Monday, September 9, 2013

Lupe Ieremia and The Village of Falelatai

Lupe Ieremia was born in Falelatai, a beautiful village around the west tip of Upolu toward the south, a good way past the wharf. Her father and mother, Lo'i and Fetua'i Vaatuitui were the first members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a village predominantly LMS (London Missionary Society). Her family endured persecution but remained faithful. Lupe was one of nine children. The closest LDS chapel was (and still is) 2 1/2 miles from their home. She remembers as a young child how very long the walk to church was for her little legs. Her father carried the twin babies in baskets woven of coconut leaves. The baskets were attached to opposite ends of a pole which her father carried across his shoulders. Her mother carried similar baskets full of food which the family ate under the trees in the church yard between meetings. Many other families did likewise.

Her father traveled daily to Pesega where he cared for the grounds at the CCWS where Leon taught from 1971 - '74. The drive today takes over an hour. Lupe discovered later in life how little he actually made. How he provided for his large family and allowed her mother to be at home with the children was a mystery to her until she realized that it was only possible through his faithful payment of tithes.

When Lupe was 12 years old, her older brother had the opportunity to sit a test that would, if he scored high enough, grant him a scholarship to attend school in the United States.  The information given to his parents instructed their son to bring with him a #2 pencil. Not having heard that term before, they were concerned that he needed a very special pencil. When another of their children explained that they had several #2 pencils around the fale, their son had already boarded the bus with the hope he could purchase the special pencil before the test began. Lupe was given the assignment to catch the next bus and take the pencil to her brother.

When she entered the classroom where the test was to be given, she looked all around for her brother. When she didn't see him, she found a seat and took the test herself.  Sam Atoa was an administrater at the school. When the results of the test were in, he found her father, his first cousin, working on the grounds and asked why he had allowed Lupe to take the test when she was too young to participate. He answered that he had no idea Lupe had taken the test. It seems her brother had no intention of sitting the test and spent his time playing rugby with his friends while the test was being administered. Then Sam told her father that Lupe had scored the highest of all the students. Having the autority to do so, he granted the scholarship to Lupe which allowed her to attend Granite and then graduate from Highland High School in Utah. While there, she lived with her mother's youngest sister, Auntie Toe Freeman. Yes, her aunt is the wife of Joseph Freeman Jr. whom you met in an earlier post.

Her father was a humble and faithful bearer of the priesthood and was given authority to organize several branches of the church during his lifetime. He died at the age of 50. People came from all over the island to pay their respects to this faithful servant of the Lord. Buses lined the street in front of their home. Each busload of people from other churches as well, not just LDS people, came to sing. His wife was very ill at the time of his death, dying within the next 2 years from undiagnosed cancer of the stomach.  Lupe, who was still living in the family home, was grateful for Sam Atoa that day, as he was her advisor in how to handle this overwhelming crowd. She asked incredulously why so many had come. Sam said that obviously her father had touched all of these people in some way. The buses began to arrive at 4:00 pm and the last one left at 2:00 a.m. the next day.

There is a custom which is strange to us, but very old. The village of Salelesi plays a role in funerals. They are irreverently referred to as dogs of the high chief. A representative of the village comes by ancient privilege to funerals, enters into the fale to howl or wail. Mourners bring gifts to the bereaved family and place them near the coffin. The tradition is that this Salelesi is allowed w/o objection or interference to choose one gift and take it with him when he leaves. At her father's funeral, such a man arrived and entered the fale. He was smoking a cigarette, and was not wearing a shirt. Both of these things were forbidden by her father in his fale. Lupe, who was in her early twenties, took this man by the arm and escorted him to the road in front of their home. She told him that his appearance and behavior were offensive to her father and he was not welcome. She then instructed her brother to carry to the man two boxes of corned beef from the many food items given to the family.  As she was walking out with this man, several of the neighbors chastened her, discounting her behavior as being ignorant of Samoan tradition, presumably from her years in the U.S., and in very poor taste.  As she returned, she told them that her father was Tongan, not Samoan, and she didn't have to follow faasamoan tradition, but rather honor her father.

It is true. Her father is Tongan, her mother, Samoan. Both have passed away. Her father in 1993, her mother two years late. Lupe and her youngest daughter, Breanna, who turned 12 yesterday, and Lupe's brother Toia Vaatuitui, are the only ones that live in the family home today in Falelatai. We had the extraordinary pleasure of traveling to Falelatai on Saturday to visit their family home.

Lupe and her cousin Gail led the way in her Toyota pick-up. She took us over an inland route where we saw coconut and taro plantations planted by Germans on land they traded for rifles and ammunition that I am reading about in the historical novel, Samoa, by J. Robt. Shaffer. From here to the sea is all coconut palms.

Where the land isn't cleared and planted, it is lush jungle.

We stopped for a photo op near the crest of the hill before descending to Falelatai and Lupe's home.

From left to right: Breanna, Lupe's adopted daughter, Breanna's sister Kathy (living with her birth mother), Sister Crowley, Lupe, Gail.

Fuel for the travelers, Leslie's famous oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. Nobody can eat just one.

The view of Falelatai from the crest of the hill...and inexplicably, Lupe's truck. We need photoshop:

Both Lupe and her brother Toia work in town, Lupe in Apia and Toia at Pesega. Before we visited their village and their home, I felt sorry for the long commute. Now I know it is worth it. What a place to begin each day.

The family home.

The open air fale where the nine children slept. Originally the floor was small pebbles covered by layers of banana leaves and then mats to make a softer bed. Now gleaming tiles cover the floor.

The cooking fale is separate from the house.
In the center is where the umu would be built up on the circle of  rocks. In the foreground is a carving block and work space.
The large drum we think may be a bbq.

Behind the house is a family cemetery that we regret not photographing. Her father is buried there. Her mother, having sought medical help in the states, was buried in Utah where most of the children are living.
Out past the little graveyard and through a fence is the beach, all part of the family property which has been theirs for generations. The family name, Vaatuitui means 'knock on the boat'; vaa=boat, tuitui=knock. Tradition is that when Tagaloa first came to Samoa, he sailed his canoe into this bay and knocked on the side of the boat, signalling his arrival. It was according to family tradition, the first of the grandfathers to claim this land after immigrating from Tonga, who went out to meet Tagaloa.  I must investigate further this tradition because according to my limited understanding, Tagaloa was the name of the Samoan god of the sea

Toia accompanied us to the beach while Lupe and the girls prepared sandwiches. With him is one of their three ridgeback pups, 3 month old Skittles.

Lucky pup.
Toia explains that before the last cyclone in December, it was a beautiful sandy beach front. Now many rocks have been exposed which previously were covered with sand. You can walk to the reef w/o getting your shorts wet.  Below is a fisherman preparing to place his nets in the water.

We took the beach road home, past the wharf and the Faleolo Airport. We made note of the chapel where the Vaatuitui family attended church. It would have been a long walk for a child.  From here we could see the small islands of Manono, Apolima, and the big island of Savaii. In the last photo you can see far off in the distance, the last ferry from Savaii heading to Upolu. 

Lupe is one of those strong, immoveable souls we are so privileged to call our friend. What a blessing it is to have seen her lovely village and the family home. Little by little we are learning her history. Always I am anxious to learn more. 

Thank you for allowing us to share with you this amazing opportunity to serve the beautiful people of Samoa. Tofa Soifua.


  1. These are great posts and pictures. Thank you for taking me with you on your week off. I assume you will makes this blog into a book. It would be so awesome.

  2. That is a great idea, April. I just made some corrections and updated the post. I should have had it proof read first. Thanks for encouraging me.

  3. I love it! What a great opportunity/experience! I love you!!