches, and wiped my watery eyes and nose. I knew I wasn't hallucinating when I saw little white and grey things hopping in the childrens' hair. My ears rang with the kids' whining. The twins quickly grew larger and heavier, and cuter.

The boy began toddling surprisingly early for a preemie. I was there one Friday amidst the usual pandemonium. Mom sat in the living room, calm and placid, while all around the children fought, shook my arms, climbed on to window sills, swung from curtains, bickered, whined, and laughed. No one noticed the little boy had vanished. A snotty-nosed kid used the back of his hand to wipe his nose, he sniffed and asked for a kleenex. Mom told him to get paper from the toilet. He returned from the toilet to report they were out of paper. "Shit, Fuck," said mom, "I forgot to get some."

A house full of people, no toilet paper, and where was the little boy? I ran off to look for him and found him pulling up to stand next to the not clean toilet. His hands splashed in the unflushed bowl. I scooped him up and took him to the sink to place his hands under water. There was no soap or towels. I told the case manager they needed to start our program on Monday.

They flourished. The nits were removed and their hair gleamed. They learned to wash their hands and use the toilet, but best of all, they could run around, climb the jungle gym, go down slides, ride bikes. Then one day they were not on the bus. No one answered our phone calls. Letters were written. I drove by the house but no one was there. They didn't return. Mom had spoken about moving to another county where she hoped to find work, so perhaps this is what happened, but our Samoan twins were gone.

In many ways our work is a constant series of goodbyes.


  1. Oh Nesta it's great to find you here too! Your writing is as good as ever.

    Just sent your website URL and a book recommendation to an old high-school friend of mine, whom I found on Facebook. She is now teaching at Rhodes. The world is small.

  2. Hi Melinda, so good to hear from you. I am pleased you found my blog!

    All the best