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My first ever… Rhodes Scholar

By 17 June 2024June 21st, 2024Culture Etc, North&South, Sponsored Content

CULTURE

My first ever… Rhodes Scholar

Damon Salesa’s deep pacific roots and groundbreaking scholarship have shaped his remarkable life; however his first primary school teacher also likes to lay a claim to his success.

 

Susanna Andrew

My mother taught Damon Salesa in his first year of primary school in Glen Innes in 1977. She didn’t often talk about her pupils but years later, when she heard that Damon Salesa had won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, she had a lot to say. She liked to tell us how this bright-eyed boy had turned up in her class, shining with talent and clearly destined for greater things. How he sat cross-legged on the mat, eager to learn and brimming with intelligence. How pleased she was at his success. Over the years, whenever Damon Salesa — the first Rhodes Scholar of Pacific descent — was in the news, her pride would swell with his fame. “He is my first Rhodes Scholar,” she would say delightedly. My mother was generally not the boastful kind.

 

Damon Ieremia Salesa grew up in a state house in Glen Innes, the son of a nurse and a factory worker and one of 4 siblings. He went to GI Primary, Selwyn College and Auckland University, and through his scholarship to Oxford’s Oriel College, obtained a PhD in Modern History.

His writing has that rare quality which extends beyond the conventional boundaries of academia into literature, so it was no surprise that I first read him while studying a creative non-fiction paper at university. The class was given an essay from his book Island Time: New Zealand’s Pacific Futures, for a close reading assignment. I remember the piece was written with a fusion of rigour and eloquence. He wrote like an explorer. The Pacific, he said, was a vast and interconnected place. What did the word Polynesia even mean?

If I had been a scholar I might have read his earlier, seminal work Racial Crossings: Race, Intermarriage, and the Victorian British Empire, which the internet tells me “explores the complex interplay of race and politics in colonial history”. The book won the Ernest Scott Prize for History, for showing a “narrative grace that invites both scholarly praise and general reader engagement”. It’s the latter attribute which would have helped nab him the 2024 Ockham Award for General Non-Fiction for his latest book, An Indigenous Ocean: Pacific Essays. Good historians are storytellers.

In 2020, when my mother turned 95 years old, the family decided to hold a small party for her at my sister’s house. Not really small, because my mother went to the bother of having eight children and they had children and some of those children had children. My sister, anxious about the capacity her house had to accommodate a crowd, was keen that we kept the invitations to “just the bloodlines please”.

 

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I had an idea of soliciting birthday wishes from people outside of the family who had known her, so I could read them out telegram-style at her party. It occurred to me that I might reach out to Damon Salesa. I was sure he would have no idea how large he had loomed in her life, but I emailed him at his university address, introducing myself as his primary teacher’s daughter, telling him that my mother often basked in his success and asked if I might read out a happy birthday wish from him on her birthday. It was a bit awkward, as it is when you write to someone out of the blue, but I pressed send. I didn’t hear back for a day or two and assumed it was an email that got swamped in an academic’s inbox. Then a reply came that said he remembered Mrs Andrew with immense love and respect. She was well remembered in his family because she had also taught his brothers and sisters. However, he was sorry but he would not be able to send a message. In Pacific culture, he said, we honour our elders, and a 95th birthday is a huge achievement. He would have to deliver his birthday wishes in person. Where and when was the party? If he could, he would try and make it.

However, he was sorry but he would not be able to send a message. In Pacific culture, he said, we honour our elders, and a 95th birthday is a huge achievement. He would have to deliver his birthday wishes in person. Where and when was the party?

I felt simultaneously delighted that he had not dismissed my request and deep whakamā that we had, in Palagi fashion, kept the celebration so confined. I said he was most welcome, told him the date and time and said nothing to my sister. Why stress her when he might not show anyway?

On the day of the party, the house was crowded. Grandchildren crawled around, adults reverted to whatever roles their sibling status had assigned them, and everyone drank like grown-ups. At a certain time the cakes made it out of the kitchen. We are not a speech-making family but something had to be done. Just as I began to read my list of best wishes, the doorbell rang, and Damon Salesa and his wife Jenny Salesa dressed in their best, carrying flowers, leis and a gift, walked into a room of strangers. Damon crossed straight to my mother and swept her up in a large hug, then turned and gave the speech every 95-year-old wants to hear on their birthday — how she all those years ago had had an impact on his life. It felt both profound and personal. Needless to say we all cried.

 

In 2021, Damon Salesa became the first person of Pacific descent to hold the vice-chancellorship at the Auckland University of Technology. Education, he told the media, was his passion because he knew first-hand how it could transform lives.

In reading about Damon Salesa I came across an interview he’d done with The Treasury.

“Ageing is very present in ordinary Pacific discussions and ordinary Pacific lives,” he says. “I often use a visual metaphor, one you can see every day in New Zealand in our retirement communities. In these communities most of the aged people are Palagi, European New Zealanders; meanwhile most of the people looking after them are Māori, Pacific and Asian. It’s a visible demonstration of a profound change in New Zealand: an old, predominantly white society already in the care of its future — a young, diverse population…”

Six months ago, we started to get home care for my nearly 99-year-old mother. The women who come from a state-funded agency to help shower and dress her are predominantly Pasifika women. They lift her, wash her, dry her and smoothly envelope her in their strong arms. Their work embodies a care that is joyful, natural and immensely tender.

“Those kinds of things are ordinary parts of Pacific life,” says Salesa. “What comes through as a priority — even though there’s a financial dimension to it — is the wellbeing of elders. The idea that you’d send Nana off to a retirement community is not a popular one in Pacific families. In fact, it would be taken by many Pacific families as a criticism that they can’t care properly for their elders.”

To be visited and supported by women who see the care of a parent as not only dutiful and essential, but a priority, has massively helped my sister who does the main caring.

There are two different stories here. I wanted to write about how Damon Salesa became a household name in our family, but I found something more valuable in his writing: an engagement with Pacific culture that lives and breathes here in New Zealand and should be more widely understood.

My mother’s sight has dimmed, her hearing is shot and her interest in news and events has receded. She is very happy so long as she is warm, has a book within hand’s reach and another human being within eyesight. When I next see her I will tell her that Damon Salesa has won the 2024 Ockham General Non-Fiction Award for a mosaic of essays that delve into the past and present (working the time continuum the way her own mind now does), urging a re-evaluation of the Pacific not as a distant other but as a vibrant, central field of study with so much for us to learn from.

She’ll be delighted to know her Rhodes Scholar is still making good on all that promise.