The drive to Josie’s house whisked away the Apia heat. A welcome breeze through the open car windows, as one colourful village after another whizzed past. Fale’ula, Maile, Utuali. I traced my finger along the map. We were looking for a house with purple curtains.
We spotted the place shortly after, opposite a village pool. A small dog sniffed around the frontyard, while a larger dog barked at the back. As we approached the front door, a white-haired man gambolled out. Josie’s father, who looked nothing like ninety-one. This was his house. We’d never met him before, but he regarded us brightly, his face tanned and creased like a favourite wallet, then shook our hands.
Josie stepped out too. Hugged Kate and then me. Calm and slim, she’s a parent from Kate’s school in Wellington. She beckoned us through a gap in the purple curtains and into the cool shade of her living room. Framed photographs adorned the walls, representing several generations of her family. In another corner, pictures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary demonstrated their strong faith. Most prominent of all was the funeral poster of Josie’s mother, who’d died August last year. Two huge paper flower displays stood either side, also from the funeral. The dead were never forgotten here. Her mother had been buried in a grave outside in the garden.
We sat on orange floral chairs. All around us, cheerful fabrics competed for attention: an orange-yellow tablecloth draped over a table; the reds and whites and blues of the flower displays; and those wonderful purple curtains hanging by the door. Her father excused himself to serve someone in their little shop – a hatch that faced out onto the road. Then Josie introduced her oldest brother, Sene, and fetched us all beers.
“I’m helping the electorate commission in Auckland, persuading Maori and Pacific people why they should vote.” Sene’s voice was soft and educated; he leaned forward with a hint of Calvin Klein’s One. “Some of them don’t want their location to be known, they don’t want to register, they tell me one vote can’t change anything. But it’s your vote, I tell them, yours and no-one else’s. If you want your voice to be heard, then you have to vote. If a hundred people think the same as you, a thousand, think of the difference you can make.”
Sene had lots to talk about. His career in the New Zealand Police, then his Polynesian restaurant in Lower Hutt. He had plans to start a school too. He appreciated the importance of education; he and his siblings had received schooling in New Zealand.
Then the conversation veered onto politics: the New Zealand election; how Samoa is governed.
“Every village has several chiefs. Each one of them speaks for a family. We call them orators.” Sene sipped quietly at his beer. “One chief is high chief. He listens to the orators and makes decisions for the village.”
“What about elected MPs?” I asked.
“Usually the MP is one of the chiefs, whoever can pay most people to vote for him.” He smiled but didn’t laugh. “Or her. Some chiefs, and MPs too, are women. Then we have the paramount chiefs.” He paused dramatically.
“Really?” I pictured a chief riding towards a familiar triangular mountain, the opening sequence of a Paramount Studios movie.
“There are four of them, the Malietoa, Tupua Tamasese, Mata’afa and Tu’imaleali’fano families, and their titles are hereditary.” Of course, Sene meant the word ‘paramount’ in its pure sense, as in a supreme chief. “The head of state is usually a paramount chief.”
“Right.” This had to be the same head of state we saw climbing out of a stretch limo at the Pacific Nations Cup; and in the paper shaking hands with the new US ambassador.
Josie moved silently back and forth, preparing dinner. Her father wandered too, sometimes answering an ancient phone in the little shop, then talking quietly in Samoan to Josie in the kitchen. Meanwhile Sene continued to tell us about Samoan life: how chiefs can delegate their powers to other family members; how chiefs can be fined for bad behaviour yet rarely dismissed; and how persistent troublemakers in a village can be voted into permanent exile. For such a mildly spoken man, Sene had a lot to say.
At last, dinner was ready. The father sat at the head, Josie and her brother sat next, and we, as guests, perched at the end. Sene still had enough words left to say grace. Then we ate: oka or pieces of tuna ‘cooked’ in lemon juice and coconut, Pacifica chop-suey, palusami or young taro leaves in coconut cream, slices of beef, taro, and kumara, plus a lettuce and tomato salad. It was a feast, probably the most delicious food we’d tasted since arriving in Samoa.
The father asked how we intended to travel home to Apia. Fortunately, Kate hadn’t drunk too much beer to drive. Otherwise, the father teased – as a former policeman – he’d have to arrest us.
But there was an hour and a half of TV to go. No not the latest DVD from Paramount, but rugby on Sky Pacific. Round two of the Bledisloe Cup, The All Blacks versus The Wallabies. For once, it was a clear TV picture, not the fuzzy borealis we suffered in our appartment. And a good job too, because it was a match with more twists and turns than any Hollywood thriller, with The All Blacks clinching a win in the very last minute.
Sir Colin must be pleased. The paramount chiefs too.