Lalomalava is like any other Samoan village.
Everyone knows what everyone is doing, going to do and did last week, last year, last decade.
Stories are told, retold, changed and eventually made legends. Elders speak in soft tones and lament of yesteryear when the influenza epidemic killed our people. The ‘death sickness’ that wiped out lives in many villages, leaving a community to mourn, while the dead are indignantly heaved unto government trucks, wrapped in aging fine mats and tossed into mass graves of sorrow and despair.
Our elders whose eyes glimmer with hope as they sing of our proud traditions. Our proud people. Our proud measina. Our proud triumphs from years of slavery, suffering and violence.
Wounds are revealed, pain is shared, victories proudly announced, and violence is uttered in a language of hatred, fear, disgust, threats and childhood circles.
My childhood was no different.
When you have a weakness, by nature or nurture, you are constantly reminded of these deficiencies.
Kokive has polio and everyone calls him ‘cripple’, pipili. He could not care less, he would just whack you with his walking cane as hard as he could. His use of vulgar terms made him the receiving end of many beatings from the thin edges of the coconut fibre broomstick.
Palama, a hard working young man, has problems hearing so everyone ridiculed and called him a stinking deaf 'faipepe.'
Moe has big lips and cannot shut his mouth for too long, thus he is called 'guku faamaga, guku elo' meaning gaping mouth and stank breath.
We taunt him as we run as fast as our little legs can carry us, for a rain of stones is guaranteed to follow.
Fialupe is always caught and fined by the village fono for peeping at women bathing at the village pool, thus his title Ku Paipa. Ku Paipa literally meaning standing near the tap (water pipes), or Ku Kekee, standing on tip toes. Sao being epileptic earned him the name 'maikeke ululeaga' transliterated ‘shaking nutcase.’
Tala is teased for being Vae sasape, screwed up legs. Petesa for being ai lalafa, because her skin is marred with spots and rash.
I did not escape this name calling. I was ridiculed for having skinny legs, likening me to the tuli shorebird with its stick-like legs. Whenever I fought with my cousin over the rocking horse, she would yell at me, “You skinny vae tuli!”. Meanwhile, I would keep on pulling her hair screaming “Diana Popo Masa!”. Popo Masa being the ideal rhyme to describe a rotting coconut that we discard to the pigs.
Fifteen years on, I ponder, are we crippled by our discourse of negativity?
Despite these snide jibes, Palama went on to become an excellent fisherman, Petesa married well and is now a respected wife of a village pastor. Koki featured on television for his polio complications and was presented numerous gifts from donor organizations. He has since become the popular dude that you 'had to’ hang out with. Tala was given the chiefly title of his family. Diana moved to Seattle, graduated and looks every inch the Samoan beauty, far from being Popo Masa.
Unfortunately, Fialupe continues peeping as unsuspecting women bathe at sunset. Moe still can not keep his mouth shut, and has also now taken up the art of ku paipa with Fialupe. Sao was found floating at the village pool one Sunday morning, having had an epileptic seizure while swimming alone.
As for the demeaning labels?
They never go away. Whenever we see Koki on the Health Ministry television advertisement, we say in an affectionate manner, ‘We are so proud of our pipili (cripple)!’. Whenever Palama returns with a boat full of fish, his mother cries with pride, ‘my beloved faipe (deaf boy) is such a blessing!’
And when Petesa visited the village with her beautiful children and well-off husband, the old ladies weaving their mats with heads bowed would mutter, ‘Petesa has come a long way from being a colourful collection of spots and all rashes on earth.”
I still have to wonder whether some of us have become victims of our own close-knit societies. Can we move forward with a clean slate, start afresh and erase the faults we are born with?
I wonder if we could have saved our loved ones from taking their own lives if we had called them beautiful things?