The late Eti Sa’aga in an artists interpretation
By Lance Polu
APIA, SAMOA – FRIDAY 12 JANUARY 2018: The man who skipped a government scholarship to study overseas and opted instead to build roads “for the rich man to ride on in comfort,” came back home yesterday morning and laid to rest at 6.00 last evening at his childhood abode next to the Malua Theological College.
Eti Sa’aga, 67, who wrote the poem “Me the Labourer” that encapsulated his years of building the road from Faleolo International Airport to Lepea in the early 1970s passed away at the Kuakini Medical Centre in Honolulu, Hawaii after Christmas following a chronic heart condition.
Eti Sa’aga was the son of a prominent minister of the Congregational Christian Church and grew up at the church headquarters at Malua.
A colourful character who was a student of the Samoan novelist laureate Maualaivao Albert Wendt, he left Samoa College and joined the government corporation specializing in heavy works, SPDC. A young face among the road workers, his Afro and shirtless upper body, was a common sight for many months as he courted the grader machine to push the construction that winded slowly from village to village towards Apia town.
That experience captured in Me the Labourer that was studied by college and university students across the Pacific and New Zealand became his signature even in his death.
He starred as Jesus in a local production of Jesus Christ Superstar, then worked in many fields including a newspaper journalist who broke major stories that were challenged in court and won. He became a farmer, a volunteer worker, translator, television and radio commentator, documentary maker and finally as a pressman and speech writer for the long serving Congressman for American Samoa, the late Faleomavaega Eni Hunkin.
But it was his poetry that proved his measure and will be his legacy.
Despite being considered lost, the manuscript of Me the Labourer was kept by a close poet friend Reverend Ruperake Petaia. As if by divine influence, Ruperake was later assigned to head the Malua Printing Press that led to the printing of the collection of poems and brought back Eti from American Samoa after a long absence from Apia to launch the collection in 2009.
In it, the collection bares Eti’s soul of its life’s anguish over delicate and painful experiences such as divorce, death and loss of people very close where ‘lillies’ rhyme with ‘Uili’ (an older brother who was killed in a tragic traffic accident in Auckland, New Zealand. And where the wind leaves its mark like the dog lifting its hind leg while making wind like sounds against the wall.
The prayers, music and poems were the order of the family service at the LBJ Chapel, American Samoa on Wednesday this week as his three children, family and friends remember and celebrated his life.
Then on Thursday morning, he made the final trip over and a day long family and church services interspersed his farewell. Musician cousin Etene Saaga aka Fungi, who is as colourful a character, led the music tributes and Eti’s friends – actor/editor Tuiasau Uelese Petaia read his poems in a final tribute.
He now rests at his family homestead at Malua where one crosses a small wooden bridge over a garden pond to his grave.
He was married to the late Otilia Hunkin-Saaga and is survived by three sons Willie, Che and Robert and daughter Terri Sa’aga Sua and several grandchildren.