Cultural festival heralds new hope for Pacific communities

Issue: Volume 100, Number 6

Posted: 20 May 2021
Reference #: 1HAKu3

Seeing the rich Pacific cultures of Aotearoa take to the stage to celebrate their unique identities has been a long time coming. But the moment of renewed hope finally arrived as the Auckland school community stormed Manukau for ASB Polyfest: the Auckland Secondary Schools Māori and Pacific Island Cultural Festival.

Connected through culture, and fun: The Sri Lankan group from Avondale College are all smiles and laughs on and off-stage.

Connected through culture, and fun: The Sri Lankan group from Avondale College are all smiles and laughs on and off-stage.

As Polyfest 2021 opened on a brisk autumn morning in South Auckland, so too did the heavens. Participants and dignitaries hurried for cover beneath umbrellas and lightweight shelters, and much of the ground at the Manukau Sports Bowl soon softened into mud. But no amount of torrential rain could dampen the spirit of Aotearoa’s flagship cultural event, after being disrupted for two years running.

“After the disappointment of last year, it’s an honour to be here to represent my culture and my school,” says Laumanu Lavulavu, deputy head girl at Southern Cross Campus in Mangere, where 84 per cent of students are of Pacific heritage.

Laumanu also co-leads the school’s formidable, 60-strong Tongan group. As the group gathered for the opening ceremony, the rain began to bucket down.

But Laumanu and her teammates were unfazed and broke into rousing song. “Lean on Me” they belted out as they huddled inside a pop-up gazebo.

The group’s commitment to Polyfest and each other is palpable. In fact, it was a struggle for Laumanu to step away to answer some questions.

“We have spent months preparing for this, rehearsing every day after school until 5.30pm, and now we are here, our hard work is paying off,” she says.

A new hope following Covid-19

For so many of those performing, Polyfest 2021 marks more than a long-awaited return to the stage; it’s a time of triumph over adversity, a moment that heralds a new period of hope after a challenging year dealing with the fallout from Covid-19.

Today these student leaders are feeling victorious. “Being here is very special; it’s so good to connect with our community as a nation,” says Tongan group co-leader Maima Aka.

Speaking to Radio New Zealand, event coordinator Seiuli Terri Leo-Mau’u says the community needed and deserved this.

“We deserved having our students back out there on stage and celebrating our young people. The reward has been seeing our young people and to see how happy they are to be finally on stage showcasing their culture.”

Identity central to learning

Avondale College’s Cook Islands group prepare to take the stage.

Avondale College’s Cook Islands group prepare to take the stage.

Studies indicate that for Pacific learners, identity, language and culture is central to learning. The Action Plan for Pacific Education 2020–2030 has a vision that diverse Pacific learners and their families feel safe, valued and equipped to achieve their education aspirations.

“Pacific communities across New Zealand are diverse and dynamic, with rich and varied whakapapa, histories, languages, cultures and identities.”

Some key messages from the Action Plan include:

  • For Pacific learners and their families, recognising their unique identities, languages and cultures is critical to success in education.
  • Children and people who feel safe and confident in themselves and in their learning environments, are those who best engage, participate and achieve in education, in work and in life. 

Avondale College student Jacqueline Silpsai describes her Polyfest experience as “heart-warming” for the sense of belonging it affords.

“At school, we Thai students magically find each other.
We unite and we belong,” she says. “We’re just a bit sad that this will be our last year.”

Jacqueline and her peers, Pakkad Champakvan and Jessie Hamilton, lead the Thai cultural group at Avondale College.

“We have been practising almost every day for the past three months, every lunchtime and weekends too,” she says.

“It gives us Thai people a chance to showcase our delicate culture to everyone,” says Pakkad.

“It makes us happy to teach everyone to do the Thai dance, and it makes our families very proud. We have to do this to keep our culture alive.”

Ingrid Opera teaches at Avondale College and observes that the impact of cultural groups is far reaching.

“What I experience is Year 9s mixing with Year 13s; the older ones bring in the Year 9s and give them a place to feel included. They have spent every spare moment practising to be able to come here today, and they are passing down strong friendships.

“A student might have one parent who is Thai, but all the students have different backgrounds and here they have a very inclusive environment. Whether or not you can dance, everyone has a role, and everyone’s voices are heard.”

Cultural groups also promote leadership learning, says Ingrid. “The leadership is very strong this year. As the group left the stage, I heard one of the leaders say to a student, ‘Don’t be a stranger’.

Across the field and inside another canvas shelter is an equally exuberant school group, the kapa haka rōpū from Papakura High School.

Adorning beautiful cultural dress, performers are ready to share their culture with the crowds.

Adorning beautiful cultural dress, performers are ready to share their culture with the crowds.

They will not perform until the last day of the festival, but they have come out today to be part of the pōwhiri.

While rain trickles down tent poles to form puddles on the ground, the atmosphere is electric, and rangatahi are bubbling with enthusiasm.

“This is a very proud moment for our school and culture, and we are very excited,” says Whaea Katarena.

“Getting here requires enormous effort from all schools, it has been a long struggle. We are the only school going in for competition from Papakura and we’ve had only five weeks to train. Our school enters 10 groups and it’s a big celebration.

“Everyone was really sad when it was cancelled last year but it was a scary situation for them. Now the kids are used to a new way of life.”

Ngaire Edwards, 17, has been part of the school’s kapa haka rōpū for four years.

“It’s a big deal to represent your school and leave your mark on the stage; it’s a privilege to be here.”

When the festival is over, the students have gone and the stages have been packed down, Ngaire shares how her group placed third in the competition.

“For me it was the hardest performance ever as I really felt the pressure, but afterwards I felt so good. It gave me so much pride in my school and pride in my culture, it’s something I’ll always remember.”

With the triumphant return and completion of Polyfest 2021, students and communities are excited to build on their group’s progress and raise celebrations to new heights for 2022.

Ākonga from St Cuthbert’s College are fierce on the Māori stage.

Ākonga from St Cuthbert’s College are fierce on the Māori stage. 

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 8:18 am, 20 May 2021

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