Friends Four Ever


In this tropical paradise, the real beauty is in how the gospel strengthens this friendship.

You want to find proof that Justina Tavana and Melinda Ah Chong don’t spend every waking hour together. You’ve been told the two 17-year-olds are friends—best friends, actually. Okay, fine. But they’re not that good of friends, are they?

Always together? Come on, you think. No way.

So you start investigating.

Your first stop is their school.

Both Justina—Tina to her friends—and Melinda are high school students at the Church College of Western Samoa, a Church-sponsored school with an elementary, middle, and high school on its sprawling campus in Apia, the capital of this island nation.

As you poke your head in Justina’s first-period class, which happens to be biology, there sitting next to her is Melinda. It’s 7:50 A.M., and they’re both listening to a lecture. When second period rolls around, a computer class, they go together. Third is physics. Same deal. They’re seated front and center. Fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh. Why bother even checking?

You start to notice a pattern. You began your search looking for proof, and so far you’ve come up empty.

All right, what about before school?

You’re told they take early-morning seminary together, then walk to school. “You can go to the class,” the principal tells you. But you discover they get up at five and are in class by six. “Um, uh, that’s pretty early. I’ll just take your word for it,” you say.

You have another plan anyway. What about after school? Maybe they’re inseparable during classes, but once school’s over. … Aha, maybe you’re on to something.

The last bell of the day has already rung, and as you walk around campus there are still a few students milling around. But there’s no sign of either Justina or Melinda. Then you walk by the chemistry lab, and there are two girls in goggles and aprons. Yep, Justina and Melinda. After a little more checking, you discover why they’re there. They’re both science whizzes.

You walk to the principal’s office to inquire. He tells you Justina took first-place honors in a science competition when she did the best job neutralizing acids with different concentrations of bases. It’s called titration, which is a new word to you.

You ask a few more questions, and you learn Melinda brought home the top prize in Western Samoa’s annual science fair, a competition involving all the nation’s high schools. For her project she made alcohol from mangos; then she used the alcohol as a disinfectant to kill bacteria that she also raised.

You’re suddenly realizing that in your effort to prove Justina and Melinda aren’t together all the time, you’re getting nowhere fast. Maybe they are always together, you decide. So you corner them and begin asking questions.

“We love to play netball too,” Melinda tells you. And in oh, by-the-way fashion, Justina reveals that their Church College team was the national champion in the sport that has basketball as its root. “We beat Avele College for the title.”

“On Saturdays we usually get together and hang out, watch videos and stuff,” Melinda adds. “We only live about five minutes apart.”

And Sundays? “We’re in the same ward (the Apia Fifth Ward), and we’re both in the Laurel class presidency.”

It’s then that you finally give up. They are best friends and they are inseparable. Now you want to find out why.

Not that long ago, while Melinda was attending Samoa College before she transferred to the Church College, she barely knew Justina. “I knew her from church, but she wasn’t one of my really good friends. Back then I didn’t go to seminary that often, and I didn’t understand the importance of the gospel. My parents aren’t members, and I wasn’t really strong at church,” Melinda says. “Tina’s really helped me with church. She’s been a good influence for me. She’s a really good friend.”

Justina adds, “Yeah, we do practically everything together. It’s nice to have someone who has the same standards as you. We have a lot in common.”

Meanwhile, you wonder why she said the word practically.

Zavannah Vaaulu and Keri Robinson are walking from class. They’re also in the familiar yellow and blue colors of the Church College’s uniforms. When you begin talking to Zavannah and Keri, you notice right away that their friendship resembles Justina and Melinda’s. The fact all four are friends isn’t surprising.

Although Zavannah and Keri aren’t busy growing bacteria, Zavannah, at 14, and Keri, at 15, are also top netball players and members of the Church College’s intermediate school championship team. They take many of the same classes together, they both play the saxophone, and they, too, are in the Apia Fifth Ward. And if you see Keri, you can usually find Zavannah nearby. Keri is usually the one laughing, while Zavannah tends to be a little more serious. While Zavannah is a lifelong Church member, Keri was baptized less than a year ago.

“Keri’s also the better saxophone player,” Zavannah says.

“Yeah, but Zavannah is better at tennis,” says Keri.

The words volley back and forth until Keri talks about her baptism last August. Now it’s her turn to get serious as she talks about Zavannah’s friendship and influence.

“Zavannah kept bugging me to come to church,” Keri says, “She always helped me come to church. She always invited me to Church activities. She wanted me to see how fun it would be. It really has been.”

When asked about her role in helping Keri join the Church, Zavannah starts by saying, “I do feel a certain responsibility.” Then Keri finishes Zavannah’s sentence with “to set an example for Keri.”

They look at each other and start laughing. They spend so much time together that they seem to know what the other is thinking. As they both sit there, Zavannah makes sure Keri knows a little bit more of what she’s thinking.

“I just want [Keri] to be happy the way I am because of the Church. I want her to know the true meaning of happiness is in the gospel, something I’ve come to learn and appreciate.”

Zavannah’s voice trails off, and it suddenly gets very quiet.

It’s been five days since you first met Justina, Melinda, Zavannah, and Keri. Here’s what you know: They’re like girls anywhere in the world. They love to laugh, talk about boys, eat pizza, and play sports.

But when it comes to these four young women, this is what you really know. They’re devoted friends and very serious about the gospel. They help each other and want to see each other’s testimonies grow.

“Some days I have doubts about the Church, and then I look at Melinda and I see her and see how happy she is. It makes me want to be like her,” says Keri.

“And I guess I’ve been pretty lucky because Tina has been like an older sister to me. Melinda and Tina have been some of the best friends I’ve ever had. They give me advice, and just seeing what they do is very helpful,” explains Zavannah.

It’s quiet again, and this time you’re touched by the things they say. You’ve learned a lot about friendships and about them.

Later that day you’re standing on the grounds of the Church College of Western Samoa. It’s bright and sunny in Apia. A warm breeze is blowing off the ocean, and another day of school is over. Students are all going in different directions. But four girls are walking together, and you know why.

[photos] Photography by Laury Livsey

[photos] Melinda (page 22, left) and Justina are comfortable taking a break on the school grounds or spending time in the lab (above). One thing is certain, though. Wherever they go and whatever they do, they’re always together.

[photos] The ball looks like a volleyball, and the sport resembles basketball. But what Keri (page 25, left) and Zavannah play is netball. They also attend the same ward and strengthen each other spiritually. “I just want [Keri] to be happy the way I am because of the Church,” says Zavannah.