The classroom where labor was taught

That moment before the world springs to life; when the word is wrapped in a blanket of dew and dreams are retreating to the gray recesses of the mind. Somewhere, someone stirs as if to muster the troops after a night of reverie but a stifled yawn and muffled snores informs you that your peer has found another comfortable position in bed where he wills sleep to linger a little bit longer.

But seconds later, right after the rooster a few yards away announces the arrival of the sun, dad walks through and firmly rouses everyone from sleep.

“Time to get up,’ his normally warm, baritone voice unpleasant at dawn. ‘C’mon boys we need to get some work done before it gets to hot and humid.”

And so the day slowly begins. We gather the necessary tools and materials for a day of work on the farm. Our slow procession to the acreage our family has worked for decades, even centuries begins in earnest. We pull up taro for the upcoming weeks meals, stuff them into latticed coconut frond baskets and immediately replant the tender offshoots for future meals. We clear weeds and choking plants on another plot of fertile land for additional planting, gather passion fruit, guava, mangoes and tend to banana trees while another portion of the work crew builds a roiling fire, stacks rocks on top for the ‘umu and scrapes the outer husks off breadfruit for the afternoon meal before the trek back home.

Later in this afternoon we will make our way down to the ocean, a seven-mile jaunt to collect shell fish on the reef while another crew paddles beyond the reef to fish for bonito and colorful tropical fish for supper. Yet another crew will gather coconuts, an important part of every Samoan dish and essential for feeding our animals. Every part of that vital crop is utilized.

It’s all in a day’s work in Samoa. It is what my family and my ancestors before us have done for centuries. It is our way of life or at least it seems as it is slowly becoming a disappearing way of life.

I was born in the United States but my parents had the same dream that many Samoan parents dreamed for their children – to understand, embrace and be grateful for the hard work and ethics of our forefathers. Moving to Samoa fulfilled that dream for my parents and though initially it was a nightmare for me and my siblings, it became the blessing that we will never forfeit for riches.

On a languid albeit festive Labor Day while family and friends roll out BBQ pits and dish out the potato salad and a number of holiday treats, I’m reminiscing about the short time we spent in Samoa as a family and the numerous lessons that were taught both in word and in action on that tiny cluster of islands.

I saw old men, skin like leather from years of toiling in the sun, bent over small patches of earth cultivating crops to provide for their immediate and extended families. I listened to stories of how the tides were as different as the fish below the surface and about the resilience of breadfruit and how a hearty crop can sustain a large family when all other crops were scarce.

I watched old mothers and young maidens carry loads of laundry to the rivers or to a community spigot where they would sit for hours washing clothes by hand. Driving through the villages on a weekend one can see an array of colors hanging on a line between pou muli trees as school uniforms and work clothes dotted the patchwork of lush greenery.

In the evenings as in the mornings there are cooking fires where the young untitled men of the village grate coconut, scrape the skins off taro, breadfruit, cassava or yams for meals, their songs and stories interspersed with laughter filling the air as thick as the coconut husk smoke of their cooking fires. Young girls busy themselves over a pot of fish soup or fry the fish with a garnish of vegetables fresh from the garden while young children are instructed to pick up leaves around the malae (large open field for village meetings) before running off for fun and games at dusk.

In the villages of Samoa, your labor is life-sustaining. There were no microwaves to warm the frozen dinner from your local market nor electrical stoves to fry your pork or fish. The lone McDonalds on the island is miles away in Apia and too rich for the meager savings of most families. You cannot always and simply rely on the generosity and benevolence of others. You have pride in caring for your family the same way that your family has been cared for over generations. Your hands are made callused, your muscles are rendered weary and your breath becomes ragged under the hot tropical sun all for the sake of making sure that your loved ones are properly fed and cared for. And at the end of each day you are aware of the fierce loyalty you have for your family and community. You know without question that your body, mind and spirit are essential to the long-term stability of your family and your village.

In Samoa, as in all islands of the Pacific you know that your labor is a labor of love.

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5 Responses to The classroom where labor was taught

  1. Beautifully written, my friend! I cannot wait to visit Samoa one day. Until then, expressive first hand accounts will sustain my longing to know my history. Fa’afetai!

  2. Lloyd says:

    Seti, this is spellbinding writing. And more than that it is a treasure you share.

    I’ve never been to Samoa, and although I come from an Islands heritage (albeit the Islands of Great Britain, and Denmark), I was never close to generations of tradition like that. I’ve often been envious of such an heritage.
    I do remember telling my father it was “too hard’, when I had to rise early to take a water turn, or to haul hay when I was barely as tall as the level of the hay wagon; and then later when I was tasked with replacing the old shingles on the shed, and a myriad of other tasks I did want to do, or feel I could do. His consistent response was, “Son, you have to learn to do hard things.” How I hated those words back then!
    Fast forward to me in uniform (40+ years ago now, but forever in my memory), an uncertain time, much like now, but with my companions were dying in rice paddies, and jungles, rather than dry mountains and deserts. I was scared and I was scarred. But time and again, I heard in my head and in my heart, “Son, you have to learn to do hard things.” And then when I heard them, I didn’t hate the words, but found them sustaining and confidence inspiring. I remembered that I had learned how to do other hard things, maybe I could do this hard thing. And it was because generations before me had heard those same words, and they had learned.

    • Seti Matua says:

      Lloyd, you share some very valuable insights here. Have you given any thought to blogging/writing? Experience is the most valuable thing that we can share with the world and I’m grateful for all of your input. Thanks again for sharing and for all of your great comments. It’s always good to hear from you.

      • Lloyd says:

        Thank you for your kind words, Seti. I’m honored that you think so highly of my humble words. I greatly admire your writing, both from the standpoint of how beautifully and eloquently you write, and because of what you say. I don’t have much confidence in my own writing, and often wince when I go back and read what I’ve written, like above, especially when I see all the typos. And I’m afraid I’m much better at relating and responding to what others have written than I am at coming up with something to tell on my own. I do try to pass on the lessons of my life to my sons. I’m not sure they always listen, but I still try. Passing things on publicly, I’m not so sure about, but as I said, I’m honored by your suggestion.

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