Our Storytellers

Fialauiʻafualeafi Tamasese, the oldest grandchild of Taʻisi Olaf Frederick Nelson, daughter of Noue Nelson and Tupua Tamasese Meaʻole – brother of Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III, Mau Leader and the first joint Head of State of Western Sāmoa with Malietoa Tanumafili II – and sister to Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Taʻisi Tupuola Tufuga Efi (former Prime Minister and Head of State of Sāmoa).

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.”

Big exhale.

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.

Lockdown Lowdown

Here we are again. Level 4 lockdown ‘bubble life’ as we know it is becoming so familiar and I am one of those people who fully welcomed the break from the world outside.

On top of the usual busy life of being a mother, wife and Samoan daughter, I wrote seven stories that were released in May this year. It involved so much time and energy #BeforeDuring&After because when you’re working to ensure our Pasifika stories are in the spaces they need to be, it’s not just write the story and then sit back and relax #OMGifOnly. Then amongst all of this I was being commissioned to write stories and complete advisory work in schools, AND we moved house where we completed #Chehooo renovations, because in my mind there is no such thing as impossible – but there is definitely such a thing as crazy #RightHereYall

So the first half of 2021 has already felt like an entire year has flown by, and is why I had promised myself an early Christmas break this August which would help me to slide into ‘chill mode’ for our final book of 2021 #TamaSāmoa.

Then Delta arrived, saving me from myself because to be honest, I probably would not have had a break and just kept on going #AsPerUsual.

I have never been good at just stopping. I even remember having so much energy as a child and would get so frustrated and borderline cry from being bored – but not in front of my Islander parents who would have really given me something to cry about LOL. Now as an adult this non-stop energy has manifested in my life as always being on the go, to keep on going, then going further … until I can’t go on anymore – which I am so used to challenging because I am a serial ‘Do-er’, forever preparing, organizing and thinking about what needs to be done which to me, MUST be followed through because my OCD/undiagnosed ADHD & Asperger’s nature can never leave anything unfinished or un-promised. Then when I’m really on a roll the fiabots kicks in and I start feeling like I’m invincible #NoSleepNeeded because by this stage I turn into a machine – like an AI robot with tunnel vision programmed to GET THINGS DONE. This is of course until I hit my kryptonite wall having spread myself so humanly and mechanically thin that my mind and body shuts down and forces me to stop.

And like so many, I know the benefits of stopping, having breaks and the importance of looking after yourself. But why is it so difficult to abide by our own self-care rules? Having had two weeks of level 4 lockdown reflection and meditation I have come up with 3 theories –

First theory: Self-care was not really modelled in our lives growing up. I think about my parents growing up, dad worked during the day and mum worked at night, always making sure someone was home for us kids. There was no holidays or family vacations, Dad even worked 14 hour days with mum working two jobs at one stage. So from a young age, my parents had no choice but to keep going and by the time we were teenagers they filled their spare time with church. So they never really stopped or took time for themselves. No such thing.

Second theory: Patterns, pathologies and cultural values. Education was big in our household growing up and early on I realized that for my parents, success in the outside world meant achieving at school. The more I achieved, the happier my parents were. So I took this as a sign of how to gain approval and love as a child. By doing things, and doing them well, I made my parents happy but then after making them happy, I wanted more of this #NewDrug and without me realizing it at the time, wanting them to be proud of me led me to chasing over-achievement status.

This addiction was solidified by Dad who always praised our achievements and hard work, but ending his comments with something like, ‘But it would have been nice if…’ Like the time I was runner up to Dux at College and after a teacher congratulating my parents, my Dad’s comment was, ‘We’re really pleased but there is always room for improvement.’ My Dad’s standards and expectations back then were #Hardcore and he eventually relaxed when he realized his girls got their degrees and would be okay in life. Then there was Mum who was the original do-er and problem solver – for family, friends, work, church, random strangers even. Girlfriend was nek level. She would always tell us, ‘What goes around comes around,’ and to talk straight, don’t talk sh**, to ALWAYS do what you say you’re going to do and DO IT RIGHT. Something that has stuck with me.

Next was being Samoan, where tautua #Service is one of the golden rules of our culture. If you do not serve your parents, family, church it is basically a sin that reflects on your entire aiga #family. Being selfish and self-serving is unacceptable. So this just reinforces the lifelong duty of service and selflessness that you are born in to and the inherent feeling you have to give of yourself, your time and energy because this was what my parents modelled and just what good Samoans do.

Third theory: How much does society really value self-care? I remember working fulltime and calling in sick, after going 500% for a couple of months at this particular job. Then within the hour I received a phone call from my boss asking me how sick I really am and if I could just come in. This happened regularly. And when I was younger – I would. The harden up and get on with it attitudes in our workplaces to meet deadlines, outcomes and deliverables doesn’t allow for, ‘I really need some time and space,’ or ‘My mental health and wellbeing are suffering at the moment.’ Which I’ve always found crazy because people are a business and organizations biggest asset. So when we feel supported and good about ourselves we are much more effective, creative and productive overall.

But there is hope. Look at some of the world’s professional sports stars who were recently in the spotlight regarding their mental health and stepping down from major events because of it, highlighting the importance once again of self-care. Reminding us all that today’s generation are already positively taking the right steps to change societal attitudes towards self-care and mental health and wellbeing #OurTurnNow.

Since I know what I need and why I haven’t been able to give it to myself #WhatI’mUpAgainst, I’ve figured out all that’s left is: Breaking the cycle. My plan has included taking the first steps of making self-care a priority and just stopping – because this is when I get the chance to think about the good and the bad, gain clarity, feel and heal from things that are otherwise blocked out by the ‘busy-doing-ness.’ It also gives me the space and time to REALLY listen to myself – to trust and know what I need. And this lockdown, my mind and body have needed to just stop.

So as a recovering non-stop addict, I know it will take work to make it a routine part of my life to stop and I have been trying to make the most out of this time in lockdown – which includes rehearsing how to say leai faafetai #NoThanks and not feeling guilty for not meeting people’s requests or demands. This is why in preparation for what God and the Universe has instore for me for the rest of the year I am working on a much healthier addiction of boundaries with work and a new pursuit of happiness that can only be found with self-care. Simply embracing this moment of pressing pause in lockdown.

2021 Choices, Chances & Change.

This is THE year.

A phrase we all say to ourselves, at the beginning of each year really. But after the crazy mixed bag of lollies year we all had last year, I do feel that this will be OUR year – for more choices to be made, for more chances to be taken, for more changes and growth to happen.

This 3C’s formula became the basis of my teaching career quite early on. I remember making the conscious choice to be an agent of change in my classroom. I identified what I could control, then I made choices, took informed chances, accepted and created opportunities which led to student progress and achievement – positive change.

Continue reading “2021 Choices, Chances & Change.”

Teine Sāmoa (ebook) Lessons

How did you publish Teine Sāmoa? What steps did you take? What did you learn and what are your next steps? These are some of the questions I have been messaged, emailed and asked from teachers, students and supporters of my recent ebook, Teine Sāmoa. And because sharing our learning for others to win is just the island way #MorePasifikaAuthorsNeeded here are my top 5 lessons from Teine Sāmoa so far –

Continue reading “Teine Sāmoa (ebook) Lessons”

Convos on a plane

Yesterday I landed in Auckland, feeling so grateful for my life and ready to take on the world. Partly for the personal purpose of my trip and because I was travelling with my uncle #AnotherDad, but it was mostly because of an amazing convo I had with the girl sitting next to me on the plane.

After fastening our seat belt, we started with the usual routine surface questions about our reasons for travel. Then a discussion around our careers and our lockdown experiences. Then our questions got deeper and led to sharing our purpose, personal missions, with the convo naturally flowing into what life was all about for us.

Continue reading “Convos on a plane”

The Brown Brick Road…

Growing up I was never an avid reader. I always remember being told to read when there was nothing else to do. After homework, ‘alu faitau le tusi’. Sitting in front of the television, ‘alu faitau le tusi’. When asking to go to a party at College, ‘alu faitau le tusi’ #TrueStory.

So it was no surprise that my sister and I had read and re-read the one pile of school books that were accidentally not returned to school and the second hand books my parents had collected for us when we were younger.

Then one day we found dad wiping down a surprise he had for us with a cloth in the back sunroom, where all the books in the house lived. Hearing us enter he proudly stepped back revealing the Britannica Encyclopedia set he had purchased from the door to door salesman #IMissThe90s.

He was so excited as he talked about how we could now read all 26 volumes and will never run out of books to read. My dad was #NoJoke.

The next book that stands out in my reading history was the Tusi Paia, the Sāmoan bible. We had joined the Sāmoan Methodist Church at the time and it was an automatic requirement, especially with bible passages to read and memorise for White Sundays.

At school, my teacher replaced my dad as the person telling me to read a book. The only difference was that the teacher would recommend or select books for me most of the time. I remember reading about Sally going on picnics and Timmy going on family holidays – as well as a long list of characters and storylines that I didn’t necessarily relate to but helped me to acquire information to complete tasks and understand the palagi world I lived in.

So it would be safe to say that for most of my childhood I read because I had to and not necessarily because I wanted to.

Then one fateful night, I remember going through the ‘biggish’ books my older sister was bringing home from her Bursary English class to read and study – especially since the Britannica Encyclopedia set was not really doing it for me anymore.

Then a book caught my eye. It was different. The cover featured two boys, primary aged sitting on a bench. They were Māori because they looked like some of my Māori friends I had grown up with and the author’s name was definitely Māori. I remember sounding it out, ‘Wi-ti … Ihi-mae-ra’. It was called the, The New Net Goes Fishing.

Then I started to read the stories inside. My eyes widened. Connections fired off in my brain. The New Net had gone Fishing and it had caught me.

Continue reading “The Brown Brick Road…”