The women behind Fiame's mission
In September, one of Samoa’s longest serving Parliamentarians stepped out on her own, leaving Cabinet, the all powerful Human Rights Protection Party and the privileges that came with it in the in a bid to protect democracy.
Fiame Naomi Mata’afa believes her old party is sliding into a dangerous future as it prepares to pass a suite of controversial legislations which she and other critics call unconstitutional and a threat to the rule of law in Samoa.
Waiting for her in the wings of her resignation were four women determined to stand by their friend in this new chapter of her life.
Tauiliili Alise Stunnenberg, Sose Annandale, Nynette Sass, and Lauano Lauina Grace are the founding members of Friends4Fiame 2021.
They also jokingly call themselves Fiame’s only four friends, as they stand around the former Deputy Prime Minister’s kitchen bench eating slices of baguette with butter and jam, laughing at the idea that this little gathering might be the formidable woman's only social circle.
It is exactly the scene you would expect of a group of friends. There is laughter and cups of coffee ("Whose is this," one asks, drinking another's coffee), and a lot of excitement about the day ahead. The entire Friends4Fiame 2021 gang are following Fiame to her village talanoa in Fagaloa.
The four women each have their career success stories. They bond over their independence, ambition, and a love for food, too, meeting up once in a while for their “Foodie Group” to eat together and solve the world’s problems.
When Fiame left the Human Right’s Protection Party, her role as Minister of Natural Resources and Environment and her seat around the Cabinet table on Friday 11 September, they gathered almost immediately in Fiame’s Vaiala home to plan.
“We basically told her, whatever decision she makes we’ll be there to help,” Tauiliili said.
“For me, the first thing is this is a friend who is going into the elections. The fact that it’s a female and a leader I have absolute trust and belief in, a leader of integrity, I thought it was a call to action when Alise said we need to get together and rally support for Fiame,” Ms. Sass said.
“It was the most obvious thing to do, I believe in her.”
What emerged from that first session was the blueprint for a national campaign to take Fiame’s messages about the three Land and Titles Court bills around the country.
They have helped their candidate move out of her office in the Government building and sort through decades of files and papers. The women have set up an office (“the war-room,” Tauiliili calls it) and painted it mint-green.
Fiame’s desk faces the entrance and another desk sits adjacent, with the electoral constituency maps printed out and pinned to the wall behind it. It is not lost on anyone what the purpose of this room is.
The four women are not political masterminds. They each come from their own corner of the private sector: Lauano is an architect, Tauiliili and Ms. Annandale are tourism aficionados and Ms. Sass is known for many things, including being Chef de Mission for Team Samoa at the most recent Pacific Games.
“What do any of us bring to the table,” Tauiliili laughed when asked. Just their energy and love for their friend.
The actual campaign plan is straightforward: organize for a village to host a talanoa session for themselves and neighbouring villages, where Fiame will speak for 30 minutes and then open up the floor to questions.
These sessions should keep going all the way until the General Elections in April, Tauiliili said.
“She wanted a forum where there was an exchange, she wanted to hear from people, she wanted a two way conversation, in an informal setting.
The first two sessions were in Fiame’s own home. One, hosted just two weeks after the shock resignation, was for mostly young entrepreneurs, and the other for more established members of the private sector.
Everyone brought a plate of food to share and something to drink. And while Fiame has a surprisingly large collection of chairs (this reporter counted 20 but there may be more), at some point the attendance climbed well over expectations.
“The set up was beautiful, it was like a little café,” Tauiliili said. “She has this funky furniture with chairs, and little nooks everywhere, and it was indeed casual, it was an amazing night.
“The evening was more than we could ever expect. The caliber of the questions was amazing. If Government is going to be left in the hands of these young people, I would feel very safe.”
Conversations over the meal and during the talanoa session reveal a disenfranchised youth who are waking up to their desire for more out of their Governments, the Friends agree.
The group heard from people scared to speak up, or from those who feel there is simply no point in doing so, whether on the three bills or any other issue in Samoa.
“[The questions] went on for about two and a half hours, they were so charged, these young people,” Mrs. Annandale said.
For many at the talanoa, the current Government has also been their only Government, down to the Prime Minister himself. Having now been in office 22 years, he has ruled Samoa for as long as many young people can remember.
“This is a generation of the HRPP Government, and I think that really hit home with us,” she continued.
“Some of the issues that came out is that a lot of these young people [said] they felt powerless, that they had no voice, that there is a division in our society which is becoming more and more prevalent.
“They felt numb, they didn’t even want to voice their opinion because it would amount to exactly nothing.”
It’s a feeling the four women themselves had to grapple with, sticking their necks out so publically in the political sphere.
Tauiliili said they had to consider how to handle the situation without offending anyone, or jeopardizing Fiame’s own mission.
For Ms. Sass, the virtues of independence and her rights as a citizen and free thought have helped her overcome that hurdle.
“I know there may be consequences but you know, this is about taking back your own power. If you believe in something passionately and it’s for a good cause, I don’t have any fear about that.
After the two urban sessions, work began to take Fiame’s campaign to the coast. They have been starting in villages where Fiame or the Friends have family connections because it makes it easier to plan.
In Siumu, Poutasi, Utualii and Fagaloa (so far), the group found a rapt audiences with major concerns about their customary land rights under the proposed new legislation.
The Friends have been careful to make each session an inclusive one, rather than a forum for matai only. Women and youth in particular are invited and openly asked to contribute.
Among their priorities is to keep traditional formalities to a minimum, to keep the burden on the host village low and the focus on the conversation. So far in Siumu and Poutasi they have succeeded in hosting informal sessions with basically just a bottle of water per person and a seat for everyone in the room.
In Utualii they had slightly less luck because both Fiame and Tauiliili have relatives there.
“The great thing is, Fiame is so well versed on these things,” Ms. Annandale said.
“She reads the crowd, reads the situation very well. She does it with so much ease.”
Once the formalities are over the real discussions begin. The women say they have found a strong sense of urgency in the villages around land rights and customary land issues, but scarce understanding of the proposed legislation itself.
“There was no understanding of the bills from anybody, not even their own representatives, not even the villages that have been visited by the committee,” Ms. Annandale said, referring to the Special Parliamentary Committee tasked with running village-level consultations on the Bills.
“Their knowledge was very superficial and very limited.”
Changing this is the critical purpose of Fiame’s campaign. Whether the bills are passed before the upcoming Election or not, her goal is to have every Samoan armed with enough information to know that the legislation will harm this country.
Should Parliament hold the bills’ third reading in December and pass them, Fiame’s solution is simple: the Members of Parliament who voted for them should be voted out of the House.
“The question always came up what can we do about it. It doesn’t seem there is anything we can do about it, it’s a forgone conclusion,” Ms. Annandale said.
“One of the things Fiame was very strong in that you can actually do something. Your vote counts and if you want to see these changes made you have to put pressure on the person representing you in parliament. That is how you bring change.”