Tuvaluan women inspiring cultural pride

Issue: Volume 97, Number 18

Posted: 5 October 2018
Reference #: 1H9mVx

Focused equally on celebrating and supporting their language and culture, two of New Zealand’s best-known Tuvaluan broadcasters are leading the way for young Pacific people.

Marama T-Pole has been gracing our television screens for more than a decade, with the last six of those as a presenter on Tagata Pasifika. This year she’s added One News newsreader to her already impressive CV.

As a working mother of three young children and an active church and community member, Marama’s contagious smile clearly belies quite how much she has going on behind the scenes.

A deep south beginning

Marama grew up in Dunedin with her Pākehā mother, her Tuvaluan pastor father and two brothers. She describes Dunedin as “almost as far away as you can probably get, in New Zealand, from Tuvalu” and this is more than just a reference to geography: Dunedin in the 1980s didn’t exactly have a thriving Tuvaluan community. 

“In Dunedin there wasn’t much we could identify with our Tuvaluan culture, it was more the Scottish heritage. We didn’t really have the opportunity to hear the language growing up and my dad didn’t speak it to us in the home,” says Marama.

Despite this Marama says she always felt connected to her culture.

“I guess I kind of had a similar experience to many New Zealand-raised or New Zealand-born Pacific kids and Tuvalu kids. Sometimes you wear two hats; you wonder ‘Am I this identity or that? Am I a New Zealander or am I Tuvaluan?’ and I think I pretty much always felt quite secure that I am both equally. I am both a New Zealander and Tuvaluan.”

It wasn’t until Marama was in her early twenties that she found the opportunity to connect more with her Tuvaluan culture and learn the language.

“There was definitely always a hole inside of my identity. I really felt that there was something missing that I couldn’t connect to. It wasn’t till I moved to Auckland for my first real job in radio that I started connecting with my Tuvalu family, going to a Tuvaluan church. And in that environment I really started to immerse myself in the Tuvaluan culture – hanging out with aunties who couldn’t speak English at all. Helping my dad with his Tuvaluan church and I started to learn the language bit by bit, word by word really.”

“To me that has been a massive part of my own journey in my identity. Learning my language has given me just a real window. I got to know my culture in a different way. That thing that I felt was missing, that’s closed now. That part is now within me. I really believe language is so important to your identity.”

Keeping it alive

Marama is hopeful about what she is seeing from the next generation.

“We have strong community. I see a lot of the young people, high school and intermediate children; sometimes they’re chatting to each other in Tuvaluan so the language is really strong within our young people. We celebrate each of our individual islands. Each has an individual day that is celebrated. And all the youth from my island last weekend were dancing [the fatele]. We had so many New Zealand-raised high school students all dancing hard-out. So not relying just on Polyfest or something to keep it alive. It’s strong within the community. That kind of pride is key to keeping our language alive.”

Marama thinks that the Pacific language weeks are a valuable opportunity not only to learn about the Tuvaluan language but also to build understanding across cultures.

“I think what we’re doing with the language weeks helps not only those kids within those cultures but other kids too. Even within those Pacific communities a kid can find out what we have in common. A Tuvaluan kid can share we use ‘Talofa’. It’s almost the same in Samoan – look at that. What do you say in Tongan for ‘please’? Oh it’s the same – ‘fakemolemole’.”

Marama also sees an opportunity for Pacific languages in the increasing use of te reo Māori.

“If you’re picking up te reo Māori you’re going to pretty soon lock into any of our Pacific languages. And I think it is so exciting what’s happening now in New Zealand. And what I hope is that Pacific languages could follow in behind te reo Māori. Particularly Pacific rim country languages. Tokelau, Niue and the Cook Islands, they are part of this country legally. We’ll be richer for it as a country.”

Marama doesn’t think it’s ever too late to learn the language but is particularly keen for the next generation to take up the lessons available to them.

“Most of our Tuvaluan community, they’ll have more access to it in the home than I did. They will have someone at home that can speak the language. I would just say make sure you speak to that member of your family in Tuvaluan. Get around them, hang out with them, keep it alive because I think we’re going to be the key for it carrying on in New Zealand. And if you can understand your language it unlocks so many other amazing things to our culture. You know you can just see it through a different lens when you hear and understand more of the language.”

Leading by example

This is a sentiment that is echoed by Fala Haulangi, another talented and influential Tuvaluan woman.

A woman not afraid to stand up for what she believes in, Fala is a programme producer at the Pacific Media Network, campaign lead organiser for E tū and part of the Living Wage campaign team. 

Fala spent much of her childhood in Nauru, where her father worked in phosphate mining. She grew up speaking a little Nauruan and I-Kiribati but spoke mostly Tuvaluan at home. Fala moved to New Zealand in the 1980s and has been closely involved with the Tuvaluan community ever since.

Fala sees Tuvaluan parents and grandparents as critical to carrying on the language.

“I strongly believe that home is always the best place to start [learning the language]. I think the fear we have is that we might end up being like Tokelau, Niue and the Cook Islands, where they are starting to lose their language. Because most of our young ones are New Zealand born.

“We have some born in the islands who come to New Zealand at quite a young age, but you know how it is with environmental factors around you that can have a lot of influence. And you will be starting to lose your language, and not just your language but your identity as well; forgetting to really celebrate who you are, to be proud of where you are from. Those things are very important and we need to teach those principles and values to our little ones.”

Challenging stereotypes

Fala strongly believes that the key to her community’s future success, and in the Pacific community more generally, lies not only in maintaining the language but in changing how Pacific Islanders are seen.

“By the look of things when it comes to the media we’re only good at things like dancing and sports. Hello, we’re better than that. I’m not bringing down those people that are gifted but Pacific Islanders are just as good at anything else.

“Some of the students are saying they want to see role models in schools. When kids go to school, they see a Pacific principal they get really excited. But, that’s a problem. How many principals are there? When you look at primary, intermediate, high school Pacific Islanders you could just count them – maybe less than 10.”

Fala has found inspiration and hope amongst the youngest members of her community.

“Recently I interviewed a young Tuvaluan girl who came to New Zealand last year. She goes to Avondale College. She entered an international maths competition and the NASA Engineering Competition. And guess what? She came first – internationally! She’s like, ‘You know what? We are just as good if not better than the other ethnic groups, but we need to change the mindset. Because if we keep on thinking, or the teachers tell you, that you are not as good as the others, you yourself start to believe that. You need to say ‘NO! I am just as good as, if not better than, those other students and I am going to do it’.” 

Find out more about language week resources(external link)

Marama recommends making funafuna(external link) – a popular doughnut type dish that’s relatively easy to make.

Listen to Fala’s favourite Tuvaluan song, Toku Atu Fenua (available on You Tube), a song that inspires pride by recognising that for a small country Tuvalu punches well above its weight.

Encourage your students to research kolose (Tuvaluan crochet), te ano (Tuvalu’s national game) or fatele (Tuvalu’s traditional dance).

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

Posted: 12:02 pm, 5 October 2018

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