2019 marks the 44th year for ASB Polyfest, an annual Pacific secondary school competition that attracts big crowds, many of them migrants, to South Auckland over four days in March.
There are cultural performances, singing, costumes, and speech competitions on different stages and this year’s theme is unique.
“The blood of the ocean flows through me, my sustenance, my nest of higher learning, my navigator. I am the living essence of the ocean, the living essence of the ocean is me.”
The event’s director, Seiuli Terri Leo-Mauu says every year it grows bigger and bigger.
“Yeah students enjoy it, but to make it happen there is a lot of work to do behind the scenes.”
Work began during the January break with a gathering of student culture leaders before school starts.
The aim was to network, acquire leadership skills and focus on this year’s competition and understand the rules.
Seiuli sees the value in starting work early because there are different challenges.
“A lot of students are born here so they don’t understand the migration story of our ancestors,” she said.
Polyfest aims to help students of all ethnicities learn about this.
It is also an opportunity to maintain the cultural heritage and language of Maori, Cook Islands, Samoan, Tongan, Niuean peoples. The diversity stage caters for other cultures.
One student, Gabrielle Togiatama, who is in her final year at Wesley College, believes in the importance of this type of learning. For her, it’s deeply personal.
“I can’t really speak Niuean or Fijian. (I’m) the only one of my friends who can’t speak the language.”
Auckland’s population of 1.7 million is predicted to rise by almost 40 percent by 2043.
With this rapid population growth and subsequent demographic changes, it’s inevitable that Polyfest will need to grow and change, too. Efforts are already underway to make sure the festival better reflects the region’s increasingly diverse population – many of whom are migrants.
But as well as a drawcard for the community, the festival has huge economic potential, especially as a drawcard for tourism. Volunteer Blake Wong-Ling sees huge potential for the event’s future development.
“I think Polyfest is something so unique where we can showcase culture but also build leadership skills and make people proud of who they are,” he said.
The festival is hugely successful. More than forty years ago, Otara’s Hillary College hosted just a handful of schools in the first Polyfest. In 2018, 68 schools and more than 12,000 students took the stage for four days of performance and celebration in what is the largest Polynesian festival in the world.
But as participants and crowd numbers continue to climb, it is clear that this event has outgrown its current location and future decisions need to be made on how best to manage and fund it.
In August 2017, the then Minister of Pacific Peoples Alfred Ngaro announced an extra $149,000 for Polyfest.
Seiuli said last year that the bulk of the funds did not go towards operations, but towards a future strategy for the popular event.
“That funding went towards a sustainable funding project, so it wasn’t actual money going towards the event. Just working with the Ministry of Pacific Peoples to help implement some better funding strategies and sustainable opportunities for us going forward.”
The findings are yet to be made public.
Meanwhile Polyfest is reliant on many schools, principals, volunteers and contractors as well as sponsors to make the event happen and the Polyfest Trust, made up mostly of school principals, is tasked with overseeing the event.
For a small entry fee, this year’s event is on from March 13th to 16th at the Manukau Superbowl and online tickets are available in an effort to reduce queues.
Seiuli believes with safety and security as key considerations each year, a venue change is definitely on the horizon.
“It’s a possibility,” said Seiuli. “A new location within 10 years and we turn 45 next year as we head towards Polyfest [number] 50. “