A Saturday, late June 1999. The national stadium has seen better days, worn down over time by torrential rains and blazing sun. Still, the people of Apia and the surrounding coastal villages arrive en masse. They pack the stands and fill the terraces in anticipation of a party, of watching their beloved Manu Samoa on home soil.
Manu is a famous Samoan warrior, and the word translates as beast. Pre- game, the team offers up the Siva Tau, its challenge to the opposition. Then the players get down to business, huge men mixing slick passing with punishing runs and extreme physicality. One of them, known world-wide as “The Chiropractor”, lives up to his reputation with several pulverizing, bone jarring hits.
The crowd, bathed in blue, cheers wildly. National flags fly proudly. And everyone goes home happy following the narrow victory over a gallant USA Eagles side.
However, if Saturdays feature the bash and crash of rugby, Sundays are totally different. As no flights leave the island, firsthand I get to experience faith and family, the cornerstones of Samoan life.
Sava, the handyman at my hotel, invites me to join him. Bright and cheerful, he knows his rugby. He is polite as well. He opts not to mention my refereeing, of the blatantly crooked line-out throw I miss in the buildup to Samoa’s winning try the afternoon before.
It is 10am. We travel east along the coast road, pass Vailele Bay and approach the village of Lauli’i. We are just in time for church.
Religion is of great importance to the Samoan people. Most attend church regularly. I am decked out in a charcoal grey sarong, or "lava lava", to match those worn by the men in attendance. The boys look impeccable in their black trousers and impossibly white, starched dress shirts. The women and girls sport beautiful two-piece dresses called "puletasis."
The service is full of singing, preaching and prayers, all in the native language. It is fascinating to watch and listen, impossible not to feel the energy of the congregation.
Afterwards, we drive a few miles to a fale, the house owned by Sava’s cousin. It is open to the elements. I recognize several people from the church service.
Lunch is served and is delicious. Called a “to’ona’i”, it features taro, a sturdy vegetable something like sweet potato, as well as fish, rice, and salad. All followed by bananas and poi for dessert.
Sava’s cousin is Talia. She seems friendly and kind. Four children, one still a toddler, the oldest perhaps 11, hover nearby and chatter away. I learn that Talia's husband, as is the case for a good number of Samoan men, lives and works in New Zealand. It is an honour to host an overseas visitor she tells me.
Yet, I detect shadows under her eyes and a weariness of sorts. Sava notices my disquiet and gently ushers me into the back garden. There, he describes a fifth child, barely age three when lost the year before to rubella.
In Samoa, families keep the departed close by, either in neighbourhood cemeteries or at graves in home gardens. Sava points to a rectangular slab. It is partly covered by a battered tarpaulin, under which also lie some faded photographs. The name Ana, short for Anahera or “angel”, is etched into the concrete.
I sense Talia behind me. I turn to her and offer my sympathy. She is stoic, saying the family has moved on, that the death is God’s will.
Monday morning comes soon enough. I wait at Faleolo Airport, set to leave Samoa and wing my way home across the Pacific Ocean. Where my wife and two young sons will be waiting.
But I cannot shake thoughts of a parent’s greatest fear, the loss of a child. I imagine Talia in her back garden, rearranging pictures and plastic flowers around the grave. Near her daughter, but forever burdened by a heavy weight on her soul.