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TalanoaMälie -Innovative Reform Through Social Dialogue in New Zealand

The experiences of the Kakai Tonga Tu’a (Tongan people who have migrated to Aotearoa—New Zealand–from the Kingdom of Tonga) can be interpreted alongside the patterns of the tapestry of the lives of Tangata Whenua (“First People of the land”) in Aotearoa and indigenous colonized peoples elsewhere in the world. Our heritage can be traced to the islands of Niua Fo’ou, Niua Toputapu, Vava’u, Ha’apai, Tongatapu, and ‘Eua, which are collectively called the Tonga Islands. The diversity among Kakai Tonga Tu’a is acknowledged and, as a Kakai Tonga Tu’a teacher, I am one of many voices.


Tongan cultural practices through stories, arts, performances, poetry, and songs are not only specific to the Tongans but are similar to those of other indigenous peoples. The task for Kakai Tonga Tu’a is to draw from our own Tongan language and cultural practices and from other indigenous peoples’ knowledge and ways to promote and advance our voices, rights, and visions.


For the Kakai Tonga Tu’a, TalanoaMälie (peaceful social dialogue) is central to thinking and acting. It is produced in cultural relationships that Kakai Tonga Tu’a value and practice. Talanoa means acting and thinking in communication within oneself and with other people.


At the Pö Ako, a Tongan-based homework center for Tongan students in an urban, coeducational school, TalanoaMälie has led to educational innovation that advances Tongan ways of thinking and acting to promote Tongan cultural survival within the broader field of secondary schooling. The ASB Bank Maori and Pacific Islands Secondary School Cultural Festival is an example of the interface of cultural survival of different indigenous groups’ songs and dances. The Aotearoa Tongan Education Association is made up of Tongan educators who engage TalanoaMälie in order to conceptualize how Kakai Tonga Tu’a can become producers of knowledge rather than simply consumers of technical skills and ideas. All three programs show how the Kakai Tonga Tu’a have used education to our new country. TalanoaMälie generates dialogue that is mälie and mäfana (see sidebar page 39); and awakens Tongan peoples’ pursuit of cultural survival through holistic living.


Tongan Language and Culture


The Tongan saying “Oku ou talanoa mo hoku loto (Talking with my inner self, I am communicating with my heart)” is an example of talanoa as an act as well as a way of thinking. Talanoa articulates a Tongan sense of thinking and acting as an inseparable relationship. It is a Tongan cultural relationship expressed in words, senses, and body language.


Talanoa can become an experience that is mälie when it draws upon the passion, knowledge, and nuances of the culture and moves the heart, mind, and soul of the participants to a realm of deeper understanding, beyond what is experienced. When Kakai Tonga Tu’a experience TalanoaMälie they are moved to act upon transforming relationships in order to advance cultural survival.


These valued cultural relationships are predicated on knowing our faces, places, and genealogical connections—that is, our identities. Talanoa creates a sense of maheni (familiarity) and fe’ilongaki (knowing each other’s identity and place) among Tongan people. More to the point, the relationships are based on knowledge of one’s position in the kin group, community, and fonua (land, heritage). When a group of Kakai Tonga Tu’a gather they usually engage in talanoa, fakatalanoa (to encourage discussion when they do not know each other), pötalanoa (when they already know each other), or talatalanoa (in which they talk about selected topics or talk endlessly). These constituents of talanoa are carried out in relation to the contexts and the kinds of relationships that they enliven and encourage. For example when I, as a teacher, meet with Tongan parents for the first time in the school we talanoa, which typically leads to pötalanoa and talatalanoa. Talanoa is the process in which we come to relate and connect with each other. The language of talanoa is Tongan. Although some English language may be used to refer to educational matters, the medium of talanoa is the Mother tongue. Talanoa creates relationships that draw upon trust, honesty, and courage to share our stories about our experiences. Talanoa opens up people’s hearts to speak about issues they encounter in everday living; for example educating their children, living in the new country, work, and church in its many varied forms.


Pö Ako Homework Center


Relationships and practices of TalanoaMälie were developed in the Pö Ako. The homework center was established in a large suburban secondary school in Auckland in 1992. It was initiated by Kakai Tonga Tu’a parents, their children, and me, together with colleagues and parents who identifiy as Tangata Whenua. The group came together to propose to the school the establishment of a learning program to help transform the students’ poor results in the national examination in 1991. The parents set up the constitution, decided how the Pö Ako would operate and be funded, and took charge of their ways of working together. The program was open twice a week in the evening in the department where I worked during the day. The students were tutored in their most challenging subjects in Tongan and in English by Tongan university graduates.


The 1994 and 1995 Quality Service Indicator Reports on Homework Centres at the School showed a marked difference between the performance of Tongan students who attended the Pö Ako and those who did not. The reports pointed out that the establishment of the Pö Ako gave some students the opportunity to perform exceptionally well and generally those students who attended the Pö Ako did better than expected. For example, the New Zealand School Certificate national examination results in 1994 showed a clear improvement in the performance of the students who regularly attended the Pö Ako since 1992. Seven Tongan students in Form Three in 1992 were successful in the School Certificate examination in 1994. Of the 41 students who tested, 10 accomplished C grades, eight B grades, and three A grades. The importance of this performance lies in the fact that no Tongan candidates prior to 1994 obtained A grades in any School Certificate subject in the school.


The Pö Ako succeeded because people came to understand the prevailing education system—one that is political and underpinned by values and beliefs that are not Tongan, but which Tongans must understand in order to support their children’s learning. TalanoaMälie was engaged to unravel the politics of education. At one level, the parents came together with the school and its affiliated hierarchies to talanoa—question, discuss, clarify, and create ways to change situations that disadvantage Tongan students in the school. At another level, the parents engaged talanoa to deepen their understanding of their social and cultural values, which provided them grounds upon which to question the context of education and its shaping of their lives and their children.


Secondary School Cultural Festival


Tongan people are continually moving in and out of Tonga, Aotearoa, Australia and the Pacific Rim countries. The concern for cultural survival by Kakai Tonga Tu’a is a concern for Tongan values, language, and dignity. In Aotearoa, Tangata Whenua engage in political dialogues and struggles for tinorangatiratanga (Maori sovereignty). Kakai Tonga Tu’a in their struggles for cultural survival also find ways to learn from and with other Pacific Islands peoples about how to live alongside pakeha (European or non-indigenous peoples). TalanoaMälie encourages dialogue between groups of Kakai Tonga Tu’a to learn with peoples from other cultures in the context of work, education, health, legal, and community projects. Talanoa between Tangata Whenua and peoples from the island nations gives them insight into the protocols and values upon which their thinking and ways of being are based. Through talanoa, Kakai Tonga Tu’a can clarify their political, social, and cultural positions to advance their perspectives. By way of talanoa’i (analytical talk), diverse and multiple viewpoints are discussed and people grow in understanding and become better informed about each other.


At the ASB Festival, Tangata Whenua, Tongan, Niuean, Samoan, and Cook Islands Maori parents, teachers, and children, pakeha teachers, and other cultural groups come together to showcase their songs and dances over three days. Smaller groups such as Fijians, Indians, Chinese, Tokelau, Vanuatu, Solomons, and those from Papua New Guinea also perform. The festival has been a feature of secondary education for Tangata Whenua and the peoples from Tonga, Niue, the Cook Islands, and Samoa since 1976. The performances take place on five stages. The festival is the one time that the students, their parents, secondary schools, and the wider community come together as equals to experience different cultural performing arts.


But the educational significance of the festival has not been realized in terms of formalized learning that deepens the diverse groups’ knowledge and understanding of their own and each others’ languages; their cultural, social, political, and economic practices; and their values, beliefs, and protocols. While each group focuses on its own performing arts there is little or no intercultural education between Tangata Whenua and the diverse Pacific groupings. Furthermore, the performing arts of the island nations are not included in the school curriculum. The festival is an ad-hoc practice in the secondary sector of education.


Engagement in their children’s secondary schooling in Aotearoa is a new experience for the majority of Kakai Tonga Tu’a parents. Their involvement has been limited to activities such as the festival, sport days, gala days, and fundraising events. While these activities are important to the school, they are marginal to learning curriculum subjects.


The ongo’i mäfana and mälie (mäfana and mälie experiences) that occur in the festival are spiritual energies that uplift and transform the hearts and psyche of the Tongan parents and children to be inwardly conscious of the knowledge and sense of belonging to the fonua of culture. The ongo’i mäfana and mälie create the passion and interest to seek ways to maintain their centrality in their performing arts and all that are generated. The sensibility of ongo’i mäfana is central to TalanoaMälie. The festival brings together diverse cultural groups and thus provides opportunities for intercultural education. For Kakai Tonga Tu’a parents and their children, intercultural education starts with TalanoaMälie and continues in TalanoaMälie and leads to changes in thinking and action, a process known as critical education. The actions by the parents are specific to the situations experienced by them and their children in the school. For instance, the parents continue to meet to talk about their relationships with the schools, share their stories and social experiences, question issues of achievement by their children, and question the streaming process that marginalizes their children to lower-band classes. The students’ achievement and performance transforms when the school, Tongan parents, teachers, and students come together to address and change their thinking and practices.


Tongan Education Association


TalanoaMälie is a cultural as well as political process that is meaningful and useful in giving the Kakai Tonga Tu’a a critical voice in education. Making sense of the contexts of learning and the social, cultural, and political underpinnings as well as the relationships that produce them and are produced by them requires a critical education process.


The Aotearoa Tongan Education Association is a context in which Tongan educators create relationships conducive to critical education, a process drawn from within the heart and thus connecting people with the worlds that have been created by others for them. Its function is to raise issues pertinent to the education of Tongan people and create pedagogies that do not devalue Tongan people, their language, or culture.


In critical education, Kakai Tonga Tu’a come together to talanoa about their experiences, express their aspirations, voice their issues, and speak their different perspectives in forums, meetings, seminars, and radio programs. In doing so, the people grow in understanding that Tongan ways of thinking through Tongan concepts, language, and culture are the means to tatala (unravel) the issues of the marginalization of their values and language in education in order to attain deeper understanding. By way of Tongan language, the people are able to deepen their insights into their cultural knowledge as a means to understand other peoples’ ways of being and doing. Furthermore, they understand Tongan cultural survival through creative thinking and their collective capacity to critique and generate ideas in order to produce Tongan knowledge for intercultural education.


The process of TalanoaMälie is central to collective education. Producing an education where the whole person and the collective are culturally informed leads to the transformation of situations that disadvantage and limit the people. The challenge is for Kakai Tonga Tu’a to promote education that would allow them not merely to survive, but, to thrive at the interface of cultures. TalanoaMälie and critical education provide a space for learning to understand the complex worlds marginalized indigenous peoples, such as Tongan people, face daily living in Aotearoa.


Defining Some Key Terms


Since talanoa is both a noun and a verb it has many meanings. The word can mean to talk, talking, the talk, conversing, a conversation, to say, to dialogue, a dialogue, a story, and to relate experiences. The variety of usage is interconnected and employed in this article.


Mälie is a term that is difficult to translate in English. It is experienced. It is a concept that is central to Tongan ways of thinking and doing, and is conceptualized as energy that moves and transforms the psyche, draws upon the passion and uplifts the heart and soul, and fulfills the senses.


Mäfana is another complex term. Like mälie it is a concept central to Tongan sensibilities that produces an inner sense of relationships and generate warmth and energy uplifting their hearts and souls.


Linitä Manu’atu was born and raised in Tonga. In 1979 she migrated to Aotearoa (New Zealand) to continue her secondary and tertiary education. She is a founding member and administrator of Pö Ako and a researcher for the Aotearoa Tongan Education Association.


References and further reading


Manu’atu, L. (2000). Tuli Ke Ma’u Hono Ngaahi Mälie: Pedagogical Possibilities for Tongan Students at New Zealand Secondary Schooling. An Unpublished Doctoral of Education Thesis, The University of Auckland.

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