Fiji Times News
Laisa the Lioness and the Broken Bamboo
by Matt Wilson
SINGING star Laisa Vulakoro is nervous. This icon of the entertainment industry, once described by a writer as Fiji's "first living national treasure", is fixated on what she has agreed to do on August 4.
"When I think about it I get emotional. I want to cry," says Laisa during a break at one of her regular performances at Suva's Holiday Inn.
Along with other volunteers Laisa will take part in a public hair shaving ceremony organised by WOWS, the child cancer relief committee. Its purpose is to raise money to support young sufferers who become bald when they receive chemotherapy treatment. Those who sacrifice their hair on August 4 at the Vodafone Arena will demonstrate solidarity with them in a dramatic and personal way.
For Laisa, shedding her tawny locks is bound up with her own self-image, and her experience of surviving an attack by an aggressive brain tumour. It is linked also to her admiration for Tae Kami, of Tonga, who died of cancer in 2008 at the age of 15, after publicising her fight with cancer on the internet and in the news media.
Laisa talks with candour and poignancy about her traumatic confrontation with the disease and what it will mean to shed her hair on August 4. She describes her initial resistance to the idea and the tortuous journey to acceptance.
"My hair has always been precious to me," she says. "I am extremely sensitive about it. My Zodiac sign is Leo, the Lion, so I see myself as a Lioness, a protector and a provider. Next to my voice, my hair is physically the most important part of me. It is my mane, and I have tried to be a trend-setter by wearing it in many different styles. So yes I am nervous about losing it again. It had to be shaved four years ago for an urgent operation to get rid of a tumour. I was more terrified about losing my hair than having my head cut open. I asked the doctor to just remove the hair covering the area he was going to open up. He did that.
"When the staples had to be removed from the incision, my husband Brian convinced me that half a head of hair made me look like a clown! He thought it would be better to cut it all off and let it grow back evenly. I reluctantly agreed."
Laisa reflects on Tae Kami, who regarded Suva as her second home.
"I am very much influenced by Tae's example and impact she had on people, including the late King George Tupou V of Tonga."
|Laisa with relatives and friends on Yacata at recent unveiling of plaque for VC hero and uncle Sukanaivalu|
Tae attended the Holy Trinity School for three years and had treatment at the Suva Private Hospital. Her short life and what she asked her parents, Taholo and Sina, to do to ease the plight of young cancer patients, is the inspiration for the Tae Kami Foundation and its offshoot WOWS. WOWS is in partnership with the Fiji Cancer Society.
Tae uplifted and impressed thousands of people with a heart-wrenching and powerful account on her website of her suffering, her hopes, faith in God and acceptance of His will. WOWS derives its name from Tae's anthem Walk On Walk Strong, written and recorded in the last months of her life.
As Tae neared her end, Laisa was in the midst of her own ordeal. She had been having headaches and body spasms. Finally she was diagnosed at the CWM Hospital in Suva with meningioma, which compresses brain tissue and can also affect cranial nerves and blood vessels. Laisa's tumour was large and had started to invade a vein. She needed an operation urgently. There was no time to lose. Her life was at stake.
"I was asked later whether I was frightened of death," says Laisa. " My answer was that I refused to see it as an option."
"God had given me a son, Geoffrey Lote, who was then just four months old. I told myself I had to stay alive for him. I have to look after him. Death was not on."
Accompanied by her husband Brian Minikin, Laisa went to Perth, Australia for treatment. The meningioma was removed in a six-hour operation at the Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital.
"We did not have the money, but the specialist Dr George Wong operated at any rate. The payment could come later."
Laisa was discharged after three days; she had been told she would have to stay in hospital for at least a week and a half.
"Dr Wong told me they had removed the meningioma and all should be well. I felt strong. My husband picked me up and we went home to Fiji."
Members of the Oceania National Olympic Committee (ONOC), Brian's employer at the time, stepped forward to donate the $20,000 bill for Laisa's operation. Dr Robin Mitchell, Laisa's family doctor, and then secretary general of ONOC, was instrumental in this act of generosity. So was his wife, Dr Rosemary Mitchell.
"I can never express fully how much we appreciated their kindness and support, especially that of the Mitchells," says Laisa.
As predicted by the doctors, Laisa's self confidence had been dented. But as a natural optimist she pushed back. Nine months after her hospitalisation and surgery, Laisa became manager of the Fiji women's indoor volleyball (Kulawai) team which she led on successful visits to New Zealand, Korea, China and Thailand.
Laisa took to the stage again in May 2009 to sing at a volleyball money raiser. She had never suffered stage fright before but on this occasion she was nervous. It was the meningioma factor.
|Laisa beside memorial plaque to uncle and VC hero Sukanaivalu at home on Yacata Island|
In August Laisa made a guest appearance at the annual WOWS walk for cancer children and sang Tae's Walk On Walk Strong. "I felt fine, perhaps because I could identify with the occasion in light of my own experience," she said.
From then on Laisa became a dedicated supporter of the WOWS committee and cause. Her career meanwhile was back at full throttle. She made tours to New Zealand with fellow star Seru Serevi, to promote Fiji as a tourism destination and performed concerts in New Caledonia. Laisa served for a while as a Visiting Fellow in Music at the Fiji National University. She now has a professional association with the University of the South Pacific where she mentors budding music talent.
Laisa appeared as a guest judge on the popular Vodafone MIC talent show on TV One. She continues as a director of the Fiji Performing Rights Association and performs three nights a week at the Holliday Inn.
Laisa is about to release her latest album, Bitu Kavoro - Broken Bamboo. She says it is about broken promises, and relationships and other things in life that are damaged.
"I was a broken bamboo, but I have grown again. Tae was a broken bamboo; she said God had healed her; she was ready for heaven. Many children who are broken by cancer can be made whole, with timely treatment and care. If their cancer has gone too far, their suffering can be eased."
Laisa confides that she had been brooding about the prospect of the WOWS committee requesting her to join with those shaving their hair. She did not want to do it. Last year she dealt with the issue by staying away from WOWS members. If she wasn't with them there was less chance of the request she dreaded. The WOWS committee noticed her absence.
In May, this year, her good friend Dom Sansom, chair of the WOWS Save Or Shave (SOS) committee, called Laisa while she was visiting Australia's Gold Coast on holiday. The question Laisa had evaded had caught up with her. Dom asked her to take part in the 2012 SOS.
"I told Dom I needed to think it over," says Laisa. "I said my prayers about the decision I had to make. Then I began looking for signs that would guide and convince me. "On my first Friday back at work performing at the Suva Holiday Inn, sitting right on the front row were Taholo and Sina Kami, Tae's parents, and their friends. They were wearing WOWS T-shirts."
Laisa had seen her sign. "I said OK God, I will do it."
Now Laisa is ready to lose the hair that has helped to define her as the queen of the rhythmic and distinctive Fijian vude music. She likens it to "baring my soul". But as she thinks about August 4, Laisa has developed a clearer and more grounded perspective.
"When I learned what Tae and her family went through, and after thinking of the pain of so many other children, I know that losing my hair is insignificant. If by doing this I can help a whole lot of kids with cancer and their families to have their burden lifted then that is my reward."
"On August 4 I will be full of emotion as I go on to that stage to have my hair cut off. But now that I have made the decision, I am ready to do it for the children who need help."
Tae is buried in the cemetery at Kolomotua, near the little Kami family home she loved in Tonga's capital, Nuku'alofa. The epitaph on her gravestone reads simply "Faith, Hope, Love."
Laisa says she is acting for all these virtues - but most of all for love.
* Matt Wilson is a public affairs consultant and writer.