Published Wednesday 5 Oct 2022

Bula vinaka! As part of our Fijian Language Week celebrations, we had a talanoa (catch-up) with two staff members who shared how the Fijian community in Wellington rallied together to preserve their language and culture.

The theme for this year’s Macawa ni Vosa Vakaviti (Fijian Language Week) is Me vakabulabulataki, vakamareqeti, ka vakaqaqacotaki na vosa vakaviti, which means, Nurture, Preserve and Sustain the Fijian language.

A few years back, grave apprehension began growing amongst Wellington’s Fijian communities who started to realise there was a rapid decline in NZ-born Fijians able to speak their language and understand their culture.

Fearing this could be lost to future generations – something some people didn’t think could ever happen – all of a sudden was becoming a possibility.

They weren’t alone in that thinking, with other Fijian communities around the country raising the same concern.

Te Whatu Ora Capital, Coast and Hutt Valley Senior Fleet Coordinator Sera Cawanikawai and Specialty Clinical Registered Nurse Agnes McKay were part of the local Fijian community who were alarmingly aware of the decline.

Both said it was a troubling time seeing Fijian youth not know how to speak the language, but also having little interest in their heritage.

Agnes said: “There was a big worry, and to an extent there still is, that second-generation NZ-born Fijians were not speaking the language at all. My kids were born here so I could see they weren’t getting too much understanding of their background. It was the same for many other families whose kids were forgetting their heritage identity.”

Sera added: “My kids were brought up in Fiji so I didn’t need to teach them the language. But as years went by, I started to see it in them that they were losing all they knew about their language and culture as they grew up here.”

While both held genuine concerns, they were also part of the same community who ended up rallying together to find a quick solution.

And find one they did.

Through their Fijian speaking church, they started a self-funded initiative to have kids meet together once a week to learn the basics of Fijian language and cultural customs such as songs, dances, arts, crafts and games.

The programme, called Vosavakaviti Class, had a small beginning with less than 10 children attending for the first year. However, four years on, they now have more than 30 children attending traveling from all parts of Wellington to the Newlands Community Centre on a Tuesday to participate.

And the best part about it is, the kids are loving it, with the programme now as strong as ever. 

Agnes said her kids have been attending ever since the initiative started.

“Because of our initial worries, we’ve been trying to revive our culture and language through these programmes that we run every Tuesday during school terms. It is open to all people and my kids attend the programme because it is important to me and for them to have that knowledge of their heritage.”

Sera said she was loving seeing Fijian kids start to take genuine interest in their background again.

“Ever since we have started doing this, we have seen a big rise in the Fijian language and cultural. We are not just teaching them the language, we are showing them the ways of our culture itself through how we dress and talk to elders etc. We’ve even had a few classes where people from other nationalities have come in wanting to learn the language so it’s been great. We can see the kids are really enjoying it.”

Agnes, whose husband is one of the two teachers involved in the programme, said when it comes to learning the language and cultural, the kids are taught the basics such as introducing themselves in Fijian which she said would go a long way for them.

“Learning our mother tongue and sticking with the culture keeps us grounded and we want our children to experience that so they can be grounded in life and connect with other Fijians; particularly if they go over there one day.”

Sera added: “Respect is also one of the main things we try to install as it’s like a criteria for our people. These days, kids have a mind of their own. In the Fijian traditional culture we were taught that whatever your elders say that’s it. If they say don’t go outside, you never ask why, you just don’t go outside. But NZ-born Fijians are saying ‘why’ to a lot of things elders say now. They are encouraged in the world to ask questions and have an opinion per say, and we’re not saying that is bad, but for us growing up and speaking to our elders, that was like taboo. So we just want them to learn that respectful aspect of our culture as well.”

As part of the programme, they also offer rides to children who don’t have a ride to Newlands. Sera said many of the Fijian community were always willing to help out with rides for the kids simply because it was the ‘Fijian way’.

“Fijian people will always go out of their way to help others in need. And I love that about our culture. When there’s a problem in the community, whether it is an individual or family issue, you won’t really see it out in the open, you’ll still only see a big smiling face, no matter what it is, because that’s who we are. We are happy people.

“It’s something that’s inbuilt in us that has been passed on from past generations. It’s like a gene. Not only with Fijians but I think a lot of our pacific island neighbours are the same.”

Agnes and Sera said they were both thankful for Fijian Language Week as it gives many the opportunity to experience not only their language, but culture.

During Fijian Language Week, which fittingly occurs during the school holidays, they have ramped up their classes with an event happening every day of this week. A new group has also started in the Hutt and are also offering talks on health.

“It’s been 10 years since we’ve been celebrating Fijian Language Week and we’ve seen growth in these groups that we’ve started. This week we had one start in the Hutt so it’s great,” Agnes said.

“Having this language week enables my kids to learn and experience a bit more culture so it will be the same for all kids. We also incorporate health and wellbeing talks for the kids and men and women who want to be part of it so it’s really good.”

You can learn more about what’s going for Fijian Language Week, here.