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One-time refuge now is a center of self-reliance

SAUNIATU, Samoa — Once a refuge for ostracized members of the Church, a remote mountainous village in Samoa is now a site for education and entrepreneurship.

Sauniatu, near Samoa's capital of Apia, is an area of special historical and spiritual significance to members here. Nearly a century ago, President Joseph F. Smith authorized its establishment as a refuge for converts expelled from their villages for joining the Church. Today, it encompasses a small LDS primary school and the Sauniatu Agriculture Center, a program designed to promote family self-reliance based on gospel principles and training in agriculture and entrepreneurship. Young men who study at the center also learn English and family management skills and take institute courses.

"We are experiencing first-hand the far-reaching implications of the scriptures and the counsel of latter-day prophets in areas of international development such as agriculture and microenterprise," said Brett Macdonald, director of the center. "A statement by Elder Neal A. Maxwell [of the Quorum of the Twelve] is just one example: 'The difference between wanting to help those you love and being able to help those you love is education.' The truth and clarity of that statement provides a powerful incentive for the students to make the most of their training in Sauniatu."

For example, Misiauro Fonoti, a student originally from the village of Faleasiu, opens his notebook to a statement from the Prophet Joseph Smith that was discussed during an institute class and that is particularly meaningful to him. In the December 1833 issue of The Evening and Morning Star, the Prophet admonished: "Awake to righteousness, and . . . let your light so shine, and show yourselves workmen that need not be ashamed. . . . Apply yourselves diligently to study, that your minds may be stored with all necessary infor- mation."

Misiauro considers the relevance of the Prophet's counsel in his own life: "I have a lot of goals and plans for myself and my family. I didn't have a chance to finish school, but I feel like my mind is a big pocket collecting all the things I am learning here."

The students at the center spend part of each day in the classroom and several hours helping to operate the Sauniatu plantation. Because Samoa is still an overwhelmingly agrarian country with limited employment opportunities, students study how to meet the nutritional needs of their families on small plots of land as well as learning skills necessary for larger scale commercial production.

In addition, students are also working with University of the South Pacific researchers who are trying to develop resistant varieties of taro, a staple crop that has been severely damaged in recent years by disease.

A 1998 graduate of the program, Gafatasi Leota, used the skills and knowledge he gained to increase the productivity and income of his family's farm in the village of Solosolo. For a year and a half after he completed the program, he worked on the farm and sold its produce at the vegetable market in Apia. At that point he had earned and saved enough to submit his papers to serve a full-time mission. He is serving in the Washington Tacoma Mission.

"I've always wanted to go on a mission," he said, before entering the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, Jan. 12. "Learning how to be a better farmer and earn an income has given me the chance to go. When I get home, the same skills will give me a chance to take care of my family."

Another example of the benefits of the Sauniatu Agriculture Center is Iosefa Afa. Six weeks before he returned from the New Zealand Wellington Mission, his father passed away. When the young man returned to Samoa, he felt a great responsibility to support his mother and family. He enrolled in the agriculture center and, after completing the training, was hired to manage the garden of the nutrition unit at the National Hospital. He now supervises work in the garden and teaches classes in health and nutrition. "Going to Sauniatu was a wonderful experience," he said. "It was like a Missionary Training Center for life after my mission."

Students from the center also find ways to volunteer their time and talents to their communities. After visiting ill children in the pediatric ward of the National Hospital, several of the students spent many hours painting and preparing a room to be used as a library and learning center. Books and supplies were collected by members in New Zealand and shipped to Samoa where a local contractor built and donated bookshelves.

As the holidays neared, another group of students visited a convalescent home at Mapuifagalele to deliver farm produce, clothing and other supplies and to sing Christmas carols. "It was lovely to have them here," said Sister Rita of the Little Sisters of the Poor Catholic order that operates the home. "We need all the help we can get and the residents enjoyed the visit so much."

As the 1999 class of the Sauniatu Agriculture Center prepared to graduate, Moe Masoe, Church Educational System country director for Samoa, challenged the students to take what they had learned and use it to help build their families and build the kingdom. He reminded them that the name Sauniatu is a Samoan word meaning "prepare to go forth," and now it was time for them to take on the responsibility of making meaningful contributions to their homes, communities and the Church.

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