Teuila Fuatai: Coming to grips with the Sāmoan election


Some topics I get asked to look at carry more weight than others.

When it comes to writing, I like to orbit spaces I’m confident about. Stuff I’ve reported on, experienced first-hand, dedicated time and headspace to researching. Over time, certain topics become more familiar making it easier to understand what should and shouldn’t be happening.

For me, this tends to revolve around what I relate to and find interesting.

One of the more significant, ongoing stories in our corner of the world has been the Sāmoan election. After 40 years, the Human Rights Protection Party – led by Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi for the past two decades – may not be returned to government. At its heels, Tuilaepa’s former deputy Fiame Naomi Mata’afa and the recently formed Fa’atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (Fast) party.

For this New Zealand-raised Sāmoan, keeping up with developments in the past few weeks has inspired a mix of thoughts and emotions. Excitement, amusement, impatience.

Remarks and questions around the election have also varied. It’s gone from speculation around how the counting process could take so long, to who is in (and who’s not). Now, it’s about what the wheeling and dealing for a government might entail. There’s also been a healthy amount of criticism regarding the lack of mainstream media coverage in New Zealand, and whether I’d be reporting on what’s at stake.

It’s a fair question – one I asked myself when our cousins’ WhatsApp chat rolled on to the topic of the upcoming election a few months back. What could I add in the way of election coverage? Of course, that led to another, more probing question: How much do I really know about how politics works in Sāmoa?

In line with the best type of answers, the response is layered and complex. To begin, it looped back to how I felt reporting in a space that intersected culture, language, tradition, customs and for me, a largely unfamiliar political system. I have never lived in Sāmoa. Further, my own Sāmoan is a work in progress, as is my knowledge of traditional customs and hierarchy, and how that’s weaved into contemporary life. I am acutely aware that any analysis I do therefore falls short on those elements.

Second, and the inevitably tougher layer to punctuate, is related to what this means for me in the diaspora. In New Zealand, Sāmoans have their own identity, communities and history. While I’m still learning about the more traditional elements of Sāmoan culture, the context of life here is much more familiar.

I understand the stories of adversity, miscommunication, triumph and growth. Similarly, it’s easier to see how they fit into the wider spectrum of politics and government policy. Spend enough time talking to people and looking at reports, and the trickle-down effects of decisions made in the halls of power become pretty obvious. Of course, there’s also the benefit of lived experience as a Sāmoan in New Zealand.

Unfortunately, that confidence in looking at things in this part of the Pacific also creates reservations around trying to do the same thing in reverse. Getting things right is always important, but the stakes are higher when it’s about your own culture and homeland – especially if you’ve grown up as a member of the ever-expanding overseas Sāmoan community. One of the key questions I ask myself is whether I really understand the complexities of what’s going on. Sāmoa may be small, but its system of governance operates in its own way. From my perspective, it’s a unique combination of our traditional indigenous structure and the Westminster First Past the Post system.

In more recent years, what I seem to enjoy most is listening to different perspectives and gossip about what happens. On my better language days, I feel a bit closer to understanding some of the nuances you’ll never get in English.

Perhaps that’s why, for this election, I was okay to sit back and enjoy the excitement about a potential change in leadership. Importantly, I was reminded why continuing to persevere with my own cultural learning is invaluable. After all, elections roll around every five years. And by then, the headlines could be around what Sāmoa’s first female PM can do in her second term.

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