Fakakoloa Aotearoa: enriching New Zealand

Issue: Volume 94, Number 17

Posted: 21 September 2015
Reference #: 1H9cua

Tongan Language Week/Uike Kātoanga’i ‘o e Lea Faka-Tonga took place between 30 August and 5 September. This year’s theme was Fakakoloa Aotearoa ‘aki ‘a e faiva ‘a e Tonga – Enriching Aotearoa with Tongan arts.

According to the 2013 Census, there are 60,000 New Zealanders who identify as Tongan – there are now in fact more Tongans born in New Zealand than there are Tongans living in Tonga. That means that the Tongan language is a significant part of New Zealand’s cultural tapestry.

Akoteu Kato Kakala is an immersive early childhood ‘language nest centre’, located in Otara, the heart of South Auckland. Jeanne Teisina is the centre manager; she spoke to Education Gazette about celebrating Tongan Language Week; a chance, she says, to remind themselves of their mission, share their language and culture with all New Zealanders, and of course it’s a great excuse for a Tongan feast as well!

The vision that has become Akoteu Kato Kakala began life as a playgroup that started meeting and sharing ideas in a Mangere garage belonging to Meleane Pau’uvale, in 1997. Amazingly, all these years later, Meleane remains as head teacher at Akoteu Kato Kakala, a testament to her passion for nurturing among the very young a culture that – though its origins are far away – is very present in New Zealand. Dedicated to creating an environment with Tongan values and culture as its foundation, Akoteu Kato Kakala in its present form was officially opened in 2006.

The guiding philosophy of the Akoteu Kato Kakala early learning centre is based on the meaning of its name – ‘kato kakala’: a kato (basket) filled with fragrant flowers (kakala) of many varieties. The fragrance – manongi – pouring forth from the kato signifies the richness of its contents. The strong and pleasant aroma signifies that the flowers (representative of the centre’s children) within the kato have been well nurtured.

As with any early childhood education centre, it’s clear that part of Akoteu Kato Kakala’s mission is to provide quality education that will prepare children for either mainstream or further immersive primary school education, but the idea of ‘success’ goes a lot deeper than that at Akoteu Kato Kakala: something that Jeanne and her colleagues are always thinking about is how to ensure that the practice of their culture is a guiding principle.

To that end, supervisor Lorraine Paea of Akoteu Kato Kakala has completed her masters thesis investigating the question ‘what is quality early childhood education, from a Tongan perspective?’, a topic that’s discussed a lot among staff. Jeanne says that firstly, relationships must be nurtured.

“What we’ve realised is that success doesn’t mean one thing, it’s a whole lot of things put together. Getting both parents and teachers to think about what quality education means for them has been a great exercise for us. We’ve talked about Tongan ideals and values being woven together to create quality.

“The key thing is relationships; building relationships with the community, with the parents, and also the people of Aotearoa: the tangata whenua. Also institutions and government agencies that we work with, and collaborate with. When we all work together, we learn from each other. We learn to contextualise the learning that we undertake, and we can focus on learning that benefits the children.”

Early childhood connections

Jeanne says also that the best way to maintain Akoteu Kato Kakala’s – and more importantly the children’s – connection to their culture, is to facilitate strong bonds between home and learning centre. Parents, and the community at large, drive so much of what happens at Akoteu Kato Kakala, says Jeanne.

“Our children come from homes where their culture is practiced and lived daily; their culture is something they’re learning about from birth. So, to have that included in their curriculum and in pedagogy here at the centre, we’re strengthening their understanding of their own culture, and building a great foundation for them, and hopefully helping to ensure that they never lose their language and their culture as they get older.

“When we have meetings with parents, it’s meaningful to them when we can talk about Tongan cultural concepts. There’s no point relying on European models with a lot of our parents; they would struggle to relate to them. We need to bring everything back to the grass roots of our culture.”

Going back to the theses her colleagues are undertaking, and in keeping with Tongan cultural custom, Jeanne says that the knowledge acquired by one team member spreads naturally through the centre. Another theme that gets talked about a lot at the centre is ‘building success in Tongan early childhood education’. Jeanne says that the whole community is involved in this discussion.

So what do Akoteu Kato Kakala parents hope for in terms of the early education of their children? The same as any other parents, says Jeanne, but with a fierce determination to preserve the richness of Tongan culture, not just as an observance, but as a living, breathing, daily practice.

“All of our parents want their children to be well educated; many say that they don’t want early childhood education in a Tongan context to be all about play; they want their children to be learning as well. They want their children to be well prepared for primary school, but they also feel strongly that this structure needs to be conducted within a Tongan cultural context.

“They want their children to have social confidence in a Tongan context; to be familiar with Tongan customs and ways of interacting. They want them to see their language and cultural observances as important.

But Jeanne is keen for readers to understand that ‘immersion’ at Akoteu Kato Kakala doesn’t at all suggest any kind of one-dimensionality: that would be to ignore our official ‘super diversity’ – this country has a significant number of people who identify with almost every single culture on earth. Teaching and learning about this astonishing range of cultural contexts only helps to nurture cultural tolerance among the children, and to give the whole centre a clearer picture of what it means to be Tongan.

“At the same time as we see our own culture as vitally important for our children to remain connected to, we want our children to be exposed to, and to be respectful of, other cultures in New Zealand, such as those of other Pacific Islands, the Māori culture, and all the others. We observe all the language weeks that are part of education in this country; we want our children to understand that they are Tongan, but that they live in a multicultural society.”

Celebrating Tongan language week

The week began with a joyous singalong, as the children of Akoteu Kato Kakala were guests at Radio 531 PI, a Pacific-language radio station.

On Tuesday, the whole centre joined the Otara community at large, and treated the gathering to readings in Tongan from the children. Jeanne says it was a great experience.

“We’re so happy to have the opportunity to contribute to our community, to mix with the other preschools here in Otara, and we’re so proud to share with those who want to know more about Tongan culture.”

When Education Gazette spoke to Jeanne, we realised we were pulling her away from the Akoteu Kato Kakala kitchen, as the whole centre prepared for a huge feast of Tongan delicacies. The delicious smells must have made concentrating on an interview very hard work indeed!

“Our parents have donated lots of food, some of which we can’t get here and has come from Tonga, like mei (breadfruit), niumata (green coconut), luu (taro leaves).etc.. The parents are coming in to enjoy a meal with us, and they’ll be able to watch their children get involved with the cooking. Today is all about the children though. They’re doing all the work!”

Finally, parents were treated at the end of the week to a traditional Tongan cultural performance by the Akoteu Kato Kakala children.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 9:40 am, 21 September 2015

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