Foufou Susana recounts her mother’s story of losing six children in measles and other epidemics in Niue. She describes her own illness with measles as an infant and the effects on her life subsequently.
My name is Foufou Susana . my mother’s name was Foumana Magaoa and my father Magaoa Rangature I grew up in a village in Niue, a very different life from what we have now. It was a beautiful life. We had our own games, but we had to do all the chores first, we were never idle. The girls helped with the washing, getting fire wood for the food, the cooking etc. The feeling of togetherness was so much stronger. Sunday you did not do any work at all.
That was the life that I knew as a child. People say it was poor. It was only poor in the sense that we didn’t have the Western life or the money to buy the European food but we had the resources. My father was a fisherman and we had our own fish, and we had our own plantations where you can get your vegetables from, and our own mango trees. Life was simple and wonderful in those days but we didn’t think so; that’s why we are here.
I am the tenth child of a family of thirteen. If I was to tell a story it would be my mother’s story. She told a story of a very tragic family who lost six children out of thirteen. Sure there were other people who suffered, but my mother suffered a lot. She had lost two children in 1945, two in 1947 and in 1948 two more children died in one month, three days in-between.
There were epidemics in those days. Palagi diseases introduced to the island whenever the boat goes up there. They did not have immunisation. They didn’t have protection against diseases. One of my siblings was eight, one was seven,. one was two, one was six months, one was a month. The other one was a little older. When Mum talks about them I can see the pain. I can visualise how much pain she went through losing children one after the other.
I was born in September 1948. That was in the big epidemic of measles. The measles in that year, was actually the one that killed a lot of my age group. The village was full of people, I would say more than 200 people, big families, and most of the boys in the village died. Yes. I remember only three that survived with me. A whole generation of boys. I can imagine how the others would feel because I always see the sadness in my Mum, but I also see the faith and strength in her and that encourages me. I had a sibling that died in 1948, a few months before I was born. My brother or sister died in April.
I had caught the measles from my Mum. They didn’t have any medication or anything and I remember her saying that I cried so loud I was disturbing the whole village. In the mornings if you hear a child crying, you can hear her or him from the other side of the village, because it echoes. There was this lovely woman, she was the pastor’s wife in the village, she told my mother, “your daughter must be really, really sick. You must not feed her. Give her coconut juice”. So ten days I was on coconut juice and then I was okay, I made it. After that I couldn’t drink milk powder. My Mum and Dad had to get Highlander Milk to feed me with and these days I have very bad bones. I have arthritis and I have RSI on my elbows and I said to my Mum you know what, I don’t have any calcium in my bones because you gave me too much Highlander Milk. A lot of sugar but not much calcium.
They had lost six children. They would have lost me too I think, but I survived. They considered measles very, very dangerous but they also treated it as any other epidemic they had gone through with my older siblings. It is very difficult for them to distinguish exactly what kind of disease it was. People coped the way they knew how, with a lot of faith inside their heart. In terms of medicine, there are things they could use, the traditional healers, leaves and the use of coconut juice is very common for fevers.
I think in those days people believed in God, like we do today, but they see illness as an act of God at times. My parents certainly did. The measles, the outward appearance of the disease was quite obvious, but often they would be saying it was a punishment from God, and that in itself was a really painful thing.
As a result my Mum and Dad decided to give us away. Not give us away like Christmas presents, but to try and stop death coming to the home. They sent the children to other families or neighbours or friends, just for the time being.
I always believed the measles have had an effect on my life. I was a very skinny baby when I was young, I was very sickly and small. I had so many things wrong with me. As a child I remember whooping cough, I just coughed like a dog. You know it’s the most awful thing, I thought I would die. When I came to boarding school when I was thirteen, I was the first one to pick up mumps. Even now I have a lot of complications in my life, physically. But I have a very strong spirit.
I guess my brothers and sisters were affected as well, very much indeed, especially my older sister, she has always been very protective of us. It is a great loss for everybody. When we talk about a magafaoa which is a family, we talk about all of us being aunties and uncles and cousins and that’s the good thing about Niue in those days, we had that network. Even with the illness we had that network. Unlike today, if we have illness and diseases among our families, it is very difficult to get support. I try very much to put myself in my mother’s shoes to see how she feels and I don’t think I could have taken it as well.
Whenever I hear people who do not immunise their children, I get very upset. I wish they had immunisation in my mother’s time, so she could help these darlings that have gone on. I don’t know what they looked like because they didn’t have photography in those days, but I would certainly love to see them in another life. I am sure my Mum is with them right now, and that makes me feel better.
Having told my story about my family I think we don’t realise how lucky we are these days. Those children, my brothers and sisters, I don’t know what they look like. And the pain that my mother went through. If you think of how lucky we are today to have the opportunities that they never did, I would wish for your as mothers and fathers to please give your children an opportunity by making sure that they have their injections, their immunisations done. We only have one life and when that is taken away we don’t have another. Lucky for my Mum seven of us survived.
I have seen us, even myself and my family, travel to such lengths, even catch a taxi, go on the bus, go in the car to get to a function of a hair cutting ceremony or ear piercing ceremony, why not do the same for the children? Just get that taxi or bus or call some friends. There’s a place you can call for transport. Nowadays they have the opportunities. Do help the children to be protected. As a mother of five and many grand children, I am very, very scared of this world today. There are so many diseases.
That’s why I want people to realise – look at our lives, look at what we have and think what our children could have. Give them their chance for a long life and a healthy quality life. I think all of us would like a quality life. Nobody wants to lose their children, and if we love our children, really love them, we should take that extra mile and go and get them immunised. It doesn’t take long.
This story has been edited from a videoed interview with Foufou Susana and has been posted on IMAC’s website with her written consent for the Piercing Memories project. The interviewer was Elaine Ellis-Pegler.