Carmel Sepuloni: A daughter of Samoa, a voice for the Pacific

Carmel Sepuloni was appointed along with three other Pacific Ministers as Cabinet Ministers for the new Labour led government in New Zealand last year. 

With two Pacific Cabinet Ministers and two outside Cabinet, history was made having broken the record for the most Pacific M.P’s to ever occupy a body of Senior Ministers in any New Zealand government and it also made a statement about a shift in the political landscape of New Zealand because Pacific people weren’t just making head ways to the decision making table - they were now sitting at it.

Holding one of the largest portfolios as Minister for Social Development and Disability issues as well as the Associate Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage and Pacific Peoples, the tri-cultural mother of two admits in an interview with the Samoa Observer that while she has big responsibilities to the country, her cultural roots to Samoa keep her grounded and humble.

Born and raised in New Zealand, Carmel Sepuloni is of Samoan, Tongan and European descent.

It wasn’t until 2003 that she first stepped foot in her ancestral home of  Samoa, on a personal mission to connect with her cultural roots by immersing herself in living and working at Robert Louis Stevenson school for a year. It also gave her a chance to connect with her father’s village of Vailele, a place she calls another home,

“I feel at home here,” she said. 

“My dad was born and raised in Samoa but we had never come over as a family and I decided in 2003 that I wanted to come over myself. I would come for the first time but I would fully immerse myself in it but actually working here and ever since then, it’s amazing the difference it makes in terms of making you feel connected. It’s not just a holiday destination for me, this is another home.

“Every opportunity I get to come back which has been three times in the last four months I do come back. And when I go back to my family in Vailele, I feel at home and I feel that is another space for me, another place of connecting for me – it doesn’t feel foreign.”

Born in New Zealand and at 6 ft 1, Ms Sepuloni is a captivating blend of Samoan, Tongan and European which can leave many who encounter her, curious about her cultural background. 

The Labour M.P admits that while there are some challenges balancing multiple heritages while navigating cultural minefields in her ancestral home of Samoa, she remains confident in her sense of identity because of the unbreakable bond she has with her aiga here on the island.

“It is difficult that I can’t speak Samoan but really when you feel a sense of connection and you ‘ve got the love with your family then actually language is only one element of a relationship” Ms Sepuloni said “yes its important, I wish I had it but that doesn’t mean that you can’t have a connection to your family here.”

“It can be challenging but you just have to be confident in yourself and secure in who you are and know that there limitations which other people might see as being deficits of character or deficits of experience I guess, but you know – our life experiences are our life experiences and the way we were brought up wasn’t necessarily determined by us, it was determined by our parents and their circumstances. When you understand that, then despite the questions or the eyebrow raises you might get occasionally – it’s okay.”

Despite the fact the Ms. Sepuloni grew up in New Zealand and missed out on learning the Samoan language she tells the Samoa Observer that there are still some innately Samoan experiences that she has lived and continues to experience even if you are the Minister of Parliament Carmel Sepuloni,

“A classic example would be when Winston Peters made the decision that he was going to join with Labour and we were going to form a government, that was quite a big moment,” Ms. Sepuloni said. “The next morning I was packing up and rushing around trying to run out the door to get in the car and fly down to Wellington to have those discussions as we formed government. 

“But as I was running out the door, my Dad yells out to me ‘ how many times last night did I tell you to put that washing on?’ and I said to him ‘ Dad I’ve got to go, it’s really important we’re forming the government.’

And he replied ‘ I don’t care, I told you to do it last night and you still didn’t do it.’ So of course I went and put the washing on and then I ran out the door and I was running even later but he was still yelling at me that the vacuum cleaner is broken and that I still haven’t replaced it,” she laughed.

“If anything that is uniquely Samoan about me is just the family that I have and their ability to continually keep me humble regardless of what job you might have and how other people might perceive you as being successful, you are still that girl, even if you are 40 years old, who needs to put the washing on and when something breaks and you don’t buy a replacement then you are going to be in trouble.”

The NZ Minister of Social development hopes to return to Samoa soon either personally or in her capacity as a Minister of the Crown because according to her it is good to be reminded constantly of the connectedness to one’s culture on a personal level right through to maintaining strong connections in the region.

“I guess what I love about coming back is that it is so small and its every single time even when you meet new people, everyone is connected in some way and so it keeps you grounded in that you’re reminded constantly of the connectedness between people so its so good to be here on that front.

“On a more international level as New Zealand Pacific people, we feel a strong connection still to our Pacific homelands even if it was our parents or grandparents that were brought up here. I think it’s important moving forward that yes government to government we keep building on that relationship but that we never forget those personal relationships are as important.”

In her new role, Sepuloni is taking all those facets of her unique blend of Pacific ancestry with her to the decision making table.

While in her formative years, her identity may have confused those curious minds as she set out to know herself but there is no doubt that today, her Pacific experience and heritage is now her strength and our advantage as she adds her voice to ensure, that she gets to influence the future of a stronger and healthier Pacific community in New Zealand and abroad.

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