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Hafe Vilitama – A Life Of Gratitude


A Life Of Gratitude

While the island was making preparations to celebrate the 45th Anniversary of home rule, the village of Mutalau was making preparations of another kind; the village was preparing for the final rituals of a Christian-burial of one of the pioneers in the development of modern Mutalau, if it comes to that, the development of modern Niue. Respected village leader and elder Hafe Vilitama had died, aged 90, on Saturday 28th September at Niue Foou Hospital.

On Wednesday morning this week, the leading clergy of what was once the LMS Church, now Ekalesia Kerisiano Niue, led by grandson Dr Matagi Vilitama, gathered in the church that Hafe helped to build, to bid him farewell.    

Those who spoke at the service – from the members of the family to the representatives from the village, the church and the government – weaved a rich fine-mat of anecdotes and reflections that provided a window into a remarkable life.

Hafe Vilitama was born in 1929 at a time when the island was becoming more aware of the outside world. The banana and handcraft trade with New Zealand was picking up momentum; the education system was slowly being taken over by the government administration from the Church, but still there were only two primary schools – Tufukia in Alofi and Tuatea at Hakupu.  

According to grand-daughter Assembly member Maureen Melekitama, Vili first attended school at Tuatea until the Administration was able to build a third school at Kofekoke in Mutalau in 1940. In 1943, at the age of 14 he was selected to be an assistant teacher at Kofekoke. The appointment was no doubt helped by the fact that Vili had been judged the top scholar for two consecutive years.  Remarkably, but not unusual for the time, he would have helped taught pupils who would have been older than himself.

In time, in his long career spanning over 40 years in education, Hafe Vilitama rose through the ranks from those early beginnings as an assistant teacher to become in 1978, the first tagata motu to be appointed Director of Education; he did it all through his ability to learn quickly and through his natural intelligence.

When his career in education came to an end, it was almost inevitable that he would end up being the political leader for Mutalau. He was Mutalau’s representative in the Assembly for 12 years from 1987 to 1999.

His commitment to his faith and no doubt ever mindful that the Christian God first made landfall at the Mutalau sea landing at Uluvehi in 1846, Vili looked at the ageing church and decided to build a new one. It was in this same church that the privilege of delivering the final words of comfort to the congregation was given to Vili’s grandson Dr Matagi Vilitama who had travelled from Australia for the funeral.

Matagi spoke with fondness and respect for Hafe and told the large congregation that he was not about to deliver a sermon, but preferred to regard the life of his grandfather as a sermon in itself.  He summed up his grandfather’s life as ‘a grateful life, a life of gratitude’.

As the funeral procession left the church he helped to build and to name Fupiu Tala Mitaki, beyond the village green bathed in brilliant sunlight, beyond the village boundary towards Tafiti, dark rain clouds were building in the late afternoon. Some with a strong sense of tradition would say that was clearly a message from the Heavens for a man of the church, a man who had a fondness for history, a man who lived by his Christian principles, a man proud of his heritage; this was an affirmation that Ululauta was indeed the first to see the light.

Hafe Vilitama’s forefathers in 1846 had allowed the missionaries to land and had willingly thereafter shared the good news with the rest of the island. Some 100 years later, in 1943 in the village school called Kofekofe, in that same unselfish tradition, Hafe Vilitama was willing to share his knowledge with those willing to learn. Like Fakafitienua of old, he knew his purpose in life.

Rest in peace Hafe Vilitama.