“Se’i mai le mui’a’a; tau mai na o le pua e ulā”

Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Ta’isi Tupuola Tufuga Efi 

Keynote Address, The Oceania Centre for Arts, Culture and 

Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific, Laucala Campus, 14 August 2018

There is a common Samoan saying: “Tau mai na o le pua e ulā; se’i mai le mui’a’a” – “Pick only the most fragrant of frangipani; harvest the royal roots”. It is both a directive and a gentle plea. I wish to reverse the order of this saying so that I begin with the notion of “se’i mai le mui’a’a”, the idea of harvesting royal roots, and end with the message of “tau mai na o le pua e ulā”, the imperative of picking only those flowers worthy enough to be woven into a special lei or garland for presenting and gifting. 

Se’i mai le mui’a’a…to harvest royal roots…

Mui’a’a is a term that refers to the end part of the ava or kava plant, which includes the roots and stem. A’a is the word for root, as in a’a o le laau or the roots of a plant or tree; the prefix mui is an abbreviation of the word muli, for the word was originally muli-o-a’a, meaning only the end parts of the ava plant. Samoan orators of old played around with words in this way for speaking ease and poetic punch, so that today we have the abbreviated word mui’a’a. It is a term mainly used to describe the long-stemmed ava roots specially grown and harvested for use in a royal ava or kava ceremony, the ava faatupu. In that ceremony the long-stemmed roots are freshly harvested and once the ritual starts they are then deliberately crushed by chewing, not by grounding using an implement. They are chewed by the designated attendants in the royal ava ceremony.

Ava or kava can be found across Polynesia, in both Samoa and Fiji. One oral history tale from the village of Vailele in Upolu, Samoa, well known across Samoa, finds that the ava plant came to Samoa from Fiji. The account is recorded and kept alive in the chants and honorifics used in the Samoan ava ceremony. In particular, the name, Aanoatamalii. Recitation of these names, and performing the associated rituals and chants, keep these oral histories alive. They commemorate a shared Polynesian history and identity. They tell of a common heritage and indigenous Polynesian origins.

In traditional Polynesian cultures names and rituals are important. They were and are used to record our histories and values. For Samoans if you pay close attention to the words used by orators in the ava ritual you will find cultural meaning and nuance, history and theology. You will gain insight into the values of our forebears and learn that we had been travelling the seas and interacting with each other long before the white man came to our shores with their ships. There is redemption in knowing this.

In the ava story the names of the children of the Tui Fiti (King of Fiji) to his two Samoan wives, Ualā and Malomamae, who were sisters and taulasea (traditional healers), commemorate a story of kinship between Samoa and Fiji. It was Ualā and Malomamae who helped to heal the Tui Fiti’s daughter from a life-threatening condition. 

The story goes:

There were once two sisters, Ualā and Malomamae.  They were responsible for the care of their grandfather, Tuisuga of Fagalii.  One day Tuisuga craved tuitui (sea urchins) and so sent the girls to collect some for him.  Along the way the girls got bored and decided to do something else.  When their grandfather found them idling and the basket not yet full, he got angry.  He scolded and banished them.  The girls left and walked towards Mulifanua where they came across a boat sent by the Tui Fiti.  The Tui Fiti’s daughter had taken ill and he had sent emissaries to Samoa to find a fofo (traditional healer).  The two girls decided to help.  The route back to Fiji from Samoa was not easy and the girls thought they might die before having the chance to heal the Tui Fiti’s daughter. Eventually they reached Fiji safely. 

When they arrived the Tui Fiti was waiting anxiously.  He asked the captain whether he had found a fofo.  The captain pointed to the two girls coming towards them with their basket of traditional healing remedies, including vai sami pala, a fermented coconut concoction.  When the two sisters reached the Tui Fiti’s daughter, one massaged her stomach area, and the other helped her to imbibe the fermented coconut drink. 

In what seemed a few seconds the Tui Fiti witnessed with joy the sudden recovery of his daughter. Seeing that their work was done the two girls said they were ready to return to Samoa.  The Tui Fiti indebted to the two sisters asked them to stay so he could show his gratitude.  Both stayed on and eventually became his wives. With Ualā he had three children and with Malomamae he had one.  Ualā’s children, in order of birth, were Suasamiaava (male), Aanoatamalii (male) and Muliovailele (female).  Malomamae’s child was Saolateteleupegaofiti (male).

These names were naturally Samoan names whose meanings recorded place and genealogy. Suasamiaava refers to both sea water and ava. The significance of the coupling of sea water and ava here is lost. Nevertheless, what is clear from the name itself is the significance given to remembering the ava. Aanoatamalii means the flesh (aano) of chiefs, metaphor for the long-stemmed ava root used in the ava ceremony. Muliovailele is a name that records the village ‘Vailele’, the ancestral village of Ualā. And Saolateteleupegaofiti is a name that pays tribute to the progenitor reach of the Tui Fiti.The two sisters and their children lived happily in Fiji. 

One day Aanoatamalii, before he passed away, gave his last dying wish to his sister, Muliovailele.  He said, “Dear Sister, I want you to bury me in the valusaga (in the kitchen area).  After a while my flesh will become a plant.  When you see this plant growing I want you to dig it up and take it to our mother’s village, Vailele, in Samoa.  I want you to plant it there in remembrance of me and Fiji.”

When Aanoatamalii eventually passed away, Muliovailele shared with her family his mavaega (his dying wish).  They prepared themselves for his burial.  As was his wishes they buried him in the valusaga, something unheard of for a noble. And each day they looked out for the shoots of a plant.  One day Muliovailele saw a strong shoot growing out of the ground where Aanoatamalii was buried.  She declared “Ua toe ola mai Aanoatamalii (Aanoatamalii has come back to life).” As promised they dug up Aanoatamalii (the ava plant) and prepared to take him back to Samoa.  When they arrived in Samoa they headed to Vailele. They reunited with their mothers’ families and planted Aanoatamalii in the place now known as Niniva – the village green of Vailele. The village green came to be known as Niniva because when rats chewed on the roots of Aanoatamalii they became intoxicated and dizzy, i.e. niniva in Samoan. This story therefore becomes not only the story of how the ava came to Vailele, but also about the genealogy and history of Niniva and Aanoatamalii. 

This story is explicitly remembered during the ava ritual when the spokesperson for the aumaga (the untitled men’s guild who assists with the ritual) makes specific reference to Aanoatamalii. When the guest party’s orator offers ava to the aumaga, the aumaga’s spokesperson will, according to protocol, politely decline by saying: “faaauau le faasoa o lea ua iai Aanotamalii aua le sua alofi o le tatou aso” (please proceed with the distribution for we have enough ava for the tanoa). 

There is a lot of meaning in this remark and its gesture of courtesy. It is not without purpose that it is the aumaga that makes this explicit reference to Aanoatamalii. One of the main reasons why Aanoatamalii wanted to be buried in the valusaga (kitchen) is because it sends a message about humility and service. It recognises and gives high honour to the values of a culture of gasese, i.e. of service. Gasese is a Samoan respect term for service. There is a Leulumoega saying: E le se matua e fafaga i fale, o le matua gasese le matua o Leulumoega (The leadership of Leulumoeaga stands not because people serve them, but because they serve the people). This is one of the key messages of the ava story and is recognized by both Fijians and Samoans. It is also a message rooted in the vision and mission of the University of the South Pacific (USP). That is, that USP serves the peoples of the Pacific not the other way around.

In celebration and remembrance of the roots of USP I pay tribute to her illustrious leadership genealogy. I acknowledge all the former Pacific Heads of States and Heads of Governments who have given service to USP. From His Majesty King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, USP’s first Chancellor through to her current Chancellor, fifty years on, His Excellency Taneti Maamau, President of Kiribati. I acknowledge all the Vice-Chancellors, Heads of Faculties, Schools, Departments, Programmes, Centres and/or Units, who from USP’s birth to this 50th anniversary year, served her or continues to serve her and her mission with commitment and pride.

I am honoured to have been invited to join you in celebrating this huge milestone in the life of USP. I remember when it was suggested that the dream to have such a regional university was considered ludicrous. But because of a united political will we built it anyway and now it continues to stand tall because of that sheer determination or will to make it work and survive. However, organisations, like universities, require more than mere political will to flourish. It requires inspiration. From the top to the bottom to everywhere in between. The question is, where might this inspiration come from? 

For me the answer is simple. It comes from within us. It comes from our faasinomaga, our roots, our identities as Pacific Islanders. It comes from our core cultural values and the ability to see those values in our everyday institutions, work places, recreational places, worship places, in our pedagogies, methodologies, philosophies, and our creative arts, humour and entertainment.

My dear friend the late Father Paul Ojibway, a native American Indian and Franciscan Friar of the Atonement, wrote that “We, as indigenous peoples, need to know and articulate what it means now to be home in a world that devalues, disregards, and disintegrates our ancient and necessary wisdom. We need to both intuit and know how our ‘reference’ shapes our self-identity and challenges the academy to change their presumptions and priorities about really what is the ‘other’ in the history of our times”. His words offer us food for thought about where our Pacific indigenous knowledges sit within the priorities of USP, our regional university.  His words are echoed by the wisdom of another delightful indigenous Catholic mind, the wonderfully unapologetic Igbo scholar, Monsignor Theophilus Okere.

In 2014 the Monsignor reminded me that our indigenous references can’t romanticise the past, it must embrace the good and the bad, the old and the new, in our indigenous cultures to move forward. Our indigenous references have to be inclusive, he suggests, in ways that both celebrate our respective ethnic differences and our common humanity; that the verities of the old never really dies, they may change in form but not in substance. He says: “Since we cannot turn back the clock of time and history to return to some pristine cultural purity, it makes more sense to embrace a project of inculturation that integrates something of both old and new to create an inclusive future. As we bemoan the passing away of the old, we may take heart in the immortality it enjoys in the project of inculturation that somehow knows to mix the old and the new. More especially, let us also remember that the old culture really never dies, but like the proverbial phoenix, knows to return from its own ashes even centuries after its death”.

We who have a commitment to higher education in the Pacific, an education that truly serves our people, have much to gain by being in conversation with our broader Indigenous family. We can learn from and be inspired by each other. 

Tau mai na o le pua e ulā…Pick only the most fragrant of frangipani…

I was recently invited to speak at the unveiling of the irrepressible Seiuli Tuilagi Alan Alo, a friend and longtime teacher of the Oceania Centre, and someone who inspired many wherever he went, and still inspires even after death. One of the highlights of my visit to Brussels in 2015 was his deeply moving choreographic dance story titled Moana, the Rising Sea about the price of our modern conveniences on our oceans, environment, climate and lives. His message was that even if the indigenous Pacific are not part of the cause of the sudden rise in the severity of climatic changes on our environment, we must be part of the solution. 


The medium for his message was music and dance. His teaching site the academy. 

In my unveiling speech I recognised that Alan had an unyielding passion for the fragrances of his art and for the rootedness of his identity as a Samoan and Pacific Islander. The ways in which he embodied these were inspirational. His life personified the motto of this talk: “Se’i mai le mui’a’a, tau mai na o le pua e ulā” / “Harvest the royal roots, pick only the most fragrant of frangipani”.

Alan knew how to touch the senses. He knew how to make Pacific art sing alongside the best of other intellectual and cultural traditions. He knew when to pick the most fragrant flowers and how to weave them together so as not to break them or make them wilt before their time. He moved with unassuming grace and was unafraid to speak his mind should he need to. 

In Aotearoa New Zealand, Maori have had to not only speak their mind but also learn the ways of the Pakeha in order to regain some of the cultural loss they suffered as a result of colonisation. Last month I had the privilege of participating in the deeply informative Pacific philosophy conference organised by the Pacific Theological College and others alongside Sir Taihakurei Eddie Durie here in Fiji. I have been a long-time admirer of Maori activism and scholarship, from the intellectually rigorous work of scholars such as Sir Taihakurei Durie and Sir Peter Buck to the political courage of Sir Maui Pomare and Sir Apirana Ngata, and many others since. When reading of the work of the Waitangi Tribunal I pine for similar professional resources for our Samoa Land and Titles Court.

When I sat in the Fijian kava ceremony at the opening of the Pacific philosophy conference, I cried. I cried because the chanting was so hauntingly authentic that it touched me to the core. I cried because I realised that we in Samoa have lost so much as a Polynesian nation. My grandfather and his forebears not only spoke Samoan, they also spoke Tongan and Fijian fluently. While I can make sense of familiar sounding Tongan and Fijian words, I cannot fully comprehend their depth of meaning and nuances. We in Polynesia have a shared culture, the culture of Aanoatamalii, that without specific intervention will for future generations move increasingly out of their reach. To address this we must identify that which inspires – we must identify that which keeps our mind, body and senses alive and anchored.


By way of ending, I wish to dwell just a little on this point about our search for what inspires us, makes us alive with animation, while at the same time grounding us and giving us belonging and rootedness. 

To live up to your name, The University of the South Pacific, USP, and in trying to mark your place in the world of higher education, you must find your distinctiveness. To do that you must find the roots of your soul, i.e. your Pacific-ness. 

In a review of a festschrift gifted to me in 2008 by a collection of young Samoan scholars titled Su’esu’e Manogi: In search of fragrance (reprinted by Huia Publishers, 2018), Father Paul Ojibway makes a poignant point about our indigenous search for soul and meaning. He says:  

“The extraordinary value of this collection [and others like it] comes in articulating the experience of spiritual, psychological, ceremonial and cultural ‘animation’ – that quality and capacity of imagination that sees the hand of the Creator in all things, in all experiences and all relations. Such ‘animation’ comprehends an ‘aliveness’ in creation and human relations that is medicine for the soul, so easily lost in our contemporary world that does not remember, does not embrace, does not find power in being a whole, rooted and loving human being who knows the search for the fragrance, the touch of gentleness, the hearing of truth or see the impossible breaking into the ordinary” (p.527).

Unfortunately, today it is quite easy to get overwhelmed and paralysed by the power and control that outside forces seem to have over our everyday lives in the Pacific. To have the emotional and political energy and resources needed to make a constructive difference on key issues facing our Pacific nations, from ‘climate change’ to food sovereignty, self-determination, and/or militarisation in the Pacific, we require enough inspiration to make, as Father Ojibway says, ‘the impossible break into the ordinary’. And, ultimately, that inspiration can only come from within ourselves. 

My brother, a few years before he died, took ill. I wanted him to come with me, to leave Samoa for New Zealand to seek further medical help. After letting me make my plea several times, he looked at me, and with a firmness in his eyes, said: “Ou te le mana’o e seu la’u vaai mai mea tāua o le olaga nei, ma o mea tāua lea i lalo o le isu” / “I do not want to be distracted from what are the most beautiful things in my life and what are most beautiful are right under my nose”. 

My brother, in his own gentle way, was reminding me: “Se’i mai le mui’a’a, tau mai na o le pua e ula” / “Harvest the royal roots, pick only the most fragrant of frangipani”. In other words, be sure of what matters and don’t be afraid to fight for it, even if at first it may seem insignificant or impossible.


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