What looked like a bleak future for a young street vendor, has turned into an inspiring story of hard work and success.
By taking risks but sticking to what he loves best, Upega So’oalo, a 23-year-old from the villages of Tufulele and Samauga, Savai’i has turned his life around.
He hopes his story will inspire other young people of Samoa especially when faced with making life-changing decisions.
It all started when he was a young boy growing up in a humble family; a family which did not have much in life and who relied on selling products in the streets to get by.
Young Upega was one of the kids who was sent out by his parents to earn a living.
Even though he didn’t come to Apia to do this, he went through every road of Tufulele to sell.
You name it. There were fans, peas, pumpkins, isalaelu in order to help put him through school and to earn money for his family.
“Life was hard and being a street vendor has had an impact on my life - the good and the bad, he admitted.
“I went to Primary School at Tufulele and then I came to Leulumoega Fou College.”
“But, I wasn’t really into school because my heart and mind was somewhere else – where I didn’t know back then.
“I saw my parents struggle with so many things as well as school commitments for my siblings and for me.”
Upega says he remembers it just like yesterday and particularly the most difficult times of his life in school.
“That was when it was time for our English class.”
“My habit back then was that when our English teacher would come in, I would make an excuse to go to the bathroom and I would sit in the bathroom until the period finished.
“I guess my teacher knew what I was doing because sometimes she would not allow me to go and that’s when I struggled badly.
“When she talked to me in English it was like I was listening to a ghost and all I could see was her lips moving but I just could not understand what in the world she was talking about.
“That’s how school life was for me and it kind of made me lose interest.”
Upega said as the years went by, he didn’t want to go to school anymore.
“In 2011, I had a friend who at the time, was a fire dancer at the Siva Afi Vaelaa Iloa.”
“He brought me with him to Siva Afi and that’s when I started to join in with the group there.
“I actually felt like I had found a place where I belonged and nobody would judge me or scold me.
“So I started to learn how to become a fire knife dancer, I was actually serious about something in my life for the first time.
“I was learning all the basics of becoming a dancer and my mentor, Leota Lene Leota saw something in me and he pushed me hard to be the best.”
Upega said learning to become a dancer was far from easy.
“There were four of us around at that time but then the other two gave up so that just left me and my friend Vaela’a.
“Now I would be bringing my products here to Apia to sell so that it would be convenient for me to come and practice at the same time.
“It was also hard because Leota was very strict and lots of times I felt like giving up but somehow I just I couldn’t; no matter how much I thought about it.
“It was even harder when my parents found out I was a fire dancer, especially my mother.
“She would sasa me and tell me that this would not get me anywhere. She tried to stop me but she couldn’t because I was actually falling in love with what I was doing.
“Before the end of 2011, I took part in my first competition. Even though I didn’t win it didn’t stop me, I was happy because I could see myself in the next years of my life doing this professionally.
“Then come 2013. I joined the Teuila Festival competition. I was able to make it to the final and that gave me more courage and the determination to keep on doing what I was doing.”
As the year went by, he started to be noticed and resorts and hotels called up for him to perform in their shows.
“The first hotel that called me up was Aggie Grey’s Hotel. I performed there and then that led to my first trip to Australia,” he said.
“I started performing there and I was over the moon because who knew that fire dancing would help me travel to other countries?
“After that competition I came back and then I wanted to go study in the Fitness Marine in Australia in 2015.
“After my studies I came back last year, but as I was studying, fire dancing had never left me because I was so passionate about it and I knew this was the talent that I had always had in me but never knew about.
“All of last year, I was dancing and then through facebook I met the love of my life who is now my wife.
“So you see life has taken so many unexpected turns and it has blessed me in so many ways.
“Not only has it made me famous and helped my family but it also gave me a beautiful Californian wife.
“This coming Tuesday I will be competing in the Faletalimalo Siva Afi Challenge where I will be going up against Analei Faamasino.
“We’re both representing Taumeasina Island Resort and so I am looking forward to the competition.”
And while Upega has totally embraced the opportunities that have come his way, they would never have been available to him but for one man; Siva Afi’s, Leota Lene Leota.
“You know if it wasn’t for him I know I would still be selling things on the street now,” he said.
“But he saw that I had potential and he took me in and trained me to be the best.
Now I have travelled the world and I’m married to a palagi.”
Who would have thought?