Women empowerment trailblazer featured on Radio Australia 

Samoa’s own United Nations Women country programme coordinator Papali’i Mele Maualaivao was featured on Radio Australia’s Pacific Mornings programme this week.

She is currently in Australia to celebrate International Women’s Day.

Papali’i shared her stories from growing up as a Samoan in New York, her aspirations as a young person and her work in the UN with presenter Tahlea Aualiitia. 

“Because of my parent’s work we would often go to events where I would have to sing songs or dance, which you know is very natural to us to do, it’s a part of our culture to perform for others and that was always a part of my growing up,” she said.

“We had an extended post in New York and there was this desire to eat up every experience possible that America had to offer to us, because we presumed we would be going back to Samoa.”

Initially, Papali’i said, she wanted to study art history.

“I used to go to a lot of museums, and I just loved art and the only time you get to see a Pacific Islander in museums is either in the anthropology section or in the Metropolitan Museum of Art where you’d see it in Gauguin and images like that, of beautiful women, colourful, vibrant.”

But thanks to her upbringing in a mixed international community of diplomats and government workers like her own parents, her wide knowledge of the world led her to the United Nations, where she works today.

“When I moved back to Samoa it is because we had a tsunami,” Papalii said.

“The tsunami hit in 2009 and I came back to visit my father and I thought oh, I’m going to volunteer. I’m going to take a few months off and contribute in any way possible.

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“When you grow up overseas, you hear about events happening and you know it’s affecting family but you can’t do anything, you’re a bit helpless. I just had the luxury that I was in a place and time where I could actually stay in Samoa and volunteer.”

Papali’i signed up with the Samoa Red Cross Society and worked in distribution. She said it was there she got to understand Samoa more intimately, and then decided to stay on and work.

Her public servant parents instilled the value of serving others in her from a young age, Papali’i said. 

“A huge part of Samoan culture is tautua. Tautua means service, and the respect you get from people is because of how much tautua, how much service you have provided.”

“When I stayed in Samoa I said ok, what can I do to really commit and how can I help those people who may not have the loud, pushy New Yorker voice that I have?”

Having to constantly explain Samoa to strangers as she grew up gave her an advantage, Papali’i believes, as “bilingual” in Samoan and Palagi ways.

“I was a good voice to be an intermediary,” she said.

“When palagi development partners are coming and saying ‘I don’t understand why they don’t do this,’ and I would have my Samoan counterpart saying ‘why don’t they understand that this is Fa’aSamoa, this is how we do it,’ I realised people don’t understand each other.

“I wanted to make sure people could come to the table and have action.”

Commitment and passion is what has been driving her the last seven years to improve gender equality in Samoa, and to help take everyone on the journey with her. 

“I was not a fly-by-night visitor to Samoa, wanting to fix things and then pat myself on the back and leave. Because of that, the wealth of investment has grown,” she said.

“This has been seven years of having these discussions, seven years of going into communities and finding out from women what is and isn’t being said, finding out from men what they think is and isn’t appropriate to them to address.”

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