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Triumph and Struggle
Today's Triumph borne of yesterday's Struggle. (O faigata o ananafi ua mafua ai le aso lenei.) By Vonney Stevenson
(Based on a true story.)
I reached blindly around for my flimsy bedsheet as the crispness of the morning breeze heralded the dawn of a new day. This, together with the melodic sound of my grandmother Ema's voice in hymn, then prayer, beseeched me to open my eyes and acknowledge it was in fact, morning. My crude Samoan hut stood in the corner of our property behind our modest wall-less family home with its quaint hand-woven blinds and thatched roof. The said corner was closest to the corresponding corner of the family home that housed the scant but clean belongings of mother's mother- Ema, notably her now open mosquito net. My hut's location was the ideal spot from which I could survey all that happened around our meagre, and surrounding properties. Her voice in prayer rang with clarity and conviction, yet, to this day I recall as if it were yesterday the words she pleadingly put to the Lord, "God, may your blessings rain upon our children, may You, in your infinite wisdom elect to utilise them for Your ministry in whatever way You may see fit. Amen."
I sat up, pulling my worn bed sheet close around my malnourished frame and gazed windward. As always, my eyes were drawn to the seemingly infinite mystery of the ocean. The ethereal lights of Tutuila were still visible in the waning darkness, creating the illusionary, and somewhat mythical division of the ocean and the skies of the Matamatagi. My gaze was drawn easterly to the spectral star of Tapuitea, ever shining but seen only this early in the morning and in the infancy of the night, always illuminating the eternal crashing of waves against the eroding reef. Close by, the beam of the solitary lighthouse was slowly being superseded by the Painter's colouring of the new day.
Like a mirage, the picturesque island of Vini appeared out of the fleeing night, the mythical upturned canoe-cum-island majestic as it faced Tapaga peninsula.Behind Vini, the boar ridden foliage of the smaller Nuutele island emerged into the kaleidoscope as did the reef of the adjoining Nuulua- legendary for its intricate seashells. My gaze meandered westerly and was met by the behemoth island of Namua, which according to the wizened men and women is home to the demon Sosai. Neighbouring Fanuatapu island glistened mysteriously with the promise of bounty for the turtle hunters and teeming with tropical sea life.
I was drawn out of my reverie by the gurgling of our neighbour Vai's new born baby that she had brought out to breathe in the morning freshness. Vai was the wife of Sepe, a renowned fisherman in our village, a reputation he rightly deserved as their household feasted on abundant seafood every day.I was jarred out of my musings by the distinctive loud voice of my mother Lusi,cooing our chickens. Next, I heard the tinkling of the few glassware and enamel plates in our kitchen cabinet,a sure sign I should be awake -of certainly I knew,as I quickly got up hastily tying my lavalava around my hips,the same coconut cups that had been used to feed the chickens would be flying at my head if Lusi did not see me doing something useful soon. I vaguely recalled I was to accompany Lusi to the plantation today to do some taro gardening and to gather some food supplies in preparation for the village's farewell feast tonight with students from Malua.We were wishing them well after their successful completion of the Faafouina programme.
I am the eldest of six children with my brother Tavita and myself being the only males.My sister Tise is the second eldest with Tavita being the third child-and we three attend our local public school in the neighbouring village during the school term. In the evenings we also join the pastor's lessons and enjoy learning to write on flat rocks with rudimentary chalk stones. Our father died two years ago when I was 13. Since then, my mother has had to bear the responsibility of being both a mother and father to six children, the load made even heavier as Lusi also takes care of her mother, my grandmother Ema.My grandmother is 64 years old but she is the embodiment of a fighter,a toughened veteran of life,still spritely and fearless.Ema's main responsibility is looking after my younger sisters,being the advisor to my mother and most importantly the dedicated prayer offeror in and for my family. My mother Lusi,beleaguered as she is with the enormous burden of raising a family on her own,is the epitome of industriousness.She is never still and is always on the move building, planting, weeding, harvesting, mending, sewing, cleaning, cooking- seemingly indefatigable. Nor does she condone my siblings and I resting even for a little while.
As such, most days my mother's distinctive voice can be heard from afar nagging, chastising, correcting or directing us all from dawn till dusk. It can be said that her nickname of "radio" in our village,was well earned. As my mother and I prepared to leave, she belted out militant orders to my younger siblings Tise and Tavita to weed the garden in case the pastor paid us an inspection visit later.
The dirt track to the plantation was steep and long winded and my temples easily oozed with sweat before long. My mother walked ahead ahead holding an old tin can filled with water as I cannot climb coconut trees.I followed behind bearing a rusted machete in one hand,the other supporting the single lumber on my shoulder from which hung two woven baskets of essentials. Shortly,Lusi came to a stop sighing loudly and wiped the sweat from her brow with the edge of her stained lavalava, the pattern now indiscernible and the fabric over worn and caked with dirt.
My mother was in her signature attire,a color that may have once been green,now a murky grey. The closest piece of clothing Lusi's outfit resembled is a dress but an ugly, shapeless mound of a dress with just a single opening for her head to fit through. A "kipuka",as Samoans called this hideous gown,was popular amongst the have-nots.
We rested under a mango tree and my mother proceeded to briskly peel a papaya fruit and shell a coconut for us to break our fast with. We drank sparingly of water,rested a while,then started our days' work. After showing me which corner of our plantation to start weeding from, I quickly got to work. Lusi as always wanted us to be as efficient as possible so that the bulk of the work would be done before the midday sun beat down on us, in which case working would become even more arduous. As I bent to start weeding,I could see Lusi clearing the other side of the plantation.
My mind was filled with sorrow at the unfairness of my life.If looking after a plantation and doing chores was the life I was doomed to live everyday, I swore to the angels in heaven I couldn't do it. The cool morning breeze soon gave way to a blazing midday sun,glaring with all its solar might upon my brow, pulling relentless strands of sweat to stream down my face, my hands unrecognizable beneath the dirt and swollen from ant bites.
As I dwelt on my misery, the careless breeze carried the sound of singing from the neighbouring plantation. It was none other than Simi, the transgender son of our village high chief. Simi alternated between Samoan and English songs and I felt envy because I didn't know how to speak English. He was older than me and worked in Apia at the famed Eveni department store. Simi was smart and multi-talented,a popular figure that everyone wanted to be associated with. Simi's family owned the only shop in our village.
I stood up and stretched my aching back whilst surveying our vast plantation.Our taro and giant taro crop was abundant,as were the wild cabbage and eggplant bushes that ran riot in the midst and of our land. On the far corner,the ancient tahitian lime stood proudly supporting the lush passion fruit vine that wrapped around its enormous citrus trunk. Purple spheres of edible delicacies shone brightly amidst the green foliage indicating the passion fruits were ripe for the picking. Papaya trees,heavy with fruit enfolded the perimeter of our land entirely. On the eastern side of the property, before the land dipped into the valley, my late grandfather's once carefully maintained pineapple crop now grew in chaotic abundance. My mother speaks often of her father's legendary pineapples, now free for the taking for passersby since my extended family started their voluntary exodus from our village I. search of a better life in Apia town.
Just then I noticed Lusi planting the last lot of new taro shoots next to where our load of goods to take home with us lay-baskets of taro, luau, papaya, limes and pineapples. My mother had added a basket of eggplants and wild cabbage with which we would fry some canned mackerel for dinner tonight. As Lusi and I prepared our bundles to carry, we heard Simi call out for us to wait for him. I peeked around the sugarcane leaves and almost burst out laughing at Simi's comical appearance.
He wore a crown of braided coconut fronds interspersed with white gardenia flowers. On his left ear perched a blood red Samoan hibiscus that match the hue of his lips and cheeks. I suspect the loa tree that stood nearby was most probably bereft of its fruit now as Simi would have had to use copious amounts of loa seeds to make his cheeks and lips so red. Our trio started our homeward journey with my mother leading the way and Simi bringing up the rear. Ever the entertainer, Simi insisted that we sing a song to shorten our trudge home. As always he wanted to sing soprano while I was to harmonise in alto, to which I agreed.Simi then started the melody of our district's anthem.
"Ua ou sau nei, sei tatou aleaga.
I si o'u nuu moni o Aleipata."
I grew increasingly annoyed at Simi's unrealistically high soprano singing key. My annoyance was exacerbated by the fact that I didn't know the words to the song off by heart. Next,the illustrious lead singer of our duo started to sing our village anthem-a wise choice that I happily supported by joining him in a heartfelt passionate rendition of our beloved village song.
"Sa ou taamilo,taamilo ile atu-Samoa.
E leai ose fale e pei ole maota i Lalotoa.
E ese osi ona faiga e tu mai ile malele-lele.
Le maota lena o loo susu ai le Sagapolutele."
Our joyous singing served to shorten our journey and soon I was farewelling Simi, promising to see him later at tonight's festivities.
I quickly helped Lusi prepare our food to take to the feasting and hurried to ready myself for the celebrations. I donned my green t-shirt reserved for special occasions, styled my hair with fragrant home made coconut oil, tied my lavalava and headed for the pastor's house.
The pastor's house was a hive of activity already packed with the village people. The youth group members flitted around excitedly making last minute changes to their performances which would be the final component of the night's festivities after the prayer service and feasting. I skillfully edged through the throng of bodies to present our family's food offerings to the committee, 5 taros, 5 palusamis, 3 chickens and 2 fish fins. My mother had thanked Sepe profusely for our 2 large fish that we had exchanged for taro and palusami.
After the feasting the singing and dancing carried well into the night and to nobody's surprise Simi stole the show with his wit and jesting. The Malua students were thoroughly entertained and satisfied with a festive farewell they would remember for years to come.
The pearly beams of the moon lit the white sand of the village square so that it shone like untouched snow. Eventually the revelers- in twos, threes or one by one each sought their way to home and hearth, to rest and prepare for Sunday service the following morning. I wore my T-shirt casually around my neck and prepared to head home like the others, tired and looking forward to a falling into the sweet oblivion of sleep. As I turned in the direction of my humble home our pastor Tui called out to me, "Semi hurry home. When you awake in the morning please come and see me."
To be continued...