Riha Taonui

New Zealand born Samoan Rhia Taonui spent her early years being raised by her grandparents in a village in Samoa. Today, as the Pasifika Community Liaison person at the Palmerston North City Council, Rhia draws on her early experience to carry out her role which is ‘to support evidence-based best practice approach to enable communities to lead and take action.’

It’s not just education for adults that she focuses on – it is education to meet the Pasifika community’s learning needs. This way she engages whole families and whole communities.

“The values I learned as a young child greatly influence the way I work,” says Rhia. “There is a saying, O le ala i le pule, o le tautua – the pathway to leadership is through service. I want to serve my community.

Riha Taonui’s grandparents

“As an infant I lived with my grandmother in the village of Satoalepai, Savaii Samoa. I was a fono-baby. My grandmother took me everywhere, to her regular village fono, weaving groups, church fono, village gatherings and events. She saw the benefit of me being surrounded by my community, their traditions and values. She knew that one day these would influence and aid my life”.

When Rhia returned to New Zealand she met her New Zealand-born and raised siblings and Samoan-born parents together for the first time.

The importance of aiga-family and community made working for local government a natural choice for Rhia. For a number of years she lived in Ōtautahi Christchurch where she worked alongside Jan-Hai Te Ratana and Tai Sila and others in the successful Pasifika group called Vā Pasifika at Christchurch City Libraries.

Now promoting lifelong learning from the Palmerston North library, she is helping Pasifika families get through the library doors. Pasifika parents are learning just how libraries can support their children’s learning, and improve their own lives.

Some of the programmes have been created specifically for the Pasifika community. They include:

Koko and Computers: Koko (cocoa), or Coffee and Computers is a digital programme aimed at Pasifika matua (elders) who want to improve their digital literacy. The weekly session covers: how to use their mobile phones which may have been a gift from their grandchildren; how to create a Facebook account and how to use it; searching on the internet; internet safety and how to use email.

The outcomes, however, go far beyond digital literacy. There is engagement and interaction between the elders – shared kai and cuppa. Many live alone, so the programme tackles the issue of loneliness. In Koko and Computers they are surrounded by their Pasifika mother-tongue, lavalava, music and stories – lots of old village stories with a bit of humour.

Pasifika SwimSmart: This programme was created as a watersafety message for Pasifika community, helping them understand the importance of learning how to swim and safety around water. Although the sessions are for children, the family members who bring their children to the pool, parents and grandparents, are also learning and participate, they are in the pool alongside their children.

Pasifika Language Weeks: There are ten Pasifika communities that celebrate their Pasifika language weeks under Rhia’s portfolio. Each community is encouraged to celebrate their language in many forms including language nest programmes, celebration evenings, arts and crafts, kava ceremonies, dancing and traditional attire. The aim is to continue to advocate for and support each community with celebrating their language the best way they can and with the resources council or libraries have available.

“Maintaining their language”, says Rhia, “gives Pasifika communities security and a great advantage in learning and understanding different world views.”

Pasifika Youth Mentor Programme – Cultural Engagement from the Old Plantation: This programme is in collaboration with Lakina Sione and Youthspace, along with schools and other stakeholders. The aim is to provide a mentoring programme for Pasifika secondary school students who are New Zealand-born/raised and who are trying to bridge the gap between the students and their Pasifika-born parents. The programme includes listening to adult learners and elders talking about their life experiences, traditional values and religion.

Māori and Pasifika Literacy Programme: This programme is in collaboration with the PNCC Māori Community Liaison Nuwyne Te AweAwe Mohi. The Pasifika component is for secondary students completing their NCEA Levels in literacy. The aim of the programme is to provide a culturally safe environment for everyone.

“We start and end with lotu/karakia (Māori or Pasifika). We use content that is relevant to our cultures. For example students are exposed to Māori and Pasifika poetry and authors, and stories like the 1918 Spanish Flu tragedy in Samoa. They use the film Avatar to explain colonisation. This way we find that the programme engages the students’ interests in learning. They can relate to it.” The pass rate for the programme is 98.5%.

Malae Satoalepai

“It is important,” says Rhia, “that we maintain our traditional values in whatever we do, so that we can retain and pass on the wisdom of our matua, our elders. We must acknowledge the value of relationship and duty of care between individuals and groups and embrace the process of adult and community learning so that our Pasifika communities can reach their full potential.

“I could never have found the motivation to create these programmes without the knowledge that organisations like ACE Aotearoa are out there implementing – pushing our communities to embrace lifelong learning, and being culturally inclusive about it. That is important for Pasifika”

This article was published in the ACE Aotearoa Summer Newsletter 2018.