Tongan communities in NZ acknowledge theme during Covid-19

By Sela Jane HopgoodRNZ Pacific Journalist. This story is republished with permission

The theme for this year’s Tongan language week, by no coincidence, is fitting as New Zealand continues to fight Covid-19.

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Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Fakakoloa ‘o Aotearoa ‘aki ‘a e Lotu Mo’oni, which translates to enriching Aotearoa New Zealand through prayer and faith, was a theme decided upon by the Tongan language week committee in September 2019.

For Dr. Linita Manu’atu, chairperson of the committee, said the term Lotu Mo’oni is more about God’s spirit in us.

“With that spirit, people worship God in spirit and in truth and practice God’s commandment, that is, love God with all your heart and love your neighbours as you love yourself,” she explained.

Manu’atu said her team did not anticipate what was to come this year with the pandemic and acknowledged how suitable the theme was during these uncertain times.

“The theme was announced in parliament last September, so people have started to talk and discuss the theme from the beginning of this year, especially before Covid-19.

“During lockdown, Pacific families have time to reflect critically about themselves and their habits. Lotu Mo’oni is a spiritual concept that begins at home.

“Covid-19 has driven people to change their gregarious ways to focus on the meaning of social relationship. It has shifted people to rethink, retrieve, and renew their relationship with God,” she said.

Linita Manu'atu.

Tongan language advocate, Linita Manu’atu. Photo: RNZ / Laura Tupou

An Auckland-based production company has had to shift their music and dance classes for children online due to Covid-19, yet their shift in focusing on Lotu Mo’oni in their work hasn’t changed.

Pukepuke ‘o Tonga has been established for over a decade by the Pusiaki family and offers the Tongan community in New Zealand a platform to celebrate and showcase the Tongan culture, heritage and language.

Manager and producer Asilika Aholelei said the children love attending the classes and learning more about their culture.

“It was important for us to keep that momentum moving forward as we only started these specific classes this year, and so we wanted to keep the passion for Tongan song and dance alive with our kids, especially during this pandemic,” she said.

“We believe that the theme Lotu Mo’oni starts from home, where we teach our values, culture and language.

“We showcase and highlight those stories, sharing of intergenerational knowledge and learnt experiences through our song and dance.”

During Tongan language week, Pukepuke ‘o Tonga has shared online their works, including a Tongan song composed by one of their original students.

“Semisi Folau has been with us for awhile and it was a huge milestone for our company to see him produce a new song with our string band and to have it released on Tongan language week,” Aholelei said.

The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa has revisited the Tongan co-collecting stories of Project 83 to celebrate Tongan language week.

Project 83: Small Things Matter was developed by Year 13 Tongan language students of Sir Edmund Hillary Collegiate in 2017, with the guidance of their teacher Mrs Maata Fusitua.

Head Girl and Dux in 2017 at Sir Edmund Hillary Collegiate

Head Girl and Dux in 2017 at Sir Edmund Hillary Collegiate Photo: Amanda Rogers. Te Papa

There are over 20 objects of their most treasured objects including a Tongan dance costume, a hand-stitched pillowcase by a Tongan grandmother and a work uniform.

Curator of Contemporary Art, Nina Tonga, said the students’ stories about the significance of their objects includes strong references to their faith, which reflects the theme of Lotu Mo’oni.

Tonga explained that Te Papa’s changes their approach to the language week year to year and often in response to the set theme.

“With Covid-19 we are following alert level 2 restrictions and social distancing, but we were still able to host an onsite ngatu [tapa cloth] demonstration with members of the Tongan community in Lower Hutt,” she said.

“We use our digital channels regularly as we know this is a great way to reach our communities outside of Wellington. Our thinking around the blog series and online content has really been motivated by wanting to make sure our content is accessible as possible for Tongan communities across Aotearoa and further abroad.”

The Tongan community in Thames is small, but passionate and generous with their time to share the Tongan culture, including the importance of the theme.

There are four Tongan families in Thames and it also reaches to families in Paeroa, and they regularly come together to share their family values and practise traditional dances and singing.

Nina Tonga, curator of Pacific Art at Te Papa.

Nina Tonga, curator of Pacific Art at Te Papa. Photo: Te Papa

Pārāwai School were fortunate enough to begin their school week with a Tongan assembly, with the help of the Tongan community led by Alby Tukia, and it included young children performing a traditional dance.

“Unfortunately, due to alert level 2.5 restrictions, parents, whānau, and the wider community weren’t unable to be a part of the celebrations this year, as much as we would have liked,” Principal Jordan Palfrey said.

“We are making an increased effort to share more of the learning online for our community. Our students have been creating movies to share their learning throughout the week.”

Silver medallist netballer Mena Sinisa, who represented Tonga in the recent Pacific games, visited Pārāwai School to share her culture and run netball coaching sessions for the students from Year 1 to 8.

Palfrey said the students have been learning Tongan songs alongside the Tongan clapping games and language.

“New Zealand is a proud multicultural society, and we believe it is very important to acknowledge and celebrate the wonderful richness of the different cultures that we have here in our communities,” he said.

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Photo: Supplied / Pārāwai School

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