Sauniatu: Preparing to Go Forth

“Sauniatu: Preparing to Go Forth,” New Era, June 1977, 29

Special Issue:

Preparing to Go Forth

“Each one of us had a job, a goal, and an objective. We knew we had to make Sauniatu stand up and be independent,” said Ed Kamauoha as he began relating the incredible story of a service project that has continued for years and dramatically influenced hundreds of lives.

The village of Sauniatu is tucked in the crater of an extinct volcano 20 miles east of Apia on the island of Upolu in Western Samoa. Most of the island’s roads parallel the sea coast; very few lead into the interior. And though it is only four miles from the coast highway, Sauniatu is isolated. You can almost walk as fast as a car can drive up the bouncy, twisting volcanic path that appears to be a giant green tunnel through the lush growth on either side of the trail.

The Samoan word Sauniatu means “a place to prepare.” The early Saints who established Sauniatu had a vision about the importance of this place in the Samoan history of the Church. They knew they needed a place where they could prepare and build strength. In 1904, when they established Sauniatu, they had been expelled from their villages, persecuted, and unfairly taxed for being Mormons. Later they started a school at Sauniatu, and it became one of the Church schools in Samoa. From time to time during the ensuing years, the people of Sauniatu and the various school administrators talked about the advisability of keeping such a remote school operating.

In 1921 when Church officials in Samoa were wondering about continuing the village, Elder David O. McKay and Hugh Cannon visited Samoa on their around-the-world tour of the Church. It was on this visit that Elder McKay pronounced an apostolic blessing on Sauniatu and its inhabitants. Among other things he blessed them that they would have an abundance of food and clothing, that their plantations would be fruitful, and that peace would abide in their hearts and homes. (See Improvement Era, May 1966, p. 366.)

In December 1967 Brother Ed Kamauoha was appointed to be the new headmaster at Sauniatu. For years Sauniatu had been functioning as a school, but when he arrived, the future of Sauniatu was once again in question.

“There were real administrative questions about the efficiency and quality of the school,” he explained. Everyone in Samoa is required to take a standard government education test when they leave high school, and the Sauniatu scores were an average five points below the scores of students from the other Church schools in Samoa. In addition to the low test scores, it was costly to operate the remote school. Many of the students were from very poor families and could not afford to pay more tuition. Enthusiasm among students and teachers was low.

“I felt bad about the school,” he said. “As an administrator I understood the problems, but I also understood what the tradition of Sauniatu means to the Saints in Samoa. I knew the place was not what it could be because it was not living up to President McKay’s 1921 blessing.”

Ed Kamauoha believed Sauniatu had a prophetic future yet to be fulfilled if each person living there cared. His mind remained restless and his wiry body became charged with nervous energy as he began planning to meet the many requirements needed to make the students of Sauniatu self-sufficient and proud and to help the community of Sauniatu reap the promised blessings.

The projects he outlined for the betterment of Sauniatu were big projects. In many people’s minds they were too big for a handful of teachers and a few dozen school children to handle. Yet Brother Kamauoha felt they could do it.

“Getting everyone to work on big projects is like starting a large machine. You just can’t let it idle; you have to really rev it up and keep it going,” said Brother Kamauoha.

He also felt that the students’ performance in school would improve and the morale among the teachers would also improve if they knew they had some control over their own future. “We had been waiting for others to help us at Sauniatu,” explained Brother Kamauoha. “I tried to teach the people that they had depended too much on outside help and assistance from others. I told them the Lord gives us brains and a pair of hands but they won’t help us unless we use them. And so we started building roads, and we did it by hand.”

As soon as the roads were passable, the young people at Sauniatu began working on other major projects. Groups worked simultaneously on a trail down the side of a cliff to the swimming hole, on roads, a nature trail, improving the plantation, and on the construction of a traditional Samoan village, including a special chief’s house in memory of President McKay’s apostolic blessing.

It took one year to build concrete steps down a volcanic cliffside to the swimming hole and the beautiful waterfall below. Four boys worked on this project. They had two picks, two crowbars, and one sledgehammer, and they worked every night after school and every Saturday for six months. Little by little they chipped the rock away until they had a pathway wide enough to support some concrete clear to the bottom of the waterfall. It took them another six months of backbreaking labor to make the steps. They hauled sand from the beach in an old pickup truck. They added cement and took gravel from the river and mixed the concrete by hand in a shallow pocket hollowed out of a large stone. Then they shoveled the wet concrete into buckets and lowered them down the cliff with ropes attached to a long bamboo pole. One step at a time they worked until the trail was completed.

While the waterfall project was underway, Brother Kamauoha challenged the young girls to make a path that would lead people from the village to the waterfall. They planned one pathway, but upon inspection they could see it wasn’t right, and so Brother Kamauoha challenged them to try another one. This still wasn’t any good. They reported to him, and he confirmed that it wasn’t right and told them that the reason it wasn’t right was because they hadn’t tried hard enough. “The third time they did their best, and the planned path was perfect. It curved properly, they had avoided the boggy spots, and the entire path was ideal,” he said.

Every evening after school the girls carried baskets of pebbles up from the river and placed them on the path. Each of them would carry 25 to 40 baskets of rocks each evening, and with everyone working, it took only a few months to complete.

Then the boys and girls brought young trees from the mountains to plant beside the trail. They also brought orchids, tree ferns, and other plants to make the trail beautiful. And they named their trail Losa (Rose) Lane.

Other students were spending their evenings and Saturdays making the school plantation more productive. They planted 22,000 taro plants, 4,000 banana trees, and many pineapple plants and coconut trees.

The young men working on the nature trail learned important design principles as they tried to clear away some of the undergrowth and trees so a person walking on the trail could see other foliage. At first when the nature trail crew looked at the solid wall of green before them, they came back to Brother Kamauoha and told him they did not know what to cut and what to leave.

“I told them this was their responsibility and I wasn’t doing their thinking for them. Then I asked them, ‘When you are in your fale (Samoan house) and the pola (woven blinds) are down, what do you do when you want to see out?’ And they said, ‘We move the pola aside so we can see.’

“After learning this principle, they cut away some of the trees and undergrowth and created beautiful natural windows where students could come and study the plant life or just walk and think.”

Work was also progressing on a model Samoan village to commemorate President McKay’s 1921 visit and his apostolic blessing on Sauniatu. A special chief’s house was built and named the McKay house. After it was built, it seemed bare, and so the young people went to the forests and cut teak logs. Getting each log was a big project. After finding a good tree in the forest, they had to cut it. Then each one had to be trimmed and winched onto a trailer and taken to a sawmill.

After the log was sawn, a native craftsman began carving a Samoan folk legend on it. It took many months to get the log and make the carvings. The money to pay for the first few carvings had been donated by Samoan missionaries or others who were impressed with the vitality of the people at Sauniatu, but the young people earned the money to pay for most of the 20 carvings. They transplanted a special river grass to the swampy areas of land. By hand they put starts of this pasture grass in acre after acre of the swampy land, and in return they were paid in cattle, which they sold to pay for the carvings.

When the carvings were completed, Brother Kamauoha asked the carver to do a bust of President McKay. The pictures that he gave the carver to work from were all of President McKay in his later years. When Brother Kamauoha went back to pick up the bust, the carver was frustrated and related the following story.

“Ed, I am going to tell you something. This is the first time in my life that I haven’t been able to carve what I wanted to carve. Normally I can do anything, but somehow when I worked on this man, I couldn’t control my hands. As you can see, the carving is not like your finished pictures.”

Brother Kamauoha took the carving back to Sauniatu that evening. “The sun was just setting, and I hurried into the McKay house and put the carving on the pedestal we had prepared for it,” he said. “An old Samoan who had lived most of his life at Sauniatu was there, and I asked him how he liked the bust of President McKay. I stood back and looked at it, and this old man didn’t answer me. And so I turned around and asked him, ‘What is wrong? Don’t you like the carving?’ Then as I looked at him, I could see the tears running down his face. And he said to me, ‘You know, I was here when [President] McKay left his blessing. That is how he looked when he came here in 1921!’

“On another occasion the carver told me, and remember he was not a Mormon, ‘Ed,’ he said, ‘with all sincerity I am telling you, this carving is not my work, it is not your work, but it is the Lord’s work.’”

The Spirit was in evidence on many other occasions. At one point it was discovered that someone was stealing the taros that had taken so much labor to plant. No one at Sauniatu seemed to know anything about it, and Brother Kamauoha became very concerned. That night he prayed for direction in solving this problem. His prayer was answered with a dream in which he saw two villagers stealing the taros from the plantation. He saw how they were digging them up, cutting the leaves off the roots, and sticking the leaves back into the ground. He saw where they were hiding the taro roots and how they would come back for them later in the night. The next day he called the two men into his office and asked them why they had been stealing the taros. They were belligerent and asked, “What makes you think we are the ones?”

Brother Kamauoha replied, “I know you are stealing the taros because the Lord showed me in a dream.” Then he related step by step just how they had done it. “They cried, were very sorry, and learned a great lesson about lying: You can lie to another man, but you cannot lie to God.

“I have had many experiences that have made me realize that the Lord will help you to do the impossible. When you operate like this, you learn that keeping the Spirit is the most important thing.

“One day we had a work crew organized, and we needed 13,000 fathoms of sennett (rope made from coconut husks) to tie the pieces of the roof on the McKay house together. I had received promises from many people that they would supply the rope, but when I went to pick it up, no one had it ready. After driving all over the island, I had collected only about 30 fathoms. I was discouraged, and so I complained to God. In my prayers I said, ‘We are working hard, and yet I can’t get the help I need.’

“I had to stop at the mission home to confirm another appointment, and one of the supervising elders said, ‘Brother Kamauoha, I have some sennett you can use.’

“I thought, ‘How nice,’ but I was sure an elder’s little souvenir roll of sennett wouldn’t really help us. He went into his room and came out with this big roll. He handed it to me and said he had about 13,000 fathoms as he wanted to build a Samoan fale (house) with it when he got home to the U.S.

“You can bet I hurriedly went back to the Lord and retracted my complaining. I was truly sorry for ever being discouraged.”

When the various projects were well into their second year, Brother Kamauoha reported that the people really learned that a job is not done until it is complete. After building roads, bridges, and the steps to the waterfall, the people at Sauniatu had to put in a culinary water system. They wanted to pipe water from a spring. They had no money for pipe, so they dug up some old pipe that had been used years before and cleaned it in the river. Then they painted the usable pieces. They only had enough good pipe to make a straight line from the spring to the village. Seventy-five feet of lava bedrock lay in the path of their trench.

“I told them, ‘We have enough good pipe to make a straight pipeline. So if you want water and you want it badly enough, then you’ll have to cut through the bedrock to the spring!’ A big Samoan man named Faleoo Itopi, who had worked extra hard on every project said, ‘Why, after what we have done, this little bedrock is nothing.’

“We worked into the nights with lanterns. Faleoo’s hands were bleeding, but he set an example for the students and showed them how to work. He was that way in all of his projects. When he built roads, he always built them too long rather than too short. He never took a shortcut because his heart was in the right place.”

From Ed Kamauoha and Faleoo Itopi and other leaders like them, the young people of Sauniatu learned that despite being poor and often scorned by other men, they are important to the Lord, and he will help them be “Number 1.” Wherever they have gone as they have left Sauniatu, they have established the reputation of working hard and being the best.

Most of the young men who worked on Sauniatu went on missions. Elder Pouono Lameko is now serving a mission in Western Samoa. He spent three years at Sauniatu. He worked on the farm and the waterfall besides going to school. When he talks about his experiences at Sauniatu, his eyes shine and his face looks happy.

“I expanded at Sauniatu,” he said. “Brother Kamauoha encouraged me in school so that I improved and graduated from high school. He was my teacher—now he is my friend.”

Most of the students said they are grateful that they learned how to work, and they feel that this experience has helped them to face almost any problem. Mati Fuifatu said, “Ed taught me how to do things and then made it my responsibility to get them done.”

While the projects were being finished, the Sauniatu students’ academic ratings rose. They gained feelings of independence and pride and in three years raised themselves from the bottom of the standard test to among the top scores in all the Church schools in Samoa.

Puao and Ataliga Ah Hoy met while they were both single teachers at Sauniatu. After they were married, they decided to go to BYU—Hawaii Campus and get additional schooling. Ataliga said she learned about being a good mother and teaching a family from watching the young people work on the various projects.

“I also learned that you need to check after a project is done. If it isn’t right, do it over,” she said.

Her husband, Puao, said that he learned leadership skills, and once he caught the vision of doing the impossible, he felt he could go away for additional schooling so he could become a better teacher. “I learned that sometimes when the work is very hard, if you make a joke and smile, it seems easier.”

Puao and Ataliga struggled at BYU—Hawaii because they didn’t have much money. “We had learned to sacrifice while at Sauniatu, and the Lord blessed us for it. When we needed money to do our washing, we would visit a pool near the temple. Every time we needed a quarter for the washing machine, it was waiting for us in the pool. Sometimes more was there, but we only took enough to do our washing. When we didn’t need money, we never saw money in the pool. This is one way the Lord helped us,” Puao said.

Brother Folau Neria and his wife, Leute, think of Sauniatu as a place of blessings because they have seen the Lord’s hand there. They were dorm parents while most of the work was being done, and Sister Neria worked with the girls who made one of the roads.

Brother Neria explained his feelings about Sauniatu. “I love that place. That’s where I met my sweetheart in 1942. Some of the first schoolteachers there taught me. I learned to take care of the work of the Lord there.

“We built that place with our hands and made it beautiful, then the Lord blessed it for us. Taros, bananas, everything grows better there than in any other place in Samoa.

“We learned how to work together and to teach each other to work. I was serving as bishop, and I learned that if we show people how to work and start first, they will soon follow.”

The spirit of Sauniatu seems to affect everyone who goes there. Brother Isamaeli, who works on maintenance at the school, said that he didn’t want to come at first. “But,” he said, “after I had been at Sauniatu for a while, I felt the Spirit of the Lord upon my family. I knew it was a blessing to be here. When my family is sick I administer to them and they get better. Before we came here, my wife and I quarreled many times, and sometimes I lost patience with her. But I’m glad to say that now we have a very happy family.

“It is nice to live in a place that is far away from town and other big villages. It is very quiet, and we are free from drunkards, robbers, and other people who cause trouble.”

Today Losa Lane aptly fits President McKay’s description of Sauniatu as “the most beautiful place on earth.” The young people walking beneath the palms and orchids are beautiful. They love the Lord and work hard to improve themselves and live the gospel. And every year a few of them are prepared to go forth into the world. They take the lessons of Sauniatu with them.

And there is a great principle of leadership training that was used to teach all the lessons of Sauniatu: “We loved them,” said Brother Neria. “That is the way to make them work.”

Photos by Brian Kelly

Lush tropical plants grow everywhere at Sauniatu

Even the “main” street in Sauniatu isn’t well traveled

Brother Kamauoha knows every tree on the nature trail

President McKay stood on this spot when he delivered his apostolic blessing on Sauniatu in 1921

The orchids planted by the youth bloom in front of the McKay monument

Sauniatu Falls

The steps give everyone access to the swimming hole below Sauniatu Falls

Several moments of rock climbing are spent … in a brief plunge to the pool below

The dark canyon doesn’t let much light get to the bottom of the pool

All of the concrete for the steps was mixed in the hollow pocket of this rock

Thousands of baskets of pebbles were carried from the river to pave Losa Lane

Bananas grow exceptionally well at Sauniatu

Students catch a ride to the upper pastures

When young people want to be alone and think, they can use the natural bench located on the nature trail. It is known as “meditating rock”

The students helped Sauniatu to become more self-sufficient by planting taros, bananas, and coconuts

Most Samoans carry their produce from the plantation in coconut palm baskets that are suspended from a long pole

Native woods are lashed together with sennett to make the roofs on the traditional Samoan houses in Sauniatu

Students still help do the gardening on the grounds at Sauniatu

Samoans often fan their guests during a meal

This McKay House carving depicts the legend of Alo who was swallowed by a sea monster Paitele

A Samoan legend tells of an eel who was killed and buried. From the burial spot grew a coconut tree. The trunk looked like the eel’s tail and the nut of the tree resembled the eel’s head

Breadfruit cooked in an underground oven and freshwater shrimps prepared with coconut cream are part of a feast menu

Palusami is made from young taro leaves cooked with coconut cream in an underground oven

The freshwater shrimp at Sauniatu are so mild they are even good eaten raw

The Western Samoan government issued a special stamp in honor of Sauniatu

Photo album snapshots show Sauniatu during the construction phase

Brother and Sister Neria were dorm parents at Sauniatu in addition to helping on many of the projects

Bishop Kovana Pauga is the headmaster at Sauniatu. Family home evening is enjoyed by his whole family

Puao and Ataliga Ah Hoy cherish their Sauniatu experience