The Samoans of Wailekutu

Fiji enjoys a rich cultural heritage with strong representations of Pacific island nations in the faces of those who now proudly call themselves Fijians.

However one of the least known Pacific Island communities in Fiji is the Samoan settlement at Wailekutu, situated two kilometres from Lami Town.

Fiji has many families with Samoan heritage, the likes of the Fraser, Samuels, Hughes, Hoeflichs and Miller clans while chiefly ties between the two countries have been in existence for centuries.

Wailekutu, however, was the closest thing we ever got to a Samoan village.

It was once just a small track running through a mosquito infested mangrove swamp adjacent to where the cement factory now stands.

But the strong leadership qualities and vision of the hardworking men and women of Samoan ancestry who settled at Wailekutu, was unique and helped them overcome great odds to build a life for their families in a foreign country.

Wailekutu’s Samoan settlement history is tied up with the Catholic Church who assisted initial settlers, Toma Peniata, Viliame Raqauqau and Falkeofi Filipo to negotiate the purchase of 11 acres and 4 roods of freehold land alongside a freshwater creek at Wailekutu.

The homes straddled a ridge in a hilly area with Mount Korobaba forming a prominent backdrop.

The land was apparently under mortgage with the owners Ram Kisun Bisun brothers unable to keep up with the payments, according to the book “Samoans in Fiji”, by University of the South Pacific academic Morgan Tuimaleali-ifano.

The Samoans took over payment in 1955 and were able to make payment instalments of 30 pounds a month for 3 years, an agreement that included 6 per cent interest on the outstanding principle.

These 13 families eventually paid $1,150 pounds for the land.

The first settlers were Toma Peniata (Penuafa), Aipopo Leauli, Povi Fuauli Toelupe (Mary Fong), Tupuai Tusani (Henry Peters), Palepa-Vili-Feseta’I (Raqauqau) Toso Stephen, Lau Andrew and Lau Sale. This group was later joined by Toma Peniata’s daughter, Seki Lobendahn and her husband Pila Seipua.

Three of the original land purchasers, Telesia Apolonia, Kelera Moeva and Lui Telea Seleima, preferred to live in Suva.

The settlers were made up of one fisherman, two farmers, two carpenters, four hospital wardens, one café proprietor, one housewife and two plumbers.

Relocating to Wailekutu was necessary as the settlers needed a place that they could truly call home and something in black and white.

They initially lived at an area along the Queen’s Highway, 10 miles out of Suva on land owned by the Catholic Church called Navesi Sefulu Maila.

Tuimaleali-ifano added that many Samoans who lived in Suva during the 1940s fled to the area for temporary shelter in fear of a Japanese invasion which did not eventuate and ended up staying there for years.

Many of the Samoans, who resided at Navesi and who went on to settle at Wailekutu had dominated the workforce at St Giles Psychiatric Hospital along Reservoir Rd.

The large number of families that took resident at Navesi also comprise people of Wallis and Futuna, Tongan, Kiribati and Rotuman descent.

Although Wailekutu was officially classified as a settlement and unlike a Fijian village was without a turaga ni koro it had matai, (Samoan chief) four of whom were represented during its early days and of tula fale rank, took on an organisational role in the settlement.

Peniata, originally of Leulumoega in Samoa, was by all accounts a natural leader whose personal dynamism, Tuimaleali-ifano said, made him an easy choice to take charge of the community, along with Filipo and Raqauqau.

In light of his distinguished role at Wailekutu and his leadership skills and matai rank, a special delegation of chiefs travelled from Samoa by steamship in 1958 to confer on Toma Peniata the Penu’afa tulafale title, which belongs to the ali’i S’oa’emalelagi of Vaitapu, Leulumoega.

“In Wailekutu, the matai were recognised as community spokesmen and decision makers and their infleunce was generaly felt in Suva,” Tuimaleali-ifano continued.

In the early days life in the settlement was tough particularly after the families had just moved to Wailekutu, which was little more than a mangrove swamp.

“In 1955, access to the settlement from the Queen’s Road was through a track which went over a mangrove swamp, then a stream, then up a hill. During the rainy season, the track became heavily bogged,” wrote Tuimaleali-ifano.

“The dragging and carting of rocks and soil to cover boggy areas for the construction of a more permanent track, the clearing of the bush obstructing the access track, clearing for house sites, carting of house materials up the river, and carting water from the creeks and wells uphill, depended very much on strong leadership and mutual corporation of the first settlers,” he added. The current generation Wailekutu Samoans still remember vividly the hard life experienced in the early days of the settlement.

“It was a very small track running through a swamp and it was a real struggle getting around the place as far back as I can recall,” said Raphael Lobendahn, a grandson of Peniata and Wailekutu Samoan Settlement spokesman.

“After a while we got so used to it we could find our way through the track even in the dark because we knew every single nook and cranny,” he said.

The Lobendahns are one of the more prominent kailoma families in Fiji, have been a familiar name on the national scene, with Dan Lobendahn, representing Fiji in rugby union and Vincent Lobendahn, becoming a minister under Sitiveni Rabuka’s government in the 1990s.

Eki Lobendahn another former Wailekutu settler was also a very prominent guitarist around the Suva area during the old days.

Another family with Samoan ancestry, the Zincks, also settled in the area although away from the original tract of land that was first purchased.

Former trade unionist and government minister Kenneth Zinnk was raised in humble settings at Wailekutu.

One of 8 children Raphael Lobendahn said life in the settlement was tough because the elders ingrained in them strict etiquette modelled after that of a Samoan village.

“My grandfather (Toma Peniata), who was trustee of the land, was a matai so he brought all their ways and discipline with them to Wailekutu and instilled it in us.

“You couldn’t play or make noise on Sunday otherwise you would get a good whipping. Our elders, particularly my grandfather were very tough on us.

“They were hot-headed people and when you said something you had to do it. Some of their teachings are still embedded in us now.”

Over the decades, members of the community have intermarried with those of other ethnic backgrounds including iTaukei. This has led to a gradual decline in the actual use of the Samoan language at the settlement which the current community leaders are trying to revive.

Seve Leitupo Lafai Sa’e, a pure Samoan married into the Wailekutu community has been teaching the current generation important aspects of Samoan culture, including the siva (traditional dance) and their own unique way of conducting a kava ceremony.

“It has been very challenging for me in teaching the Samoan language and culture because I also have to be mindful that many here have married people from other ethnic background, mainly iTaukei,” said Lafai Sa’e, commonly known as Lei.

“The good thing is the young and old here are so eager to learn and it has made my job a lot easier,” said the native of Sataua in the district of Asau on Savaii island.

As a result of the cultural lessons, more individuals at the settlement are now greeting each other with Talofa rather than the normal Bula and Vinaka has been replaced by Fa’asetai.

“It’s important that we do not lose our identity which is why we are happy with the work that Lei (Sa’e) has been doing,” said Lobendahn.

“Its very critical that we revive the language. Right now only a few us know a few words which is kind of embarrassing when we host people from Samoa visiting Fiji,” he added.

Interestingly when the Samoan national rugby team, then known as Western Samoa, played a game in Suva in 1987, the community reportedly hosted a reception for the team where 300 palusami, 70 middle sized taro and a large pig and chickens were consumed.

Former government minister Vincent Lobendahn, who shares links to the settlement through his maternal grandmother recalls the Spartan conditions people had to contend with initially at the settlement.

“I found that when I first went through there as a kid, I saw that families who had more permanent employment were able to build permanent structures. The rest had to make do with whatever kind of temporary shelter that they could organise,” said Lobendahn, who is now 77-years-old and of Samoan/Sinhalese ancestry.

The long-time Lami resident said that although the settlers were mostly unskilled labourers they had an admirable work ethic which was helped by their unique culture and doing things “the Samoan way”.

In saying that Lobendhan also acknowledged the norm for the matai elders at Wailekutu “to let the fist go first and then talk later”.

Suva bank worker Susan Leitupo nee Peters still recalls as a little girl listening to her grandfather Tupaia Tusani, one of the original settlers, read his Samoan bible.

“I was always very fascinated by my grandfather’s pa’e (traditional Samoan tattoo) covering his lower torso. We knew it was only for people of chiefly status and it was quite special to look at,” she adds.

Tusani was originally from Lefaga in Samoa.

Leitupo who speaks the basics of the language at home, said she often cooks traditonal Samoan palusami and faalifu, a Samoan dish of taro cooked in coconut cream in efforts to revive their distinct culture and often organises siva performances with other women from the settlement on invitation at gatherings.

Alongside husband Seve Leitupo Lafai Sa’e, she has been trying to instil pride in Samoan culture in their children and young people from the settlement.

Two of their daughters, Agnes and Felicia who study at the University of the South Pacific, are registered with the Samoan USP Students Association rather than their Fijian equivalent, underlining their desire to absorb more Samoan culture in their lives, greatly inspired by the rich history of their ancestors.

“We are so proud of our Samoan heritage but we know it isn’t easy reviving our culture especially with the current generations who know nothing about it,” she said.

Tuimaleali-ifano said while efforts to revive Samoan culture at Wailekutu are “idealic and romantic” it still needs a consistent program in place to sustain it with more interaction with the land of their forefathers.

Tuimaleali-ifano is aware of individuals from the settlement who have managed to reconnect with their culture by actually visiting Samoa but while this has somewhat helped, more needs to be done to ensure future generations do not lose their sense of identity.

“The Samoan culture at Wailekutu will disappear completely if no serious attempts are made to incorporate something into the school curriculum from primary right throught to secondary level,” urged the Suva scholar, who himself is of pure Samoan heritage.

The people of Wailekutu, while making an attempt to revive their cultural identity, must balance this with the ensuring families have their individual rights as owners of their own property into the future. Raphael Lobendahn said there were plans in place to subdivide the land between the families which reside at Wailekutu.

“This has always been in the pipeline in the future. We would like to see each of the families get their own plot,” he said.

Squatters have also emerged along the settlement which poses its fare share of challenges as Wailekutu people endeavour to retain their distinct identity.

However Lobendahn maintains that despite more people from other ethnic backgrounds gradually moving into the area, the settlement will continue to be a Samoan settlement.

“This is our identity and we will do everything to protect it so that our future generations will not lose touch with their roots. It’s important to know where they came from and understand the culture of our ancestors,” he added.

The Wailekutu Samoan settlement without a doubt is a fascinating example of the diverse ethnic backgrounds that combine to make Fiji the multicultural melting pot it is.

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