by Peter Swain
In 2012, when Samoa celebrated 50 years of independence, Victoria University awarded an honorary doctorate to Tuila’epa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi, Samoa’s longest serving Prime Minister.
The citation noted that Tuila’epa had “presided over the most politically and economically stable and successful small democratic country in the Pacific”.
“He is, quite simply, the most successful, the most eminent, and the most popular democratically elected politician in the Pacific.”
Despite vocal criticism from some journalists and academics, that popularity has hardly waned. At Samoa’s last general election, in 2016, Tuila‘epa’s Human Rights Protection Party won 47 of 50 parliamentary seats.
Tuila’epa, 72, has been Prime Minister since late 1998. He’d served a long apprenticeship as Minister of Finance and loyal lieutenant under his predecessor Tofilau Eti Alesana.
Pālemia, Tuila’epa’s memoir written with Peter Swain and published by Victoria University Press, was launched this month in Auckland and Wellington. It follows Tuila’epa’s journey from the isolated village of Lepā, to school in Apia and then Auckland, and his career both on the world stage and back home in Samoa.
Peter Swain, a Wellingtonian who’s worked for many years in development and is married to the former Labour M.P. Luamanuvao Winnie Laban, interviewed Tuila’epa over several years to capture his story in his own words.
There have been few political biographies of Pacific Island leaders, he writes.
“The second generation of Pacific Island political leaders has faced many complex issues as the post-independence honeymoon glow faded and the realities of leading small island nations with limited resources, in a globalising world and during difficult times, set in.”
“Prime Minister Tuila‘epa is the standout leader of his generation and his story has many resonances beyond Samoa.”
There are many New Zealand connections.
Tuila’epa studied in New Zealand, spending a year at St Paul’s College in Ponsonby, Auckland, in preparation for Auckland University. He earned a bachelor’s degree in commerce in 1968, and a master’s in 1969.
Tuila’epa is a matai who holds eight titles, and is deeply grounded in fa’a-Samoa. He is a devout Catholic, and a father of eight.
His story traverses a time of great change for Samoa — providing insights into Samoan culture and politics, as well as key Samoan figures, including the former head of state, Tuiatua Tupua Tamasese Efi, a former prime minister and political rival.
Tuila’epa is typically forthright in his telling. He’s dismissive of the 2002 apology to Samoa delivered by Helen Clark — it wasn’t necessary, he maintains, because Samoans had already forgiven New Zealand. And he recalls his angry response after former PM Va’ai Kolone caved in to New Zealand pressure and signed a protocol agreeing to the quashing of the 1982 Privy Council decision that would have given thousands of Samoans New Zealand citizenship.
The following excerpts capture the young Tuila’epa in Samoa and New Zealand.
Sa’ilele was my taule’ale’a name. In fact, in Samoa if you are called Sa’ilele, that is your name. We never had any surnames in the past until the Europeans introduced the practice we now follow. You took the chiefly title of your father to be your surname. Malielegaoi was my father’s chiefly name.
My first education was at our Sunday School under the guidance of our pastor from the London Missionary Society (LMS) church in my village. The LMS church changed its name to the Christian Congregational Church of Samoa in 1962 to herald its independence, following the example set by our political leaders as our country readied itself to become independent from foreign rule.
My father was a deacon and treasurer of the church until he passed away in June 1987. His biological father, the Reverend Toese Petaia Muliaumasealii of Fasitoo Uta, was a missionary in Papua New Guinea. My family therefore was steeped in Protestant Christian traditions. The Sunday School taught me how to read and do very simple arithmetic — adding, subtracting, dividing and multiplying.
. . .
At five years and six months I went to the government primary school in our village. Our class of five-year-olds, about 25 in all, was housed in a leaking thatched-roof fale. We sat on mats, resting on a floor of pebbles and crushed coral. Sometimes our teachers would take us out, under the shade of the breadfruit trees, for our classes. We enjoyed the fresh air and the clear blue sky above.
Those of us who did well in the pastor’s Sunday School also performed well in primer 1. The subjects taught were not very different from the syllabus at the pastor’s Sunday School.
Once we came to understand how to read the Bible, we would always like to read the Old Testament stories. We would read about what King David did to women. We learnt about things that were not told to us by the pastor. But they were there, in the Bible.
I always remember when Albert Wendt’s book, Sons for the Return Home, was published. There was an article that came out in the paper. Some people were queuing up to buy the Bible.
Jokingly, one of the news media people asked: “What is the point? I see that you are not buying Mr Wendt’s novel Sons for the Return Home that has just come out today. Why are you buying the Bible?”
And this fellow laughs and says, “It’s a great sex book for us these days.”
Common diseases at that time included yaws and skin worms, which were spread quickly by germs carried by flies. Those affected were kept under mosquito nets in the daytime. My mother told me that, as a toddler, I was covered with yaws and the mosquito net was necessary to keep the hungry flies out.
The medical officers from Apia paid periodic visits to our school to treat yaws and skin worms. This was an embarrassment for the young boys who had to bare their bottoms for a complete visual check up.
The uncircumcised amongst us were sorted out and the operation performed there on the spot, sometimes with mothers standing by with stinging lashes of bound coconut leaves and twigs ready to convince their sons, with a forced smile of genuine motherly love, that being circumcised was proof of a son’s courage and manliness and reason for a mother’s pride.
Nowadays children must have a good breakfast before going to school. Not in our time. It was typical for every house to have a hanger in the back part of the fale into which taro, bananas and palusami, leftovers from supper the previous evening, were stored in a food basket hung high up beyond the reach of prowling dogs, cats, pet pigs and other night-time scavengers.
This food was a welcome treat for the rats that descended from their hideouts in the thatched roofs to self-serve in the pitch darkness of the night. In the morning, if you saw a big rat bite on a piece of taro, you bit it off, spat it out and the rest was your cold, ready-made breakfast eaten as you darted off to school.
There were always ripe coconuts and pawpaws to balance these improvised meals. In the villages, access to any fruit, regardless of whose land it grew on, was the norm. Any fruit tree, therefore, belonged to every kid in the village.
Life in the village, during my childhood, was simple and possibly not much different from the way our ancestors had lived for millennia. A normal day started when the sun was already high in the sky.
Two meals a day was the norm: one at around 11 in the morning and the second after evening prayers at night. At dusk, it was prayer time. The sound of hymns sung in harmony would burst out from every home. It was as if each family was trying to outdo the others in the beauty and volume of their music.
There was no need to work all day every day. Subsistence farming was the norm. There was no pressure to plant beyond family needs, and sharing took care of any food shortages. Occasionally, a small trading vessel would call in from Apia to take away dried copra and to restock the village store.
Kirikiti (Samoan cricket), velovelo (spear throwing) and tagāti’a (darting a light stick along the ground) competitions were popular pastimes. There were night sports like igave’a (hide and seek) and togi-a-gogu (nonu throwing at night) that the young adults in the village especially enjoyed.
For hide and seek, participants were grouped into two parties (one hiding and the other seeking). Points were awarded for the most members who successfully made it to the goal (such as a sand mount) without being touched on the head. The losing team then “shouted” the winning team by preparing koko alaisa (cocoa rice) or kopai (a sweetened soup of round flour balls) the following evening.
This was an opportunity for a male to woo a female, who was inaccessible at any other time due to the watchful, protective eyes of her brothers. Occasionally, a young couple would disappear into the darkness of the night and elope to the safety of their relatives in a neighbouring village.
They would return later as man and wife, sometimes much later with offspring, when anger had subsided and the recognition had sunken in that a valued new pair of strong hands was available to serve the wife’s family.
. . .
Cricket was by far the most popular sport. Samoans had played kirikiti before they had ever heard of rugby. Just about every village had a concrete pitch to play on. Tournaments were regularly organised between villages. There are no upper limits to the number of players, although the two teams competing must have equal numbers. There is no age limit, and the smallest possible number in a team is two. Cricket was indeed the national sport because it was the only sport that every Samoan of any age knew how to play.
Shark-lassoing competitions, between my village of Lepā and Saleapāga, were an exciting community sport. Up to twenty young men in a long boat, fautasi, would sail out to sea with several live pigs to use as bait. Five miles out, in shark-infested waters in the deep ocean, pigs’ blood would be spilled and pork pieces tied with sennit ropes woven from coconut fibres would be thrown out into the ocean then slowly pulled back to the boat.
Sharks were drawn in to the side of the long boats, attracted by the odour of raw pig flesh and blood. As the shark tried to bite the bait as it was pulled in and up, a loop of rope would be quickly slid down over the shark’s head and tightened.
Simultaneously the shark was stunned with one strike of a solid piece of wood on its head.
Strong hands would rapidly pull the tail end into the boat. Six or seven sharks brought in by the young men would feed the whole village for a week.
During the days of plentiful shark fins and meat, the household umu were busy. Dense smoke would hover over the village every morning as hot stones from open ovens were used to heat and reheat shark meat and bake breadfruit and taro for the day’s feast. Then there would be cricket, involving the whole community, for the rest of the day and the rest of the week.
Tuila’epa remembers that relations between men and women living in village communities during the 1950s were less complicated and freer than they are today.
I used to tell this story to demonstrate the dramatic changes in attitude. In my village there was a running stream, still running now, but very low. In the days before cars, the water was deep and the volume of water was fast.
Our house was at the end of the village. There were two deep pools: a women’s pool on the seaward side with a huge stone wall to slow down the quick flow of water, and adjoining that the men’s pool.
We started going to the pools to have our wash at 4 o’clock when the sun was still up high. The ladies all bathed naked and no one cared, because we saw them naked in the pool all the time when we passed by to get to our pool.
One of the things that you had to be careful about was not to wet your lāvalava, the one you’d be wearing before the bath and after the bath. So what we did was to leave our lāvalava up on top and jump in and swim about naked just like our womenfolk.
And no one complained to the pastor! He was the only one in the village with a private shower.
. . .
The village of Lepā is on the south coast of Upolu in the district of Ātua. It is one of the most distant villages on Upolu from the capital of Samoa, Apia. In the 1940s and 1950s, when Tuila’epa was a boy, it was very difficult to travel to town. The buses to and from Apia only went as far as Falefa on the north coast and Falealili on the south coast. The journey from Lepā, some 30 kilometres, had to be made on foot, over Le Mafa Pass to Falefa, or along the 25-kilometre stretch of coast to Falealili.
. . .
Life in Apia
I lived with my aunty’s family at Saleufi in Apia all that time. Only at Christmas holidays would I be able to take the bus back home. It did not go all the way.
Usually my father would come to Apia and accompany me from the bus stop at Falefa or Falealili and we would walk the rest of the distance to Lepā. We would walk through the hot afternoon. We would walk and walk and walk. We would feel thirsty, hungry and tired and then my father would say, “Oh, let’s invite ourselves in for a free meal.”
We would turn into a family of his choice.
My father would address the family starting with the typical salutation of Samoan oratory for that village and its prominent chiefs. This is the etiquette that sets the tone for the traditional introduction to establish the cultural ties between the host village and ours. Then he would state his title and refer to me, his son. My father would say, “We are hungry and we have decided to rest for an hour.” (All I wanted to hear about was the food.)
Then the activities would begin. The chickens were killed, the firewood lit, the taro prepared, the coconut milk extracted and within an hour the feast of the finest in Samoan cuisine was laid out before us to partake of. This was Samoan hospitality at its best. After an exchange of words of gratitude, we would continue on our journey completely refreshed.
Today, customary Samoan hospitality lives on with a big, big difference. The firewood is replaced by the gas oven, the chickens replaced by the pot of noodles and the coconut drink by the cup of coffee from an electric jug.
While Sa’ilele grew up in a village, from the age of six he mostly lived in Apia. When the roads improved, he was able to have more contact with his family in Lepā.
Fortunately the roads joined up for the first time in 1957 and the lives of our village people began to change. Then I could go by bus to my village in the weekend.
Marist Brothers’ was a great school. We came in the morning and lined up in troop formation at 8. We did not sing the national anthem, we sang Save Regina in Latin, which no one understood. It is the Catholic hymn to honour Mary, the mother of our Saviour. After that, the drum would start up to teach us how to march in a orderly manner, part of the Marist Brothers’ technique of introducing discipline to our thought processes, and then you were marched off to your classes. What I always enjoyed was the break at 10.30.
In those days, playing marbles at break time was a great sport. I played marbles. I was the champion marble player, and I took all the marbles off the other players. In fact, marbles was the only competitive sport I played at Marist Brothers. I would walk in, play and take the marbles from all the other players.
At the end of the year I would take a suitcase of marbles that I had won home to my village and trade the marbles with the boys in the village for coconuts, which I sold to pay for my school fees. Marbles was the only sport in which I was considered the champion at primary school.
Life at Saleufi in town was never easy. Tafale Tasi worked as a cleaner for the government-owned Casino Hotel at Sogi, where the Tusitala Hotel is now situated. She earned very little each week to take care of our small family of three. I was perpetually hungry.
It was not uncommon for most pupils in our time to go to school without breakfast. But for our small family we had one meal daily, at night. If it was just a banana, that was it. Sometimes, we would collect bananas for our evening meals that had been dropped from the broken banana cases ready for shipment at the wharf.
Later, when the road to Lepā opened, we were able to get baskets of food from the village to last us the whole week.
. . .
In 1955, I decided to leave Aunty Tafale and stay at Saina village in the home of my father’s twin sister, some eight kilometers from the Marist Brothers’ School at Mulivai. My oldest sister, Manuae, was staying there while attending Pesega College, which was an added incentive to shift. I lived there for a whole year.
Along with the other students, we would wake up at 5 every morning, then walk to Vaitele to try and catch the Vaitele plantation manager’s truck to Apia. If we missed the truck, then a long, eight-kilometre walk followed.
Returning after school was a killer, especially walking the long stretch from Taufusi to Vaigaga where there was absolutely no shade from the hot afternoon sun. When it rained, we were thoroughly drenched, books included.
This experience was enough to convince me that hunger was the lesser evil, and before the end of the year I returned to Saleufi. Aunty Tafale welcomed me back.
Whilst staying in Saina village I was introduced, by my aunt Mrs Tina Faigaa, to the profession of street vending, selling strings of fish caught by her husband on Saturday afternoons.
This required home visits through the villages of Toamua and Puipaa. When I still had fish to sell, I would backtrack and walk as far as Vailoa and Faleata. At other times I carried baskets of coconut shell coals to sell.
The money we received was used to buy fatty Kiwi mutton flaps for our Sunday to’ona’i. Buying and selling were part of my outside-school-hours education.
Despite all the criticisms levelled against those who are engaged in the same activities today, I tend to take a softer approach because I see myself in those same young people who are trying to do exactly what I used to do in my youth.
. . .
In 1976, Tuila’epa returned to New Zealand. He’d decided he needed to spend time at the New Zealand Treasury in Wellington to get more experience in preparation for heading Treasury in Samoa (a job he was promised but never got).
Working and Living in New Zealand
In 1976 things in New Zealand were not good for Pacific Islanders. Some were being hunted down using dogs and deported as “overstayers”. This was all new to me. One day I was abused by old white men on a bus. They called me a “nigger”, and said, “You should go back to where you came from.” I tried to keep calm.
After spending two weeks in government flats in Wellington, I needed to look for accommodation for my family. One day I saw a very small advertisement in the paper and I went to see the house, which was also very small. To me it was very nice, just right for my wife and two children.
I rang up the agent the following morning and she said, “Oh yes, it’s OK. It’s been on the market for quite some time now. Do you want to go and have a look?”
I said that I had had a look and I would take it. She asked, “What is your name?”
I gave her my name and spelled it out.
Then she said to me, “Hang on, I need to check something.”
She came back to the phone and said, “Sorry, the house has been taken up already.”
I said, “OK, that’s all right.”
So I went to look for some more flats.
Two days later the same advertisement appeared. I rang up the same lady and I asked, “This house that you have. Has it been taken by anybody?”
“No, no, no, nobody has taken it.”
“Oh, I see. Is it still available?”
“Oh, yes, yes. It is still available.”
I said, “I’m interested in the house.”
“Have you seen it?”
“Yes, I have seen it from the outside.”
She said, “What is your name?”
I knew that my name struck an unwelcome chord.
I said, “Don’t worry, I will be there exactly at 9 o’clock tomorrow.”
I came off the phone and I said to Gillian, “Quick, quick, get my suit and have it ready.” The next morning I wore my suit, my tie, my polished shoes, and I grabbed my briefcase. Anybody who saw me would think I was a young executive in some big corporation. I also had an umbrella and I took that with me. I walked to the bank, withdrew NZ$500, and packed my briefcase with $2 notes.
At exactly 9 o’clock I walked into the office of the agent. I put my umbrella down. The lady behind the desk was just staring at me. I had my hair combed and I was exceptionally neat. I put my briefcase on the table and removed lots of papers so as to present the right image. I took out my wallet, which was so thick, and counted out $360, making sure she didn’t see the twos.
And I said, “$360. Is that all you need?”
“Oh. No, no.” She was just dumbfounded. “I, I, I ... ”
I said, “Where do I sign? Where is your receipt book?”
I took out my pen and wrote the sum down and signed it.
I said, “Deal? Thank you very much. Thank you.”
She just stared at me. I took the keys and walked out.
After I closed the door I put my briefcase down and I laughed and laughed and laughed. We had got ourselves a house finally!
I soon found out that there was no programme arranged for me at the New Zealand Treasury. I was more like a problem when I came in each morning. There was absolutely no programme.
It didn’t take me long to realise that what I had been doing in Samoa was at a much higher level. I was advising my government, and when I came to New Zealand it was nothing of that sort, just pure clerical work. It was a complete waste of time — six months of useless training in New Zealand.
Finally, I went to Foreign Affairs and asked for my ticket back home. All I’d had to do was to fulfil the requirement that I spend time at the New Zealand Treasury. And I’d done my six months of apprenticeship.
I came back to Samoa in February 1977. Gillian was due to deliver our third child and she wanted badly for it to have New Zealand citizenship. I said, “No, I’ll go nuts if I spend another day here. My job is pointless and I just cannot stand the racist comments that I get on the streets.”
I was one of the victims of the racism during the Dawn Raids time. When we went up to Auckland for Christmas, I was refused service at the dining coach on the train. All I wanted was orange juice for my kids. I was furious.
Although my wife was only a couple of months away from delivering a child who could have been a New Zealand citizen, I said, “No, we’re going back to Samoa.”
*Dr Peter Swain has spent much of the last 25 years managing development programmes throughout the island nations of the Pacific, and was International Programme Manager for Volunteer Service Abroad New Zealand. He has written extensively on the Pacific and is an Honorary Research Associate in Development Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.