P.M’s story told

24 May 2017, 12:00AM

Prime Minister Tuila’epa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi’s life story has been told.  

Soon, it will be revealed when his book published by Victoria University Press, Pālemia, is launched on 31 May 2017.

The book will be launched during an event in Apia. 

The book tells the story of how a boy from an isolated village became Prime Minister of Samoa. 

It follows Tuila’epa’s journey from the village of Lepā to Samoa’s capital Apia and to Auckland, Wellington, Brussels, Singapore, Beijing, Tokyo, London, New York and many other international destinations, always returning to Lepā and the Fa’asamoa that shaped him.

Pālemia is a serious work of political history that recounts, through the words of Prime Minister Tuila’epa, many dramatic events including an assassination, political plots and the impact of devastating cyclones and tsunami on Samoa. 

Peter Swain’s narrative captures the voice of Tuila’epa and places in context the most significant Samoan political leader of this generation. 

Tuila’epa’s leadership has resulted in unprecedented political stability in Samoa, modernisation of the economy, improvements in education and health and poverty reduction. Pālemia tells the inside story with humor and deep insight into Samoan culture.

Throughout his long career, Tuila’epa has been very mindful of maintaining his political base by connecting and balancing the affairs of the state with the affairs of his village. 

Maintaining this balance has kept him grounded and connected to his community, and has ensured that his decision-making and leadership remain relevant to village life. 

Tuila’epa has met with the Queen of England, had audiences with the Pope, talked over global affairs with the President of the United States of America, and addressed the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council, but at heart he remains a village matai from Lepā. 

Palemia book is available only at S.S.A.B branches. Samoan branches: Megastore, Lotemau, Salelologa, Vaivase. New Zealand branches: S.S.A.B Auckland Sei – Oriana. American Samoa: S.S.A.B Pago

The following is an excerpt from Pālemia is reprinted with permission:


Pālemia: Prime Minister Tuila'epa Sa'ilele Malielegaoi of Samoa, A Memoir, with Peter Swain

Published June 2017 by Victoria University Press

Hardback, $50.

Excerpt: Tuila'epa remembers his early years.

It was within the structure of the Fa‘asamoa, in the village community of Lepā and in the embrace of his ‘aiga, that young Sa‘ilele Malielegaoi spent his first five years.

During those years, while he was immersed in the Fa‘asamoa, his formal education began. Family, education, the church and the Fa‘asamoa were the foundations on which Sa‘ilele Malielegaoi’s values, behaviour and attitude to life were built. In later years he reflected on his early education. 

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 for 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. 

My first instruction at the Sunday School was the study of the seventeen letters of the Samoan alphabet and learning to read selected passages from the Bible to test our progress in correctly pronouncing combinations of letters.

In this way we were quick to grasp the relationship between the boring and seemingly meaningless recitation of the Samoan alphabet and its application to the written word.

This opened up a new world for me, a four-year-old, in that I realised suddenly that I could equally match the adults’ skills in reading the Bible word for word and passage by passage during church on Sundays. It opened my small world quickly to a hunger for knowledge. 

The custom of the Congregational Church was to bring in examiners each year for the examination of different grades in reading, handwriting and arithmetic. It was such an important event that the parents did not work that day.

It was like a holiday. They all sat outside the church where their sons and daughters were undergoing their examinations.

At the end of the examinations, the results were read out for all the village to hear. Those who came first would be given special prizes at a feast at the pastor’s residence where the proud parents would lavishly contribute so that the whole village would be fed. 

The young Sa‘ilele was honoured this way, and still remembers how it felt. 

It gives so much prestige to the child’s mind. Education was an awakening. One’s mind was awakened and you became hungry for more knowledge. 

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 paw-paws 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 igāve‘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 a feast of koko alaisa (cocoa rice) or kopai (a sweetened soup of round flour balls) the following evening.

Young men and women were mixed in each of the teams. 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. 

A second night sport, which is rarely heard of today, is togi-a-gogu (throwing the nonu fruit). At night nonu fruit were thrown from a distance to where a crowd of young men and women were assembling in anticipation. There was a rush to pick up the fruit thrown in the darkness.

The accidental landing of fruit on people’s heads was not infrequent.

The one who caught the fruit then dashed across to reach the sand-mount goal to score a point. The team with the lowest number of points would again bear the cost of a feast to be held the following evening.

These traditional sports were popular because they provided occasions when young people were able to mix together socially. 

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. 

24 May 2017, 12:00AM

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