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Tongan language, culture, and identity


Ma’ata Fusitu’a is a teacher of the Tongan language at Sir Edmund Hillary Collegiate in South Auckland. In this blog Ma’ata explains some important aspects of Tongan family life and culture and offers some suggestions on how we can support Tongan language and culture in our schools and classrooms.

Ma’ata ‘Otile Fusitu’a.

My name is Ma’ata ‘Otile Fusitu’a also known as ‘Eleni Ma’ata Fusitu’a. I am the second youngest of 10 children and the first one in my family with university degrees. These qualifications belong to my whole family as they all supported me to where I am now. I am 60 years of age and married to Sekona Fusitu’a of Nomuka and Masilamea, Tongatapu, but now living in Otahuhu, Auckland, New Zealand. We have four lovely grown-up children.  

Mālō e lelei, ko hoku hingoa ko Ma’ata “Otile Fusitu’a pea ko hoku hingoa ‘e taha ko e ‘Eleni. Ko e fika 9 au he fanau ‘e toko 10 pea mo e mo e ‘uluaki memipa hoku famili ke ma’u ‘a e faka’ilonga fakamo’oni ako mei ha ‘Univesiti. Ko e faka’ilonga ako ko ‘eni ‘oku ma’u kotoa ia ‘e hoku famili he na’a nau kau kotoa pe hono poupou’i au pea u a’usia ‘a e tu’unga ko eni. ‘Oku ou ta’u 60 pea ‘oku ou mali mo Sekona Fusitu’a mei Nomuka mo Masilamea, Tongatapu ka ‘oku mau nofo Otahuhu, ‘Okalani, Nu’u Sila pea ko ‘ema fanau ‘e toko 4.

Are you Tongan born?

I was born, raised, and completed High School in Tonga.

‘Io, na’e fa’ele’i pe au mo ako ‘i Tonga ‘o ‘osi mei he Kolisi.

Family life in Tonga

I was born in my mother’s village of Toula, Vava’u, known as the Funga Veimumuni, which means on top is the village cemetery and underneath is a cave for swimming and family time at the end of the day.

Na’e fa’ele’i au he kolo ‘eku fine’eiki ko Toula, ‘i Vava’u pea ‘oku ‘iloa ia ko e Funga Veimumuni.

My parents are both Tongan and there are 10 children in my family, six boys and four girls, and I am number nine. We all grew up in my mother’s village of Toula, Vava’u. My dad grew up in the island of Niuafo’ou and travelled to Vava’u due to the volcanic eruption in Niuafo’ou and met my mother in Toula. He was a plantation grower and my mother was a weaver and tapa maker. Later, they were called by the Church of Tonga to be a church steward and church minister to villages in Vava’u. They moved from village to village looking after a group of families for the church. Then in 1968 my parents decided to move to the island of ‘Eua where my dad could access bush land for planting root crops.

My family did not have any money but we were rich inwardly in love, working together, supporting each other, and most importantly our Christian values and beliefs of joy, peace, long suffering, humility, and perseverance.

Ko ‘eku ongo matu’a ko e Tonga loua pea ‘oku mau toko 10, ko e 6 tangata pea 4 fefine, ko au ‘oku fika 9. Ko ‘eku tangata’eiki mei Niuafo’ou pea ko ‘eku fine’eiki mei Toula, Vava’u. Ko e ngaue ‘eku tangata’eiki ko e ngoue pea ko e ngaue ‘eku fine’eiki ko e lālanga mo e koka’anga. Neongo kuo na si’i mama’o atu ka ‘oku ‘ikai ngalo ‘ena ngaue mateaki koe’uhi ko homau ki’i famili.

How long have you been living in New Zealand?

I first came to New Zealand on a bilateral scholarship from Tonga in 1980 to 1983 and studied in Christchurch. In 1997 my family migrated here and I’ve been here for 24 years in total.

Na’a ku ma’u faingamalie he Sikolasipi ki Nu’u Sila ni ‘ou lele mai ‘o ako he 1980 ki he 1983 ‘i he motu Saute ‘i Christchurch. Pea ‘i he 1997 na’a ku hikifonua mai ai hoku famili ki Nu’u Sila ni pea ko e ta’u fakakatoa eni ‘e 24 ‘emau nofo Nu’u Sila ni.

At Sir Edmund Hillary Collegiate

Tongan cultural artefacts.

My first job offer in New Zealand was at Hillary College (now SEHC) back in 1998 as the principal’s personal assistant (Mr Robin Staples). The principal then encouraged me to go back to teaching and I started teaching here in 1999 until now, with a total of 20 years at SEHC and 14 years at Tonga High School, Tonga. Currently I am HOD Tongan language and the Tongan cultural leader. I teach Tongan language from year 9 to 13 and have witnessed that Tongan language is a second language to our New Zealand born children. I also have the honour to witness the academic growth of my Tongan fanau and community at Sir Edmund Hillary Collegiate with their children starting at our junior school, then to our middle school, and to senior school within the one campus.

We have a very strong TPTA (Tongan Parents Teachers Association) where we have monthly meetings, a weekly homework centre which is now a collegiate homework centre, and PowerUP Plus. I also translate the annual parents’ information booklet into Tongan language and encourage my Tongan parents that it “takes a whole village to educate a child”.

Na’a ku kamata ngaue ‘i Nu’u Sila ni he 1998 ko e Sekelitali ki he Puleako ‘o e Kolisi Hilali ko Mr Robin Staples. Na’e fu’u fiema’u ha faiako Tonga koe’uhi ko e fanau ako Tonga he ‘apiako ni pea fakalotolahi’i au ‘e he Puleako ke u foki ki he faiako. Na’a ku faiako ‘i Tonga he Tonga High School he ta’u ‘e 14 pea mau toki hiki mai. ‘Oku ou faiako’i ‘a e lesoni Lea Faka-Tonga ki he fanau Foomu 3 ki he Foomu 7 pea ‘oku ou fakamo’oni’i kuo hoko ‘a e lea Faka-Tonga ko e lea ia hono ua ki he fanau tokolahi kuo fa’ele’i he fonua ni, pea ‘oku fu’u mahu’inga foki ke ako he’etau fanau ‘enau ‘uluaki lea. ‘Oku ou ‘ilo’i eni he’eku sio ki he fakalakalaka lahi e ako ‘a e fanau Tonga he ‘api ako ni. Pea ‘oku ‘iai ‘emau Komiti ‘a e Matu’a Tonga mo e kau Faiako Tonga ‘o fai ai ‘emau talanoa he ngaahi fakataha fekau’aki mo e fiema’u ‘a e ‘apiako ki he ako ‘a e fanau, poako, liliu ‘a e ngaahi fiema’u ‘a e ako ki he Lea Faka-Tonga pea mo fakamanatu ki he matu’a, “‘oku fiema’u ‘a e kolo ke nau kau ki hono ako’i e tamasi’i/ta’ahine ako.”

What does it mean to you to be Tongan?

In my family we use our Tongan proverbs a lot:

  • Pukepuke ‘a fufula – Holding fast to a big fat pig
  • Taka ‘i fonua mahu – Living in a fruitful land
  • Takanga émau fohe – Our oars are moving in unison 

When growing up I strived to be a successful Tongan regardless of whatever my situation was or what was going on around me. I saw success in formal education as my ultimate goal and this was the foundation of our family that reminded us that migrating to our new land (New Zealand) to be a successful Tongan, we must hold on to our Tongan values and culture like holding on to a big fat pig. And, since I wanted the best for my family, I pushed really hard to educate them. In order to fulfil our dreams in this fruitful land we must work together and support each other physically, socially, economically, and spiritually as a Tongan family.

Ko e ngaahi Paloveape Tonga ‘eni ‘oku ne fakamo’oni ‘eku hoko ko e Tonga:

  • Pukepuke ‘a fufula – Ko e puke ha me’a ‘oku fu’u mahu’inga hange ko ‘etau lea m e anga faka-Tonga.  
  • Ko e Taka ‘i fonua mahu ko ‘etau nofo ‘i ha fonua ‘oku lahi hono ngaahi faingamalie ki he ako mo e ngaue.  
  • Ko e Tākanga ‘etau fohe – Ko e ngaue fakataha ia ‘a e Matu’a, Fanau mo e kau Faiako ki he lelei e ako ‘a e fanau Tonga. 

Ko e taha ia e ‘uhinga ‘emau hiki fonua mai ki Nu’u Sila ni ke poupou’i ‘ema fanau ke nau lavame’a he ako pea ke ma’u ha’anau ngaue pea ke nau mo’ui fiefia mo tau’ataina.

How is it being Tongan in NZ? How do you keep your culture alive?

Our Tongan core values at home (‘api) of love (ófa), respect (fakaápaápa), humility (anga fakatokilalo), and maintaining mutual relationships (tauhi vā) are the values that we as parents practise and encourage our children to take to school (‘api ako), and to church (‘api siasi), and to call these places their home (‘api). We teach children the importance of these values and to take them wherever they go. My three older children were able to speak Tongan in the home … a compulsory language, supporting the youngest child who was one-year-old when we left Tonga. 

Ko e ngaahi kavei koula ‘o e nofo faka-Tonga ko e ‘ofa, faka’apa’apa, anga fakatokilalo mo e tauhi vā. Ko e faliki lelei ‘eni ‘o e nofo ‘a e famili Tonga ‘i ‘api, mo honau vā mo e ‘api ako pea mo e ‘api siasi. Ko e ma’u pe he fanau ‘a e ngaahi ‘ulungaanga ko ‘eni mo nau mo’ui ‘aki ko e mahino ia ko e Tonga kinautolu ‘o tatau ai pe, pe koe fē ha feitu’u ‘oku nau ‘iai.

How important is the language to Tongan culture?  

Hoko pe fai mo e fau – Joining together the hibiscus cord with hibiscus cord

  • A Tongan proverb meaning to connect two strong characters or people, then they will be successful. Living in a new land, we believe that to be a successful Tongan family we must connect our Tongan language with our Tongan culture. With my own children I have witnessed that if they are able to connect their Tongan language and culture then this strengthens their identity in their other worlds.

At school we have a rule that every year 9 student must take their own language. In my own classes half of the students will continue with learning their Tongan language through to year 13. In the past three years our head prefects have been from this group of Tongan students as well as dux and runner-up to dux.

My parents’ committee (TPTA) has monthly meetings where information is translated for the parents by myself. A good connection with parents is very important for the academic achievement of our Tongan students.

Ko e Paloveape ko e Hoko pe fau mo e fau ko e fakamahino ia ko e hoko lelei ‘o ‘ete poto he Lea Faka-Tonga mo e Lea Faka-Palangi pea ‘oku te lavame’a pe he feitu’u kotoa. ‘Oku lava keu fakamo’oni eni he’eku fanau totonu pea mo ‘eku fanau Tonga he ‘api ako ni. ‘Oku kau ma’u pe ‘a e fanau Tonga he lakanga taki hange ko e kau matāpule ‘a e ako pea mo ‘enau ma’u fakakatoa ‘a e ‘api ako ni he ngaahi ta’u ko ‘eni kuo toki ‘osi.  Ko e poupou lahi ‘a e matu’a mei ‘api ‘o lava ai ke fa’u ‘emau Komiti ‘a e Kau Faiako Tonga mo e Matua - TPTA. ‘Oku fakahoko ai ‘emau fakataha fakamahina mo e kau Puleako, liliu faka-Tonga ‘o e ngaahi fiema’u ‘a e ako he ta’u kotoa ki he matu’a pea mo e ‘a’ahi ki he ngaahi famili Tonga ke mau femahino’aki mo e ako.

What are some important aspects of Tongan culture at SEHC?

  • Career pathways where students understand that they can use their Tongan language and culture in the education sector within teaching, health, reception, and almost any kind of job where Tongan language and culture will be useful. I have field trips for my students so they can learn more about the culture, for example, we go to Tonga every three or four years. Our next Tongan trip will be in 2020.
  • We have four important values for our Tongan fale to be standing strong, as mentioned above, and that is love (ófa), respect (faka'apaápa), reciprocal relationships (tauhi va), and humility (anga fakatokilalo). These fit in well with our SEHC Collegiate values of respect, excellence, and whanaungatanga.
  • Our dancing and music is important to keep alive. Church values are very important like White Sunday, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day. At SEHC we alternate ASB Polyfest with Educational Sunday (Sapate Ako). Sapate Ako is held in Tonga every year – where student achievement is acknowledged. This concept comes from the church but I’ve brought this to our school, where in the third week of term 1 the senior school celebrates NCEA achievement with "Academic Opening". Following that Sunday is our SEHC Tongan Educational Sunday (Sapate Ako í SEHC). My Tongan parents and community come together and share singing, prayers, hymns, bible stories, food, and PowerPoint of Tongan students' NCEA results.
  • Mahu’inga ki he fanau ‘a e ‘aonga ‘enau poto he Lea mo e anga faka-Tonga ki ha fa’ahinga ako pe ngaue pe te nau fai he kaha’u hange ko e faiako, neesi, toketa.
  • Ko e ngaahi kavei koula ‘e fā ki he nofo faka-Tonga.
  • Ko e hiva, faiva mo e ouau fakalotu hange ko e Katoanga Faka-Me, Sapate Ako.
  • ‘Oku lava keu ‘omai ‘a e ngaahi polokalama faka-Tonga ko ‘eni ‘o fakahoko ia he ako ‘a e fanau he ‘oku fu’u mahu’inga fau.

What are you doing at SEHC for Tongan language week?

My senior students are organising our programme for term 3, week 7 (Monday 3–Friday 7 September 2018):

  • Monday 3 September – a Collegiate assembly in the school gym with singing in Tongan, dance performances from each of the schools 
  • Tuesday 4 September – year 9 will hold a lunchtime performance in the quad
  • Wednesday 5 September – senior students will host a Tongan game day with about 4/5 games, for example, "tolopani" which is similar to baseball but using empty cans; senior students are hosting morning tea for staff – ‘otai and pancakes 
  • Thursday 6 September – senior students will be making a fruit drink (‘otai) using coconut, apple, pineapple, and milk for other students to taste 
  • Friday 7 September – each class level will bring a Tongan dish to share with the class, for example, ota ika (raw fish), lu (taro leaves), ‘otai (fruit drink), vai siaina (ripe bananas), roasted pig (puaka tunu

Last year my year 13 Tongan language class was involved in a Tongan project at Te Papa, which included their NCEA level 3 Lea Faka-Tonga internal assessments for their writing portfolio and interaction portfolio.

Ko ‘emau polokalama eni ki he Uike Lea Faka-Tonga ‘o e ta’u ni pea ‘oku taki ai ‘a e fanau Tonga Year 13:

  • Monite 3 Sepitema – assembly katoa ‘emau ngaahi ko ki he gym pea fai ai ‘a e hiva, lotu mo e tau’olunga
  • Tusite 4 Sepitema – year 9 te nau tokanga’i ‘a e Koniseti Hiva faka-Tonga he kai ho’ata 
  • Pulelulu 5 Sepitema – year 10 te nau fakalele ‘a e va’inga faka-Tonga hange ko e tolo pani, tafue, hiko. ‘E fakahoko foki mo e ipu ti ‘a e kau faiako hange ko e ‘otai mo e  keke fakapaku
  • Tu’apulelulu 6 Sepitema – ngaahi ‘otai fuluti ke ‘ahi’ahi ‘e he fanau. Vau niu, vau mo e ‘apele, faina, moli pea mo e huhu’a mango pea tanaki ki ai mo e hu’akau 
  • Falaite 7 Sepitema – ko e kai ho’ata ‘a e fanau Tonga ki he Whare - Puaka tunu, lu, ‘ota ika, ‘otai 

What advice do you have for teachers of Tongan students to support their language and culture?

Tongan dancers.
  • Get to know your students and their families, their backgrounds, and their routines at home and at school.  
    Feinga ke ke ‘ilo ‘a e fanau mo honau ngaahi famili.
  • Home visits.  
    ‘A’ahi ki honau ngaahi ‘api.
  • Link their work to what is relevant to students’ learning. For example, our inquiry is around Tongan students' attendance so students will analyse their own attendance data and do a video presentation in Tongan.  
    Fai ‘a e ngaue ‘oku loto ki ai ‘a e fanau hange ko e mahu’inga ‘enau ma’u ako ma’u pe.
  • Use ICT for their writing and interactions.
    Ngaue’aki ‘a e komipiuta ki he fa’u talanoa mo e po talanoa.
  • Provide opportunities to showcase their culture to others at school and in the community all the time.  
    Fakaha ma’u pe ko e Tonga kinautolu.
  • Provide opportunities to explore the Tongan language. For example, enter speech competitions at ASB Polyfest; older students reading to younger students in Tongan at junior school in the campus.  
    Kau ki he ngaahi fe’auhi lea he ASB Polifesi.
  • We have fanau time on Thursdays where Tongan senior students mentor younger students with singing, academic mentoring, goal setting, dancing etc.
    Taimi fanau he ako ki he po hiva faka-Tonga, muimui’i ‘enau ako, fa’u ‘enau ngaahi taumu’a.
  • We have a homework centre with tertiary Tongan students who come in to support students every Tuesday.
    Po ako he ako he Tusite kotoa pea mo e taimi po ako ‘i ‘api mo e matu’a.

What can teachers do to showcase Tongan language and culture to all students?

  • Learn the greetings (senior students at this school are preparing a video for teachers so they can learn greetings with their students).  
    Ako ‘a e fakafe’iloaki mo e ngaahi lea faingofua.
  • Use basic classroom communication in Tongan in chart form – for example, please (kataki), thank you (malo), sit down please (kataki nofo ki lalo), listen please (kataki fanongo), do you understand? (óku mahino?).  
    Teuteu ha saati ‘o e ngaahi lea he loki ako hange ko e malo, kataki, nofo ki lalo, fanongo kataki, ‘oku mahino?
  • Learn the Tongan alphabet as a song.  
    Ako ‘a e hiva ‘o e ‘Alafapeti faka-Tonga.
  • Learn a Tongan dance, for example, Mate ma’a Tonga.  
    Ako ha hiva mo e faiva faka-Tonga.

Related resources

Tongan Language Week
Tongan Language Week/Uike Kātoanga’i ‘o e Lea Faka-Tonga gives students of all ethnicities the chance to learn some basic Lea Faka-Tonga, and gives your students of Tongan origin the chance to be experts in the classroom.