She came bearing gifts – several million dollars worth – on a ‘reboot’ Pacific mission, fuelled perhaps by a fear of what the Chinese are getting up to…ohmigoodness are they replacing us in the special friend’s circle?! $3 million for Cyclone Gita recovery and $6.5million for the private sector, specially targeting women and youth entrepreneurs.
The $6.5 sounds especially impressive but let’s see where exactly it’s going, how it will be used for the private sector, and over how many years. I’m not being ungrateful. I’m just remembering other splendiferous funding announcements made in the past by other good friends of Samoa, that promised many millions – but a closer look at the fine print revealed that it was spread out over multiple countries in the Pacific, and over ten years. So not as splendid as it first sounded. I look forward to more info about how New Zealand’s generous new gift will be used – possibly channeled through the Development Bank, SBEC, WIBDI or the Chamber of Commerce to assist in their vital work? We shall see.
Ardern also came with renewed promises for climate change commitment and ‘it’s important we are not hypocrites’. Words we definitely want to hear. However, at the Climate Change luncheon hosted by the Minister of Environment, they were words framed in a context of New Zealand being the leader of this ‘nuclear free moment’ and us joining in with them. A tad bit condescending considering how long Pacific Island nations and advocacy groups have been championing this issue on the world stage and in the region. Framing is important. The words we use are important. Yes Samoa and NZ are great friends, but sometimes our former colonizers don’t even realise the underlying messages they are conveying, quite by accident?
Ardern came with the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Deputy PM Vaovasamanaia Winston Peters. The plane was filled with a 30+ delegation of Parliamentarians and members of the New Zealand’s NGO and business community, many Pacific Islanders amongst them. It was refreshing to have a ‘foreign’ mission with so many familiar faces in it, so many Pasifika folks. And rather awesome that when it was time for the NZ delegation to ‘respond’ during the ava ceremony welcome at NUS – their Minister of Pacific People’s and a son of Samoa – was able to, so beautifully.
But perhaps more impressive than the promises of money, or even the strategic guest list of Pasifika people on the RNZ Air Force plane, was Ardern herself. From the minute she touched down at the airport, and surprised local media by greeting them individually with handshakes and smiles, Ardern set the tone for her first visit as NZ Prime Minister.
To steal the timeless words of world change-maker Beyonce, Ardern came to slay.
She complimented Samoa Police in the official honor guard with grace and smiles. She wore a TAV dress, blazer and black heels with chic corporate ease, like yes I wear stuff like this all the time. Rather than with an air of I’m dressing like the natives as a special treat for them! When she was gifted with ie and traditional accessories, she stood patiently while they ‘dressed’ her and then she wore her pale fuiono like a Queen.
At the joint press conference with the Samoa PM, she was engaging and confident while Tuilaepa was uncharacteristically quiet and seemed impatient to be somewhere else. Indeed, next to Ardern’s polished diplomacy and energy, our Prime Minister looked surly and sour… Was he musu because of the questions about China? Maybe he was wondering why NZ feels like they have any right to question who Samoa accepts funding from? You’re not the Big Brother Boss of us anymore, remember? (The same question may have crossed my mind…)
He did show some of his usual acerbic flair when taking a dig at NZ journalist Barbara Dreaver though, responding to a question about tourism with, “Well I’m sure everyone – except Barbara Dreaver – will agree with me when I say Samoa is the most beautiful country in the world to visit!”
When Ardern visited a home built by ADRA, Habitat for Humanity, and the Samoa Housing Corp, she listened to a mother tearfully tell how grateful they were to be in a strong, secure house during Cyclone Gita. Ardern had tears too. Later at a luncheon hosted by our Deputy Prime Minister Fiame Naomi, it was the first thing some guests told others. “Sa tagi Jacinta. Talofa’e.” It was a guest list made up primarily of women and the story was whispered by those who were at the house visit. The Prime Minister of NZ cried for our people. Loto alofa.
When she thanked the family for opening up their home to the visitors, Ardern said, “There’s no place more sacred than your own home, so to open it to all of us we’re very, very grateful. Thank you for the kindness that you’ve shown us today.” And for everyone who’s ever taken pride in their home, no matter how humble, we felt that. Did it mean more, coming from her because a woman is stereotypically seen as the ‘homemaker’ and so we (stereotypically) assume she would understand everything that goes into making a house a home? Perhaps. But nobody could doubt her sincerity and emotion. Loto maualalo.
Local media had been sent a brief that they were to stay 3m away from the Prime Minister AT ALL TIMES, but when police shooed away a journalist trying to ask questions, Ardern went and talked to her anyway. Winning hearts and minds. I slay.
At the National University of Samoa, she talked to the students about climate change and about being a leader. She was happy to take selfies, to mingle and chat, to meet anyone and everyone who wanted to meet her. Her approachability and down-to-earth’ness prompted social media commenters to compare her to Princess Diana… “Jacinta’s just like her. Caring and always willing to talk to people!”
Every leader strives to ‘have a moment’ – or maybe it’s just media that looks for ‘moments’ they can write about! On this trip to Samoa, Ardern’s ‘moment’ came when she opened up the floor to excited school children at the Marist St Joseph’s Sports Club challenging them, “is anyone brave enough to ask me a question?”
A young woman from the LDS Church Middle School of Pesega was quick to put her hand up, but when she tried to answer, the microphone would not work and for a moment, she looked anxious, her burst of confidence fast fading. You could see her panicked thoughts and desperate wish to change her mind and sit down!
Immediately Prime Minister Ardern left the podium to walk into the audience and give the student, her microphone, and an encouraging word. To say the students were thrilled to have her right there next to them, would be an understatement. The young girl asked, ‘What inspired you to become Prime Minister?’
Reflecting on growing up in a small town of 5,000 people, Ardern said, “Sometimes, I think when you live in a small place, you think that you can only do small things, and I didn’t even think that I would be even a Member of Parliament, let alone Prime Minister. Probably one of the things that made a real difference to me was that I didn’t have the confidence to take on opportunities that other people said I should, so sometimes I just listened to them instead and then said yes…even when it frightened me. Please don’t ever think that you can only do small things. If people tell you to take up a new opportunity or try a new thing, just say yes. If you don’t have faith in yourself, have faith in the belief of the other person.”
Ardern said other things about kindness and leadership and integrity. It was a moment of connection and clarity. It was inspiring. One can only imagine how powerful it is for youngsters on a small island, to hear such counsel, from the Prime Minister of a country like NZ, and a ‘cool’ #WithIt leader who was breaking all the usual ‘rules’ for what visiting leaders do.
Afterwards, Ardern let children hug her. She took selfie after selfie with the buzzing excited crowd, she laughed and chatted. When others asked inappropriate questions, like “So did you fall in love with any Samoan men when you were here before?” – she responded with diplomacy and cool calmness. Thank you for our youth who asked sensible, intelligent questions!
And what about the PM being hapu? Unfortunately we live in a world where a pregnant world leader is so rare that we are curious about how does she meet the challenges of her role at the same time?
It was a killer hot day in Samoa and a cruelly busy schedule with way too many ava ceremonies in it. But not once did Ardern waver. She was strong, composed, and energetic. (She didn’t even have to take her high heel shoes off for sore feet! Something I only noticed because I can’t last an hour with heels on…)
She didn’t refer to her pregnancy, unless she was asked about it. She didn’t do that annoying thing some people do, where they cradle their belly and pat it frequently to remind you that HEY I’M GROWING A HUMAN IN HERE.
At various venues, she discreetly and quietly excused herself to take the bathroom breaks that any 6months pregnant person would know all too well the need for. But otherwise, she was just another woman, going about a very busy workday – and who just happens to be pregnant at the same time. From the early morning start, all the long way to the evening reception held at the NZ High Commissioner’s residence, Ardern was endurance and strength personified. Loto toa.
So much that her final speech of the visit, was the culmination #BestOfTheDay address, an eloquent, off-script, and heartfelt acknowledgement of the Samoa and NZ relationship.
In his address the Reverend Dr Salesulu told Ardern that ‘we Samoanize the names of our palagi friends and your Samoan name is Jacinta.’ Emphasis on the Cinta. The Prime Minister laughed and graciously accepted her new name, which many Samoans have been using for her all over social media since before she landed on our shores.
In her short visit, Jacinta showed us she can be nice when nice is needed. She can be strong, when strong is required. She can be kind and have empathy. She can be confident and calm. She can be smart, strategic and diplomatically skilful. She can even be a little bit #NZisBetterThanYou, but a nation’s leader probably needs that in small doses.
There are 101 selfies ‘with Cinta’ all over Facebook. All testament to the personal connection she made with 101+ different people in Samoa from all walks of life – in only 24hrs. She left #JacintaFans everywhere. She came to slay and she succeeded.
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