I knew nothing about Samoa, my people, my culture or my language. I most certainly knew nothing about rugby. The move to Samoa as a teen provided me with a required crash course in all five subjects.
Before the move to Samoa I knew many things but one thing in particular – I didn’t want to move away from family and friends here in the United States, and that gave me an instant distaste for everything and anything that had to do with that lonely strand of island pearls set deep in the turquoise heart of the Pacific.
Yet after a year of living there, immersed in the Samoan way of life I changed. Or rather, Samoa changed me. I didn’t ask to relinquish my American accent or dispose of my blue jeans and replace it with a lavalava, neither did I ask to become an ardent and vociferous supporter of Manu Samoa rugby. Samoa did that to me and I am grateful for it.
Many years later, everything about me is still defined by three things – my God, my family and my heritage. Even though I am an American by birth and by citizenship, my heritage can never be severed nor will I ever cede it. No matter how many years I spend away from the shores of Samoa the draw, the allure, the pull that my ancestral home, my culture and my people have on me as a person is never weakened nor will I ever falter in sustaining and supporting Samoa and the peoples and cultures of the Pacific.
They say that football is a religion here in the United States. In the islands, rugby is life. Our lust for war was replaced by our passion for sport and nothing ignites our passion for our country and our people like rugby and our beloved Manu Samoa.
The pundits tell us that the men who served our country this month in the Rugby World Cup are New Zealand-born, Australia-born and we should be grateful that they were raised in those rugby-mad nations where they cut their rugby teeth in places like Auckland, Wellington, Sydney or Brisbane. We should be grateful to European nations like England, France, Scotland, Ireland or to Japan for allowing them to play the sport and learn professionalism next to their own stars and professionals who elevate their game.
But what about the power, excitement and passion that our Pacific Island sons bring to the game?
These things are not disputed. We are grateful to these nations for tutoring our Manu Samoa sons in the finer aspects of the sport, especially in these competitive professional times where the sport is experiencing incredible growth and popularity. But understand this one thing – just like me and thousands like me, regardless of our country of birth, those men who don the blue jersey for Samoa are Samoan when they wear the jumper with pride; they are Samoan when they wear the colors of their respective professional teams; they are Samoan when you see them in the pub, on the street, in your churches schools or your places of business.
In Samoa they say, “E lele le toloa ‘ae toe ma’au lava i le vai.” The literal translation is “The grey duck will fly, but it always returns to the water.” It refers to the foraging trips taken by this native bird of Samoa that sometimes spans years. Yet even after taking its leave, that bird knows the flight path to return to its original home.
I have no doubt that the 2011 Manu Samoa team felt that familiar familial pull to represent Samoa because of their loyalty to their bloodlines. They did it despite the economic frustrations, political instability and financial disparity felt by all of the island nations as compared to the richer rugby nations. Some have said that these men had very little chance of competing with the very best teams in the world. Samoa, and our cousins from Tonga and Fiji have always been relegated to a lower rugby status and are considered second-class citizens in the eyes of the rugby elite. Will that ever change? I hope in my Manu Samoa, Pacific Island heart that it does, but I’m less than optimistic that it will.
I am, however, optimistic about the future of Pacific Island rugby. I have a renewed sense of pride in the efforts of our Pacific Island teams and hope that we will continue to compete at the highest levels and prove the pundits wrong. I am especially grateful for the pride and passion displayed by our hero’s in the 2011 RWC.
Mahonri Schwalger led his troops with calm and zeal, lifting them when they needed direction and encouraging them when they were down. Tusi Pisi, Kahn Fotuali’i, Alesana Tuilagi, Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu, Maurie Fa’asavalu, Paul Williams and the entire Samoan squad played with true determination, pride and passion for Samoa and Samoans, not for the expectation of monetary rewards or financial gain although I am confident that each one of them will be justly rewarded by professional teams who have seen their abilities and acknowledged their talents. In Samoan households their names are as familiar now as family member who have gone on to battle and returned with glory despite losing the war. The same can be said of the warriors who played valiantly for Tonga and Fiji.
As an after thought, this RWC has given a people hope. It has given us faith in our own abilities to live with passion and pride. Not the pride that spoils us, but the pride that lifts to fulfill our capabilities rather than burden us with our inabilities, just as Manu Samoa, Ikale Tahi and Fiji have proven on the rugby pitch, so to can we accomplish such feats in our own professional and personal lives.
I wonder if a boy or girl who was raised outside of Samoa, Tonga or Fiji can ever come to understand the passion and fierce loyalty we have for our people. I wonder if a young man of Polynesian descent living in the inner city understands that his true nature and potential lies within his innate warrior spirit passed down for generations, and not in the temporary satisfaction of drugs, alcohol and gangs. I wonder if the young woman struggling to find her identity realizes the significant role she plays in molding, nurturing, modeling, edifying, loving and sustaining future generations of Pacific Islander youths? I wonder if the young father down on his luck or the young mother desperate for a reprieve from the daily pressures of life understands that they are the guardians and curators of lore, customs and language perpetuated by their ancestors and imparted to them through generations.
Pacific Island rugby in the 2011 RWC has reminded us of our islands, our heritage, our pride. Faafetai tele lava, malo ‘aupito and vinaka vaka levu to the island warriors of the Pacific. Your fierce determination and passion is commendable. I owe you my gratitude for giving me pride in my heritage and people.