Published Wednesday 25 Oct 2023

Meet Maria, a Child Oral Health Coordinator, and hear how she embraces her Tokelauan culture

Maria Eneliko, Child Oral Health Coordinator for the Early Intervention and Prevention Team at Bee Healthy Regional Dental Service, tells us about her Tokelauan culture and how it influences her career in health.

Maria was born and raised in Nukunonu, the largest atoll within Tokelau, by her parents Susitina Venasio Kava and Atonio Egeliko. Maria’s family hails from both the atoll Fakaofo, and the atoll she grew up on.

Her current role is to educate and promote oral health within the community, including teaching kaiga/family and tamaiti/children how to prevent tooth decay.

Read on to learn about Maria’s work and the Tokelauan community.


Why did you chose a career in health?         

“My career started within the early childhood sector as an educator and evolved into a role within the health sector. Before working for Bee Healthy Regional Dental Service, I worked in the Children’s Ward, Hutt Hospital as a Hospital Play Therapist. This role included assisting children to understand and cope with their medical treatments and procedures, and providing education and play activities for immobilised children. This not only helped the children but gave support to the whole kaiga/family.”


What do you love most about your job?                      

“I love the fact that I get to go out into the community and engage with people. I love connecting with other organisations and providers who have the same approach, and can align with us to engage, educate, and support the community in their oral health journey. I love meeting a diverse community and connecting with our wider Pasefika community using my values as a Tokelauan matua/mother. Being Tokelauan working in this job helps me engage and interact with the children and kaiga/family, and for them to connect with me so they take on what I am teaching them. This helps start a strong hokotaga/relationship for the children and kaiga/family’s journey with us at Bee Healthy Regional Dental Service.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

Who is your biggest inspiration?

“My biggest inspiration is my beautiful daughter Tagialofa, who has a hearing impairment. She makes me aware of the differences in people’s lives and how we adapt ourselves to meet their individual needs, finding ways to be able to communicate and engage with others. We are creative with sign language and are working towards creating a Tokelauan sign language which also helps others in our Tokelauan community who are hearing impaired.

My other inspiration is my father whose humble, kind-hearted attitude to life helped develop me into a strong person with Tokelau values of fakaaloalo/respect, alofa/love and treating people the same. Anything I do with my job, he is always there reminding me to work hard and be humble, and this is always at the forefront of what I do and the impact I can make through my actions.”


What are some ways that you engage with your local community in Wellington?

“I am an active member of our Te Umiumiga Tokelau Hutt Valley community. At the beginning of the year, I was nominated to lead a health group to support the wellbeing of our Tokelauan community. This happened after I asked the kaiga for an opportunity to connect my work at Bee Healthy Regional Dental Service with educating the importance of oral health to my community in our own Tokelauan language. As a result, sub-committee members have arranged a wellness day on 4 November with multiple health providers to enhance and support our Tokelauan community.”


How important is it to celebrate your Language Week?

“It’s very important to celebrate our Tokelau language as it is unique, and a vital part of our identity. Speaking our Tokelau language connects generations together by passing it down to our children and grandchildren, ensuring it’s continued into the future. Celebrating it here in New Zealand helps us not only celebrate who we are as Tokelauans but also enhances the value we feel within the New Zealand culture.”


What do you personally love about your community?
“Our Tokelauan kaiga is a very close knit community; we all come together as one kaiga/family to support each other and celebrate any special occasion that happens in our small community. I love that it doesn’t matter what background you are from, our community embraces those who are connected to us with alofa/love.”


How does speaking your language help in the health sector?
“I am very lucky that I can speak and understand our Tokelauan language. Part of my work involves community events to promote and educate people about the importance of oral health; if I come across any Tokelauan that can speak the language I am able to speak to them in their home tongue. It also allows me to ensure that any Tokelauan family that needs support in this space I am able to deliver our service to them incorporating our Tokelauan language.”

Is there something that you would like to see changed for your people in the health system?

“I would like to see more of our Tokelauan people support in the health sector, specifically in our Bee Healthy service. It would be wonderful to have Tokelau dentists or dental therapists working in this space. This would allow us to widen the service we provide and reach more of the community we serve.”


How do you embrace your culture and language?
“Our Tokelauan community here in Wellington often gets together for a wide range of occasions. We actively encourage our kaiga through Tokelau sports teams, annual cricket games, hiva fatele (Tokelau traditional dance) and coming together to support and celebrate each other’s major life events.”

Fun fact about Tokelau?
“If you hear the pokihi (beating of the drum) and fatele (Tokelau traditional dance) it connects deep down and you can feel the energy vibe drawing you in. The beat and rhythm of our music is strong and no one can resist moving or joining in with us. There is a special feeling when our whole kaiga is singing as one.

“The reputation of Tokelauan people is a friendly one and you can feel the welcome spirit before we even speak. In Tokelau we value the tama-manu (small bird), which can refer to a non- Tokelau living in the island with no connection to any fenua/land. It’s the priority of the village and the community to accommodate, respect, care for, and accept this particular person. It’s all about unity and you are part of us no matter where you are from; we are all one when we come together.”

Maria’s final words for us are: “Ke manuia te vaiaho ote gagana Tokelau – enjoy the celebration of Tokelau language week.

Ke olatia ko ia Tokelau I tana fakavae - Tokelau to prosper within its foundation.