FROM HIGH HEELS TO THE VILLAGE HILLS
By Floris Niu
Leaving the corporate world of NZ for my village Cacao farm in Samoa is a journey into nature, customary land, village life, organic Cacao growing plus re-discovering & re-inventing my island diet…
I had been stuck in a corporate job in NZ, making good money, for almost 2 decades yet my life was going nowhere. I worked so hard and for long hours that my body broke. Yes, your body can break and it warns you about this break-down through sudden and unexplained illness.
Sometimes life tricks you into thinking that everything is going so well…you’re becoming a success and achieving all the goals you thought were important in your life.
Then BOOM! In a split second, you end up in emergency surgery fighting for your life. You end up having serious conversations with God about giving you another chance because you had so many plans…and much more to live for.
I’m almost certain that I am not the first person to bargain with God during a “near-death-experience” episode.
Who knows why we get dealt the things that make us fight harder in this world? I don’t like to call it bad luck, as I have a reformed perspective of what luck really is.
Nonetheless, my fortune, has brought me back to where I began, for a very important reason. I don’t fully know what that is yet, but each day here on the cacao plantation, I see signs and I follow them.
The obvious signals shown to me through my circumstances were revealed as a warning to my health. My physical, mental and emotional wellbeing needed special attention and this has carried onto my spiritual fulfilment. All these aspects are inter-connected and I have heard others speak of it to be a process into spiritual evolution. Humans have been evolving physically and mentally for centuries, but few people recognise when they are evolving spiritually as well.
Whatever the case may be, my being here in Samoa at this precise moment in time is destiny. I am rediscovering my heritage through organic farming; reviving our traditional island diet of fish and plant-based foods; foraging for ancient herbal medicines to infuse into today’s foods; seeking a natural remedy for these western illnesses we suffer, such as depression. This is my timely Purpose.
Illness and Nutrition: Let thy food be thy medicine…
I have always been healthy food-wise and with exercise. I played sports and enjoyed running but as I got older I combined all my sports interest into water sports.
Until my late 20s, I didn’t know what stress or depression was. So as stress creeped into my life, I did not have the tools or intuition to deal with it properly.
No human being is exempt from the strains and stresses of modern/western living and that lifestyle of constant pressure to produce, perform, win and earn $$$ etc. The so-called RAT RACE is sometimes a race to social decline; to the psychologist; to the pharmacy; to the hospital and sadly for some, to an early grave.
As pacific peoples, our culture, traditions and once-upon-a-time healthy lifestyle and diet has been consumed by that big monster "western living". It has affected everything from the way we interact, communicate, make decisions...and the way we eat especially!
As a people, I believe, we are most vulnerable to the western tendency to "self-destruct"...whether through physical illness, mental breakdowns, bankruptcy or death. Our bodies and brains cannot sustain a way of life so extreme and contrary to the way we were created and evolved from our unique pacific heritage.
I believe that by going back to basics, embracing my pacific roots and changing everything I was doing in NZ; I have been able to heal both physically, mentally and spiritually.
But most importantly it has allowed me to discover new Passions I never dreamt were possible...like Cacao and the Chocolate joint venture with She Universe, the farm, my food and our pacific food.
I'm recalling and experiencing the influences of other cultures from my travels. They flow through me and into my food...which is a natural progression, blessing and obsession.
I am also a huge believer in treating Food as a Medicine, as did our ancestors from the beginning.
The Food of my Ancestors…
The Samoa islands are rich in foods which most of us have not yet mastered its true value…in nutrition and healing powers. Like most of our Pacific counterparts, the younger generation have somehow by-passed on the knowledge of medicinal and ancient foods.
Take for instance the Ago/Lega or Turmeric root. It is a Superfood, an ancient medicinal spice which is extremely versatile, rich in goodness and contains natural anti-inflammatory, anti-biotic and anti-bacterial properties. The turmeric flower, root colour, smell and taste each made it easily recognizable for our ancestors to harvest and incorporate the spice into their daily lives. These were treasures held closely to the heart of every shaman or medicine-woman in ancient Samoan life.
Turmeric used to fascinate me as child because it was so bitter and yellow it stained everything. It was an unpleasant medicine my mother forced upon us whenever we took ill. It was used to treat, pain, fever and bacterial infections.
How time has changed us…today I proudly use turmeric for juicing, smoothies and healing teas to fight the on-set of colds or flus. It is also very effective on rheumatoid arthritis, constipation, diorhea and migraines.
The Organic Food Journey…
I began eating organically in 2010 when I owned a cafe in Auckland and our customers were mostly vegans and vegetarians. I learned a lot about organic food and why people were beginning to discard meat from their diet.
What stuck with me was the fact that the body labours intensely in order to process meat and dairy, yet it extracts very little of the nutrients that is needed to stay healthy. But with a plant-based diet, the body easily absorbs what it needs in no time, and then extracts the waste in record time. Those fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices each double-up with essential healing properties as well as nutritional value.It is still a mystery to me why anyone would buy a chemical-based pill to get rid of their head-ache, when they can plant or buy organic turmeric to make a juice or tea that has the same effect without the side-effects of modern drugs. Isn’t it already an irony that some bio-chemical drugs originate from a plant source?
I will say no more on the subject except that I am a cancer survivor who opted for natural therapy after three invasive surgeries left me with deep physical and emotional scars. I was told that it was possible for the cancerous cells to grow back….but so far, after the changes I have made in my diet, lifestyle and career, no re-growth has been spotted in my body since 2015.
I believe in living and eating clean because this was the way we always lived before the white people came to our islands.
My great grandfather Ututa’aloga Pulega died at 120 years old and he lived on a diet of plants and seafood with very little poultry meats. I remember him because he outlived his sons and daughters and I was a young preschooler who often shared his meals.
My earliest memories of my amazing great-grandfather were of him being tall, slim, strong, talkative and blind. But he was incredibly aware of his surroundings, life, family, village and of course the food. People came from afar to seek his permission and blessing for land, titles and for the enormous knowledge he had regarding the history and future of our people.
When I was 8 years-old my father died at age 52. In stark contrast to my great-grandfather, my father was a drinker and he ate processed and canned foods like tinned fish and pisupo (corned beef). He also loved turkey tails, fried foods, imported chicken and NZ mutton flaps. His diet consisted of foods high in saturated fats and he also had a sweet tooth.
He was also a hard working man, he had several jobs including farming, and they were always outdoors. He never took protection from the harsh sun and he suffered a major accident at work that left him with a permanent spinal injury. This eventually took his life prematurely.
His life was also full of stress. There were 15 hungry mouths to feed and he was constantly under pressure to make ends meet for our family. It is therefore not difficult to conclude that the benefits of a healthy diet and stress-free lifestyle, is the key to longevity on this planet.
Like my father, I faced many stressors in my life in NZ. I spent the last 10 years in Family Court proceedings regarding my daughter.
There is a lot to be said for Forgiveness. It’s not easy to give but once given, it is like a metal armour unhinged from your chest…your heart being freed to beat once more.
The Effects of the 1st World on the 3rd World…
Export isn’t a new concept for us, but we have had set-backs in this area since the age of imports has also left us vulnerable to the bugs and blites from the outside world. Our crops suffered for several years, but Mother Nature always sent us her cleansing winds, to uproot and blow-away the poisons we had acquired from the outside world. This is why I believe in the Reason for Every Season. Climate Change is Nature’s response to the damages we continue to inflict upon her.
In our desire to keep up with the outside world, we began importing tins, styrofoam, plastics, quick and cheap foods that have no nutritional value and they have damaged not only our environment, but our health and diet has suffered enormously. It has also created a monstrous waste mismanagement issue, which our government allows to drain down our natural waterways and sweep under our plantation vines. Those that suffer most, are the village citizens and disadvantaged families living on the outskirts of urban Samoa. Whether we admit it or not, there is a silent but deadly colonial war going on in the Pacific. It is WWT-the War on “Western Trash”.
During the last 20 years we have had massive outbreaks of dengue, typhoid and chikunguniya fevers and still, the government only deals with the consequence, but not the cause. There are no serious campaigns for prevention and I’m afraid Mother Nature can only send so much wind and rain to clean this mess up. Sooner or later, we humans must face a more dire result for our blatant carelessness and maltreatment of our planet.
Everyone thinks the problem is too Big! The local village councils are not adequately equipped with the knowledge or skills to combat these environmental and social changes. Their ignorance means they turn a blind eye, and no matter how much I complain about toxic dumping in the village…it seems my humble concerns are just the “ramblings of a crazy hippy woman”, that has fallen on deafly, political ears.
The Chocolate Story…
In some ways, I see that Chocolate saved my life.
I first came across She Universe, formerly known as She Chocolat, in 2010. They are a boutique artisanal Chocolate Company and Café/Restaurant based in Governor’s Bay, Christchurch.
One of the owners, Declan Scott, is an impressionable Irish man and Entrepreneur who now owns Spirited Business in Auckland. On our first meeting, he inspired me beyond the chocolate! The business model was unlike anything I had come across before.
As a business, they begin each day by practicing or performing “The Form”, which is a movement or dance, a type of meditation or prayer, where you go deep into the “self”. To draw out the energy you need to face the challenges which awaits you each day. It’s difficult to describe it without doing it, as it is a Form that beckons to be experienced.
She Chocolat rebranded in 2012 to become She Universe. SHE is an acronym for “Spiritual Human Evolution”. The Chocolate, is only a small part of this Organisation….but it is a sweet one! Needless to say, I was captivated by the chocolate…its story…and now it continues to enrich my life throughout my journey on the cacao farm in Samoa.
Oonagh Browne, Chief Chocolatier and Chocolate Ambassador at SHE, is probably the most inspirational person I have met in NZ thus far. She exudes passion and creativity beyond the imagination…a food magician if you like, who relys on her heart and female intuition to guide her and the ingredients which she has mastered and delivered us…in its new form…Chocolate. Her amazing skills and alchemist tendencies come from a selfless place of Love for her Craft.
I received a phone call from Declan in 2012 asking if I knew someone in Samoa who had a cacao farm. I said: “ I do!”, and the rest is of course, history.
The following year we decided to trial our beans for their “bean to bar” and Oonagh was excited at the results. We launched the “Samoan single estate- source to bar, in Auckland in July 2014. At the same time my role within She Universe was evolving- I was asked to be involved in the marketing and promotion of the Koko Samoa Collection in Auckland.
But nothing is ever smooth sailing when it comes to building a new business. A business trip to Samoa in April 2014 resulted in a major car crash which almost took my life. The accident followed several court proceedings, costing me thousands of dollars in legal fees, until its conclusion in October 2014.
Despite those set-backs, we began exporting bulk beans to SHE in November 2014, until a major drought affected our yield in mid 2015. The shortage in supply from Samoa forced SHE to improvise and replace ours with Peruvian beans to fill our collection. It was heartbreaking for both Oonagh and myself, to place substitute stickers on the packaging to explain the drought. Back on the farm, we continued to re-plant and harvest what we could until 2016.
But Mother Nature has her way of putting things right. By July 2016, I watched my trees bear good fruit and yield to approximately 65% of its potential. It has continued in this way until I came back permanently to Samoa, in January 2017.
I truly feel that my perseverance has paid off with most of my new trees now fruiting abundantly. Hope is an incredible tool when all other tools are broken.
This farming journey has not been easy without funding for equipment, buildings and vehicles; which are essential for the operation of any farm or processing plant. We currently manage everything manually and using ancient methods of fermenting and drying the beans. This is fine for now because we work with small batches and we are looking for quality rather than quantity from these beans.
Moreover, we are a boutique farm just on approximately 70 acres of scattered customary land. Only 20 acres is planted out with cacao. We have minimum staff on casual-basis because we cannot afford to hire them permanently. Half, (1500) our trees are new so this year was their first yield. The old trees, like me, are in remission. They already have the potential to yield 50% better than this April harvest.
I have applied for financial assistance through several organisations in Samoa. All but one has been of assistance in my venture. Ian Buck of SABS has never lost faith in my vision because despite all the hurdles, I am still here. Perhaps if I hadn’t gone through the struggles I did, I would have given up by now. But this is Ms Sunshine Farms…the sun always comes out, even on those darker days.
More Challenges Ahead…
My main concern now is the amount of toxic rubbish being dumped in my village. I have also been trying to encourage farmers not to spray on their land, but it’s early days for these radical changes to take effect.
We have acres of unused customary land and we cannot continue to let it go without purpose as I am certain my ancestors meant for us to return and utilise it, protect it. Protecting our land means the preservation of our heritage, culture, customs and People.
My mission therefore, has evolved. Initially I thought I was returning to start my cacao plantation and business, but now I can see that what I'm doing has the potential to positively impact and benefit my community.
Although I am not fully vegan anymore, as I am fortunate enough to live on an island with access to fresh shellfish like lobster, crab, octopus and fresh organic/free range eggs; I still support a plant-based diet for those who are serious about getting healthy and living longer.
Whether you’re recovering from illness or just wanting to remain healthy, choose organic or spray-free produce or even better…grow your own! I’m still working on my vege-patch and the hen-house for eggs is a work in progress too.
I’m grateful that I am in the position of living on acreage, farming and growing my ideal foods and making these choices without being persecuted by the price-tags that come with organic eating abroad.
Urban gardens are very popular today so if you take the time and really visualise yourself and your family living healthily….make those changes now.
If you live on an island like me, then you have no excuses. The world is indeed our oyster.
Here’s to you and me, and a healthier, happier, brighter tomorrow.
Faaalualuo Floris Niu