Life in Savaii for a kiwi Samoan
By guest writer Datia Wilson
It has been just under two years since I have returned to Savaii, to take care of my grandmother who has advanced dementia. Although raised in Savaii as a child with my brother and understanding aspects of Faasamoa, I had come over from NZ with an overseas mentality.
I had lived such an independent life in NZ, I remember thinking on our return I could still wear what I want, go out at whatever time and not really caring about others opinions. Oh boy, was I wrong! It only took a couple of firm conversations with my uncle (chief of our family) explaining how crucial it is I understand that I am now living in the village still upholding their traditional ways. With that comes the responsibility of being the face of the family and carrying the family’s reputation. As a single woman at the time, eyes were on me.
Growing up, I did have knowledge of what and who a matai (chief) was, but it wasn’t until living here I truly understood in depth his role and responsibility. Seeing first hand the types of big and small decisions that may hurt some family members - but looking at the bigger picture, in the long run, his reasons to keep peace within the family. I was so used to living a private life in NZ, I had to learn how to be transparent in everything that I did. This was in case our matai/family heard Chinese whispers within the villages - he either is already in the know or could defend us if rumours were false, especially if there was a fine involved. It is his role to protect the family and ensure there are no problems and peace amongst us, and ours to support him. Every family has pride and respect.
I have been grateful to be a witness to events that occur in the village. Monthly village meetings (fono masina) or impromptu meetings (fono tauati) as a couple of examples. The fono tauati is one I find interesting especially the rules everybody have to abide by. Once a matter has been addressed to families involved (ta’i le sua) no one is to speak about it until the next morning. After a village discussion early in the morning, you hear a fine being called out. What I found interesting is they still use olden-day terminology. For example, the fine could be 40 aumatua (large pigs) which is equivalent to $2000 tala. You are also given a time frame on the day to gather together goods or money for your fine, the chiefs will wait until presented. It will either be accepted or denied - that’s when it’s up to you to supply more pusa apa, pigs or even a cow. This is also where you see the family come together contributing as much as they can to avoid the worst fate - being banished from the village. This is also why my uncle invests a lot in a having a big plantation and cattle farm. Not only for when faalavelaves or fines occur, but to sustain a supply of food throughout the year for the family.
One of the many things I’m appreciative about spending my childhood in Savaii was being familiar with everyday feaus (chores) at home. How to peel bananas for a saka, preparing an umu or sweeping the leaves with a salu tu (broom made of tuaniu). We normally have land checks in the village so you would have to be a master at sweeping all the leaves with a salu - I like to think of it as an arm workout or our version of arm day at the gym.
I love fashion and clothes. But we have very limited options here in Savaii. Rather than going to the mall to look at all the different stores, I now find myself excited when the Le Lagoto shop (our local store down the road) get a new stock and variety of lavalavas. A shirt and lavalava is pretty much my everyday attire being a part of the village women’s committee. You won’t see me roaming around outside my house or the village wearing any short or tight lucky numbers, otherwise that is me asking for a fine. I am currently in the process of learning how to sew. Not only as a creative outlet, but I can then design my own appropriate clothing with a bit of style. Eventually I would love to learn how to weave. That way I can weave my own mats for my asiasiaga ( a domestic household check the women’s committee hold yearly). Music and singing is my passion, and so stoked they have karaoke nights at the Savaii Harbourside cafe & restaurant, where I am able to go sing and have a jam.
When feeling ill, I have the choice of going to the doctors or call upon my relative who has been blessed with the gift of healing. The beliefs of natural healing methods are still practiced and natural remedies are used today. Depending on the illness will determine what type of leaves she will massage with, how many days she will fofo you for, and a certain amount of leaves she will collect from specific plants used to prepare natural medicine. Avoiding Sunday as much as possible to fofo, unless urgent. Due to it being difficult for my grandmother to leave the house at times, we have been fortunate to have the nurses from Safotu hospital come over home to check on Nana. I am also aware they travel and do home visits every week, to check on their elderly patients who can’t make it to the hospital.
About every fortnight I drive into town to do our shopping at Frankies supermarket. I find myself buying things I don’t need at the time as you never know what will be available on the shelves that week. While in town I would pop in at Adria’s cafe for a decent coffee. This is a treat as the drive is about 45mins to reach the cafe. In NZ there are cafes everywhere and we don’t have the luxury of driving down the road to have an eggs benedict or a hot beverage. I do miss all of my favourite dishes and yummy treats available overseas, especially my mums special banana cake. This has led me to start baking. I have recently started my own baking business Hibiscus Treats Savaii. The majority of things I crave for in NZ, I can now bake in my kitchen - some goodies, I can’t due to the lack of ingredients available on the island. This has also been a great opportunity to earn an extra income, and still be at home while taking care of my grandmother. I often do baking and drop it of to the Reverend’s house, that’s really important to me. We are always looking foward to receiving packages from family overseas filled, with chocolate and our favourite treats. Most of the vegetables here are organic or grown locally. Although it is quite difficult to get my hands on a bag of lettuce. We are very lucky to be near the beach and have access to fresh fish. You can also never go wrong with the tuna trio at Amoa resort, it is divine.
During rainy season, I do struggle with the shortages of the water supply. Sometimes we would go 2-3 days without the tap running. This is when you would see buckets lined up outside the house as we would then rely on the rain water. On a hot sunny day we have the advantage of walking in our backyard and jumping in the ocean. There are villages with beautiful cold rock pools. Afuaau waterfalls in Palauli would have to be one of my favourites.
Looking after my grandmother is a full time job. Ninety percent of the time I am at home. Grateful my sister has recently arrived in Savaii I am able to leave the house for small periods of time, not having to worry. As part of other ways being involved with the village, I help run an English reading centre once a week at the Reverend’s house. It’s a rewarding feeling being able to give back to village, and community as well as an opportunity to get to know the children. They always walk past the house and wave or say hello.
My life has done a 360 returning back to Samoa, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Living in Savaii has always installed a different appreciation for the things I have in life and how I view situations. Enjoying the simplest things. Waking up every morning to the sounds of the waves, and watching the sunset every evening. Constantly learning more about Faasamoa and our culture. How important family is. I have no regrets. Using my experiences as lessons and strengthening my character. Beyond blessed to be able to spend this precious time with my grandmother. I could get a job at any time, but time with her I will never get that back. I have no future plans on moving back overseas. This is my life, and Savaii is my home.
For another beautiful story of growing up in Savaii, check out this video from teacher and artist Pusi Urale