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Siva Afi Investments Extraordinary Journey and Perseverance

By Lagi Keresoma

APIA, SAMOA – 06 SEPTEMBER 2023: Fifty one years ago, a young man from Salailua village in Savaii came to Apia in search of a better life. He lodged with relatives who were themselves struggling to make of a living on leased swamp land on the outskirts of Apia town.

His early life paralleled that of today’s street vendors. Collecting empty glass bottles after school and selling them to what was Apia Bottling to buy school lunch and food. Attending Marist School, Mulivai, he was determined to pursue a dream to become something in life.

His talent was fire knife dancing that soon took him to perform at the Aggie Greys Hotel then later ventured overseas as a novice act as a fire knife dancer.

In Australia, he saw a UTS billboard on a Sydney roadside where he later paid to study and learn graphics and the art of printing. He met his wife, a graphic designer and businesswoman and the pair later moved back to Samoa. Still with fire knife dancing churning in his belly, Siva Afi Designs and the Ailao Club were born and the story of Lene and Clair Leota and their determination and perseverance be told.

As the Teuila Festival swings into action this week, Siva Afi & Laumei Faiaga Restaurant and Bar has launched business in a new and well placed location to serve the tourism and service industry with their products.

But their journey has been a bumpy ride and their perseverance and faith has paid off.

Siva Afi group
Siva Afi group

The Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Tourism among the Siva Afi performers after the launch of their new location last Friday.

After rounds of legal battles with the HRPP Government when they were evicted from their first location in Sogi in 2009, Proprietor Leota Lene Leota was emotional when he said “it took me 14 years to arrive here.” He was referring to their journey like that of the slow pace of the turtle finally making its destination.

In opening the Siva Afi/Laumei Faiaga Investments new location, Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mataafa noted there was an air of excitement and expectancy about the evening given the long history of Siva Afi’s struggle and journey.

“It gives me great pleasure to deliver this address tonight and to witness the start of a new chapter in the history of Siva Afi and Laumei Faiaga’s extraordinary journey,” said Fiame.

Known for her knife dancing, cultural and traditional rooted entertainment, Siva Afi has become an iconic centre that promotes Samoa to the world.

Fiame said fire knife dancing is rooted in our culture and tradition, it is part of our Samoan identity, and sets us aside from other Pacific cultures. It has promoted Samoa throughout the world, and has blessed the many families of talented youths who are given opportunities to work and perform abroad.

“With your record of achievements, I have no doubt that the Leotas’ sound investment in this venture between Government and the Siva Afi will bear positive results for our tourism sector,” she said.

Siva Afi Leota, Marina, Tuala
Siva Afi Leota, Marina, Tuala

Siva Afi proprietor Leota Lene Leota with Marina Grey who gave him a chance to peform at Aggie Greys Hotel and the Deputy Prime Minister, Tuala Iosefo Ponifasio at last Friday’s launch.

Leota founded the Siva Afi and Ailao Club in 2002 with former International Fire Knife Champion Kome Toomalatai. The very first students were street vendors from Vaisigano and Leone who were exposed to the international stage when Leota’s group competed in the International Competition in Hawaii later that year. He had opened a door and pathway for underprivileged but talented street kids he took off the streets of Apia.

But their good deeds were soon to be smashed by an HRPP government who wanted them to vacate government land they were leasing in Sogi to make way for a multi storey office and conference building in 2009.

The Siva Afi legal battles
In February 2006, Siva Afi and the Samoa Land Corporation (SLC) formalized a lease agreement of 20 years starting 01 February 2005.

A few months after formalising the lease, SLC verbally informed Siva Afi on 13 October 2006 of the Government’s intention to use the land. A letter was officially handed over to Siva Afi informing them of the exchange of lands between the SLC and the Land Board, but before they do that, they need to vacate anyone residing on the lands.

In 2007, Siva Afi was informed that the land at Sogi was transferred to the Government of Samoa and their lease was no longer valid.

They were given two months to vacate the land and grounds for termination also included a substantial amount of arrears owed by Siva Afi.

Siva Afi Maauluulu
Siva Afi Maauluulu

Performing on the new stage that replicate the original one at the Sogi site where Siva Afi was evicted by the government in 2009.

There were offered other sites to relocate to including an area behind the Government building at Matagialalua but nothing materialized. Instead, the Government offered Siva Afi land at Vaitele and other lands in Apia which were already leased to existing companies.

The Leotas claimed their rights as tenants especially after the Government breached their contract a few months after it was signed.

The first legal battle followed in July 2008 and the second on 13 July 2012 where Justice Vaai ruled that Siva Afi owed nothing to the Government.

In that ruling, Justice Vaai said no rents owed and rents due would not be claimed as they constituted the relocation expenses of the company.

The Court then ordered the Attorney General acting on behalf of the Minister for Natural Resources & Environment, Faumuina Liuga to pay more than $285,365.80 and interest accrued at 12% on the amount previously awarded on 10 June 2010.

A new beginning
Leota was emotional when he talked about their journey which took 14 years to be finally realised, and he acknowledged Prime Minister Fiame and the Government for their support giving them the green light to open at its new location.

The new location replicates the original layout and design of their Sogi location with a concrete and stone decorated stage featuring the turtle that will feature live knife dancing and other performances, a restaurant/bar and an outlet to sell printed fabric and TShirts featuring Samoan designs.

Siva Afi is now strategically located to complement the Samoa Tourism Authority’s promotional activities.

While Siva Afi may have finally settled on solid ground, Leota has at least realized his dream that he started pursuing when he left Sala’ilua village in Savaii in 1972. He has been back in the village many a times helping in several ways and even promoting fire knife dancing to potential young village folks.

His journey has not been smooth but his fighting and unwavering spirit and faith have certainly paid off.