Hon. Fiame Naomi Mata'afa

Hon. Naomi Mata’afa, a Samoan MP since 1975, was the country’s first Cabinet Minister, serving as Minister of Education and Minister of Labour and now Minister of Justice. Her extended family awarded her the title Fiame, previously held by her father, Samoa’s first Prime Minister. Fiame Naomi spoke about childhood memories of welcoming guests to her parents’ home.


Fiame Naomi: Yeah, I mean, it was a whole range. Which I think was very fortunate. You know, starting from relatives and friends to, I suppose, work colleagues of my parents, and overseas visitors. So depending on the context like if it’s Samoan visitors, there are Samoan protocols around that so sometimes it’s appropriate to have kids around and sometimes it’s not. But with the palagi visitors, quite often it was appropriate to get introduced as the child so to speak.

Ian Johnstone: It’s always impressed me greatly, and rather enviously on my part, that for most social occasions, Pacific children are included. Are you conscious of that, looking back at it?

NM: Yeah. Very conscious, because up to a certain age, you’re a child and you’re sort of, literally dancing around the ankles. But then there’s a slight transition when you are slightly older. You probably hit that at around eight, nine, and then you begin to be part of the family who are serving, doing the work around the place.

IJ: Were you an only child?

NM: Yes. My father had other children. Different mothers, and they are older than I am. Three. But essentially I was the only child most of the time at home. Some of my other siblings were sort of backwards and forwards, but most of the time I was an only child.

IJ: The special only girl. Did you have a sense of being special?

NM: I don’t know about special. But I know that I had probably a more privileged home background, with more access to more resources and stuff.

IJ: Now, all in Samoan, or were you a bilingual family? How did that work?

NM: Mostly in Samoan. I actually thought I spoke English quite well until I went to school in New Zealand and discovered I didn’t speak English as well as I thought that I did.

IJ: But you’d had enough of a grounding in it I’m sure.

NM: Oh, sure, sure.

IJ: Now these were, technically, not actually, but towards the end of colonial days. Was there any way that you were aware of that?

NM: Well, sort of, I mean there was quite a number of palagis around. You know, we had the New Zealand High Commissioner who obviously played quite a significant role. And I recall – I think it was Porritt?

IJ: Oh yes, the Governor-General.

NM: No, no. Fergusson, Fergusson, sorry.

IJ: Oh yes, with the monocle.

NM: Yes, yes! That’s right.

IJ: That’s right, that’s the man.

NM: And the funny thing is that recently, his son, George, was the High Commissioner from the UK to New Zealand. And in that capacity was also seconded to Samoa. And I recall he came with his parents and when he came here he made a point of contacting me and sort of passed over these lovely photos, you know, of when we were kids.

IJ: School. How does that happen? Is there a school that you just automatically go to, if you’re a Mata’afa, or do you just go to the nearest one?

NM: Well, I started off at the village school. And it was at the community house opposite our house. And my mother could see me walking around looking like I was one of the teachers. You appreciate, because I was the daughter of the chief of the village the teachers thought they’d better just let me do what I wanted. So my mum pulled me out of that school and sort of took me along, a few villages down, to another school where she had a relative who was the principal. So, she put me there. And then when she came to pick me up later on, I was sitting on the Principal’s lap!

[both laugh]

I came from being the kingpin to being the outsider, so there I was, sort of sitting on the Principal’s lap. So, finally she took me along to Ma’alefa, which was the bigger government school. There was a bigger pool of kids, and I just sort of settled in.

IJ: Was it known at this stage that you would then go to New Zealand for secondary when the time came, or did that happen later?

NM: Well, that sort of happened later, and most of it was my mum’s idea -  mum was in the first group of Samoan scholarship students who went to New Zealand in 1945. In fact, she and most of her siblings all got scholarships to go to New Zealand, they came from that kind of family, to study. So, I suppose she carried that through with her. And she was quite keen to send me off to school. So I actually went off to school in New Zealand when I was eleven. Boarding.

IJ: That’s a bit tough isn’t it. It’s a big wrench.

NM: Yeah. So fortunately I went with a cousin so there were two of us. And we went to Marsden. And one of our aunts had gone there, my mother’s younger sister, she had gone to Marsden. My mum and her older sisters had gone to Wairarapa College in Masterton. Because they put the Samoan students all over the place.

IJ: That’s right. So, were there enough of you in, at school in Marsden, that’s in Karori in Wellington, to feel you were a group? Or did you feel alone and frightened and isolated?

NM: Oh no, there were only two of us Samoans. Ah, well, you know how it is with kids, right. I don’t think we felt alone and frightened because, you know, I’m five foot nine, and I think I was five foot seven when I was eleven.

[both laugh]

Well, you know how kids are, they kind of had a go at the two girls who were different. And, I mean, being Pacific kids, we could hold our own so we knocked a few heads around and that sorted it out and they left us alone and we sort of came to an understanding.

IJ: Yes, yes.

NM: But I was lucky at school. I mean, first of all, it’s an excellent school. Like I said before, I thought my English was good until I got to New Zealand. And they had great pastoral care so they recognised straight away that my English needed fixing. So, Pamela, my cousin that came with me, she and I both had one on one English tutorials twice a week for two years, I suppose, yeah.

Pam and I had guardians. The Keller family, we’ve been family friends for a long time, so multi-generational. So there was always the contact point but we had lots of relatives so there wasn’t any shortage of contact if we needed to talk to people. And lots of palagi family friends.

IJ: Absolutely.

NM: But what was really good was that, well first of all, I was the type that liked sports and all the extracurricular activities, debating, plays – you name it, I was doing it. And also the activities that the school organised – social, cultural. And I suppose some of the other really good things was going off with some of the girls to stay with their families, especially the girls from the farming families. That was a whole side of New Zealand that I suppose most Samoans don’t get to see.

IJ: Can we jump now back home, because round about the time, I’m guessing, but did Independence, did that happen before you came to school here?

NM: Yeah. I was born in ’57, since you’re being so diplomatic about asking me how old I am.

IJ: Ah no, I’m trying to guess! But thank you, thank you very much.

NM: So I was sort of four and a bit when it happened. I suppose my recollection, I’d have to be honest, it would be more about what people told me. And just a sort of a sense of things, but I don’t have — I mean of course I’ve seen films of it as well. In fact, there’s a great photo there, I’m sitting there with my mum and obviously it’s hot, so she has taken my top off, I’m sitting there topless, and I’m waving at the camera. My mum also tells the story that it was sort of an overcast day but right over Mulinu’u there was this ring of clear weather. So there was actually rain, and then just very clear, just over Mulinu’u where we were having the ceremony. I had a sense that my Dad is involved. And also, I don’t know if you know this, but Dad is first cousin of Malietoa.

IJ: No, I didn’t know that.

NM: Malietoa was quite a regular visitor to our place, and you’d always sort of hear the talk. And so forth.

IJ: You can’t remember any particular issues. I mean it’s always intrigued me how did they resolve who would be prime minister and who would be head of state? Do you toss a coin? Does the younger one go first?

NM: It’s quite complex, Ian. I mean it was the constitutional group, right, and the whole idea of the two joint heads of state, it’s a very Samoan sort of thing, right.

IJ: It’s very clever.

NM: Yeah, it was really to ensure that those two would represent most of the country. And in fact my Dad he was more interested in the active political side, so that was like a personal choice. And the fourth Tamainga you know, he became a member of the Council of Deputies.

IJ: That’s lovely isn’t it. It’s a matter of discussion about who’s best for which job and we will allocate that, which is one of the benefits of people arriving into positions of authority with a kind of shared trust.

NM: Yeah, how do they divide up the country? So, it was, I mean this is very general, the Mata’afa, the Tupua, the Tumalele Fano - those three titles were like one part of the country and the Malietoa covered the other bits. So essentially that’s how they came to the arrangement. So I suppose, because my father – as Fiame you know, he was a member of parliament with the Fiame title, the one that I have now, he wasn’t a member of parliament with his Mata’afa title.

IJ: Ah, I understand, yes, yes.

NM: So he used the Fiame title. And, you know, he put up his hand for frontline politics, rather than…

IJ: By being an MP, yes.

NM: Yes, yes. Very early on, I was very aware that I wanted to be active in politics, I knew that from a very young age. In fact, when my Dad passed away, essentially in my last year at school, that’s why I put up my hand for the titles that had become vacant. So consequently I got one of three titles that he had, the Fiame title. Because I understood that I needed to have that ticket to get into politics. The thing about the women, is that I suppose, that in my own circumstances, that you always take your role models from the people around you. So of course my mother was a very big role model. And also her sisters. And they were all very strong women and they had been brought up that they could really do anything.

IJ: And they demonstrated it didn’t they. Was your mother the only woman MP?

NM: Oh no. She had another sister who was an MP. But there are other women who have been MPs as well.

IJ: Does that come from being a family in authority and with senior titles? Can you generalise? Does it run right through society, that women should or shouldn’t take leadership roles?

NM: Well, if you do a profiling of the women that have been in politics here, most of them have been older women, so they’ve done the child-bearing, child-rearing thing. Most of them have held senior ranking titles, either the chief leader or orator titles. Most of them have been professional women, so being professional women they’ve also gained some profile in their respective communities. And then the other thing, which is quite a common thing for people in politics, is that they have come from families that have had some association with politics.

IJ: I suspect that the Polynesian countries have an advantage as far as women are concerned because there is a pathway, which you spotted right from early on, I mean you took the Fiame title, you knew you had to have that, which may not be available in other countries.

NM: No, our colleague Carol Kidu in PNG, she is having such an uphill struggle. And I know that she has been trying for a number of years now to get their government to agree to have a set number of seats in terms of a quota arrangement. Actually, the only entity in the Pacific is actually in Bougainville, you know, the autonomous government, they actually set up, I think three seats, for women. But actually interestingly enough, women thought that was the only opening for them, you know, that they couldn’t challenge the open seats. So they need to do a bit of education around the participation of women in electoral process.

IJ: That’s a delicate one, isn’t it. But, since we’re there let’s take that one further. Would you like to see seats set apart for women in Parliaments across the Pacific?

NM: Well, personally I don’t agree with it. And here in Samoa we don’t. But I think, especially in Melanesia, the women have said, that that probably would be one of the only ways they could ensure some level of participation. Now, before Carol Kidu came in, there were a few women in the PNG Parliament. But not that many, they had one or two but they really haven’t had another one since Carol has been there. So I think in some countries you do need to have it otherwise it won’t happen. I mean here in Samoa for instance we had a bit of a relapse this last election because there were four of us in Parliament and now there are only two. So, in the last term three out of that four were in Cabinet and now there is only myself in Cabinet. But if you look at the ratios for the women, last election and this election, it’s sort of like one to five, whereas for men it’s sort of like closer to one to seven.

The whole point is that you don’t have barriers, right, that’s the first thing. And then the second thing is that people need to be choosing to do that, but you know, you can set all these things up but if women don’t put up their hands then it’s not going to happen. I was talking to a group of senior public servants recently and women are quite pragmatic, and politics isn’t seen as a very secure job so they won’t necessarily be making that choice for it. I was wondering why in this election less women ran in the last one and I think it’s because of the economic crunch, so when you’re in an economic crunch situation you’re being more pragmatic and you want to go for the more secure opportunity. It is about money, or resources, sometimes people interpret it as having to be about your personal money. But it’s really organising around resources and support and I suppose women are as advanced around those sorts of things and especially about pushing themselves, they’re good at pushing other people but not really about pushing themselves.

IJ: That must be because they didn’t have, as you had, a mum who knew, and a father who supported, that of course this daughter must be educated in the same way as sons would be.

NM: Yes and also the extra advantage of being around politics because it’s just another profession, I mean you have families of doctors and lawyers and stuff like that because it’s seen as a norm and you understand it so I think for me because I was around it from such a young age, I didn’t see it as anything strange. So seven years at Marsden and then it was time to go to university and I chose to go to Victoria. Because I was interested in politics and elements of law and it was just easier I suppose because Wellington was like my home town. So, ’76 was my first year there and quite early in ’77 I got word from here that court cases for my father’s titles were due so essentially I came home because I was involved in those processes. So I was home ’77, ’78, then I went back in ’79 to try and pick up again on my studies because essentially I was doing my second year. And then by that time I’d gotten the Fiame title, which I’d received in ’78. So I think I’d been back in New Zealand for a couple of months in ’79 and I got a notification from the Lands and Titles Court that I’d been taken to court by some of my family for being an absentee Matai. I was told, not formally, they didn’t write it down on a piece of paper, but they said, “Listen kiddo, if you want to keep your title, you better stay put and look like you’re serious about it.” Which was quite unfair because other people were getting their titles and going off and doing other things.

IJ: Would that have happened had you been a man?

NM: Probably not!

IJ: Yeah, I wondered about that. That family around you would say this is not what our women are supposed to do.

NM: There are a few contexts around this. Not only the extended family around the Fiame title. I mean, you have to appreciate there were older people who were vying for the title and it gets given to a 21-year-old girl?

IJ: That’s right, who then disappears to do something that we don’t really know.

NM: I mean during the court case they were even talking about my suitability for it because I wore jeans and went to the pub and drank beer with palagi men. So, all that sort of stuff.

IJ: Absolutely, what sort of woman have we got here. Well done you! How did you fight them off?

NM: I said, well, let’s get some equal treatment here. I know this person, he holds a title, quite senior, he goes out drinking with palagi men, wearing jeans! What’s the difference? [laughter].

IJ: Yes, lovely, that kind of chutzpah, political confidence, that you’d inherited and learned about I suppose, you’ve got to fight your corner.

NM: Well, fortunately I had a few people in my corner, in the family. But even then, even as I was going through it I could understand what was happening. and I took that message on board, I came, I stayed home. I went and lived in the village for seven years, I got involved with the community, with my family, I mean essentially I became the quintessential Samoan Matai, you know I was living with my family, I was doing what Matais do in the village. I was organising the boys to go to the village, and people to do the fishing, you know, all that sort of thing, getting involved with education projects …

IJ: So you served your constituency time …

NM: Yes, and I became a deacon of my church, which was a really big thing [laughter].

IJ: Were you biting your tongue, while all this was going on?

NM:  [laughs] Oh no, I mean, it’s the kind of thing, where if you’re going to do it you have to do it properly!

IJ: Good on you. I’ve got a question here that says, what does it feel like to be a feminist in Samoa? Because one doesn’t just forget about the beliefs that you have, while you do what it …

NM: Well, you’re not a feminist in isolation, right. Whatever your beliefs are, the important things are how do you engage and interact. So, a really good Samoan Matai is probably one of the best feminists you’ll ever come across because he’s looking after his family and he’s making sure people reach their potential, people are engaged and stuff like that. When I see a really good Matai in action, and he utilises all the human resources at his fingertips, which include the women, then you can say he’s a great feminist.

IJ: We’ve got to take all that experience now and you’re applying it now, and not only in your ministerial role at home but University of the South Pacific where you play a leading part. What do you hope, and are you trying to get that university to do, in terms of the role of women?

NM: Well, interestingly enough they don’t do Women’s Studies at USP. But then …

IJ: Why not?

NM: I don’t know whether they thought they had other priorities. But they have been pushed along. Just this last visit to the Cook Islands, we conferred an honorary degree on Marjorie Crocombe.

IJ: Well done, I’m delighted to hear that.

NM: Pioneers in the set up of USP. And Marje said something very interesting when she was making her remarks at a lunch that was put on by her family after the graduation. And she said that they complained bitterly to the management of the university in the early days that the university had no Pacific spirit. And essentially what was happening there was that there was no Pacific content. And so a lot of Marje’s life’s work has been to ensure that the university has done stuff about the Pacific. Pacific people writing about the Pacific. Recording some of the historical and traditional and cultural elements. Of course, because the university could only be built by the people who were there, with what was at hand, and most of it was the traditional palagi university thing.

IJ: It certainly was. I have that memory of it being an implant.

NM: And I think, and I still see it now, USP is still challenged to be that, to try and build that. But it’s a constant push and pull thing, because you always want to be doing something else.

IJ: I can see that a School of Women’s Studies may be lifting higher on your priority list?

NM: Yes, the message has gone through. And it’s not just about women, it’s the whole gender thing and the utilisation of the human resource. And if they’re not using it, we’re all the poorer for it.

My first portfolio was education, and I had that portfolio for 15 years. And, when I came on board, Tofilau who was the leader at the time and he said to me, if you don’t do anything else you should get the (Samoan) national university off the ground. They established it in 1984 and I got into the portfolio in ’91. But for all intents and purposes, they called it a university and they’d had people come in to do a review and make recommendations to the government. And, they sent Colin Aikman, and he came in and had done that review for the government and what he had recommended was essentially the establishment of what would be a community college and build that up, by steps, to a university. But of course, the powers that be, I mean what’s in a name right? Said, well, whatever it is, we want to call it a university.

IJ: Now you’ve spread that much wider of course, in your regional work for instance, in Pacific leadership, USP, various others, and from that, young Pacific women who might be listening to this, let’s say somebody who is secondary school, have you got a word for them? I mean what do you hope they do?

NM: Well, it’s really about engagement and exposure because unless you’re exposed to these things, if you’re not exposed to it, then it just passes you by. If I was talking to a young woman, I’d say, if you want to affect people’s lives, I think public office is unparalleled in terms of the opportunity to influence and make changes. But you don’t do it from a vacuum, you have to be engaged, you have to expose yourself to it. And I suppose in many ways I have been lucky because I always knew from an early age that this is what I wanted to do. So if there were people there that could further my understanding of politics, I’d get to understand them better. Move around the circles of it.

IJ: You’re right, it’s expose and enquire, and take risks, isn’t it. As you evidenced with that Fiame challenge, show that you’re there for the long haul.

NM: Yeah, that’s right. You know, sometimes it’s not like that for other people. So I think it all depends, but if you’re interested, politics is the kind of thing that you can’t do as a hobby. I’m interested in leaders and leadership, so I’d sort of read up on particular leaders, see how their lives transpired, how they got to where they went, but essentially, the political thing is about the politics around where you’re at. So for me it’s the Samoan politics.

IJ: What has to change in the Pacific to advance women’s opportunities?

NM: Well I think first and foremost women have to take the step. I think for most of the Pacific the quality of life has got to the stage where not all women, some women, are in a position where they could be making the decision to move into these areas of leadership, and especially into national politics. And I think the last group that I spoke to, in the public service, I essentially said to them, you won’t know until you step up. I mean you may fail, but you won’t know until you step up.

IJ: Talking to Sir Ieremia Tabai about this not so long ago, I’m sure his simple answer would be, get the birth rate down. For us generally, and for women in particular. Was he right?

NM: Well, I suppose in some ways, yep. Although it sort of levels out with all the migration and stuff. But the impact I suppose, still, the physical impact on women

IJ: I’ll tell you what I’ve been thinking about while we’ve been, making contact with you and so on, your life and your effort, and your energy must be spread awfully thin, you do so much. Is that a difficulty for women in high office that everybody wants a piece of them and there’s so much to be done?

NM: No, I’m quite a sensible girl, Ian. I like to pace myself and I’m very good at saying no. I like to do things and to do them well. I’m not really into the spreading thin stuff. So I pick the things that I want to do. And I’m quite good about suggesting other people do what I’m asked to do, other things, that I can’t quite manage, or I don’t want to do.

IJ: That’s what Matais do isn’t it. All that leadership stuff comes through in managing your own life as well.

NM: Well that’s right, and the other thing too, having come from a political family, is that, you know my dad died when he was 53. A lot of people think he was probably older, because he looked it I think. But he essentially died quite a young man, and a lot of that had to do with the burden of the work. I mean at that stage of our development, so I’m very mindful of that too. I mean I’m happy to serve my country, but I want to do it well, and keep well, I mean.

IJ: You don’t waste yourself in fruitless kinds of over-commitments and so on.

NM: I mean you asked me about being a feminist. I think most of us we want to live our lives the way we want to live it, whether it’s feminist or anything else, and I think part of the answer about how I spend my time is also about how I want to live my life. You know public service is often seen as you give up your life for the public service and I’m quite happy to do that but I think I want to do that on my terms as well.

IJ: Malo. Thank you very much indeed.