Life in Samoa - the Muliaga migration

Immigration, obesity, poverty, corporate greed - the Folole Muliaga story raised issues that divided New Zealanders. Tony Wall and photographer David White travelled to Samoa with the Muliaga family to better understand their lives, and Folole's tragic death.

Last week the office of the New Zealand Immigration Service in Apia was crowded with Samoans wanting to go to "Niu Sila".

Outside, the queue stretched for 20m. Two security guards maintained order; chairs were provided for relief from the sticky, 30 heat.

A sheet of paper containing hundreds of numbers was stuck to the front window, representing those who'd been accepted for permanent residency under the immigration quota system. Hopefuls crowded around, looking for their number, like school children jostling for exam results.

This year, 19,000 people - 10 per cent of Samoa's population - applied for one of 1100 available quota spots. But the quota, for those aged 18-45 wanting to work in New Zealand, is usually not filled. Some applicants drop out because they have trouble raising the 1200 tala ($NZ563) for a residency application, not to mention the cost of medical and police checks and airfares.

Others fail to meet criteria such as having a job offer, being able to have a conversation in English or health and character requirements.

For those whose number comes up, it's like winning Lotto, but are they really going to find a better life in New Zealand? This is, after all, a country where one of their own, school teacher Folole Muliaga, went in search of her dream, only to find poverty and an early grave. The victim, as some would have it, of a heartless corporation that put profit before the lives of its customers.

On top of that, there was a backlash against her family. Many New Zealanders believe they brought their troubles on themselves, by not paying their power bill on time or getting help more quickly.

One major newspaper polled its readers on who was to blame for the death: Mercury Energy, which switched off her power despite her needing an oxygen machine and left her family grieving in the dark for hours, or the family itself? Twice as many people said the family.

Hardly the type of community-minded society of which Samoans are so proud. But of course Samoa is not necessarily the Pacific paradise it seems at first glance.

Scratch the surface and you'll find pockets of third- world poverty, a scarcity of well-paid jobs, a lack of infrastructure and services and domestic violence.

The choices are stark for families like the Muliagas.

Stay in Samoa and live a simple, family-focused life in a tropical climate, but with nothing much to do and few educational and career opportunities; or migrate to somewhere like New Zealand, where the schooling is better and there are more jobs, but it's cold, you'll most likely end up in overcrowded, sub-standard housing and your children could fall in with the kind of criminal gangs unheard of in the islands

Folole Muliaga chose to migrate, once she had convinced her husband, Lopaavea (Lopa), who had been to Auckland before and found it too cold.

She wanted out of her family's village of Sogi, an inner-city suburb of Apia, and one of the poorer areas. Her matai (chief) father Lei'ataua Moresi Tokuma, 74, has a nice place there, with its carefully maintained patch of lawn and garden and western-style house.

A government clerk in Apia for almost 40 years, Moresi has family land on the island of Manono, between the main islands of Savai'i and Upolu, and rents his land in Sogi from the government for five tala ($2.35) a fortnight. He is secretary of the Congregational Christian Church next door, which is the centre of the community and takes tithes of around 20 tala per family ($9.40) a week. On top of that, it raised several thousand tala at a dance last weekend.

None of this money appears to be going on improving local housing. Behind Moresi's house is a collection of shanties, like something out of an African slum.

These are home to crab fishermen and their families, and are built in a mangrove swamp. When a king tide arrives, it brings in piles of plastic garbage, making the place look like a tip. People seem happy, but life can be brutal.

Photographer David White heard yelps of pain and turned to see a father holding his small son by the hair with one hand and punching him in the head with the other. "He's being punished," someone explained.

Samoans are perhaps starting to confront the domestic violence problem. The front page of the Samoa Observer on July 12 featured a story about Manu Samoa veteran Brian Lima becoming the only player to attend five consecutive World Cups - page two had a story about the same player appearing in court for assaulting his wife.

The court dropped the charge and Lima later appeared on TV news apologising to "all mothers and women of Samoa".

But old habits die hard and several people described the disbelief here at New Zealand's passing of the anti- smacking bill. "The elders are saying to their relatives in New Zealand, 'send your children to us, we'll discipline them'," one young father said.

When Lopa and Folole Muliaga made the decision in the late 90s to move to New Zealand, the first hurdle was Folole's weight.

The Tokumas are a big family, in numbers and physical size. Moresi Tokuma and his wife Fa'asalafa had seven children of their own and adopted an eighth.

Fa'asalafa, who died a big woman in 2003 of stomach cancer, aged 60, was a teacher. Three of her children followed her into that profession, including Folole's younger sister Suisala and brother Atapana.

Most of the Tokuma siblings are fat, Suisala, 42, particularly so. Her obesity has affected her mobility. In her classroom at Vaigaga Primary School, on the airport road out of Apia, she is rooted to her desk in a corner, from where she gives instructions to her 50 pupils.

"All of our family are fat people," Suisala says. "It's in the genes."

Folole's size and obesity-related health problems became an issue when she applied for the immigration quota. She was told she would have to lose weight before she could go to New Zealand, as she could become a burden on the health system.

It was not easy for her to lose weight at home in Sogi, where last week we were served a typical meal of boiled white rice, tinned corned beef, lamb flaps, baked banana and egg foo yong, washed down with raspberry cordial. Tasty, but hardly nutritious.

Samoa is the sixth most obese nation on earth, according to the World Health Organisation, with 80 per cent of people over the age of 15 having a body mass index (BMI) higher than 30, the clinical definition of obesity.

Obesity's deadly offspring, diabetes and kidney disease, have hit Samoans hard. In the past, the Samoan government has paid for patients to fly to New Zealand for dialysis treatment, but three years ago the national hospital in Apia was supplied with dialysis machines as part of a joint venture between the Samoa and Singapore national kidney foundations. The development has made a big difference to locals, as well as overseas-based Samoan kidney patients who need regular dialysis and had been unable to return home.

The government has also taken initiatives to get people's weight down. Frozen turkey tails are imported from the US and cooked on the barbeque with soy sauce and salt. They are popular with Samoans but are extremely high in fat. From November, they will be outlawed. This follows the banning of chicken backs a couple of years ago.

For Folole, help with her obesity was at hand in the form of her cousin's husband, Auseugaefa Poloma Komiti, who is high up in the Samoan government.

In his office on the fifth floor of the government building in central Apia, with a stunning view of the harbour, Komiti, the head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, remembered the "challenges" facing Folole prior to the family's migration.

Komiti says Folole came to live with him and his wife so she could concentrate on her weight-loss. "We gave her advice and made sure she was taking up the regimen of treatment that the medical people were advising her to do. The bottom line was, she had to lose weight."

The couple put Folole on a fish- based diet and helped her with an exercise programme. She was given a weight goal, and achieved it.

The Muliagas were comparatively well off by Samoan standards. Folole, a primary school teacher for 15 years, would have been on about 24,000 tala ($NZ11,200) a year, while Lopa worked for his family's taxi company.

But Folole hoped that, by moving to New Zealand, her career options would be better and her children would get better schooling. The couple left in 2000, with children Ietitaia, then 13, Ruatesi, 11, Morwenna, 9, and baby Eden in tow.

Life for the Muliagas in Auckland was good for the first few years. There was family nearby: three of Folole's brothers were in New Zealand.

Lopa got a job as a kitchen hand at the Centra Auckland Airport, earning $470 a week after tax, while Folole retrained in early childhood education at Auckland University, gaining a diploma.

She was one of the founders of the Congregational Christian Church childcare centre in Mangere, and loved her job. Her three eldest children were enrolled in one of Auckland's top state schools, Onehunga High. The couple applied several times for a Housing New Zealand home but were disqualified because their combined income was too high.

They ended up renting a basic brick home in Mangere Bridge, an expensive suburb in real estate terms, paying $290 a week, rising to $300, to a private landlord. They received a family benefit, but Lopa says money was always tight. They had about $100 a week to pay for food, petrol and bus fare for the children.

Folole's weight had ballooned again, and her health was suffering. She had heart and lung problems and by February this year, she was no longer able to sit on the mat and read to the children at the childcare centre. She reluctantly agreed to take three months off. Lopa had to cut back on his hours to help look after her and the children.

Folole didn't tell many people about her problems. "I didn't know she was sick," says Orita Sione, a school teacher in Apia and Folole's best friend.

But she confided in her sister, Suisala.

"I talked to Folole on the phone, and she told me to search for help, for traditional Samoan medicine," Suisala says.

The plants and herbs used by traditional doctors could not be taken into New Zealand, she says, but were sometimes boiled into a liquid and smuggled in. But that did not happen.

"We were too busy here. It's hard for us here to prepare things to take to her. She said, 'it's all right, I'm in the hospital now'."

Folole, who spent a month in Middlemore Hospital, was not the first member of her family to receive hospital treatment in New Zealand. Her mother, Fa'asalafa, had three operations for the fatal tumour in her stomach, the first two in Samoa, paid for by the family, and the third at Middlemore, at the expense of the Samoan government.

Lopa says his wife received "very good healthcare" and she was "very strong" when she was released from Middlemore on May 11.

"I said, 'are you all right?' and she said, 'yeah I'm all right'. The doctor said, 'make sure you have your oxygen'."

Doctors had assessed her condition as chronic, in the mildly stressful category, rather than acute and life- threatening, and had given her a mains-powered oxygen machine, with a nose tube fitting, which was supposed to help her breathe rather than keep her alive.

But Folole saw it as her lifeline. Lopa says Folole "never missed her oxygen", using it around the clock.

The family had been getting behind with power and telephone bills. The phone was disconnected about a week before Folole died.

Lopa tried to sort out a payment plan with Mercury Energy, but it was not interested, a call-centre worker telling him they couldn't deal with him because his name was not on the bill.

On May 29, a contractor disconnected the family's power and within a few hours, Folole, who had been home with eldest son Ietitaia, was dead, aged 44.

"That never would have happened here," says Sione, Folole's school teacher friend.

"We can negotiate things with people."

Samoa's Electric Power Corporation provides some of the cheapest electricity in the islands. Householders purchase units of electricity in advance. "Three weeks ago I bought 100 talas' worth ($47) and I still have 40 units left," says Komiti, Folole's relative in the prime minister's department.

Komiti flew to New Zealand for Folole's funeral. "I heard the eulogies and that was the Folole I knew, who would not ask for help even when she was in dire need."

He says there were networks available to her and her family, "but she was a proud person".

Lopa says he and his wife didn't know where to turn for help. One place they could have gone was the Lafitaga welfare centre in Auckland, set up by Fa'amausili Tuilimu Solo Brown, who won a Queen's Service Medal in 2001 for her community work, but returned permanently to Samoa the following year.

Brown, also a justice of the peace in New Zealand, is one of only two women judges at the Land and Titles Court in Apia.

She says Lafitaga, which sees 70,000 people a year, could have helped the Muliagas with their power bill. She was shocked by Folole's experience.

"I can imagine that happening maybe in Papua New Guinea, but not New Zealand. It's appalling."

She believes Samoans who struggle in New Zealand should come home.

"When I was in New Zealand I was advising people to come back to Samoa, especially when they don't have jobs. Being on a benefit is worse, they might as well come home and work the land. It's a beautiful place, we can lead a good life here."

That was a theme common among Samoans who had returned home after many years abroad.

Eileen Taeleipu, who was raised in Christchurch but now runs her own business just out of Apia, says many of her countrymen and women go to New Zealand expecting too much and are shocked by the reality. "They go from a freehold piece of land with a house to staying in a garage in an overcrowded situation."

And many refuse to adapt to the New Zealand way of life. "My dad lived in New Zealand for 40 years and was still living like a Samoan. He would make us all live Samoan inside the house, and palagi outside, only because we had to."

This included a rigid attitude to discipline, Taeleipu says. "What you would call child abuse in New Zealand was just normal Samoan discipline."

She says that while women like Folole had to go to work to help support their families, and women's rights were progressing, "I don't think we're considered equal here. Typical Samoan women are selfless, their children come first."

Brown says too many Samoans rely on remittances from family overseas. "Instead of going to the land and working the land, they are just waiting for the money to arrive."

Despite the problems many of them encounter, a steady stream of Samoans continue to leave behind their homeland in search of opportunities overseas.

At Faleolo Airport, friends and family gather to farewell passengers on a 2am flight to Niu Sila. Two young women in traditional dress are in tears in the departure lounge and on the steps to the plane, turning to wave goodbye to their family.

Two men from rural Samoa who have obviously never flown before wear their anxiety on their faces. Lucia Filipo, 60, from Apia, crosses herself when the plane takes off and clutches rosary beads as it descends into Auckland.

Some of these people are visiting family, others are on work visas, while some are starting a new life. All have big hopes and dreams, some will achieve them. Hopefully, none will end up like Folole Muliaga.
Samoans in Aotearoa
# Samoans are the single largest Pacific ethnic group, comprising 115,000 or 50% of NZ's Pacific population.
# 58% of the total Samoan population in NZ was born here.
# Most Samoans (66%) live in Auckland, or Wellington (17%).
# 90% of Samoans in New Zealand speak English.
# 90% are Christians.
# 30% of Samoans in New Zealand live in an extended family situation, compared to 8% of the NZ population.
# 17% of Samoans hold a post-school qualification, compared to 32% of the total population.
# 56% of Samoan adults are employed, up from 43% in 1991. 16% were unemployed, compared to only 7% of the total population.
# The most common occupation for Samoans is plant and machine operators (19%), clerks (18%) and service and sales workers (16%).
# Samoans born here are more likely than their overseas-born counterparts to be employed in white-collar jobs such as legislators, administrators and managers (7% and 4%), professionals (10% and 7%) and associate professionals (14% and 7%).
# The Samoan adult population has a median annual income of $15,600, compared to $18,500 for the rest of the population.
# 60% of Samoans are in rental housing, compared to 33% of the total population. Of those, 46% are in Housing New Zealand accommodation, down from 60% in the mid-90s.
# 86% of Samoan households have telephones, compared to 96% of the total population.
# Figures are from the 2001 census, the most recently published census figures


The report found the following, that the major impacts of globalization in the Pacific were, number one, rapid increase in extreme poverty; and number two, destabilization of governments. After decades of failed economic development and stagnant private investment, we see now the rapid rise of extreme poverty in the Pacific. 40% of the peoples of Vanuatu live in poverty. 48% in Samoa. Over 50% in Kiribati. “The Island of Hope” documented that the primary cause of poverty in the Pacific relates to globalization, and that this rise in poverty is interlinked with the adoption by national governments of liberal policies promoting investment and competition, and this has operated to the detriment of social services, including health, education, housing, and social welfare.


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