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Samoa: The miracle of Manono

Leota Leiataua puts down his mobile phone. He’s wearing a yellow T-shirt emblazoned with ‘Dad’s Taxi’. He looks tired. “My wife’s in Christchurch looking after her mother. That was her just now. You know this Digicel? They have a good deal on calls. Most of my family is overseas, in the US or American Samoa,” he says. “My brothers are in New Zealand and Australia.”

Samoa: The miracle of Manono
Manono, Samoa. Image: Alamy

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He suggests a coffee and heads into the kitchen to put the kettle on. I’m staying on the island of Manono, a tiny palm-fringed speck of 1,200 people, seven churches, no cars and no airport, anchored in the Apolima Strait between Samoa’s main islands of Upolu and Savai’i. My room is a simple wooden bungalow known as a fale.

“Are you from Manono?” I ask.

“Yes, it’s family land. I worked in Apia, in accountancy,” says Leota.

“You don’t look the accountancy type,” I say.

“I know,” he smiles wryly. “I wanted to come here, work for myself instead of writing reports for a boss who maybe doesn’t care,” he recalls. “And also I have a responsibility to look after this place, this land. My daughter runs everything, she’s in town now. But I built the place in 2005. We have 11 fales.”

He looks around as if to emphasise the weight of his responsibility. “And then in 2009 came the tsunami. Only two fales left standing,” he says matter of factly. “I rebuilt. Moved up the hill. Put this restaurant fale over what was left of the old foundations.” Leota’s pragmatism is admirable.

The majority of Samoa’s 190,000 souls inhabit the two main islands, the rest living on eight islets, Manono among them. Fertile volcanic soil and a tropical climate grows just about anything, and together with rich fishing means that only the most feckless celebrity would find survival a test on these remote Pacific islands. Aside from natural disasters, life is good.

“One day a week, the men all work to repair the shore wall, from here to here,” Leota looks towards the fading sunset and points up and down the shore. “No government money. It needs to be done, so we do it ourselves. I organise it. It’s my contribution.”

I ponder that the necessity for commerce is still questioned here. It’s not uncommon to encounter 30-year-old Samoans who’ve never earned a wage, but instead tend family coconut and banana plantations, and take canoes onto the lagoons for fish. However, perhaps as a sign of the times, Leota’s capable daughter arrives by boat, laden with supplies purchased in Apia. Her father leaves to help unload.

The devastating tsunami of 2009 overcame Samoa’s idyllic inertia. Hard economic soul searching catalysed radical realignments. It was decided that cars should drive on the left, facilitating cheaper imports from Japan and Australia; frequent arrows on the tarmac reassure those in any doubt. In 2011 the country vaulted west over the International Date Line to share the working week with New Zealand and Australia. And in 2015 the first international hotel brand made landfall – Samoa now has a Sheraton. Flight connections from Europe currently require an act of tantric endurance but rumours suggest this will soon change.

Later, after dinner, I walk down to the sea. The sound of waves collapsing on the shore mixes with a warm evening breeze rustling the coconut palms. A single bulb illuminates an open-sided beach fale and its plain wooden table upon which a large bottle of Vailima beer is collecting condensation. Leota reclines in his chair.

“Nick…” he says intently. I wonder what profound question he’s saved up for this late hour. “Would you like a ripe banana?” On Manono, at least for now, date lines, car lanes and airline schedules still matter less than fruit.