Editor's note: Deseret News reporter Tad Walch is in the South Pacific reporting on the impact of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the current trip of the faith's leader, President Russell M. Nelson, in six island nations.
SIUMU, Samoa — The temperature is already 77 degrees and the morning air in the jungle is saturated with water vapor when the mother slips the backpack of food over her shoulders. Her little boy wraps his tiny hand around one of her strong fingers, and they begin their long journey on foot.
While they talk and laugh, the 4-year-old's school uniform yellow shirt and the blue lavalava around his waist and legs blend with the colorful jungle, which smells wet and new. Red flowers blossom on one tree. Coconuts grow under the green fronds of tall palm trees. Shorter trees with broader leaves sport bananas. More trees, more tropical fruits. Mangos. Papaya. Breadfruit.
Incredibly, this is the dry season in the Samoan rainforest.
This is how important the education of this son is to this mother: Behind them at home, she has deployed her husband to care for the youngest of their eight children, a 1-year-old. The mother will not return for at least four hours. She and the boy, whose name is Lupi, will walk for an hour to reach his preschool, which runs for two hours. Then they will retrace the miles back home. They do this every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
Preschool is now a Samoan imperative. The prime minister himself says children without a preschool education quickly fall behind when they begin school. The problem is that paying for preschool is too costly for Lupi's family and thousands more like it in this small country of 201,000 people. So when a free new alternative emerged recently from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Lupi's mother committed to sacrifice her entire morning three days a week to walk to and from a preschool that operates with no budget at all in a nation where the minimum wage is $1.20 an hour — less than the cost of a can of Coca-Cola bottled here on the islands.
The secret sauce behind what is now 90 new preschools that are disrupting Samoa's educational system are mothers like Lupi's mom, whose name is Fa'amele Fa'atuai.
"These preschools are essentially mums coming together and saying, 'What is it that we can do as mothers for our children?' This is mainly mother-driven," said Elder Ian S. Ardern, a native of New Zealand and counselor in the Pacific Area Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Most of these mothers have no training and many do not have high school diplomas. The local bishop asks a mother or two from the congregation to lead the school, and those mothers recruit others to take over or to help.
They are investing in their children's future.
"There is no other preschool in this district at all, so Lupi is the first child in our family to go to preschool," his mother said this week while she sat in the shade on a concrete slab during Lupi's class. "We walk here every morning because the government (elementary) school here requires a certificate that can only come from a government-(sanctioned) preschool. Those who can't go to government preschools can't get a certificate, but you have to pay to go to one."
The government schools accept the church's preschool certificate. Now nearly 3,000 other Samoan youngsters attend the 90 schools at Latter-day Saint meetinghouses. Mothers are voting with their feet.
Fa'amele brings Lupi to the Siumu Ward meetinghouse near the southern coast of the island of Upolu, though she is not a Latter-day Saint.
"What started off with disbelief is now protected by village councils," said Bruce McCarthy, the church's Self-Reliance Services and Perpetual Education Fund manager for Samoa.
McCarthy said the preschools' graduates are passing early school exams at the top level.
'Where's the money?'
The idea for the schools is embedded in the church's self-reliance materials. McCarthy saw it and took it to the Ministry of Education to see if it contravened any laws or policies. He was told the model passed all requirements.
They wished him, without a budget, good luck. The first school launched in 2016.
"Everybody asks, 'Where's the money? Where's the resources?'" he added. "We don't pay teachers. We don't hold fundraisers. We don't have a budget. We don't have committees. We're working on faith. Our help and inspiration comes from the Lord. Some people find that concept hard to understand."
Other than a light curriculum that most schools don't use — most of the time in class is spent in singing and simple lessons created by the mothers — the only resources have come from two unexpected sources.
First, a Samoan living in Utah annually sends a shipping container with supplies like paper, pencils, markers and books. This year, the container did not arrive because of an illness.
The other source applies to just one school in one village. After someone vandalized the children's murals on a wall outside a meetinghouse in one village, the village council said it would ban anyone caught in the offense. The four shops in the village then committed 2 cents of every transaction to the school. Every Tuesday, the village chief delivers a box with about 150 Samoan tala, the equivalent of about $55, making it the only one of the church-run preschools with a budget. None of the village council members are church members.
Last summer, complaints about the free schools erupted among other preschools that receive government funding per student. Fewer paying students meant less money for their budgets.
McCarthy went to Samoan Prime Minister Tuila’epa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi, who said he knew about and supported the schools and wrote a letter to McCarthy in November in which he addressed the complaints from other schools.
Translated from Samoan, it says:
"They are fast to take the government funding we offer for similar programmes but they have failed to provide the same benefits," he wrote of the church preschool's opponents. "Parents have noticed the huge difference and have in turn moved their children away and into your schools instead. It is the parents right to do so and sadly has been the cause of much jealousy and resentment amongst preschool providers."
The prime minister offered moral support, too.
"I want you to carry on with the good work, don’t give up easily, and I hope you never get discouraged," he wrote. "We are well aware that all students who get to experience the benefits of attending any preschool are already way ahead of those students who don’t when entering their primary school entry year. Furthermore, do not succumb to any bad or negative influences that may attempt to deter you from your objective."
McCarthy, a broad-shouldered man with short white hair, a distinguished white mustache and a positive attitude, has pressed ahead. He predicted the number of preschools will climb past 100 this year.
Elder Ardern said the preschool initiative is based on the principle that education unlocks doors to opportunities.
"Self-reliance is dependent in so many aspects on education, and we have too many people in the Pacific who are unemployed or underemployed," Elder Ardern said. "We simply want them to become self-reliant. It's a message of the Lord and that's a message that we try to reinforce as an area presidency. We are mighty blessed in the Pacific to have 15 church (middle and high) schools, and they do a marvelous job, but they don't reach everyone. So, we need to be proactive in seeing what we can do to provide education for every person across the Pacific."
Unemployment and underemployment are the reason one of Samoa's major exports is people. Annually, 100,000 Samoans who live overseas send $190 million in remittances back to family, friends, churches, schools and charities in Samoa, according to the Samoa Observer.
Samoa's adjusted net national income per person is $3,666, nearly even with Tonga and ahead of much of Africa, but only one-tenth of the per capita figure of $34,960 in New Zealand, a four-hour flight away. Australia stands at $41,489. The United States is fifth in the world at $51,485, according to estimates by the World Bank. American Samoa is another large source of remittances to Samoa.
In fact, Fa'amele — Lupi's mother — receives money weekly from siblings in Australia who are grateful she has remained home to care for their mother.
One Latter-day Saint who emigrated from Samoa served a mission for the church in Auckland, New Zealand. There, Olive Fa'aalava'au saw a land of opportunity. He moved there in 2001.
"I was looking for an opportunity to have a better life because jobs in Samoa are limited," he said.
He met his wife in New Zealand. They have three children and six adopted children from their extended family in Samoa. He put his wife through school. Now that she has her university degree and a job as a social worker, she is putting him through school, also in social work.
Fa'aalava'au said education in Samoa is good. However, there is a teacher shortage, McCarthy said, and literacy, 99 percent for males and 98 percent for females, is slipping, according to the Samoa Observer. The national newspaper carried a story this week about the controversy over a pilot program to have six schools use textbooks from the Church of Scientology. That caused a stir because Samoa calls itself a nation founded by the Christian God.
Malielegaoi, the prime minister, defended the pilot program, saying the textbooks are secular and new ideas are necessary to combat slipping scores.
Options for higher education are improving with the National University of Samoa, founded in 1984, a satellite campus of the University of the South Pacific and the burgeoning presence of Brigham Young University-Pathway Worldwide.25 comments on this story
But higher education seems like a dream for Lupi and his mother, who completed Year 11 in Samoa's equivalent to high school. Her husband has a high school diploma but now is unemployed. They hope for something better for Lupi. They own two writing practice books for Lupi. He loves pictures, but they don't have any picture books.
For now, Fa'amele walks Lupi to school. Afterward, he sits with her and the other children and mothers in the shade on the concrete slab and eats the bread and butter and fruit she carried in the backpack.
Finally, after most everyone else has gone, Fa'amele cleans up the detritus from their snack. After she checks the white flower in the hair over her ear, she stands up, slips the backpack back over her shoulders and begins the hourlong walk home with her son.