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Matagi: who I come from

by Mariner Fagaiava-Muller | Illustration by Yi Jong

There’s a Samoan proverb or alagaupu that goes “E le falala fua le niu, ae ona o le matagi – The coconut tree does not sway on its own but is swayed by the wind."

Growing up in my single-parent South Auckland home – won by my grandparents through a Catholic Church ballot to build in 1974 – did I quickly realise where my winds laid. Nana and Papa would share stories over cups of tea and school dropoffs. Stories of the girl from Iva and the boy from Lepā, who moved to Niu Sila.

To this day, Nana fondly remembers her mother, Vaoiva, in stories most often ending in tears. I stayed home from uni recently and for some time while I was curled up in bed, smelt a woman’s perfume, although I couldn’t detect where the scent came from. After telling my mum about what had happened, she said that occasionally happens to her, and she recognises the smell from what Vaoiva would wear.

Before Nana and Papa met, the old man would wake up at the crack of dawn and bike to the Ōtāhuhu car manufacturing factory he was responsible for opening up. And after Mum was born, he’d run back to their Atkinson Ave apartment after his night shift. The young couple survived on $30 a month, and $25 of that was spent on their rent. So it was supo elegi (canned mackerel soup) for dinner nearly every day of the week – still a staple in the Fagaiava household by the way.

I love my mum. Before graduating with an Honours degree from The University of Auckland, the first in my immediate family, I entered the picture! We certainly weren’t rich, but she made do with what she had. One Christmas, she borrowed a dusty old tree from my Aunty Tai and drew paper decorations because we didn’t have the money. All we could afford from the McDonald’s drive-thru was 50¢ soft serve for her and me, and that was once in a blue moon.

In the nature of how young children act, or perhaps not, I remember telling Mum that “we were poor.” It was an impulse comment made in response to more welloff kids in my class talking about TVs in their rooms. I wanted a TV in my room, but more importantly, there was internalised rejection of the sacrifices for me to let alone have my own room, and who exactly made those sacrifices. Years have separated that incident from today, but I still think about it in regard to how I can establish gratitude with the winds that I mentioned earlier.

Mum was on the benefit for a while after finishing her studies. I distinctly remember Susan, her case manager who watched me do origami with Work and Income pamphlets… and other stuff that kids do when they’re bored. Susan’s retired now, and I know that because Mum ended up working with her in a managerial position for the Ministry. They ended up becoming real good friends and Susan has watched me grow from the boy who pushed Tonka trucks beneath her desk, to graduating from high school with nearly $30,000 in scholarships.

In late August 2017, I was called from my Year 12 English class to bring my bag with me to the school office. Come thru half-day *heart eyes emoji*. My mum stood at the reception desk looking at me as if someone had just ripped her beating heart straight out of her chest. Nana collapsed at her workplace of over 20 years from a haemorrhagic stroke. She lost all feeling in her right side, couldn’t walk or talk. I will never forget the heartbreak of looking in her eyes that day. The memories of her Christmas functions, trips to the movies, singing along to ABBA, making pai fala on a Sunday. Our lives changed forever, although I appreciate that at least she’s still with us.

For all the good that I am able to enjoy, there are undercurrents of vulnerability. Heck, to name a few things, it’s taken two generations, a move across the Pacific and a lifetime in New Zealand three times the size of mine to make sure I walk into class on a given day.

Not only am I the product of where I was born and raised, but I am also the vision of my ancestors. Who I come from.

For all my coconut tree of success and privilege, I have a multitude of winds to thank.

Winds that have blown me up, up and away. Winds from my villages in Samoa and Tonga.

Iva, Lepā and Nukunuku to be exact. Winds that blew children’s destinies along breasts.

Winds that blew wings on those children’s backs.

Winds that accomplish migrant dreams. Winds that fofō (massage) me when I’m tired and sore.

Winds that ask me to fofō them.

So, when I reach the highest of highs, I will acknowledge where I am and who I come from. Nana, Papa and Mum. And those who came before them. Vaoiva. The coconut tree does not sway on its own but it is swayed by the wind.

Fa’afetai tele lava mo le avanoa, Debate! I currently serve as the Vice President of the AUT Student Association and if you need anything, from an assessment extension to free shuttle tickets, find me in my office just above the Hikuwai Plaza foodcourt, or


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