When Lafi Mafaufau started teaching Sāmoan at Auckland Girls’ Grammar in the early 2000s, hardly anyone took the subject seriously. Not the students, nor their parents — nor even, it seemed, the school. By the time she left, 15 years later, Sāmoan was the school’s top language subject.
Here she talks to Teuila Fuata’i about the work she’s been doing to help Sāmoans living in New Zealand — and elsewhere in the world — hold on to their language and culture.
Talofa, Lafi. Or perhaps I should be addressing you by your matai title of Nafanuatele? I want to ask you about that later, but first, can we talk about your family and how you came to be so fluent in Sāmoan — even though, like me, you’re a New Zealand-born Sāmoan?
Yes, I was born and raised in Wellington, and we lived in Porirua. My parents, Afutoto and Leonesā Mafaufau, came to New Zealand in the late 1960s.
My dad had been a teacher in Sāmoa, but he wasn’t able to teach here because he didn’t have the New Zealand qualifications. So he went to night school and studied English because his goal was to teach. And, during the day, he worked as a storeman at the Government Printing Office.
There was always a strong focus on education in our family — going back to my grandad who was a school principal in Sāmoa. But Dad and Mum also instilled in us the importance of holding on to our language.
I remember my dad saying that, living in New Zealand, we would always be surrounded by English, but we wouldn’t always be able to maintain our Sāmoan language. That’s why he was adamant we had to speak Sāmoan at home. It was about knowing who you were. Those things were very important to our dad.
And did your dad get to teach in New Zealand, eventually?
No, he passed away suddenly in 1983, when I was 11.
The year Dad died, I got a D in my mid-year report for maths. And when I showed him my report, he was quite taken aback, because he felt that everybody should be good at maths. Anyway, Dad made these times-table charts out of cardboard, and we’d play games every evening. When I got home, I’d ring him at work and he would drill me — but he’d do it in Sāmoan.
At the end of the year, when I got my report on the last day of school, I ran home and gave it to my mum, and she opened it. I got a B for maths. I was really proud of myself, and I rang my dad. But I couldn’t get through. They had closed his workplace down because he’d had a heart attack that day.
We didn’t know that until later, when the police arrived at our house. I never got to tell him about the progress that I’d made.
Did you become a teacher to follow in your dad’s footsteps?
I didn’t plan to go into teaching. I wanted to be a journalist, funnily enough. But my mum had other aspirations for me.
Unlike my dad, my mum’s education was limited. She started working when she was quite young. And when Dad passed away, it was a challenge for her having to pay the mortgage and trying to understand legal documents that were sent to her — and even just being able to communicate — because her English was quite limited.
One of my earliest experiences when Dad died was having to read letters from the lawyers and try to explain them to my mum.
But she was determined that she was going to hold on to the house that she and my dad had bought. She worked at two jobs, and she was so resourceful in supporting her four kids — and other kids that she took on.
And she was equally determined that I should go to university. So, when I told her that I wanted to study journalism at Wellington Polytech, we had a massive argument about it.
She said: “I don’t care what you do, but you’re going to go to university. Because I didn’t struggle, and your dad and I didn’t go through all of this, so you can go to polytech.” In her mind, polytech wasn’t as good.
So, I went to uni. I did a BA in English at Victoria University. I thought I’d do the degree for my mum and then, once I finished, I’d go to polytech and do the journalism diploma.
But, just before I graduated, our church minister told me that our church school in Sāmoa was looking for English teachers. I told him I didn’t know how to teach, but he said: “Oh well, you’ll learn. You’ll be fine.”
So I went to Sāmoa on a contract to teach for three years. And when I got there, they made me the head of the English department at Maluafou College. At the age of 22. And I said to the principal: You know, I’ve just come out of university. There’s no way that I can do this.”
He said: “Well, you’re the most qualified. You’ve come from New Zealand. And we’re going to make you the head of department because the head of department has just retired.”
Of course, the teachers in the department, who were twice my age, didn’t really like that. And I didn’t really blame them.
So you basically did your teacher training on the job. Is that what cemented your passion for teaching?
Yeah. Because of the lack of resources in Sāmoa, you had to be resourceful to try and engage students. And a lot of the students we had at our church school couldn’t speak English, so I was teaching them English using Sāmoan. Which is funny, because now I’m teaching Sāmoan using English.
But I got to experience what my dad had experienced as a teacher in Sāmoa and what had made him so passionate about teaching. And that definitely confirmed for me that teaching was what I wanted to do.
When I came back to New Zealand, I did my teaching diploma. And then, because my mum and my brothers had moved up to Auckland, I came up and got a job at Auckland Girls’ Grammar, as an English teacher.
And I think it was only a few months after I’d started at AGGS that the principal told me that the Sāmoan language teacher was leaving and asked me if I’d teach Sāmoan to the seniors.
I said to her: “Just because I speak Sāmoan doesn’t mean I can teach it. Just like speaking English doesn’t necessarily mean you can teach it.”
So I wasn’t really prepared to take that on. But then she said they wouldn’t be able to offer Sāmoan to the senior students if they couldn’t find someone to teach it. And that’s how I ended up teaching Sāmoan.
How’d it go?
When I first started, the students didn’t really value Sāmoan as an academic subject. Some of them were like: “We’re just here to get easy credits. We’re not here to do any extra work. We work hard in other subjects.” And many of them already spoke Sāmoan, so they thought they knew all there was to know about the language and culture.
I had to try and shift that mindset, and it took a while because they weren’t open to seeing how valuable the language and the culture was.
I think the school had the same attitude, to be honest. Sāmoan wasn’t as well-resourced as other subjects, and even the process of expecting me to just come in and pick up Sāmoan teaching — rather than seeking an expert to teach Sāmoan — told me that it wasn’t valued.
But it wasn’t just the systemic bias and the ignorance from the school and staff. Our community didn’t value it, either. They had become conditioned to think that Sāmoan wasn’t as important as other subjects because they could see that it wasn’t valued. There was a mindset that “our kids learn Sāmoan at home — school is for other subjects”.
So I had to work through that and try to raise the standard and standing of Sāmoan as a subject. Not only for the school and the community, but also for the girls, so they could feel that it was of value for them. That it was about building up their sense of identity.
And did things change?
Yes. When I left AGGS in 2018, Sāmoan was the biggest language subject. We had two classes for almost every level, except for Year 12 and 13. So the numbers had doubled — and the students themselves valued the subject more.
Our achievement rates had increased dramatically, to the point where we were getting scholarships for Sāmoan. Our subject was the highest achieving subject at AGGS because the majority of students were achieving Excellence and Merit — and that’s not easy. Nationally, our students were achieving higher in Sāmoan than students at other schools with predominantly Pasifika or Sāmoan rolls.
So then I had other teachers asking me: “How is it these students are achieving in your subject and they aren’t achieving in mine?”
One of the things I emphasised was putting students at the centre of the learning experience. As educators, we often get caught up in things being “on paper” or “chalk-and-talk” — and I’ve never found that effective.
One example is that every year we celebrated Sāmoa Independence Day, which is on June 1. It became the Year 13 project. The students had to come up with an all-day event that they were responsible for organising and running. The whole programme had to be in Sāmoan. It also had to celebrate the Sāmoan language, because Independence Day is during Sāmoan Language Week. And they’d invite Year 13 Sāmoan-language students from other schools.
So it wasn’t just about learning a language. It was also about learning our history and our culture, because they also had to demonstrate cultural customs.
But I got a bit of criticism from other schools and parents who would come along. Like, why are they playing games like “Fear Factor Sāmoan-styles”? Even though it was all in Sāmoan. So there was a lot of having to justify the pedagogy or the method that I was using.
For me, it was a case of: “If you don’t like it, then don’t come to our event.” But it was also a reminder to people that, if we want our young people to stay engaged and to appreciate and value the language and the culture, then they have to do it in a way that suits them. And it has to come from them.
Diverging from tradition can’t be easy in a subject like Sāmoan — we’re known for strict cultural customs and conservatism. But now that you’ve left AGGS and you’re running your own Sāmoan language classes for adults like me, it must be freeing to be able to do your own thing.
For instance, a few weeks ago, our class re-enacted an ‘ava (kava) ceremony using a translated version of the dialogue. And it was the first time I’d been able to grasp the nuances of what went on, despite seeing numerous ceremonies over the years.
We can’t stick with the same old ways because life has changed for us. We’re living as Sāmoans outside of Sāmoa. Our lives and our experiences are different.
So we need to have language learning that’s relevant to us in the diaspora, but still authentic enough that you can apply it anywhere.
Many Sāmoans living in New Zealand are regularly exposed to the language and culture — but they may only have a superficial understanding of it.
I try to unpack the nuances of language and the complexities of culture so that it’s not so intimidating. If you take the ‘ava ceremony, for instance, it seems so overwhelming that you almost don’t know where to start. You know things are happening and you can make sense of what you see with a bit of help from family members, but that’s not the same as really knowing what’s going on.
Translating it into English demystifies it. It gives non-native speakers of all levels an insight into each step of the ceremony.
So what motivated you to get into teaching Sāmoan language and culture to Sāmoans living outside Sāmoa?
It came out of a need that I saw among my own friends and family and colleagues who weren’t confident or proficient enough in the language and culture to feel comfortable about practising it.
A lot of them are at a stage in their lives where they realise they want to be more proactive — whether it’s because of their children, or because they’re now the ones who are going to be taking on the roles and responsibilities in their families where they really need to know their language and culture.
I was very aware of the type of programme that I wanted to deliver. It’s about empowering people. It has to be relevant to our lives here. And it was always going to be about language and culture, because those two things go hand-in-hand.
But I also know that many of those who’ve come to our classes have had some kind of negative experience with trying to learn the language. We all know that, as well-meaning as our families are, they can be our biggest critics and they can do the most damage.
So I’m always mindful of the need to encourage and affirm students. It takes courage to do this, because they’re putting themselves in a vulnerable place, where people are going to criticise.
One of the things I’ve really enjoyed as a student is learning alongside your own family members. Seeing your daughter, Leorida, and your partner, Peter, in class shows that it’s an ongoing journey to ensure that our culture and our language remains.
Exactly. My daughter and I are a classic example of what we see in a lot of our families where the parents speak Sāmoan fluently but it hasn’t been passed down to the next generation.
We have a lot of discussions about Sāmoan language and culture, and I try to prepare Rida at home for things like family fa’alavelave so that when things happen, she knows what to do. But sometimes I can be slack about sustaining the language in our own communication. And then I find myself correcting her quite a lot on things I expect she should know, but she simply doesn’t.
It’s ongoing, and it’s always a reminder to me that we can’t take it for granted, which is why I encourage Rida to come to classes when she can.
I also have Peter, who was raised very differently from me. His parents took the approach of speaking English to their children at home because they believed it was in their best interests.
I think the intention was always there for their children to learn Sāmoan as well, but that didn’t work out for them, and so my partner and his siblings grew up not knowing Sāmoan. And that affected their ability to be involved in anything to do with fa’a-Sāmoa.
Before I met Peter, I had a set idea about the type of person and partner I wanted in my life — which was basically someone like me! But in getting to know Peter and then being part of his family, I saw a different Sāmoan family. Their values are still the same, but the way they do things and the way that they perceive things is quite different, because they haven’t been exposed to as much fa’a-Sāmoa and Sāmoan language as I was.
Now let’s turn to your debut acting role in Hibiscus and Ruthless, which involved one of your old students.
I think it was both my debut and finale.
I got involved through Dinah Abba-Rose Vaiaoga-Ioasa, who’s an ex-AGGS pupil. She produced it, and her brother Stallone wrote and directed it.
We’d all admired how well Dinah had done since leaving school. She did engineering at university, and then went on to work in Canada. She even entered the Miss Sāmoa pageant one year. Then she and Stallone made Three Wise Cousins, which I really enjoyed.
Anyway, Dinah contacted me about playing Hibiscus’s mum. I said: “Hell, no. I’m not keen to act, and I don’t want to ruin your movie because I don’t know how to act.”
But she suggested that I should take a look at the script anyway. She told me that they wanted to move past the usual stereotypes of Pacific people. The role called for a professional, single mum who was fluent in Sāmoan and English. Not the jandal-wearing, mu’umu’u-clad mother we’re so often presented with.
She also wanted to have more Sāmoan language in the dialogue, and she gave me the autonomy to do that.
So I was like: Okay.
I liked the way it portrayed our people and life in New Zealand. It was realistic, authentic. It’s important for us to see that in films, art, music — anywhere our stories are told.
And when I went back to school, I was able to show the girls where our language could lead to. You never know, I said. The opportunities really are endless.
Finally, there’s your title, Nafanuatele, and the story behind it. I know Nafanua is the famous warrior princess of Sāmoan mythology — are you a descendant of hers?
No, but the story of how my family came by the title is interesting.
Nafanua’s mother was Tilafaigā, one of the sisters who brought the tatau — the traditional tattoo — to Sāmoa. Her father was Saveasiuleo, the god of Pulotu, the underworld.
Nafanua had superhuman strength and was called on by many villages for her assistance in times of war. She could kill whole armies by herself. In fact, many people originally thought that she was a male demigod. It was only discovered that she was a woman when the wind caught her breast plate during a battle — and exposed her breasts. The enemy retreated in embarrassment when they realised that they had been fighting a woman.
Although Nafanua descends from the village of Neiafu in the district of Falaealupo in Savai’i, the title Nafanuatele is a matai ali’i title in my family, in the village of Faleatiu, Upolu.
I descend from the warrior Tālimatasi, who was also renowned for his strength and skill in battle. He was commissioned by the kings of districts in Sāmoa to help fight their wars, or sent on life-threatening missions on their behalf. Through many of his quests, he received high chiefly titles from various families and villages. It’s believed that this is how Nafanuatele came to be a title in our family.
In 2018, I was nominated on behalf of my immediate family to receive a matai title. When the village matai were deciding which title to give me, one of them said: “Give her the Nafanuatele title. That is most fitting for her. She leads with confidence and courage for our family and the community in New Zealand.”
It was the highest honour for me. Not only because of the prestige of the name, but also because of the recognition from my family of my journey and challenges as an educator.
But, for me, most importantly, this title is from my father’s side, so it pays homage to my dad.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Lafi Mafaufau was a teacher, dean and department head during her 15 years at Auckland Girls’ Grammar. She now works for NZQA and is an adviser in its Pasifika team. In 2019, she began her own adult gagana Sāmoa course: Nafanua Communication and Culture. This year, she expanded from one class to three —offering conversational and more developed-level learning for those in Auckland. She also has an online class, which has students from around New Zealand, Australia, the UK, US, and Korea.
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