08 Mar Hunger for Learning and Thirst for Knowledge

The Samoan word for writer is tusitala, storyteller and as a storyteller, my favorite proverb is:  E pala ma’a, ae e le pala le tala. Stones rot, but words, stories last forever.

I am reminded of two other young people a lot like you that I was privileged to meet a few years ago.  I’d like to share their story with you – a story of two sisters, Lydia and Vaiala.  They lived with their extended family aiga in a village on the coast in Samoa, their open fale house was only a few steps from the beach. Lydia is a full-time mother to her 3yr old son Richie. Vaiala was a student at the National University of Samoa finishing up her Diploma in Tourism.  The family didn’t have  much money, but education was important to them. Vaiala’s parents paid for her to attend the university in town, an hours bus ride away and all  aiga put money towards her schooling.

One morning at 6.48am on the 29th of Sept, a massive 8.3 magnitude earthquake hit.  Power poles swayed, the TV smashed to the ground. The sisters and Richie were the only ones home that morning.   A few minutes after the earthquake, the tsunami came. Because their house was so close to the ocean they had a frighteningly perfect view of the first wave as it made its way towards them.

Vaiala said, “It was only five or six minutes after the earthquake and then the wave came. The sea was dirty and black and it moved in a spinning motion. There was white foam spray at the top of it, looked like smoke. It ran so fast, like fire across the land. The noise it made was very loud. Like many airplanes taking off at once. Pei o se meaola, It was a beast/animal coming to devour us. We climbed on the roof of our house with Richie. Our neighbor, the girl called Masina climbed on the roof with us. But then she got scared because the wave was so high, she jumped down and tried to run away.”

The first wave didn’t reach them on the roof but tsunami don’t come in a single wave. They come in many. The second wave was bigger and it destroyed the house. Lydia was holding onto Richie as they went under.  “I was buried under the house with my son. I couldn’t see anything. I couldn’t breathe. I pushed him up towards the light and the wave took him. Then another wave came and broke the timber that was holding me under. It spun me around. I was getting cut all over, it was like cement was scraping my body.” Survivors caught in the tsunami water said it was like being tossed and churned in a washing machine  – that also had blocks of concrete, timber beams and sharp roofing iron in it.

Lydia was taken far inland. She was badly beaten and bruised. She lay there crying for her son. Where was Richie?  Her sister Vaiala was also taken by the water to the mangrove. When the ocean pulled back, she started wading through the swamp, trying to get away from the next wave, That’s when she saw Richie, face down in the water, tangled in mangrove tree roots. He wasn’t breathing. They were alone in a swamp, many miles away from any hospital or rescue teams. Vaiala broke down in tears at this point in her story. She said, “As part of our Diploma, we had to take a first aid course. They taught us how to do CPR. I never thought it would be useful. And then here I was, with my nephew in my arms, not breathing I was so scared, in case I didn’t do it properly. I did CPR on him. Three times I did it and then he came to life, grabbed on to me coughing and crying.” The little boy and the two sisters survived. But the girl who had climbed on the roof with them did not.

When the sisters shared their story with me, it was on a rainy afternoon by the ocean, sitting in their half-rebuilt house. Richie was playing in the rain. Laughing. The sisters watched him play and they cried. The air was cluttered with if’s. What if Vaiala had not seen Richie lying there? What if she had gotten to him a few minutes later?  A few minutes too late? What if she had not known how to do CPR?

After the tsunami, I was commissioned to research and write a book about the disaster. I spent many months interviewing survivors, rescue workers and medical personnel. It was challenging work and an experience that had a powerful impact on me. Everyone had a story to tell, many would talk for an hour or more.From these sisters, I was reminded that education has a practical purpose that goes far beyond the classroom and the school books. All of you are students in the classroom, learning stuff every day, some boring, some mildly interesting. You may never know how valuable that knowledge is – until you are in a real life situation that requires you to use it.

As Pasifika youth, none of you is just an individual flying solo up there in the sky. Just like Vaiala, your parents and families have made sacrifices for your education. Your teachers have worked hard to help give you the tools you need to succeed. They are the ones helping to give you wings to fly up there. You carry with you on your shoulders – the combined hopes of your parents, your family, your community. I know what that’s like. I went to school at Samoa College where the school motto is, Atamai e tautua mo Samoa. Knowledge/learning to serve Samoa.

When I was in high school, there was no university in Samoa and we had to work hard for a scholarship to a university in New Zealand. If you earned a scholarship you had to sign a bond contract saying we would go back to Samoa and work there for at least three years when we finished university overseas. My parents would remind  us often about the importance of that commitment. Even when I was only in Junior High, they’d be like, “eh, don’t you even think about trying to run away from your bond when you finish university eh, no daughter of ours is going to forget her commitment to Samoa and shame us by not serving her contract.”  (and Im like, umm I haven’t even graduated from high school yet…) We knew the only way we could go further in school, was to earn good grades so we could get a scholarship. And the competition was fierce. Only 100 scholarships awarded each year. Rich families could afford to send their children overseas to university but there were six of us kids and theres no way my parents could afford that. They liked to remind us, “We cant give you money or land as an inheritance, but we can teach you to work hard at school, get a scholarship then a good job, then you can get your own money and your own land – and share some with us.”

Our education was something that was important to the whole extended family Every time we got our report cards, we had to go show them to my grandfather. He was a plumber who had finished school at Grade 8 because his father died and so he needed to get a job to help support his mother and his siblings. Perhaps because he didn’t get a chance to have much schooling, my Papa had very high expectations for all his children and grandchildren. He didn’t believe there were smart people and dumb people no. He believed there were people who worked hard and set high goals. And people who were lazy. In Samoa students are graded and then ranked by their exam scores and everybody knows the scores. They give out prizes for first in class and first in each subject, the top students for each school are in the newspaper. Papa was very difficult to please. If we came second in a class of sixty students, he would want to know, why didn’t you come first? If you came first in three subjects, he would want to know, what happened to the other two? Why aren’t you first in those?

In Samoa, the students who get those top placings are the popular students, they’re the ones who are considered cool and special and everybody wants to hang out with them and be like them. And hope that some of their cleverness rubs off on them. In Samoa, no extra-curricular activity is as important as schoolwork. Not even sports. It was something of a shock for me when my family moved to America in my Senior year of high school – because all of a sudden, I was in an environment where it was the sporty kids who were looked up to and those who focused on academics were seen as kind of lacking in the social rankings. When I talked about university and my big dreams of being a lawyer or an English professor or an author – I even got some Samoans and Pacific Islanders telling me I was fia palagi. Which shook me/puzzled me because Im like, what? In Samoa everybody wants to go to university. All my friends are fighting to get one of those 100 spots. I think Im being pretty Samoan by aiming high.

When I graduated from high school, I went to Georgetown University and then when my family moved back to Samoa, I transferred to university in NZ where I completed my degree in English Literature and Women’s Studies, followed by a postgrad diploma in Teaching/Education. I then went back to Samoa and worked as an English teacher at Samoa College. Following in the footsteps of others in my family like my big sister who was a Geography teacher there before she continued her education and got her PhD. Shes now a professor of Education at Auckland University in NZ.  My other sister became a lawyer and another was  the first woman from Samoa to be a chemical engineer. All of them returned home to serve. They have since gone on to high profile careers overseas that have taken them to many different countries all over the world. All of us knew though, that our education, our knowledge was not just for us, for our personal benefit. It was so we could better serve our family, our people, our community.

There are more educational opportunities in Samoa now. We have a National University of Samoa where young people like Vaiala can study for a qualification and still live in her home in a rural area. But its still a great financial expense for many families and places at the university are limited. I took my oldest daughter to enrol for her first year and it was very humbling to see students come with their entire family to enrol. You could see the pride and excitement in their child, their sister, their niece, their granddaughter who had scored high enough to be accepted. One young woman explained, “I’m the first one in my family to make it to university.  All my aunties and uncles are helping to pay my tuition. Everyone is so happy someone from our family will go to university.”

I had a chance to get a quick tour of SLCC this morning and I’m so in awe with this place and all it has to offer. The programs to support Pacific Islander students are incredible and so essential. You need a school that understands the particular challenges you face, a school with a team who knows how to help you through all the ups and downs of college.

I urge you to be hungry for learning and thirsty for knowledge. You may never hold someone else’s life in your hands – as Vaiala did, holding a very still lifeless little boy in her arms –   but you will always hold YOUR life in your hands.

But the final choices are with you and you alone. We can encourage (and yell at you)  but your path, your journey – where you go and what you achieve will rely on YOU and what you choose to do with the education you have been given

I hope and pray you will all choose wisely.

An edited version of a keynote address given at the 2015 Pacific Islander Students Career Conference, Salt Lake Community College, Utah, USA. 


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