In a quiet Queensland town fringed by a peaceful bay, a vibrant Samoan community has been blossoming, and, as Karen Fittall discovers, their Pacific Island culture and cuisine is a well-loved part of the landscape. 
By
Karen Fittall

28 Mar 2013 - 10:28 AM  UPDATED 6 Sep 2013 - 9:31 AM

For once, my infuriating-for-fellow-passengers habit of relentlessly trawling radio stations when I’m driving has paid dividends: 20 minutes north of Brisbane and the car’s air is thick with the lilting sounds of Pacific Island music. I have stumbled onto 4EB’s Samoan program and, with my route flanked by palm trees and slivers of sea sightings, it’s easy to imagine that I’m making a beeline for a village on Samoa’s Upolu Island, rather than a bay 35km north of Queensland’s capital.

Soon after I arrive in the area, on a balmy, tropical day, I meet with well-known and respected community elder Hanamenn Hunt who confirms the similarities. 'As well as the climate, it was the proximity of the water that attracted Samoans to Deception Bay in the first place," he tells me. 'It reminded us of home."

Dressed in a lava-lava (a traditional sarong-style garment), Hanamenn greets me not just with a handshake, but one backed up by a warm hug and an enthusiastic, 'Talofa" (Samoan for hello). It immediately makes me feel welcome in a part of the country that was officially recognised by Caboolture Shire Council in 2000 for its large and thriving Samoan community.

Hanamenn joined the community just one year earlier after he moved from Aleisa, a village north-west of Apia, Samoa’s largest city, to follow most of his eight brothers and six sisters in immigrating to Deception Bay to be close to his mother. 'Family is what binds us," explains Hanamenn, himself a father to 13 children.

'We eat, pray, do everything together. In Samoan culture, when you marry one person, you marry the whole family. So as one person or couple left Samoa in search of job opportunities and a better life in Australia and settled here in Deception Bay, it was only natural that other members of their family would follow. That’s how the Samoan community began to gather here."

Taulapapa Lemalu Roy Slade – known locally as Lemalu – is president of the Aiga (family) Samoa Association of North Brisbane and a father of six. A string of beautiful Samoan words rolls off Lemalu’s tongue, as he explains the importance of family in his native country. 'Our families are what define us, and we have a saying, 'O Samoa ua uma ona tofi’, which literally means, 'Every Samoan has a designated role.’ So each and every person holds a valued role in the original family, extended family, village, district and country."

Hanamenn says it is a way of life that works like a well-oiled support system. He calls it a 'Samoanness’ that makes the need to look after people as instinctive as breathing. 'Our philosophy is that my child is yours and yours is mine, and if someone needs help, we offer it. It’s not unusual for us to invite a stranger into our home to stay as long as they need, even if it’s not practical or we don’t have the space. If they need a place to stay, you make it work regardless of how crowded your house is."

It’s this cohesiveness that saw Queensland’s Samoan community pull together after the devastating house fire that claimed 11 lives, south of Brisbane in August 2011. 'Yes, even though we are further north here in Deception Bay, we still rallied around at that time and offered our support," says Hanamenn. 'As Samoans, we’re all connected in one way or another."

When asked about favoured traditional Samoan meals, palusami (coconut cream, seasoned with salt, pepper and onions, and cooked in a wrapping made of taro leaves) is the dish that everyone in Deception Bay rushes to mention. 'Samoan chop suey, made with either pork or chicken, is also a bit of a staple," says Tavita Timaloa, a 37-year-old local who followed his heart to move to Deception Bay on Christmas Day 1999, and now, along with his wife Maraea and their three children, calls the area home. 'And, of course, there are the green bananas, which we boil, peel and eat, and taro, which goes with anything."

Something else everyone tells me is that a Samoan gathering isn’t a gathering without food. 'I’d go so far as to say that the food is really all that matters!" says Tavita. 'Anything and everything else can go wrong at a function, but as long as the food is good, you can consider it a success. It’s the food that everyone remembers."

With the preparation and roll-out of traditional dishes now reserved for celebrations, special functions and family gatherings among Deception Bay’s Samoan community, Lemalu explains that today, their native food is about more – much more – than providing sustenance. 'Food is a conversation starter. It’s about building relationships and the chance to relive memories of Samoa."

Hanamenn agrees. 'For Samoans, sharing a meal is a good way of breaking the ice with newcomers. When we prepare a traditional umu [where food is roasted and baked beneath a bed of heated river stones] at a community gathering designed to bring together a variety of cultures, it’s a chance for other people to taste traditional Samoan food and, in that way, provides something to talk about. But meals are also a time to reminisce and to share news among the family."

Not surprisingly, food plays a big part in the gatherings that Hanamenn’s family stages each month. On a designated Sunday afternoon once every four weeks, as many as 80 people congregate at a family member’s house to eat Sunday lunch, called to’ana’i and, in Hanamenn’s words, catch up, spend time together and discuss the issues that are impacting his relatives. Everyone takes a turn at hosting, and each family member is allocated a dish to bring.

'As the head of the family now, it’s my role to bring everyone together to discuss things that are affecting us, perhaps to resolve disputes and to make the most of the teaching moments that these gatherings present for our younger generations," explains Hanamenn. 'Recently, I have decided to spend more time in Samoa so when I’m not here, that leadership role falls to my brother, which is the natural order of things."

For a Samoan, Sunday is the most important day of the week. Traditionally earmarked as a day of rest, like all Samoans, those who live in Deception Bay are staunch about setting it aside for worship and family. Work of any kind has no place. 'The funny thing," chuckles Hanamenn, 'is that when you see someone mowing their lawn or painting their house on a Sunday, you know you’re living in another country. In Samoa, Sunday is truly a day of rest."

It’s also a day of worship, with the churches that every village has in its fold filled to the brim. And it’s no different around Deception Bay. 'Our faith is important because when you move to a foreign country, your congregation becomes your village, replicating the one you left back home," says Hanamenn. 'It’s where we can continue to share our language, our culture and our traditions."

But in 2003, something else happened to bathe Deception Bay in a definite sense of Samoan community – it became home to the Maota Fono, a traditional meeting house that is believed to be the first of its kind built outside of the Pacific Islands. It’s also a respite from the heat on the day I meet Hanamenn. Today, it’s used for everything from intercultural forums to traditional Samoan dances, as well as kava ceremonies and the bestowal of tribal titles. And, according to Tavita, it’s a place that’s as much for the wider Australian community, as it is for the local Samoans.

'Before the Maota Fono was built, there was a growing sense of racial tension in Deception Bay, particularly between the younger generation of Samoans and other cultures," explains Tavita. 'So the meeting house was our way of opening our arms and showing the wider community who we are, building something to help share our culture and thanking Australia for the opportunity to come here."

It’s also a structure that encourages Deception Bay’s younger Samoans to remember what makes their culture tick – something Tavita, a youth support officer, is passionate about fostering. 'Making sure the language survives is vital, and for me, it’s so satisfying to work with young Australian-born Samoans to help ensure that they don’t lose their culture and their traditions. I have heard so many young people say, 'I live in Australia; learning Samoan won’t help me get a job.’ But what it does do is give them an identity. So, when they travel the world or speak to their elders, they can be confident in saying, 'I am Samoan.’"

Lemalu, for one, is living proof that that the two identities – Australian and Samoan – can coexist in an individual regardless of age or birthplace. 'Living in Australia, we try not to stray too far from our Samoan traditional values," he says, 'but at the same time we recognise the need to balance it with our new country’s values. That’s not always easy, but we persevere. Samoa will always hold a special place in my heart and it made me who I am. But Australia is where I now call home."

THE HIT LIST

EXPERIENCE
Cottonwood Walk
A mixture of boardwalks, picnic spots and bike paths, this picturesque esplanade walk makes the most of Deception Bay’s natural assets. To learn more about the bay’s history, which dates back to the 1820s, follow the heritage trail along the foreshore.

The local area
Part of Queensland’s wider Moreton Bay region, Deception Bay’s neighbours include Redcliffe to the south with its celebrated jetty and waterfront shopping strip, and Bribie Island, with its national park, to the north. Visit moretonbay.qld.gov.au.

A Samoan celebration
Big-ticket celebrations include the Pasifika Vibes festival, staged annually in May, and a gathering each June to celebrate Samoan Independence Day – an event that attracts more than 10,000 people. In December, the Maota Fono is also used as a venue to celebrate Thanksgiving and Carols By Candlelight. Contact the Aiga (family) Samoa Association of North Brisbane, (07) 3142 2231.

EAT
Mermaids
Having nabbed a prime spot just across the road from Deception Bay’s waterfront, you’d expect this cafe’s food to be something special to live up to the view – and it is. Our picks are the (sizeable) burger made with homemade everything, and the locally famous house salad. Open seven days a week for breakfast and lunch, and dinner on Friday and Saturday. 2 Bayview Tce, Deception Bay, 0414 783 022.

Morgans Seafood Market
You can’t visit the Moreton Bay region without sampling the local seafood, including the fleshy bugs that take their name from the area. Grab some fresh produce at the local fish market (which offers more than 180 products daily) and enjoy a seaside seafood supper. Bird of Passage Pde, Scarborough Boat Harbour, Redcliffe, (07) 3203 4592, morganseafood.com.au.

SHOP
MC’s Indian & Island Foods

If you fancy trying your hand at a traditional Samoan dish like palusami, baked taro or boiled green bananas, head to MC’s Indian & Island Foods’s Deception Bay store to stock up on a few essential, authentic Samoan ingredients. Shop 3, 681 Deception Bay Rd, (07) 3142 2175, mcsfoods.com.

STAY
Uluramaya Retreat Cabins

Uluramaya’s three ecologically designed cabins are nestled into lush eucalypt forest, a 30-minute drive north of Deception Bay. While the area is bustling with wildlife – everything from black cockatoos to wallabies – the emphasis for guests is on quiet, eco-friendly relaxation. 228 McConnell Rd, Wamuran, (07) 5496 4496, uluramaya.com.au.

Beaumont House and Lodge
Here’s a chance to stay in a low-lying sandstone homestead, complete with four-posters, claw-foot baths and traditional leather couches. There are six rooms to choose from and Topiaries restaurant to dine in. 961 Eatons Crossing Rd, Samford, (07) 3289 3899, topiaries.com.au.

Photography by Katie Kaars