3 Sep 2015

Enriching Aotearoa with Tongan arts

2:53 pm on 3 September 2015

The Tongan language is being celebrated all over New Zealand this week by a diverse range of groups, from pre-schoolers to church congregations and those in prison.

Students at Fairburn Primary School in Otahuhu at the School speech competition.

Students at Fairburn Primary School in Otahuhu at the School speech competition. Photo: RNZ/India Moala

The 60,000 Tongans living in the country make up the third largest Pacific population in New Zealand.

This year's theme is Fakakoloa 'o 'Aotearoa 'aki 'a e Faiva 'a e Tonga, which means enriching Aotearoa with Tongan arts.

To celebrate the theme, Otahuhu's Fairburn Primary school hosted a rare Tongan school speech competition that included finalists from 13 other Auckland schools.

Principal Frances Nelson said a third of the school's population was Tongan, and many started school with no English.

"Our first language is talking about who we are and about our culture and ethnicity, which are deeply ingrained in us," said Ms Nelson.

"First language is very very important to us."

Tongan-born Fairburn student Shakana Halaholo said having Tongan teachers in her school had really helped her.

"It feels really great, because if you don't know what it actually means you can ask your teachers." said Shakana.

Lisia Pau'u appreciates the Tongan teachers for a different reason.

"Recently I've just been learning how to speak Tongan, because I'm not really fluent in Tongan," said the student. "So I've just been learning off all the Tongan kids and teachers."

Despite the growing Tongan population in the country, the number of fluent speakers has decreased by 5 percent, according to the 2013 Census.

A child dancing at the Loto'ofa ECE combined event celebrating Tongan Language week.

A child dancing at the Loto'ofa ECE combined event celebrating Tongan Language week. Photo: RNZ/India Moala

Labour MP Jenny Salesa, the first Tongan-speaking MP in the New Zealand parliament, said the role of Tongans overseas was vital.

"It is really crucial that we encourage and support the language overseas. Because there are more Tongans born and raised overseas than there are back home."

Home-based groups are helping New Zealand-born Tongan children continue to learn the language, said Kaliopasi 'Akolo, manager of the Tongan early childhood education organisation Loto'ofa.

"Probably 99 percent of our curriculum is all in Tongan. So we would like to teach the culture and all our upbringing in Tonga to our children," he said.

Kalolo Fihaki, from the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs, said even Matamata prison's staff took part in celebrating the language as a way of exposing inmates to different cultures.

"Quite a lot of them don't know how to speak in Tongan, but posters help them quite a lot and they had the whole day learning new words." he said.

Mr Fihaki said with Auckland being the largest Polynesian city in the world, exposure to Pacific languages was valuable for New Zealanders.

"Even for myself, being here, I can speak three Pacific languages fluently," Mr Fihaki said.

"Having to know one or two words in a different language - it's an awesome experience for you to have that."

Other community events around the country this week include tapa cloth workshops, combined church services and poetry sessions.