Making connections with Pacific ideas in health education - an invitation to tell my own story.
Our TIC of Health, Whaea Kata told me about how she collaborated with Gloria, a year 13 student, class of 2019 and Jenny Robertson, a Health educator, to put together a relevant piece of work for the health curriculum that could be used in a high school classroom. Gloria Tu’itupou was the top Health and P.E Scholarship student in N.Z last year and wrote a report called ‘Navigating vā in search of Connection: The Kahoa (Lole)’. The report has become part of new resource for the Health curriculum called “Making connections with Pacific ideas in health education”. When Whaea described Gloria’s understanding of the vā and how she explored the use of the Kahoa as symbol of the connections between her two worlds, I was hooked. I was amazed at the insights that I’d heard and felt proud, not because Gloria was a student of ours but because I could connect with what she was saying- I could see myself in her words.
The story of my two worlds
My own battle to work in two worlds, the Samoan world and the Palagi/Kiwi world came to the front and centre of my mind when reading Gloria’s report. I had limited understanding of the concept of the vā, which I thought meant that unspoken place in relation to how you act and feel in the Samoan world. I didn’t really want to go there to be honest because of my I felt I wouldn’t do it justice but that’s okay, these are simply my musings.
“Vā is the space between, the betweeness, not empty space, not space that separates, but space that relates, that holds separate entities and things together in the Unity-that-is-All, the space that is context, giving meaning to things” (Wendt,pg 402, 1999).
I hadn’t really tried to understand my existence in my two worlds much until now. I’ve always thought you were either one or the other and trying to be in the middle was a really a confusing place. I’ve come to realise that everyone’s story has a place in that ‘space’ and as an educator, I’ve got the chance to help my kids know who they are and how to navigate their ‘space’. To do this, I needed to really understand and appreciate my own journey.
Growing up, I didn’t have much to do with my ‘Samoan’ side (even though I am full Samoan). My mum always used to say, the key to success is education and that success starts with speaking proper English. At home, my parents spoke to us kids in Samoan but we were encouraged to reply and speak in English. We attended a palagi Catholic church. I watched many of my school friends grow up in the ‘autalavou’ (church youth group) and I yearned to be part of the White Sunday celebrations. I felt like a bit of an outsider.
During my school years, were only allowed to go to school and come straight home, no friends, no extra-curricular, just school and home. It was my cousins that lived the ‘real’ Samoan life and I enjoyed the few times that we got together. They could speak Samoan freely and I got good at nodding my head and saying ‘iiii’ (meaning ‘yes’, pronounced ‘eee’ - supposed to be ‘ioe’ but I didn’t know). Watching them answer their parents commands in the Samoan language made me envious of them. When we were alone, I would purposefully try to sound smarter then them by telling them to say words like ‘discussion’ and ‘decision’ because I knew they would struggle and sound like ‘fobs’ (a term coined ‘fresh off the boat’ which meant P.I immigrants who came to N.Z unable to speak English). We would laugh and it would make me feel better.
Someone said to me once ‘Dorothy, as a Pacific Islander, if you want to prove yourself in this world, you have to work twice as hard’. This became my mantra. In my early college years, I excelled at school and had mainly palagi friends. I had to work extra hard in class and I remember coming 13th out of 120 students in the end of year maths test in year 9. I thought I was really brainy. This made me fit in with the palagi kids even more, except when they wanted to hang out after school. I wasn’t allowed and I felt left out. I didn’t really have any Samoan friends because I didn’t feel comfortable around them. They acted different, they sounded different and they looked at me like I was different. Looking back now, I could see that their Samoan way of life (fa’a Samoa) was what kept them together.
In years 9 and 10, I enjoyed writing poetry and stories, as a way to disguise my feelings. Through poetry, I could control my world, and my language was my power. My teachers were really caring and in year 10, we had a reliever for our English class who was really an Art teacher. So all we did was draw what we wrote. In our drawings, we could visually share our stories without judgement. I can clearly recall looking around the classroom, at all the static images that we’d drawn and thought ‘wow, I can see how others feel, I can feel what others feel and that's okay’. I remember seeing lots of bright colours and feeling free and connected to something for the first time. I found my happy place. I appreciated the chance that that teacher gave me to see my place in the world. It had a profound affect on me. It was then in year 10, I decided I wanted to be an English teacher and to use my skills of knowing English pretty well (I thought), to be somebody and to help somebody.
Looking back, I guess it was only in a classroom that I was allowed to find my space. I can appreciate that those feelings of being lost in 'space', were building my resilience and I've come to navigate my space better. Now that I’ve unpacked my journey, I feel ready to help my learners unpack their space or ‘va’. The vā or space between my two worlds is where I now sit safely and comfortably. There is a famous Samoan proverb that says ‘Teuteu le vā’ and translated it means 'nurture/take care of the vā'. With this in my mind, I feel it is my purpose to help my learners to navigate and find themselves in their 'vā'.
Allowing the conversations to start by being deeply connected
Gloria’s report put into words the struggle that many of our Pasifica kids go through all at this time. I felt a deep sense of gratitude and it's given me purpose to work through the recommendations she's suggested in her report (pg 22). To ensure success, we need to adhere to the voices of students who share the same journey as Gloria. We have to start somewhere and this 'space' in time, is the right time. Our principal Soana proudly shared the Health resource with our staff last week via email. One of our senior staff members Mele Suipi-Latu articulated a response which I want to share:
‘It's moments like this that deeply connect us all to a collective joy and pride 'i he'etau fanau tama' - 'he'etau' means our, 'fanau' means birth, 'tama' means a daughter or son. It means that we can all identify and equally share the joy of Gloria's success - our daughter - because part of her making or 'birth' was done here in the community and family of Tamaki College. So although it was your deliberation, Whaea Kata, and your own daughter and commitment, Seini Tu'itupou', Gloria is a Tamaki College daughter and we are all proud!”.
Thank you Whaea Kata, Seini and Gloria for allowing us to share in your moment and to begin to tell our stories. Malo lava soifua.
Tu’itupou, G., O’Donnell, K., & Robertson J. (2020). Making connections with Pacific ideas in health education: A resource to support teaching and learning in The New Zealand Curriculum. New Zealand: NZHEA.
Wendt, Albert The Space Between  1999 Tatauing the Post-Colonial Body. In Inside Out: Literature, Cultural Politics, and Identity in the New Pacific, edited by Vilsoni Hereniko and Rob Wilson, 399–412. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.