Holding on to gagana Sāmoa
Māngere East local, Tuiloma Lina Samu reflects back on her own gagana Sāmoa journey, and those people who introduced her to te ao Māori and the world of languages.
My beloved Grandma Silulu was born in Pu’apu’a, Savai’i in 1900. My first memory is of her peeling me a big juicy fat navel orange and explaining its name and sounding the word out: “Moli. O lea le mea lea? O le moli. Fai mai Lina: moli.” (“Orange. What is this thing here? It’s an orange. Say it after me Lina: orange”)
Because of her, Sāmoan was my first language. She lived with us at our home but after she died, our parents only spoke Sāmoan to each other and English to us. I was lucky as somehow, the language stayed with me.
I went to Sutton Park Primary School. It was great as we had an informal Sāmoan speaking group run by parents who were teacher aides. My Dad taught us younger kids the Sāmoan alphabet, national anthem and Bible scriptures but my four older siblings were brought up mostly in an English language environment. I think about this a lot. Our parents wanted us kids to be able to fit in and succeed in life as fluent English speakers. It wouldn’t have been an easy decision. They definitely faced racism. Dad said when he arrived in the 50s sometimes if he was in a queue, Palagi people would just walk in front of him and get served first. This was acceptable back then.
At school I remember performing the taualuga as the taupou and doing the ava ceremony with red cordial. Being raised in the LDS Church meant that Sāmoan gafa (family tree) was taught and our ward was Sāmoan speaking as well.
Being brought up around Māori people meant seeing their absolute respect for the legacy of ancestors and whakapapa. I found that Sāmoan people didn’t talk much about our ancestors beyond grandparents, but thanks to great teachers like Aroha Sharples (nee Baker) I was encouraged to know about my ancestors, cultural birthright and heroes. She was a kapa haka superstar and I was in great awe of her.
One day at primary school when I was 7 our teacher (who I thought looked like Gail from Coronation Street) was reading a book to us and she kept mispronouncing the protagonist’s name. His name was Sefulu but she kept saying: Sefarloo. And I piped up: “It’s not Sefarloo. It’s Sefulu!”
All the Palagi kids in my reading group began telling me off: “NO! You’re saying the wrong name. It’s SEFARLOO!”
I was very angry and started shouting back at everyone shouting at me:
“I am not saying the wrong name. If you keep saying Sefarloo I’m going to get you all!”
By this time the teacher got up, went to her desk, came back with a leather strap and hit me five times on each hand. She continued reading the book about Sefarloo.
But I’ve also had amazing teachers: At Māngere Intermediate I remember John Tāpere and then at Ngā Tapuwae College, I was blessed to have Kepa and Pani Stirling as mentors.
My Sāmoan was nurtured by being immersed in te aō Māori and by learning to read and write in te reo as Sāmoan was not an option at school. I remember asking my parents to teach me, they always meant to get around to it but never quite did: and this is normal for many of us. Our parents do what they can do and what they have the energy to do at that time but there was no plan around to help them either.
Today we have some excellent initiatives such as the Pasifika Education Centre in Auckland providing free Pasifika languages lessons, the Chief Executive there is quite simply a visionary.
After a BA and then an MA in Languages and Literature, I recently completed the work for my PhD in Public Health Research. A big part of my thesis was raised by younger interviewees who fear that within one or two generations their ancestral languages will be lost, languages like Vagahau Niue, Gagana Tokelau, and Te Reo no Kuki Airani. Most of their people live here now and the end of their mother tongue is something they are dreading.
As someone who can speak my language and others like te reo Māori, Tongan and Kuki Airani: not being afraid of making mistakes when speaking has always been key. I remember as a 12yo saying something and my elderly aunts chortling with laughter but then when they finished, they touched my hand and explained they were laughing because I had accidentally said a swear word.
I love being a Sāmoan person in Aotearoa because this has shaped me. Having the privilege of learning te reo and tikanga Māori: has helped me to be a stronger Sāmoan woman and speaker of gagana Sāmoa.
Originally published in the Education Gazette 28 May 2018
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