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On life and the Pacific Islander entrepreneur

Ever met someone for the first time and immediately thought, “This person is going to be my friend someday,” and then it comes true?

I thought Jaemen Busby looked so familiar when I first encountered him in a Launching Leaders class. Like we could be cousins. And then he’d crack the most random, awkward jokes about stuff and, as my eyes are watering and my face is getting red cause I’m trying so hard not to LMAO at dumb things, I’m thinking… yeah, we’re more like siblings.

Less than a year later, not only am I totally hanging out with Jae, his beautiful wife Cazna and his brothers, even, but we end up moving into the same gigantic house, even, together with a bunch of other budding entrepreneurs. Oh, and of course we find out that we are related, actually, in that wonderfully complex way that just about all Samoans are related.

We’d moved to Wellington to kick-start our entrepreneurial lives, to learn about business, about validation, and knowing when to pivot or when it’s best to walk away. During that time, some of our most valuable – and painful – lessons came from failed ideas, and some of our most comforting consolation came from ‘family time’ in our house… weathering the Wellington wind over apple crumble and Catan… giving up on Jae’s relentless mocking, as his jokes propelled ever further across– ‘THE LINE, Jaemen!”

Good times.

With his newfound business acumen, Jaemen was later employed to help navigate other ambitious entrepreneurs, but at the core, this guy is a true creative. He is a wordsmith and poet who can capture stunning images with the most complicated DSLR, or the simplest of phone cameras. I’ve also never met anyone more devoted to improving himself – financially, physically, spiritually, intellectually – out of pure dedication to his wife and growing family.

This section of Manaui: The People of Oceania is called Manaui Wayfinders. Here, we feature indigenous Pacific people who are changing the world – and inspiring us all – through their achievements in education, business, career, the arts or community leadership.

As an artist and entrepreneur with a horrible sense of humour and the purest of hearts, Jaemen is definitely an inspiration to me.

Some background information

Government name: Feace-Jaemen Brian Kuresa Busby

What family / friends call you: Jaemen to most. Jae to those close to me.

Ethnicity / cultural background: Samoan

Areas of work / expertise: Business / entrepreneur

Loves of your life: My wife, child (and future children?) and the trials of life

Breaking the ice

The one thing you’re most proud of today:

Today I am proud of the friends I keep close. They are so talented, driven and awe-inspiring. Some of them I work with, some of them I see regularly, some of them live in different cities and countries, some of them have passed away but all of them help me to reach a little further and push a little harder to make my own dreams come true.

The most awkward thing that happens to you all the time:

I show up to networking events amped to meet some new people and connect over work stories and opportunities to link up and learn etc…. then I arrive and there I am, standing in a corner with water in a wine glass, waiting for everything to finish.

The personality trait that has gotten you into the most trouble:

My sense of humour. It offends people and doesn’t stay quiet in supposed reverent places like family get-togethers (i.e weddings and funerals). But it’s a part of me so it’ll never change.

Stunning image by Jaemen Busby… love that eye for art.

Story Time

Let’s talk ‘Culture’ (and food) first. What’s your favourite Samoan dish?

My favourite cultural recipe is for ‘To Pai’ (aka ‘Ko Pai’ as we pronounced it) – a Samoan sweet dumpling that my Nana and Grandpa used to make when I was a child growing up in Mangere East.

As with a lot of things from the older generation, these things were never recorded. They were told to us but faded with time because we never took the time to record it or use it enough to memorize it.

This recipe here is originally from – it is the closest to what I recall of my nana’s ‘Ko Pai’ recipe.

Every bite of this dish is filled with memories of my childhood. The loud white and green bricks of the Kairanga St house. Our old dog Bama following us to school. The plentiful peach trees providing a bounty of peaches to the kids of our street. And Nana Vae bending over at the hip to care for her flower garden – a frequent source of decor for Sunday service and my nana’s pride and joy. Even now, 10 years since her passing, I can still see her smile every time I eat ‘Ko Pai’…loving, tender and genuine.

Truly, this is food for my soul.

What does the word ‘entrepreneur’ mean to you?

It’s an interesting one because it gets thrown around a lot. Everyone’s meaning is different for this word but for me, it means ‘innovative problem solver’. It’s not just a purchased solution or a band-aid solution to a problem. It’s analysis. It’s empathy. It’s connection. It’s revelation.

What are some of the most important life lessons you’ve learned in your time as an entrepreneur?

My favourite life lessons have been about how much potential lay within myself and us as humans wondering this magnificent planet. It is easy to criticise anything from a distance but entrepreneurship really helps you appreciate the journey and the chase of three things (possibly more depending on who you ask) financial freedom, creative expression and world-changing. Entrepreneurship brings us face to face with our deepest fears and unlocks strength we never knew existed. Also… ANYONE can do it.

Could you tell us a bit about your role at Pacific Business Trust?

I have recently taken over as Business Strategist/Virtual CEO – Hatch. I will take lead on the Youth Enterprise programme, Hatch, which works with young Pacific entrepreneurs to build their businesses into sustainable pathways for themselves, their families and their communities.

What are you hoping to achieve in your career/job this year?

This year I am focussed on pushing my own boundaries. I feel in the past, I have always been hesitant to pull the trigger on some things that I know will be great but am too scared to say out loud (for fear of failure). I figure if I can stretch myself to embrace a new, more confident outlook that my growing will increase exponentially. The trials of Hatch, family changes as well as work in the start-up space are all drivers toward a new and improved me in 2019.

You’re going to be a first-time dad soon! How are you preparing for it?

Preparations for this have been in two parts. Firstly, educating myself to understand how best to help baby and wife before and after birth. It’s of the utmost importance that for as much time as possible, the happy, positive vibes I can feed my wife, filter through to our child. Secondly, preparing to offer the best of myself in the most meaningful way. Reflecting on life since the move to Wellington has offered many insights that I will look to arm our child with in the coming years.

What do you hope your child will inherit from you? (and not? Lol)

There are so many things I wish for our little one to inherit from me. My sense of humour, love for food, ambition, korean enthusiasm and entrepreneurial drive. But there is far more, I’d rather not have them inherit. All we can do is pray! 🙂

If the world ended tomorrow and you could choose only 3 achievements to define your entire life, which would they be?

Becoming a worthy husband to a wonderful wife, creating a living legacy in our future child and leaving Auckland for Wellington.

The first two are no-brainers with the sacredness that is life but the third may be a little more debatable. For me, leaving our support network in Auckland for the hope and opportunity in Wellington was pivotal in providing me with the first two things on the list.

First, without our family around, we were forced to adapt and grow – our biggest growing point as a family and individual has happened here.

Second, we formed a brand-new network of entrepreneurial friends who were also driven to create, disrupt, innovate and dream their lifestyles. The aura of Wellington is so different to what I had grown up with in South Auckland – this is why I can appreciate Wellington so much for what just comes naturally to it.  

Finally, it was the place we discovered ourselves and expanded our thinking. We feel enlightened curious, courageous and hopeful.

Bringing it back around to culture again, what’s one bit of wisdom you learned from your culture / family that will always guide your actions?

I didn’t learn this from my culture or family but it’s something I use to guide my actions and thoughts, especially when things don’t go the way I want them to go.

“Look for the Lesson”

I have used this term to make sense out of the seemingly random events that happen at the weirdest times of my life.

“Look for the Lesson” It will boost you in a loss. It will humble you in winning. And it will always remind you that you are important.


Connect with Jaemen on LinkedIn


In case you need a makeup artist for Pacific Island skin

I know Koni from when we worked together in a contact centre.

The first words she ever said to me – while I was in ‘the zone’ gunning it towards my data entry targets – after distracting me, first, by sliding her chair up inappropriately close and gazing at my face till I turned away from my screen… were, “Can you go down [to the food truck] and buy me a pie? I’m HUNGRY!”

Up until then, we were – quite literally – strangers. As in, before then, I noticed her maybe once… just long enough to know I didn’t recognize her. As in, we’d never even exchanged a polite office-nod or ‘hello’, nor had we ever been in a group situation that would give us any context for familiarity.

But here she was, grinning as she held her bank card and pin number at me. “And get one for you, too!” she hissed before un-muting her phone and resuming her conversation with a customer.

As I carried our pies (and drinks, thanks) back up the stairs, I had to smile at what I already knew was the start of a new friendship. It doesn’t matter how corporate the environment is, or how proper your English gets at work, the Island girls always find each other, and it doesn’t take long for them to bond… mostly over food, but especially when one of them is as candidly open, as randomly generous, and as beautifully in-your-face as Te Konini Rairoa is.

Koni Rairoa, Pasifika makeup artist

It’s been 5 years since that day, but it feels like 20; we’ve been through so much. At the office, we started getting assigned to the same projects. This is how I learned about Koni’s incredible work ethic – give this girl a target and she will hit it with a bulldozer.

I learned a lot more about her in our hundreds of overtime (and after-work dinner) hours. Koni has a husband and 3 beautiful children. She was born in the Cook Islands, came to school in New Zealand, then lived in Rarotonga again as a teenager, raising her first baby girl. Those years, she tells me, forced her to grow up fast. They taught her resilience and a strong sense of responsibility.

When I met her, Koni had just completed a course in cosmetics and was already supplementing her family’s income with makeup clients. At the time, I had my own side hustle in online publishing. We quickly realized we had similar aspirations for financial success, and, next minute, Koni and I were business partners. A few months later and we’d both left our day jobs to chase the entrepreneurial dream.

Oohhh my goodness, this journey has not been easy! Instead, it has been humbling, and instructive… but also character-refining, and ultimately liberating.

While we worked together on our new business, Koni continued to build her makeup clientele. And then she was talking to me about skin and how it’s hard for the everyday Polynesian girl to know what the right products are for her, and I’m like, hmmm, okay… because I wash my face with soap and I buy my face cream from the supermarket. That’s my level of skincare knowledge.

The next thing I knew, Koni had created her own facial moisturizer – as in, she somehow figured out what ingredients she wanted in a cream and she made some beauty scientists whip up this formula and package it. Up until then, I had no idea non-Hollywood celebrities could do that.

Before long, Koni had a whole range of different skincare and makeup products under her brand name, Konimaq. I haven’t tried them all yet (mostly because I don’t know how to use them) but my hands-down favourites are her 6 different lipsticks. The colours are gorgeous, and each shade is named after a strong, influential woman in Koni’s life.

It makes me so happy to see real Polynesian names on such beautiful – and beauty-enhancing – products.

In September, 2018, Koni went back to Rarotonga to officially launch her Konimaq brand. It was apparently the first ever cosmetics range launched by a Cook Islander in the Cook Islands.

Koni had already been travelling a lot – within New Zealand, to Rarotonga and Australia – to promote her work, but she has been even more of a jet-setting entrepreneur since the Konimaq launch. Over the last couple of years, I’ve watched her passion – for quality cosmetics and Pacific Islander skin – grow and take flight, and I’m so proud of what she’s achieved so far.

Partly because of how busy her cosmetics venture has kept her, Koni and I very recently decided that our business relationship has evolved past a partnership – which we’ve now dissolved. As my own journey has lead me to embrace my love for writing and photography, we’ve now got this on-going, wonderfully creative collaboration between two entrepreneurs, and I’m so excited to see what we come up with next.

This new section of Manaui: The People of Oceania is called Manaui Wayfinders. Here, we feature indigenous Pacific people who are changing the world – and inspiring us all – through their achievements in education, business, career, the arts or community leadership.

I am so honoured to present – as our first ever Manaui Wayfinder – makeup artist, beauty creative, skincare and cosmetics range owner, my friend, Koni Rairoa.

Some background information

Government Name: Te Konini Rairoa

What family / friends call you: Koni

Ethnic / cultural background: Cook Islands

Areas of work / expertise: Makeup Artist

The love(s) of your life: Family, friends, travel and food

Breaking the ice

What’s the last meal you ate?

White cloud filled with chocolate, marshmallow and blueberries

The one thing you’re most proud of today?

Making a cooked breakfast for my kids. I rarely cook these days.

How much would someone have to pay you to eat a spider?

What is the value of life?

Story Time

Of all the creative ideas you’ve had in the past, why did you choose to focus on makeup?

Before I started doing makeup, I knew I wanted to do something and it was either hairdressing or makeup. It’s just the time, the only courses I could that that was in the evenings was makeup… so I went with that, and then I just stayed with it.

Normally what I do is, I’m really good at starting something and having really good intentions, and then getting so close to finishing something and then I end up starting a new project.

But this time with makeup… probably knowing that I spent nearly $8000 on my course for 6 months was probably another motivator to sticking to makeup as well.

When I first started makeup I was just doing it as a hobby, and then I thought… man I’ve invested so much money, let’s see how far we can go with this. Let’s see how crazy we can get.

As a makeup artist, you specialize in Pacific Islander skin (right?). What’s a common skin concern you’ve seen amongst your clients?

Yeah… I’m passionate about Pasifika beauty, and it just so happens that 90% of my clients are of Pacific Island descent as well.

One of the main skin conditions (that I see) is just, really… so dry skin is one. Maybe because they’re just so used to using whatever’s there. People either have no skin care regime or use whatever’s available like body moisturizers… instead of really helping their skin and using something that suits their skin type, whether it be oily, dry, dehydrated, whatever the skin condition is.

Finding the right skincare for you is kind of like finding the right shampoo… Some would use a shampoo and say, oh I always get dandruff using this shampoo. That’s kinda like skincare. You use it and if it’s not doing anything for you, then, you know, move along and try something else…. and know what you want in a skincare and what you want it to do for you.

So for me, when developing my skincare, I wanted a skincare… that would help that skin type but also a support base for makeup so that makeup can sit flawless in your skin. [I wanted] skincare that would absorb into the skin quickly so it’s not sitting like a thick film on top of the skin which [would mean] …

  1. you’ve gotta wait for it to settle into your skin, which takes time
  2. the risk of your makeup falling or (having to use) more product, like powder, to lock in all that thick hydration that’s on your skin

And sometimes less is more. For me…. the less product you need to use, the better it is, and the more beautiful it is.

Ok truth time… what’s something you WISH you could tell some of your clients, but don’t because you don’t want to offend?

I mean… I have the worst poker face, so if it’s not on my face, it’s already coming out of my mouth. I’m probably not the most subtle person…? Not on purpose, it’s just how it is.

I try to be…and I wanna be as honest as possible, and everyone has a different way of thinking and everyone has different tastes, so what may look good to me may not look good to others so it’s about just having that discussion, so that’s why I think it’s important to say what you have to say to your client because it might be an angle that they didn’t think of… And then after you submit your suggestion, they’re like, Oh yeah… I think that does work better for me because of.. whatever this problem is.

But… maybe…maybe it’s about the skin. You know you want flawless makeup, but your makeup is only going to be as flawless as your skin. And I do find that, to cover up the skin condition.. more makeup is applied, and, within a couple hours you can see it’s starting to flake… and crack on top of the skin. And generally, that’s because there was not enough care taken in the skincare regime or the prep that was done before the application of makeup.

So yeah… I mean, like, if someone’s… skin condition was really bad, I’d tell them…. I’d tell them their skin is dehydrated and what I’m going to do to bring some hydration back. For the receiving person that… can probably be quite, um… maybe offensive? But hopefully I’d built a rapport and gained their trust for us to speak more openly and honestly.

How are you juggling your busy entrepreneurial schedule with motherhood/family responsibilities

It’s literally juggling.

How I’m juggling? Well, I’m sitting here today with… 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7… Ten million things on my list. They’re all different things to support each other, but they’re all different things. It’s like, organizing 4 different events, and each event… they’re at 4 different stages, and then there’s the kids…

So it is, literally, juggling. All the time… to keep one foot in front of the other. But really… the only way I’m getting through this is with the support of my family.

With… just the lifestyle I live, just getting up and going and travelling, and like… last minute bookings, my family having to adjust to it… all of that stuff. If it wasn’t for them, I probably wouldn’t be in the… comfortable position to go knowing that my family is okay.

The other thing that’s helped throughout the whole year after resigning from my job, I’ve [been a part of] a lot of different opportunities, and I’ve met different people and learned different skills… so all those things I’ve learned, I’m… implementing on my own. I’ve had mentors… all those things help me juggle. If I hadn’t learnt those things it would be even more difficult for me to be running 10 million things at one time.

Manaui’s model sisters, Sina and Lilly in a glossy nude makeup look by Konimaq. (Hair by Tenisha T and photo by CupTea.)

What’s something you’re most proud of about your husband and children?

I’m proud of how well they hold everything down at home. I’m a bit of a complainer at home. I say, ‘bit’, but I probably should omit the ‘bit’ and just say ‘complainer.

Like there’s always something… I’ll go away for, I don’t know, a month.. and I come back and I’m still complaining, and yet everyone is so happy. I look at the kids, and they’re so happy. So yeah, I would say that’s what I’m most proud of… they’re still so grounded.

My children are so grounded, and a lot of that is thanks to Mike. He works full time as well… he’s like a single dad, pretty much.

And then there’s my eldest daughter, Tiare, who’s very levelheaded and well grounded in herself, as well…. She’s got this sense of [assurance] in who she is and what her morals and her goals are. I was totally opposite to her as a teenager.

With… her support, with Mike, helping to take care of the home and the two little kids, then… when I come home, I feel relaxed. They have things ready when I come home… but yeah. That’s what I’m most proud of.

Since you launched your business, which accomplishments are you most excited about?

Probably the first one is really getting out there and put myself out there, and trying to put aside my insecurities in developing a brand that is for Pasifika People, that will also complement Pasifika people’s skin and their skin tone… For me, that took a lot of courage to… put myself out there so publicly, with me being worried about… all the judgmental things that I think people are saying or laughing about… just all that stuff.

The second thing is partnering with different businesses… so I’ve partnered with Skindinavia… that was huge for me! That’s just like partnering with a celebrity to me. They’re the biggest prep and setting makeup spray brand in the world, and being the only… official stockist to supply the Pacific, that’s a huge huge accomplishment. I’ve been using their products since I started, all my favourite makeup artists – all the veterans in the industry – have been using their products for years, so that’s huge.

The other huge thing is… being a part of Pasifika Australia, who is the overall umbrella for Pacific Business Association in Australia. Just being a part of that team and inspiring and encouraging Pasifika entrepreneurs… that’s huge for me as well. I’ll be speaking at their launch event in October – I’m a guest speaker there, so that’s huge!

The next exciting part for me is creating a community for Pasifika Beauty Creatives. I’ve just set up a community group [on Facebook] for all Pasifika beauty creatives to come together. It’s a support group, a collaboration group, a sharing group – you know, share good stories, share what you’ve accomplished in your business, highlights and low lights.

The beauty industry is a very, very, competitive industry, and… I’m going to speak honestly… I’ve found it [to be] catty. They say they’re there to support you, but there’s a clique. And if you’re not in that clique, you’re not it. You see it, you get given the eye, you feel it, and somehow, you need to work around it. The industry is so small that everyone knows everyone, and you know, [if] there’s one… bad review… that’s it. It’s out everywhere… it’s very easy to have your name and your brand tarnished.

So yeah, it’s a very competitive industry, and competitive is good, you know, it keeps you on your toes, but… it’s not the type of support network I want to provide our Pasifika people… The beauty industry is already dominated by… European countries, and I feel like our Pasifika people don’t have a place or a brand that they can identify with, which is why I’ve started my brand Konimaq. I want it to be… for Pasifika people. I want to collaborate with Pasifika Creatives to create a more amazing product.

I want to create a support group… [that’s] a real support group. It’s not about, you know… fake support, or anything. [She laughs.] It’s a real support group where we can come together, share together, be honest together, share business tips within the industry and be a home for Pasifika Beauty Creatives.

That is something huge that I’m really excited about setting up, that I’ll be launching soon.

Taking it back to your cultural heritage, what is your favourite Cook Island dish, and why?

Pawpaw & Powder Milk

  1. Cut a pawpaw in half length-wise
  2. Cut off the end bulb-looking part (too much sap)
  3. Remove the seeds by scooping them out with a spoon
  4. Sprinkle a generous amount of powder on top of the pawpaw-half
  5. Grab your spoon and dig in!

This is one of my favourite things to eat while in Raro. I can eat it every day and never get sick of it. It has a sweet, creamy yet refreshing taste that’s even better when eaten with a crispy French stick.

My life’s purpose

If the world ended tomorrow and I could choose only 3 achievements to define my entire life, they would be:

  • Friendships
  • Family
  • Entrepreneurship

And to wrap things up, what are your hopes for the future of the People of Oceania?

That no matter where we live around the world, our Pasifika people will feel a sense of identity, [a connection] to their culture, and have a community where our culture is supported, celebrated and shared.

~ * ~

Connect with Koni: | #konimaq, #pasifikacreatives

~ * ~

Who are your Pacific heroes?

I was well out of high school before I fully understood that the history we learned there is not really mine. I mean, I loved the stories of Socrates, Da Vinci, Magellan and Napoleon, Martin Luther and Abraham Lincoln, and I still think it’s important to know these historical figures, especially as we navigate the Western world they helped to shape. But years later when I discovered the story of Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III, I couldn’t believe that I, a now grown ass Samoan woman, had never heard of him before. And then when I was telling all my Samoan friends about this Head of State who lost his life defending the freedom of our ancestors, no one in my generation or younger had heard of him either.

Well that just made me sad.

I understand that Samoan history is not too relevant in many parts of the world, but I went to school in Hawaii, Saipan and New Zealand. You’d think that education in New Zealand, especially, might want to include a few stories from the history of a people they once colonized, who still make up such a huge part of their migrant population. Why aren’t all of us in the Pacific learning more about our own history? (Aannndd breathe.)

Anyway, thank goodness for books – and for the growing number of passionate writers documenting the history of Pacific people. I hope these stories become required reading for more of our schools.

A few months ago I helped a friend organize a workshop for the school holidays program at a local library. We decided to make it a leadership workshop focusing on 3 heroes from Pacific history – yayy! – and off I went to look for these heroes in books.

I found our first Pacific hero in a series of readers by David Riley called Pasifika Heroes. One of his Cook Island Heroes is Ru… Now let me tell you about Ru.

Ru the Explorer

Ru was one of Polynesia’s ancient, seafaring heroes. A lot of stories about Ru are fantastical legend now, but all legends are based on truth, right?

Ru was a master navigator who loved to explore the oceans. He invited his friends and family along on yet another high seas adventure, but most of them were afraid to leave home.

So in a rousing speech, Ru told them to be fearless, to embrace the excitement of discovery. He taught them that they should always be moving forward, that the mysteries of the ocean were waiting out there for them.

Ru got his people so inspired that his whole family – all his wives, all his brothers and their wives, etc. – joined him on his expedition. Aaannndd you can read the rest of this story in Cook Island Heroes. (Go find out why Ru included 20 princesses as part of the crew on his voyage.)

Spoiler Alert: Ru lead the expedition that eventually discovered, populated and governed – quite cleverly – the island now known as Aitutaki.
I found my next Pacific Island hero in another David Riley book.

Haloti Ngata

Tongan American football star Haloti Ngata is a modern day Pacific hero.
Haloti’s success was inspired by heroes in his own life. He was named after his uncle, who played college football, and decided to follow in his footsteps. It was his father, though, who taught him the value and power of hard work. Haloti remembers one day when he was a teenager tempted to nap on the floor instead of doing his chores. He heard his father come in and quickly jumped into a plank position, as if he had been doing push ups instead of sleeping. His father expressed his approval, encouraging him to keep up the good work. In honour of his father and uncle, Haloti worked hard enough to eventually play football for Oregon University.

He was devastated when his father was killed in a tragic accident. And then a year later, Haloti suffered a knee injury which ended his football season. Imagine how discouraging that was for him. He just about gave up.. but thanks to the support of great friends and teammates, he fought through the challenging times – kept the faith – made it to the NFL in 2006 and went to the Superbowl in 2013.

You can read more about Haloti Ngata in David Riley’s Tongan Heroes.

Lauli’i Willis

I have been gushing about Lauli’i the Daughter of Samoa – and our last chosen hero – for several years now. Hers is another story I can’t believe I didn’t know growing up.

So Lauli’i was born in Samoa in the mid 1800s – back when the only people documenting our stories were foreign explorers. Her American husband took her to an editor in California who recorded her life story, as dictated to him, in her own words… and her incredible description of Samoa back then? I can hardly imagine that world today.

I’m still in awe of Lauli’i because hers is the only indigenous Samoan ‘voice’ I’ve ever read from before the 20th century. She’s a Pacific hero not only for leaving behind a written record of her life, but also because as a very young child, she survived an extraordinarily dangerous time in Samoan history.

I’d be here all week if I started telling you Lauli’i’s thrilling true story. You really should read it yourself it’s FREE online, even, at Google Books.

You’re welcome.

More Pacific Heroes

Who are your heroes from Pacific history? Whose stories do you think our schools – especially in the Pacific – should be teaching? Tell us in the comments below.

In 2019, Manaui: The People of Oceania will begin highlighting our contemporary heroes – the men and women in our own communities who have inspired success amongst our people through their own achievements. We’re calling these heroes our Manaui Wayfinders.

We’re accepting nominations now.

In the comments, please also tell us who you think we should interview as our next Manaui Wayfinder.

Koko. Koko Samoa.

In my culinary fantasies, I can walk into any café and ask for a fresh brew of sweet, black koko Samoa.

That world is not reality just yet (at least not in New Zealand) but I know connoisseurs of this ‘black gold from Samoa’ have been talking about it for years, and I’m hoping someone out there has just about convinced the café culture to include koko Samoa on its hot beverage list.

(Call me when that happens, k?)

Koko Samoa

I’ve salivated over koko Samoa for so long, it still shocks and surprises me to meet people – Samoans even – who have no idea what it is.

Like… wha- bu- how?

So I’m just here today to shed some light.

What is Koko Samoa?

Koko Samoa is basically chocolate in its purest form. It is made from cacao beans, which come from a tree called the cacao, or officially theobroma cacao.

The very cute movie, ‘Three Wise Cousins‘, includes a beautiful sequence where local Samoan children harvest cacao pods and help their grandmother turn them into koko. I couldn’t find that scene on YouTube (boooo).

Instead I found this video (below), which gives you the basic step-by-step of the process. You’re going to want to stop watching at Step 6, though:

From Tree to Koko Samoa

Did you even know that chocolate grows on trees? The odd looking cacao pods grow on the trunks of the cacao trees.

I remember visiting Samoa when I was a kid, hanging out with my uncles and aunt in the plantation while they (did all the work and) gathered cacao pods.

On the drive home, bouncing around at the back of our open truck bed, they would cut open the pods and snack on the big, slimy white seeds inside… and I remember being really doubtful that this stuff would make koko cause those seeds do not taste like chocolate.

But then at home they would gut a bunch of cacao pods, leave the seeds in pans for a few days (now I know that’s for fermenting and drying), and then they’d roast those seeds or beans, constantly stirring them, over an open flame.

My other cousins would roast the beans on a thin-meshed metal screen so that, while they were pushing them back and forth over the fire, the mesh would help tear the skins off and make the beans easier to peel.

In the video above, the chocolate makers then use a grinder to turn the roasted beans into chocolate powder.

We don’t.

Making SAMOAN hot chocolate

For Samoans, our ‘Step 7’ is to pound the beans into a thick, koko paste.

My cousins use a strong iron pot and this heavy pole thing (basically, a large, improvised pestle and mortar) and pound the hot, roasted beans, adding a few at a time, until the cacao oils combine with their grainy flesh, and the mixture just molds together.

It’s hard work!

And then they pile the koko paste into plastic wrap and press it into cups for shaping, because it gets pretty solid when it cools.

koko Samoa

Everything else about koko Samoa is easy.

How Samoans (if they’re like me) drink Koko Samoa

You chuck a lot of water in a big ugly tea pot, start heating it on the stove, throw a block of solid koko Samoa in there at some point, bring it all to boil, stirring occasionally (or not), then turn the heat down and let simmer for… oh, as long as you want to be drinking it hot.

Koko Samoa

Sweeten to taste (i.e. it’s good when it’s sweet) and serve black.

Fine. If you must add milk (a splash of coconut cream can be nice, too) please add it to your own cup. You don’t want to start a fight with the koko Samoa purists in the house by tainting the whole pot.

Speaking from experience.

Something else I learned from my family – we always make koko Samoa really strong with lots of pegu (the koko grains that settle at the bottom of your cup) cause mmmmmm…

And then we leave the pot on the stove for like a week, just firing up the heat and adding fresh water, plus more koko and sugar, pretty much until all the koko in the house is gone.

And then we’re just sad until someone else comes from Samoa with a top up.


Koko Samoa

Koko Samoa Ambitions

I’ve heard that the cacao trees grown in Samoa are a rarer, more sought after species than others. I’ve also heard that Samoan cacao farmers can hardly keep up with the supply orders from huge chocolate companies in the world.

I don’t know how much of that is true, but I DO know that I’m always hearing about a shortage of cacao these days, and that it’s gotten a lot more expensive to buy koko Samoa from the local shops in Samoa.

Continuing my above-mentioned culinary fantasy, I would love to one day be a part of fixing that problem. Who wants to help me start another cacao plantation and then open a chain of koko Samoa cafés around the world?

Call me.


By the way, if you’re interest in learning more about koko (chocolate) production, I also found this other video where a guy named Andy travels to Mexico – the ancient origin of the cacao tree – and shares what he learns from the local cacao farmers. Fascinating!

Are you ready to die?

The early 2000s were a difficult time for my family. In the space of 4 years, 6 of my close relatives died.

Our first loss was my 46-year-old first cousin. His sudden, cardiac event widowed his wife and left his 4 young-adult children without a dad.

My own father was next, only a month later. Waiting for heart surgery, he had discharged himself from hospital to attend my cousin’s funeral, during which I noticed a haunting expression on his face, as if he knew his own time on earth was coming to an end. The operation put him in a coma from which he didn’t wake.

Less than 6 months later, my father’s 36-year-old brother suffered a fatal heart attack. His own children were so young at the time, I wonder how much they remember about him now.

The next year, my mother’s sister collapsed in her daughter’s arms. The year after that, her brother succumbed to a long battle with cancer. And then my mom’s last remaining sister – the eldest and matriarch of our extended family – also made her way to Heaven.

Most people would read this story and immediately feel for our tragic loss. If you’re a Samoan adult with some experience of our culture, though, you might also gasp at the impact that 6 funerals in a row would have made on our finances.

It sounds insensitive, I know, and almost taboo to be talking money while mourning loved ones, but such is the reality of life. In the Samoan culture, the burden of funeral costs is shared across an extended family, with monetary donations increasing in size the closer related you are to the deceased. Also in our culture – probably a remnant of island village life – we often consider our aunts and uncles extensions of our parents, and our first cousins might as well be our siblings. So yes, these 6 funerals – one after the other – were a pretty big deal for us.

Samoans often complain or make jokes about what we call fa’alavelave – any family event (especially a funeral or wedding) that requires a deep dig into our pockets for a donation. I myself am often an excellent advocate for my basic human right to NOT give away my hard-earned cash, thank you.

Yeah, my perspective changed quickly when my dad’s death caught my immediate family off guard.

Hindsight is both a great teacher and a tough judge. We should have had more savings – it’s not like we didn’t have jobs. My dad should have been insured. He had been, but it had lapsed – painfully, only a month or so earlier. We should have anticipated the possibility that his operation would fail… but who wants to think like that?

funeral cover

When I found out how much it costs to book a funeral home, to get a burial plot, to feed all the people who were coming to pay their respects, and then to know how little was in my bank account? Added to the grief of losing my father, I had a small anxiety attack.

I can only imagine how my mother was feeling. But she only instructed us to prepare our house for visitors.

Over the next few days, one by one, small groups of extended family and good friends came to see us. Each brought a donation of money, food, fine mats, and eloquent expressions of sympathy and support. For the first time in my life, I understood why Samoans give so much. “O le alofa,” my aunt used to tell me. It’s because of love.

It was only by this miracle of love that my father’s funeral was paid for in full, with enough left over to return a token of our appreciation to those who donated not only money, but their time and service that week.

Out of sheer, heartfelt gratitude, I made it a point to give as much as I could to support the following funerals in our family – for my beautiful uncles and aunts. And then, finally we were able to rest – for a little while – from the tragedy of loss.

In that time, my sister’s health slowly deteriorated. She had survived leukaemia as a young child, but the experimental chemotherapy she had needed affected her heart and eventually the cell activity of her brain. Doctors didn’t expect her to live past her teen years, but she made it into her 30s. When her epilepsy required her to be supervised at all times, we set up caregiving shifts that included cousins who live nearby.

My sister hated inconveniencing people with her care. She was either grumpy about all the attention, or she would go out of her way to make sure her minder (especially if it was a cousin) was compensated for their time. She would bake cakes, shout lunch and organize movie trips or ice cream drives to keep them entertained.

On one such excursion, my cousin remembers that he and my sister were sitting in his car having their usual, in-depth conversation over a drive-through meal. Suddenly, she turned and asked a question that still haunts him today:

“Are you ready to die?”

Startled and unsure how to answer, my cousin asked her instead where that question had come from. My sister’s reply was an odd assurance, “I am ready to die. I’m only worried about my mom. I don’t want her to be sad.”

She was 33 when she passed away a couple of weeks after.

It had been 5 years since the last major funeral in our family, but we were still seasoned veterans of the ritual. As we gathered to prepare for the days ahead, we gradually discovered the true meaning behind my sister’s curious statements.

One tearful cousin pulled my mother aside and gave her my sister’s computer password. She explained that only a week or so earlier, during this cousin’s caregiving shift, my sister had shown her a Word document. It was a list of all her bank accounts and login details, and it also included information about an insurance policy that we’d had no knowledge of. As we followed the breadcrumbs she’d left, we would soon learn that my sister’s secret estate covered every single funeral expense that arose, and also gifted my mother a substantial surplus.

It was a new experience for me to ‘pay’ for a burial plot or an extra memorial service at the funeral home simply by presenting an insurance document. Humbled by this turn of events, my mother returned any ceremonial donations of monetary support – as much as she could without causing offence. The whole spirit of that funeral was most unusual for us. We didn’t worry about having enough or paying off debt. We focused instead, with unhindered gratitude, on celebrating the impact my sister’s life has made on everyone she knew.

funeral cover

Because my family is so acquainted with death, we talk about it now with the kind of abandon that can make others uncomfortable. My mother has already bought her burial plot, plus 3 more, one of which is apparently mine. (Yayy?) Following my sister’s example, she also has a small container full of insurance policies (I think mom is addicted to them now) and passwords and logins. It also includes her last will and testament, plus a 5-page, typed out run sheet for her entire funeral…like literally, she’s even chosen the speakers and songs for her ceremony.

I haven’t gone to such extremes just yet, but I do believe much more now in the virtues of insurance… Or at the very least, of leaving enough money behind so my funeral is a happy celebration of my life, and not a burden for anyone else.

It’s not just about the money.

When I think about my sister’s question, I think about other loved ones I’ve watched pass into the next world. I remember one uncle, so close to end, so angry about the things he wouldn’t be able to accomplish now. At my grandfather’s deathbed, I saw the deep gratitude in his eyes that, in this moment, he wasn’t alone.

I wonder now, when that time comes for me – as it will for all of us – will I be ready? Financially? Emotionally? Spiritually? I look around at the things I own and hope they’ll be of use to others, too. I think about all the work I’m doing and pray that somehow, it matters. I run quick inventories in my mind to check that I’m not harbouring anything embarrassingly dumb that someone might discover (fingers crossed). Most of all, I think about the people I love…

When my mother first logged into my sister’s computer after her death, the first thing she saw on her desktop was a note addressed to ‘Mom’. It was a poem that expressed so much love and gratitude for all their years together. It ended with a message of comfort, with a promise that although she couldn’t be seen now, she would never be far away.

I imagine it was only with this final, faith-filled assurance – for both herself and her most beloved – that my sister was truly ready to die.

The making of a Polynesian art prodigy

In early June this year, the Balmoral Seventh Day Adventist school in Auckland celebrated Pasifika night by hosting an auction of artwork. One young artist’s painting caught our eye and we posted it on the Manaui Facebook page – to overwhelming response.

Pacific art

I’m actually not surprised.

Many artists devote years of dedicated practice to develop skills like these… and then when you learn that Dyralle Tamatoa Auora is only 12 years old (exclamation point!) you have to wonder:

    • First: How does a 12-year-old make such grown up decisions about theme, color, texture, contour etc. in his paintings? and…
  • Second: What kind of home does this boy come from? It’s one thing to learn the process of painting, but another thing for someone so young to be so confident in his artwork.

His parents are obviously doing something right.

So we sat down with Toa (that’s the name the artist prefers) and both his parents to find out what’s going on here.

The Parents

Toa’s mum is Fili and his dad is Ern.

Fili was born in Samoa and moved to New Zealand to study Business Management. She got her degree from Unitec, where she (‘unfortunately’, she says) met Ernest. She’s been a full time mum for the past 11 years, but prior to having her 3 children, she was a model (she laughs).

Ern was in born in Pukapuka (in the Northern Cook Islands) and migrated to New Zealand in 1983. In the early 2000s he gained a bachelor’s degree in product design then worked in the industry for several years. He’s been drawing since he was in nappies and realized in primary school how much he likes art. Over the years he’s also freelanced as a graphic designer on the side and held exhibitions for his artwork. Ern is currently in his first year of a master’s programme in architecture.

And how do they feel about all the attention their son is getting for his artwork?

Fili: Overwhelmed!

Ern: Happy for the boy – fist pump!

Pacific art

Here’s how the rest of our chat with Toa’s parents went:

How did you know Toa was interested in the creative arts? How old was he at the time?

Ern and Fili: From about 3-years-old he had a unique way of holding a pen. When he was 5, his teacher would try to correct his pen-holding technique, but he refused to change. To this day, he holds the pen the same way. We remember he never drew stick figures. His drawings were always 2D and detailed.

Pacific art

What did you do to help him develop these skills?

Ern: Kids need something to do – most of the time, there was no Internet [at home], but he was never without paper and pen. We made sure he had heaps of paper and boxes lying around, and we allowed him to get creative and just make lots of rubbish. It’s only paper – we can always throw it away. [Also] over the years we’ve spent thousands of dollars on Lego [for him to play with].

Toa always saw me at work – I always showed him the designs I was working on. He was surrounded at home by creativity and design.

How much time does Toa spend working on his art?

Ern: The two things he loves to do in his spare time is reading and drawing. He’s a bookworm.

Fili: We’ve never had a TV at home. Toa has no Internet access, no gaming console… and he’s got no ears (laughs).

Ern: The reason Toa is so skilled is old fashioned discipline (laughs).

Do his siblings also show interest in the creative arts?

Fili: I think these two (Toa’s younger sisters) will be better because all they do is color. They always have paper everywhere, and when we go out to buy toys, they prefer art supplies.

pacific art

What can other parents do to identify and encourage talents in their own children?

Ern: Take away their electronic gadgets, have affordable art supplies at home – whether it’s boxes from the supermarket, recycled paper from work, homemade playdough or a small kit of Legos – toys that help them develop their hand-eye coordination.

Allow them to make a mess, especially if it’s helping them to learn. There are two types of mess – learning and creative mess, and the kind of mess you cause by running inside with muddy shoes. Understand the difference and keep them separate. With creative mess, it’s only paper anyway – you can throw it away.

At the end of the day, if the kids have no gadgets distracting them, they only have two options: be creative inside or go outside and play.

Pacific art

The young artist, Toa

We couldn’t have an interview about Toa without talking to the young man himself. Here’s what he had to say:

Why do you enjoy painting?

Toa: It’s new for me, but it’s fun because I get to explore colors and new techniques.

What are your favourite images (themes) to paint?

Toa: I like to draw dragons of a more realistic style.

How do you choose which colours to use, for example, to make up a person’s face?

Toa: Mix a few colors and if it looks good just do it.

How did you get so good at art?

Toa: Practice. I always take a sketchbook and a few pens, and steal my dad’s [pens] – I nearly got a hiding for that one (laughs).

I watch Lethal Chris on YouTube on my mum’s phone – when she has data (laughs). He’s an artist of fantasy drawings and comics.

What do you think you will do with art in the future?

Toa: Paint more pieces to sell and do a mini exhibition to buy more supplies


With reporting by Koni Rairoa. To learn more about Dyralle Tamatoa Auora or where you can see more of his art, please contact Koni Rairoa.