Michael Noonan is originally from Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin. He lives in Apia, Samoa where he works for the United Nations Development Program (UDP) as an Environment and Climate Change Support Officer
“They call us Samoans, the Irish of the Pacific,” a tall dark Samoan man told me as I was burning my pale white Irish skin in the Pacific sun.
I was not familiar with that saying at first as I had only just finished a three-week mandatory quarantine period, but as time went on, I soon began to see the similarities between Ireland and Samoa.
Since I arrived four months ago, I have found Samoan people friendly, kind, family-oriented and highly socialised. It is also a rugby-mad nation of course.
Up to 98 per cent of the population in Samoa identifies as Christian with Catholic the dominant denomination.
In addition to the strong culture founded on values of respect, service and love, it really did not take a lot of convincing for me to leave Ireland and venture to this remote island of the Pacific.
I graduated from Trinity College Dublin with an MSc in Development Practice in August 2020. With a combined hit of a recession and Covid, graduate opportunities within the field of international development were slim and competitive. After a year of applying for various jobs within the environment sector, I finally got an interview with the UN in August 2021 – when I actually had Covid. Fortunately, I was successfully selected as an Environment and Climate Change Support Officer within UNDP.
With a strong interest in the environment field, I was looking forward to living in the Pacific. Besides the appealing "paradise" image of these islands, a bastion of tropical climate, sun, sand and sea, the Pacific island nations are also experiencing the harsh realities of climate change. A newly published Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report highlighted that the Pacific islands produce less then 1 per cent of the world's total greenhouse gases yet are among the most vulnerable.
Future possible climate scenarios in the Pacific could see the effects of increased sea level rises, the continued loss of low-lying lands, the risk of flooding and damages from the intensity of cyclones.
Unfortunately, even if you travel halfway across the world, Covid still follows you
Samoa is still recovering from the long-term social and economic impacts of the 2009 tsunami that killed up to 149 people. Shortly after I arrived here as well, the Hunga-Tonga Hunga Ha'apai volcanic eruption in the neighbouring island nation of Tonga in January, had put the entire region on high alert.
Although Samoa was not directly affected, it was my first experience of being highly alert in the Pacific due to a natural disaster. I reassured my family in Ireland of my safety, however, it was a reminder that Samoa and islands in this region are extremely vulnerable and need a strong level of resilience.
I think for any person who comes to Samoa, the initial experience is the “honeymoon” stage as you are surrounded by luscious greens, bright and colourful tropical flowers and palm trees hanging high up above you. Samoa itself covers an area of about 2,842 km sq, so it a little big, bigger than an Irish county. It comprises of two large islands, Savaii and Upolu, and eight other smaller islands.
Unlike home, where there are four seasons in the year, in Samoa there really are only two – wet and dry. Or “sweaty” and “not sweaty” to put it bluntly. With temperatures ranging from the mid-20s to high 30s some days, a quite mundane task such as going to the shops, can result in your shirt getting completely drenched with sweat and result in you trying to drink your bodyweight in water to compensate.
Unfortunately, even if you travel halfway across the world, Covid still follows you. After experiencing a terrible measles epidemic in November 2019, along with the threat of Covid coming in early months of 2020, Samoa shut its borders in order to protect its population. Then for two long years, Samoa was Covid free, until shortly after I arrived, then the virus sneaked its way into the country.
I couldn't afford to move out of the family home in Ireland due to crazy rental prices, whereas now I have my own house for the price of a student room in Dublin.
So I soon begin to think that I was this cursed talisman bringing volcanic eruptions and infectious diseases to the south pacific. In good news, the country has bounced back due to the uptake of the vaccine with over 91 per cent of the population over the age of 18 vaccinated.
Quality of life between Samoa and Ireland, really is drastically different. I couldn’t afford to move out of the family home in Ireland due to crazy rental prices, whereas now I have my own house for the price of a student room in Dublin.
All in all, Samoa is a tropical paradise, where the sun soothes your soul in the morning and the sound of crickets sings you to sleep in the evening.
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