Savaii to the World | The Story of Faiesea Ah Chee
Faiesea Ah Chee is a 18-year-old Savaii girl at heart now living in the heart of Auckland city. She is a long way from her island home, so how has her journey led her here?
In 2003 Faiesea was born in Tuasivi and grew up all her life in the village of Fa’a’ala Palauli, Savaii. She was raised by a family of fishermen. Her grandfather and uncles would go out into the Moana every day. While she and her grandma would sit by their village selling the fish they had caught. There were six in her family and they would all rely on the ocean as a way of life. Faiesea went to school at Vaiola College to which she describes as “the best school”. She lived the picturesque island life; took from the ocean, gave back to the land, served her family, went to school in a neighboring village and her best friend was a turtle.
In 2016 Faiesea’s world changed. Her family sadly lost her grandma. She was the matriarch of their aiga and the person who raised Faiesea. After her tragic loss, Faiesea was sent to live with her parents in Auckland. She got enrolled in Kelson Girls and in a matter of weeks she started thriving academically at her new school. In her senior year, she became the Environmental Club president and started getting into Climate Activism. Just last year Faisea went on to win an Excellence Award from the Governor-General of New Zealand and received a scholarship to The University of Auckland.
This daughter of Savaii is currently a confident and ambitious full-time uni student living in the city. She dreams of a future as an environmentalist fighting against climate change and protecting Savaii. She is only at the beginning of her journey and this small island girl has plans to take on the world.
We got to speak with Faisea and she gave us an in-depth look into her incredible story.
What was it like growing up in beautiful Savaii?
Life in Savaii was the best! I grew up in a family where we loved the ocean and fishing was the only source of income we had. It would be my grandpa and uncles fishing and my grandma and me to sell the fish. I was that one kid in the streets selling fish every day after school. The ocean was my best friend, the ocean to me is manuia. I miss waking up early in the morning helping my uncles and grandparents getting ready to go fishing, I miss playing with the turtles and playing with the sand. I miss my family. I miss Savaii.
Growing up in Savaii where you hardly see big buildings, no traffic, people smiling, or a knock on the door from someone asking if they can borrow sugar or salt. I miss playing on the street with the kids in the village running around not worrying about guns or any strangers. Everyone in the village was my family and that's what makes Savaii the best.
While some families in Savaii choose to send their kids to go to school in Apia, you choose to attend school on your island. How has schooling in Savaii impacted your life?
I went to Vaiola elementary, primary and high school. Vaiola was one of the most expensive schools in Savaii. My grandparents' dream for me was to get a better education since no one in the family has ever had a formal job. It was their dream for me to do better and become successful. All my uncles had to drop out of school to help my grandparents with our little fishing company, where they never had the opportunity to finish college and to live their dreams. This is what motivates me to do great. I came from a humble family, and in order for me to pay my school fees, I had to help my grandparents to sell fish. My grandma once said “I do not want you to grow up and do the same thing that we are doing right now, there's nothing bad with selling fish, but we do not want you to suffer, we do not want you to worry whether there will be enough fish to sell, whether there will be enough money for everything, go hard in school and do not stop after high school, aim high my love” Words of encouragement, words that will forever be with me till the day the Lord will call me back.
I remember this one time in primary school I was mocked and bullied, everyone named me the “faakau aku girl” meaning the fish girl. I gotta admit I was never ashamed, I was proud enough to reply “so what, so what if I sell fish for a living,” but there was also a time where I just wanted to stay home and help my grandparents. I realised that my grandma had to wake up early every morning and sleep late at night just to make sure that every single fish is fresh. I miss my grandma, I miss her shouting my name at every prize giving, her smile when she comes up to give me leis, her smell, her ripped shirts, her loud voice in the house. I miss seeing her every day at the markets standing there chasing the flies off the fish. I miss her waking me up every morning for school. I remember going to school with my hair shining from grandma's Samoan oil, the only perfume that I had at the time.
How did your schooling experience change when you moved to Auckland?
Coming from a school full of islanders where no one will ever complain when you walk around shoeless, everyone eating each other lunches. Popo and esi for lunch every day. To a school where you see kids walking around with fancy shoes and backpacks, where if you walk around with no shoes you will be judged. No one wanted to be friends with me because I just came from Samoa. I was named the fob girl. I was called freshie. I gotta admit I never felt like giving up but the one thing that drives me crazy was the fact that I really missed home. I missed Savaii so much, I missed my grandma, I missed Vaiola. I missed the late-night sound of the waves, I missed seeing my best friends Aka aku, Asiasi ,Malie, and turtles. I missed being surrounded by the ocean all the time and the bravest fisherman's all the time. I missed my home. I remember my first day at Kelston Girls College my little sister Vaitoelau was my only best friend. We went through the same situation, we were labeled as fobs and freshies. I remember my sister telling me she wanted to give up, she wanted to go back home and continue on helping our grandpa with our fishing company, and at the time I was angry. I was angry because the power of words got in my little sister’s way, holding her back from reaching her dreams. It was then that I realised that I had to do something, I had to push us through. I remembered what grandma told me “go hard at school and aim high my love”. I could hear her voice.
I remember in year 11 in my English class our assessment was to write a speech about cultural conflict. At the time I did not have any friends and no one knew that I could understand or speak English. The school I came from in Samoa is an American school run under the curriculum of BYU University in Hawaii. All thanks to Vaiola I'm fluent in two languages, as they taught me to speak and to read in English. Okay back to my speech story hahahaha. It was my turn and I walked out with a puletasi. I was proud with my head held high, and all I could hear was “oh here we go, the fob girl”. I was shocked and I heard “how is it possible that she can speak English”. This is why you should not judge a book by its cover. I am not bragging but I'm confident in my education and ability to express myself in two languages. I have learned that people here only love you as an islander when you “fit in” or meet a certain reputation. I realised that you have to be New Zealand-born to be accepted here. When I came to these realizations I tried to change myself. I was too tired of not having friends. I changed my whole self. It worked, but I regretted it at the same time. I regret waking up in the morning and dressing up to impress others. I then stopped. I challenged myself to be the real Faiesea. Who I was from the very beginning and yes, of course, the real ones accepted me for being me. My new golden rule... “don't dress to impress others because you are wasting time and energy”.
What brought you to your new home in Aotearoa?
In 2016 I realized that nothing in this world is certain. The year my hero, my one comforter, my grandma passed away. It was then my parents appeared in my life. It was the toughest decision for my grandpa to let go of me. My parents were the ones who looked after our family farm. They lived separately from me and my grandparents. My father is my grandparent's oldest son. They had me when they were only 18 years old and that's when my grandparents took me away from them as they realised that they were too young to look after me at that time. My biological mother has a similar story to my story. She was raised by her grandparents (her mothers’ parents) when both her parents left to come here. In the same year when my grandmother passed away, I moved in with my parents and we were blessed to move here to New Zealand. The toughest decision my grandpa has ever made. At the time I did not accept the fact that my grandmother passed away and the fact that I’ll have to leave my grandpa. Although it was tough and hard, my grandpa wanted me to live the life he never had. My uncles wanted me to succeed for them. They wanted me to have a better life. I never wanted to come, I promised my grandma that I will look after my grandpa for the rest of my life. It was hard and tough for me to leave him behind. I miss you grandpa and I love you so much.
Where does your passion for Climate Justice come from?
As mentioned before I grew up selling fish for a living, I was surrounded by fishermen. I moved here and I realise that climate change is affecting our islands. It all started off in high school, I was lucky enough to be chosen as the leader for the environmental committee for Kelston Girls College 2020. It was then that memories started hitting me hard. Climate change is the main issue we face right now. I swear every time I hear about climate change my grandpa and uncles appear in my mind. To save my friends and family in the islands I will fight for them. I remember visiting my family in 2019 and I saw the change. The rock that I used to sit on while waiting for my grandpa and uncles to return from shore had been submerged. The trees near the sand that used to be my playground were gone. All submerged by the ocean. The variety of fish that we usually get is now super hard to find. It then dawned on me… I have to be part of the change. I have to do something.
I came back from my visit and did research. Educated myself on climate change and then I came across a documentary “Drowning islands”. A CoconetTV documentary about the amazing Climate warrior and activist Brianna Fruean. She mentioned something that really changed my life: “climate change is an issue, you need to know all the facts and science behind it, you just need to do something”. I realised that I did not need to be an expert, climate change is happening now and it is not slowing down. It was then that I started to use my value as a leader for the environmental committee in our school to work on small projects such as waste management, gardening, holding presentations about climate justice in front of our School boards, seeking help and knowledge from Pacific Vision Aotearoa and Para Ko Ki Tamaki. The vision of my childhood being submerged really motivates me to fight for our lands. My family on the island's main income is the ocean/fish. The struggle they are facing right now in trying to find the right place to fish is totally new. It is something that we never experienced before. It hurts to see my family struggle and it was never a problem for us from the very beginning, for my grandpa and uncles my fight for climate justice is my priority. I will use my voice to save my family in the islands, for grandpa, and for our next generation. My childhood memories may be washing away but I will not allow climate change to wash our boats and my family's wealth away.
Do you have a message for your family in Savaii about your climate fight?
To my dearest grandma, you’ve worked hard for our fishing company, your sweat won’t go to waste. I fear that one day I would have to explain to my grandma that we lost our business due to sea-level rise. So therefore I will keep on fighting for climate justice. I fear that Tuvalu and Kiribati are on the frontline of Climate change and if Tuvalu and Kiribati go down the world will too. For grandma, grandpa and my dearest uncles, I will fight for what is ours.
In the past few years, your life has changed drastically. Growing up did you ever think you'd be here?
I never thought in a million years I would be able to live by myself at this age while attending one of the highest universities in New Zealand. I was blessed to receive a scholarship from UOA. If I'm being honest, I’m surprised that I am even here from being that one kid in the streets selling fish. I was also blessed last year to receive an Excellence Award that was awarded to me by the one and only Governor-General of New Zealand. From being surrounded by fish in the ocean to the city where all I see are big buildings and busy people every day. I am humbled to say I am blessed with where I am right now. It feels unfair that my grandparents are not witnessing the outcome of their hard work but I will live it for them. Savaii to the world! I am here for my village. I am here for Savaii. I will continue on fighting for what's ours. Our ancestors worked hard for us to gain independence in the past. We have to fight these big nations because their inaction towards climate justice is not affecting them but our small nations. Enough is enough. I will fight for Climate Justice for Savai’i. For Fa’a’ala Palauli. For Sasina Gagaifomauga. For grandpa and grandma. I will always fight for us. I am scared that one day I will have to explain everything to my grandma. So let’s protect the planet and hand it on to the next generation. They do not deserve to go through hell on Earth fighting for climate justice.
Watch the 'Drowning Islands' documentary below -