Letter from Hawaii: Samoa deserves better

Talofa lava my Samoa. Merry Christmas from Hawai’i. My name is Tina Mata’afa-Tufele and I’m a mother of five children. I’m a United States citizen and I live in Hawai’i. I was born and raised in the 50th state. I do the unspeakable here in America for the Samoan people - I write news for Samoans as a pure service.

I have a simple operation. I read and then I write from a Samoan perspective. It’s not a popular perspective in America but it’s one built on the requests of ordinary Samoans who visit, live and work in the state of Hawai’i and other parts of this nation.

I cover Samoans and write our stories because they ask me to. The lack of a voice for Samoans in the mainstream media was an issue brought to me by a Samoan father in Hawai’i. So began my quest to give my people in the Aloha State a voice.

Today, our focus is poverty. I am, unabashedly, the voice of poverty.

I’m a writer who represents a community that has been sitting on the bottom of the socio-economic ladder in Hawai’i for 40 years -- that’s as long as I’ve been on this earth. According to the US Census Bureau, we are the worst economic earners in the state of Hawai’i. I read about our low ranking socioeconomic status in the Samoa Observer.

I was also informed by the Observer that world leaders convened late September, early October this year for the 70th General Assembly of the United Nations held in New York and in this meeting they adopted a plan to end poverty and inequality across the world.

US President Barack Obama and Samoa Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi were among the 193 world leaders who adopted this plan titled: “Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.” It includes 17 goals that are geared towards stamping out extreme poverty, eliminating inequality (and tackling climate change) over the next 15 years.

That’s just great! Absolutely awesome - if you’re a world leader.

Just last week, I read an Observer editorial that states the Samoa PM “rubbished” claims that poverty exists in Samoa, dismissing numbers collected by his own administration which say that one in five Samoans live in poverty.

Why would Samoa’s elected leader agree to a worldwide plan to stamp out poverty then turn around and deny its existence in his own country? It doesn’t make sense. Then again, if his primary aim is to keep political office, rather than serve his people, it makes perfect sense. It’s simply all about him. Typical.

Here in Hawai’i, my children and I live among the extreme poor, the homeless, having lived in a homeless shelter, our Honda Odyssey van and six different houses with family. Hawai’i, President Obama’s home state, has the highest homeless population in the US.

When a woman, a native of Washington D.C. discovered I’m a journalist while we were talking in the ladies’ room of the shelter, she loudly exclaimed: “What? The Lord done brought the journalist here!?” She was ecstatic.

I, however, didn’t quite understand the reason for her joy at the time. But the longer we stayed at the shelter and the longer we battled houselessness, it all became crystal clear. In me, she saw that it might be possible the homeless might receive a voice.

In offering insight into the world of homelessness and extreme poverty, I’ll share a bit of our own story. I once managed the newsroom for Samoa News in American Samoa. My children and I moved to O’ahu and have been on the federally-funded government welfare program since 2010.

We lived in a homeless shelter funded by the State of Hawai’i from August 2014 to November 2014.

We were kicked out on Election Day when I asked that we “sleep out” to follow the results of the election. As all good journalists know, elections are the heart of democracy.

Just as well being kicked out because the rules (or the absence of a solid framework for rules conducive to helping the poor and needy) at the shelter allowed for way too much abuse of authority and enabled countless violations of our human rights.

The situation at the shelter got so bad that I was barred from reading to the other children in the shelter and at one point families housed at the shelter were prohibited from speaking to each other!

Much of our belongings were taken from me and my children and we never received the help we needed from the person in charge. He didn’t find it important that we were still houseless and in need of our clothing, shoes and a state-issued document to assist in our housing search.

In August 2014, we were awarded a Section 8 (rental assistance) voucher by the City and County of Honolulu in 2014 but then it was revoked in May 2015. There is good reason people refuse government-run shelters - we don’t like being treated like second-rate humans. As long as shelters operate in this manner, homeless people will continue to opt for the streets.

One of the main things we’d do in the shelter daily was follow the news and how they reported on us. The usual slant portrays the homeless as bothersome nuisances to the general public who are housed. Anyone with half a brain can see that the mainstream media in Hawai’i operate more as mouthpieces for government rather than servants of the people.

It’s always interesting to read of the promises politicians make in the name of the poor. 

It’s completely maddening and utterly frustrating to live the political games they play with our lives. It’s especially easy for those in power to get away with it if the masses aren’t properly informed and if no one is watching - like journalists.

While the voices of the extreme poor are ignored, muted, mangled, twisted and sold to political and moneyed interests, carefully crafted politically charged messages enjoy a wide audience afforded by the positions of elected officials and the media.

I didn’t learn this at a university. This is my perspective gleaned from living the life of an impoverished Samoan-American journalist while raising five children and studying the mainstream media in Hawai’i and the country in service to the people of Samoa. I live poverty and inequality everyday - in the system and in the media.

Politicians call us the downtrodden, the less fortunate, the economically challenged and society’s most vulnerable. It is our vulnerability that empowers politicians to play their games. It is the unfiltered voice of ours those in power seek to drown in order to increase the volume of their own.

It is our challenges, many of which are created by politicians, which shape their public policy, rhetoric and, ultimately, their politics.

As a Samoan doctor pointed out (in the Observer): poverty is relative. Corruption in politics and the administration of services supported by taxpayer dollars is what keeps the poor down. The more the masses are kept from hearing our stories the way we want them told, the better off the politicians to freely play their games.

When journalists report on behalf of the people first and foremost, including the poor, truth surfaces to the detriment of politicians. When we do our jobs free of moneyed and political interests, corruption - cast into the light - is vanquished.

On the other hand, if most pens and perspectives are shaped and controlled by institutions, media corporations and political interest groups, who is reporting for the people?

Who is seeing to it that the voiceless are given an avenue for their voice? Who speaks for the poor who walk the streets, digging up food out of rubbish cans, sneaking naps on city buses, avoiding government sweeps, begging for spare change and enduring the harsh judgmental stares and crafty stories meant to serve high society?

Who gives their pen to the poor mother and her children who are cramped up in a tent along the shores of Hawai’i? Who uses her laptop purchased with T.A.N.F benefits to better the lives of the downtrodden? Who gives her food bought with S.N.A.P food stamps to a family in hunger?

Who gives her time to find the voice of a US Army veteran sitting outside his tent at A’ala Park praying for a miracle? As my God would have it, today, it’s your Samoan-American journalist via the Samoa Observer.

Through hell, high water, cyclone, tsunami, I write for Samoa. We deserve better.

Merry Christmas everyone and God bless!


Tina Mataafa-Tufele 

Trending Stories

Samoa Observer

Upgrade to Premium

Subscribe to
Samoa Observer Online

Enjoy access to over a thousand articles per month, on any device.

Ready to signup?