As a child I was always watching. Watching the world around me and those who filled it. Outside of my immediate family was my wider ‘āiga, cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents who were to be respected and viewed as extra siblings and parents. As we connected each week at family to‘ona‘i or visits to each other’s houses I remember learning early on that these were the only houses I was allowed to visit and that outside of my #AssignedBFF4Life my Samoan father, my cousins were the only friends I was allowed to hang out with – without islander adult supervision.
So there’s no surprise that my most memorable childhood memories involved being around our ‘āiga. There were family poker nights and parties at Aunty Frances’ house in Porirua. Us little cousins were kind of looked after by the older cousins who took turns watching for the moment Uncle Bob or Uncle Henry got so excited with their Poker winnings that they would give us a handful of coins to go to the shop to buy anything we wanted, like all the different flavours of old school Biguns chips. Then there was the time my cousin Evelyn had a sprained ankle and became the experimental subject of the uncles who all of sudden claimed to have physio/medical licenses and proceeded to Samoan fofo #massage her foot back to health. I still remember the screams and the lesson learnt to always down play any sports injuries. I’ll also never forget the time I learnt that my cousin Ashley’s real name is actually Melissa, and how my Nana preferred ‘Ashley’ and started the new name trend without many of us cousins knowing that it actually wasn’t her name. We still call her Ashley today.
But it’s the storytellers in my ‘āiga and the stories that were told that are my favourite memories. Like the incidental storytelling sessions at my Nana and Pa’s house #MirandaStreet where all the cousins sat in the lounge or hallway waiting for our turn to eat and clean up after our elders. I would hear my Aunty Ruby explaining who she knew, how she knew them and her own thoughts about them – for no real reason. At times there was roaring laughter from a story my Uncle Joe would tell at the table about one of his regular taxi customers and his sister, Frances, teasing him before he got to the actual point of his story. Uncle Henry arguing his point about something before randomly changing the subject. And when my Aunty Lina was there she would be the one to leave the table if she had had enough of everyone or try to get my Aunty Ana to relax as she mopped the floor around her siblings hinting at them to eat faster since “these tamaiti don’t know how to clean up properly.”
Then there were times that silence would fall over the kitchen table, like when my Pa, the quietest person in our family, would speak. Or when serious matters were being discussed by my Uncle Bob or my father, who is the matai #SamoanChief of our ‘āiga. And sometimes there would be tears, like when my Nana missed my Pa when he passed, which would set us all off.
For years I watched from the sidelines and marvelled at these storytellers who seemed to have this invisible connection that got them through the good, bad and ugly of everything, effectively bonding them for life. Through their stories they seemed to have this unspoken understanding of what each other really meant underneath it all as well as cultural rules and norms that they had been raised with in Sāmoa. And as a Samoan born in New Zealand, early on I felt a disconnection from my parents generation and the stories they shared with each other. I wanted what they had – the knowledge, insider cultural understandings, access to it all to be able to participate in the storytelling sessions and have a seat at the kitchen table with them.
So it wasn’t until I was much older that I had built up enough confidence to ask (and keep asking in case they used the, ‘eh you know’ or ‘eh you should know’ or ‘eh you don’t need to know,’ line on me) my elders questions to fill the cultural gaps that I felt were holding me hostage every now and then along my own identity journey.
I started with my parents. Mum was a safe space and very receptive to anything I asked. She explained our family gafa #Genealogy #FamilyTree and the different parts of fa‘asāmoa life. My Dad explained different Samoan cultural protocols and helped me to understand and practise our gagana – by getting me to repeat and practise in front of him like I was doing Lotu Tamaiti again, but as a 20 something year old #LeoTeleLOL.
Then there was my aunty Fuamai with her, ‘Why do you want to know?’ questions followed by her suspicious side eye scanner. She was our family’s one-stop-cultural-shop so she would always end up more than happy to share stories with me about everything. My uncle Amoko and uncle Tai would tell me stories about our Samoan villages, Vaivase tai and Fagaloa, family connections, their strong #feisty sisters and what life was like being born and raised in Sāmoa. My aunty Mavae told me stories of being the spoiled one with her BFF, my mother, and I even remember her husband, my uncle Pisi explaining to me at a funeral that the ‘real fa‘asāmoa way’ is beautiful – and is based on alofa, tautua and support for the family, not on how much money you can give or what to expect back, with a reminder to never forget this. Then there was my fun Uncle Tona who was like an older cousin trapped in an uncle’s body – always happy to retell and re-enact family stories with me, even about my Grandpa Saletele whom I had never met.
I found that each one of these storytelling sessions were helping to complete a puzzle that was impossible for me to solve as a child. It was like their stories were becoming part of a mini library collection in my heart that was helping to fill the cultural void inside. They gave me a better understanding of who they were, why they were and the impact this had on me and my life – which was taking shape through the stories they were sharing with me.
So when the time came to meet with Fialaui‘afualeafi Tamasese to view and provide feedback for our upcoming picture book, Grandpa’s Siapo, more missing puzzle pieces of who I am as a Samoan and the importance of my MIla’s Books mission came to light.
I was lucky enough to have previously met Fialaui‘afualeafi a number of times where we exchanged polite acknowledgements and courtesies, while secretly fangirling that she was a direct descendant of a number of our Samoan forefathers. So I knew as part of our Samoan custom of fa‘aaloalo #respect I needed to at least try to seek her feedback on our book, which included her ancestors, and that if granted, our next meeting would be much different.
Prepared with my ‘ie lavalava and the mock up of our book, I entered her room and we greeted each other as I respectfully lowered myself in front of her. She smiled at me and I saw my Nana in her eyes. I was instantly transported back to my childhood. I started explaining Grandpa’s Siapo and what it was about. The look on her face reminded me of my Aunty Fuamai, silently assessing my intentions and the words I was saying. At the back of my head I heard my father’s voice reminding me, “Remember don’t talk too much, it’s rude,” while I handed her the mock up to look over. She flicked through each page before speaking. I held my breath because if she didn’t like it, I knew I had totally missed the point and my plan to share our Samoan history, her family history, as part of the book with the world would be a total failure.
“Where did you get the information from?” she asked. I explained the sources and that due to the book’s target audience we were only touching on key historical events and figures since so many are still unaware of our Samoan history. She leaned forward in a way a strong Samoan matriarch would and said, “There needs to be more of our stories. For too long our history has been reported by outsiders, when we, the Samoan people, should be given opportunities to tell our side because it is our history. These events and the decisions made happened to us and impacted our people – and people need to know about it.”
The Samoan activist and patriot within this 86 year old woman was woken and what came next was an intergenerational storytelling session I will never forget. Time seemed to stop as the talanoa flowed with Fialaui‘afualeafi sharing personal details about her Grandfather, prominent Samoan leader and patriot, Ta‘isi Olaf Frederick Nelson, who was at one time the richest man in Sāmoa and how his fight for Samoan independence eventually bankrupted him showing his determination to ensure that Sāmoa was led by Sāmoa. Also how Ta’isi and Sir Maui Pomare, who supported Samoan Independence from New Zealand, were very close friends who regularly wrote letters, encouraging each other on their journeys of indigenous sovereignty.
She went on to emphasise that Samoans at the time called the Talune ship – “The ship of death,” due to passengers sick with influenza being allowed to disembark by New Zealand administrators, who also denied medical support for American Sāmoa. This led to Sāmoa having the highest fatalities per capita in the world during the Influenza Epidemic which was documented in her Grandfather’s book, Tautai: Samoa, World History, and the Life of Ta’isi O. F. Nelson.
Our discussion moved to the kitchen table where she shared her frustration with the historical amnesia when it comes to our Pasifika histories and the treatment of our Pasifika peoples due to colonisation and its legacy still evident today. “Our tamaiti are taught to celebrate ANZAC Day and commemorate the fallen but what about the fallen who died at the hands of New Zealand’s misadministration of Sāmoa during the time of the Mau, like Black Saturday?” We talked at length about the racial discrimination she faced being schooled here in New Zealand and the need for our stories and our histories to be taught today in schools to change this for good – especially with the Pasifika population being the fastest growing in New Zealand.
I was in awe of Fialaui‘afualeafi. Her knowledge, her conviction and toa spirit. Having lived our history, with fa‘asāmoa running through her veins, being raised by our Sāmoan forefathers, her New Zealand school experiences of racial prejudice and discrimination, combined with her lived observations and learnings across her life made her the ultimate storyteller.
Near the end of our talanoa her son Tuifaasisina Mea‘ole Keil joined us at the kitchen table where personal stories were shared about Fialauiafualeafi’s father, the first co-head of State of Sāmoa, Tupua Tamasese Mea‘ole. Over two and half hours we laughed, we shed tears, took deep breaths to help the feelings of anger and sadness subside as memories were re-lived and strengthened re-connections were made to our Samoan past.
With a full heart I took a moment and looked around the table and I realised something. I was finally at the cultural table I had been longing for. Included as part of the talanoa to help our tamaiti and future storytellers which ended with Fialaui‘afualeafi saying, “We must fight to keep our stories alive for future Sāmoan generations, we must never forget the sacrifices made for our Samoan language, culture and stories to survive.” Something I will forever be reminded of at each table I am invited to sit at and every time I look at our book, Grandpa’s Siapo.
GRANPA’S SIAPO will be released on the 14th of May in New Zealand.
PRE-ORDERS are now available from Lagi Routes from the Pacific store for the general public and Wheelers Books for schools and libraries.
Also in honour of the 60th anniversary of Samoan Independence this year,
our entire Mila’s My Aganuu Series, including Grandpa’s Siapo, will be made available to the world as a paperback and ebook via Amazon on the 29th of May.