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Samoa: Paramount chief welcomes new life and fresh hope

Tuatagaloa Joe Annandale at Sinalei Reef Resort (Photo: Alex Perrottet/PMC.)

Tuatagaloa Joe Annandale is one of the paramount chiefs of the Falealili district on the south coast of Upolu. It was one of the worst affected areas in last year’s tsunami, which took away his wife Tui and his mother in law. Here he speaks about his private grief and an amazing little miracle as his new life begins.

Pacific Scoop:
Report – By Alex Perrottet in Apia.

In Poutasi village in Falealili district, the children are having a Fun Day. Tuatagaloa Joe Annandale, one of the paramount chiefs, has organised a full day of activity and has just returned from Apia with a big tub of ice cream.

“We need to raise their spirits,” Tuatagaloa says. “And I’m grateful to the US Peace Corps for raising the money for the event.”

The young generation sure has a place in Tuatagaloa’s heart and mind. And recently, an amazing chapter in his life was born; one that he could never have dreamed of.

“You see, there is this family we know well,” says Tuatagaloa, recounting the story.

“Tui and I have helped them out quite a lot. They have five children and we helped to put them through school, and a range of other things.

“But recently, the mother has had another child. I was astounded the other day when she came to me and said she wanted to make a gift of the child to me.

Tsunami logo

Cleaning up in the wake of the tsunami. (Photo: Jane Ussher/Oxfam.)

New son

“It was her way of thanking Tui and I for all that we have done for them.

“And I accepted.”

And so, the chief who lost his wife and has two grown-up children now has a new son.

Or will soon. For the early years, his son Eddie will be raising the child with his young family.

It is something that could only happen in a very close community, where there is a great deal of trust between families, and a wider concept of what some other cultures consider family to be. But it also shows the enormous gratitude that many people have towards Tuatagaloa and his late wife.

Tui Annandale was the first ever Miss Samoa, the President-elect of the Pan Pacific South East Asia Women’s Association (PPSEAWA), and highly regarded in her village and her country. All the eulogies and speeches about her mention her graces, her generosity and her contagious smile.

At 6am, on Tuesday 29 September last year, Tuatagaloa and Tui had arisen for their usual morning devotions and bible readings. They felt the huge earthquake and started to escape in their car.

Smashed against a tree

“There was a cluster of four or five houses here. I was starting to drive along there, and I saw the wave coming so I nipped in behind this house,” says Tuatagaloa.

He later described the wave as “A wall of water that was approaching with a roar and speed that one could not imagine.”

“The wave picked up the car and smashed us up against that mango tree.

“Then the car took the path through there, 300 metres up the road.”

A villager standing on higher ground witnessed the event and came to Tuatagaloa’s aid. Tui had been thrown out of the car and was swept into a cluster of trees.

Tui’s mother passed away in hospital days later. The miracle, however, was that the nurse, Tafa who was also thrown out of the vehicle, survived along with Tuatagaloa.

X-rays showed at the time that there was a shadow in Tuatagaloa’s lungs. Doctors concluded that it was the sand and sediment that he must have inhaled while being tumbled around in the wave.

“I still feel it in my lungs, but I’m improving a lot” he says.

“In fact, every time I get a cold or flu I think it actually helps to clear it out more.”

Tuatagaloa’s resort, Sinalei, is a ten minute drive from Poutasi, in nearby Siumu village. It opened in 1996 and employs close to a hundred workers. His sister Sose is the resort’s Manager.

Tuatagaloa says that up to ten people in the villages rely on the income of each employee.

“So the resort is potentially supporting up to a thousand people,” he says.

That explains the urgency to rebuild and begin operations as quickly as possible. They did this through bank loans as well as making use of the low interest loans subsidized by the New Zealand Government.

Better than before

What was left of the restaurant on the water after the tsunami (Photo: Alex Perrottet/PMC.)

Sinalei is looking much better than it did a year ago. The jetty restaurant has been rebuilt after completely disappearing and brand new beach fales have been completed.

They are back to 29 fales and making further plans to build even more on the beach as well as ocean-view suites on elevated land. The resort opened on April 1 and its popularity has returned, with an average of 80% occupancy.

Apart from his tasks at the resort, Tuatagaloa is keeping extremely busy. His white 4-wheel-drive can often be seen driving to and fro on the Cross Island Road between Siumu and Apia.

It is a great way to move on and deal with the bad memories.

“I can’t erase those memories,” he says.

“But there are also many beautiful memories. There are no regrets for me.”

Tuatagaloa explains that in the weeks and months after the tsunami, he had to wear a brave face. There were many duties to attend to, and countless meetings to secure the finance for the rebuilding of the resort, as well as administering the Falealili Tsunami Relief Trust Fund, which was set up by friends and family to gather funds to assist the rebuilding of the villages in the district.

The rebuilt and fully functioning restaurant is “better than before” (Photo: Alex Perrottet/PMC.)

But at the end of each day, Tuatagaloa would return to an empty home.

There was no smiling face, no warm words of encouragement, not even practical things like a warm meal to sit down and eat. There was no company.

Yet along with that hollow feeling after spending 40 years with Tui, there were plenty of friends. He was a founding member of the Apia Hash House Harriers, with the nickname ‘Godfather.’ Their weekly runs and events, at which he plays his ukulele, provide brotherhood and family support.

Racing in the harbour

He is an active member of the Samoa Voyaging Society (Aiga Folau o Samoa) and has just completed a successful voyage from Apia to Tonga, aboard the Gaualofa. The society is training Samoans to rediscover the traditions of canoe carving and voyaging by the stars.

On top of that, he paddles regularly in Apia Harbour, in both social and competitive races with outrigger canoes.

After finishing a grueling race he sits down at the yacht club right on the harbour wall in Apia. It takes a long time to get to the table, as he knows everyone, and they know him.

“It’s great,” he says, pointing out to the majestic Va’atele, or voyaging ship, anchored just offshore.

“Next year the real expedition begins. It will go from here to Hawaii, then on to Canada, down the West Coast of the US and the Americas before returning home.”

It seems there is unlimited energy for Tuatagaloa to burn. Despite his age he shares the youthful spirit of the village children. He is concerned, however, about their lack of learning the traditions of their ancestors.

“Everyone in my generation learnt to play the ukulele and the guitar,” he says. “It was just normal.”

Ukulele Revolution

“Now the young kids don’t learn. In fact, I am finding it more and more difficult to source musicians to play at the resort. There just aren’t as many around.

However, Tuatagaloa has a plan to turn this around: a Ukulele Revolution.

“It has already begun,” he says.

“When I gave a TV interview for New Zealand, a young ukulele instructor got in touch and offered to come and teach in the summer for free.

“I was so grateful. A second teacher will accompany her and they will hopefully stay and teach the children throughout the holidays.

“All we need now are the ukuleles. I was given about six or seven by a voluntary team that visited shortly after the tsunami, but I am looking for more. They don’t need to be flash, just basic ones the kids can start on.”

He is also spending plenty of time rebuilding Poutasi village. The high school will soon be relocating to a new site and the pre-school will inherit the current premises.

A new call centre in the village is receiving its final touches, as well as a community centre and a large church hall.

“We are reconstructing Poutasi as a model village,” he says.

”With God’s grace we will succeed.”

Head of State Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese and his wife Masiofo Filifilia with Tui and Tuatagaloa Joe Annandale in 2008 (Photo: Malvern Atherton / Annandale family.)

Whether it is his projects, the support of loved ones, or his brand new son, or perhaps a combination of them all, Tuatagaloa is looking forward with great hope for his village and for the future generations.

His confidence and trust in providence exudes through a contagious smile. Perhaps it’s a smile he caught from Tui. That would indeed be a fitting way for him to pass on her legacy to his new son.

Alex Perrottet is contributing editor of the Pacific Media Centre’s Pacific Media Watch project. He has visited Samoa as a volunteer and to report on the rebuilding progress one year on from the tsunami disaster.