By U.S. Ambassador, Mark Gilbert.
The long wait was finally over when Nancy, Liz and I touched down at Faleolo Airport on the evening of Mother’s Day. After months of research and anticipation, I was very excited to finally visit the beautiful island country of Samoa and officially receive my accreditation as U.S. Ambassador to Samoa. The tremendous warmth and hospitality which I encountered during this first visit was deeply moving and the natural beauty as well as the kindness and generosity of the Samoan people made me and my family feel very welcome and right at home.
We kicked off the trip with an incredibly informative tour of the South Coast. I mentioned in my inaugural remarks that in preparation for my new position my family and I studied the culture and browsed countless photographs of the islands but my first day made it quite clear that the photos and stories do not do Samoa justice. Nancy, Liz and I loved the chance to meet with Peace Corps Volunteers currently serving in Samoa and hear about their experiences first-hand as well as the important work that they are undertaking. We also witnessed some of the island’s most pristine natural beauty and enjoyed the chance to visit To Sua Ocean Trench.
On Tuesday, I was pleased to meet our dedicated Embassy Apia staff and thank them for all of their hard work in preparation for my first visit, but also for their continuous efforts to improve the functioning of our Embassy and strengthen the U.S.-Samoa relationship.
Following introductions at the Embassy, I was honored to present my credentials to His Honor Patu Tiavaasue F. Sapolu. In my official letter of credence and remarks, I emphasized that our countries share the values of democracy, religious freedom, fair economic opportunity, and a more open global community. Our relationship, dating back to the mid-1800s, is a friendship based on trust and mutual interests, strengthened by people-to-people ties between our two countries. Each year, we seek to strengthen these ties and I plan to continue to build them during my tenure as Ambassador. After the ceremony, we shared morning tea with His Honor and appreciated the opportunity to learn more about his background, experiences and family.
The next two days were filled with meetings with Samoan government officials, my new colleagues from the diplomatic corps, and international organizations that are based in Samoa. I was especially pleased to meet the Honorable Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi. We shared a pleasant conversation discussing our two nation’s areas of cooperation highlighting Peace Corps Samoa and the Maritime Law Enforcement “Shiprider” programs. And of course no meeting in Samoa is complete without a mention of the upcoming “Game of the Century” between the legendary rugby teams Manu Samoa and the All Blacks. I’ve let my New Zealand colleagues know that they should be prepared for some excitement! This game will live up to the hype!
Our Embassy hosted a reception at the Deputy Chief of Mission’s residence to give me a chance to connect with alumni of U.S. sponsored exchange programs, scholarship recipients, participants in our International Visitor Leadership Program, representatives from our first two Future Leaders of the Pacific conferences as well as others. It was uplifting to meet such a proactive, dynamic group of young professionals dedicated to bringing about positive change in their communities. I’m pleased that we invested in these bright individuals and provided a chance for them to gain a better understanding of American culture and values.
During my time in Samoa, I also launched two U.S. Government-funded projects. The USAID Pacific American Climate Fund (PACAM) project granted a local environmental NGO, the Matuaileoo Environmental Trust, Inc. (METI), $735 thousand USD to execute permaculture gardening and life skills classes across 50 villages in Samoa. I was joined by my associate Alfred Nakatsuma of USAID and the Honorable Prime Minister Tuilaepa, to officially announce the new program.
I am looking forward to hearing about the important positive impact that this project will have on local communities as it progresses. I also plan to visit some of the villages.
The second project which we launched on this trip was the International Military Education and Training (IMET)-funded Boarding Officer Course. This project deployed four U.S. Coast Guard trainers from the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve Training Center in Yorktown, Virginia to conduct a two-week training for twenty Samoan maritime police and fisheries officers. The course consisted of intensive training explaining how to properly board and conduct searches on vessels. This type of knowledge is essential for law enforcement personnel to properly conduct inspections of any type out at sea, from routine fishing boat inspections to vessels suspected of criminal activity, and is a perfect complement to our Shiprider program, which deploys Samoan officers to patrol their own Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) with the assistance of U.S. Coast Guard or Navy ships.
My visit culminated with a welcome reception held at the Deputy Chief of Mission’s residence on Wednesday night May 13. The event was well attended by all sectors of Samoan society including government officials and members of the diplomatic corps as well as important private sector and civil society groups. I was incredibly fortunate to be able to meet and talk with so many people from different backgrounds that evening and came away with a greater depth of understanding about the dynamics of Samoan society and some of the day to day issues that these groups handle.
On this first eventful and fast-paced trip, I participated in a wide variety of activities, met so many fascinating and inspiring peopled and gained a greater and more nuanced understanding of Samoan culture and people. I look forward to reconnecting with the government leaders, members of the diplomatic corps, Peace Corps Volunteers, local business owners, U.S. exchange alumni and various community leaders I met on this first visit. I am already counting down the days until my next visit when I hope to travel to the big island of Savaii to visit USAID projects and experience more of the Fa’a Samoa. To say that we thoroughly enjoyed our initial trip to Samoa would be an understatement. We were thrilled to receive such a warm welcome.
Reflecting on our visit, I am reminded of how incredibly fortunate I am to be able to represent the United States in a country rich with stunning physical beauty, and such kind and friendly people. I can imagine no higher honor or privilege than serving my country in Samoa, an Island Nation that values trust and shares interests with the United States of America.