A lot of us know Marama T-Pole as one of the presenters of Tagata Pasifika. She’s also a proud member of the Radio 531pi and Niu FM family. Marama worked at 531pi in the ’90s alongside a broadcasting lineup that included Oscar Kightley, Mario Gaoa and Teuila Blakely — and then later with its offshoot NiuFM.
As she tells E-Tangata’s Teuila Fuatai, those early days of Pacific radio broadcasting in Auckland were pretty special. And for Marama, they went hand-in-hand with her journey as a young Tuvalu woman in Aotearoa.
Talofa, Marama. We often start these interviews by asking people about their names. Can you tell us about yours please?
Well, I was meant to be named after my grandmother Popogi on Dad’s side. Popogi means the darkest part of dawn, just before light arrives. But my mother said no. Much to my father’s horror.
Mum thought I’d be teased, and she wasn’t sure how Pākehā would take its meaning. She ended up picking Marama, which is Malama in Tuvaluan and Sāmoan. And that’s what the Sāmoan aunties from our church called me when I was little. So I’ve been known by both names.
I’ve been asked plenty of times whether it’s being mispronounced and if it should be Mārama, like the Māori pronunciation. I try to explain that it’s more like the Fijian pronunciation — and I like that, because in Fijian, marama is lady.
My middle name is Anne, which comes from Mum’s family, and T-Pole is from my husband’s family. The “T” represents his dad’s Christian name Tevaimagalo, and Pole is his grandfather’s name.
Can we hear a bit more about your parents? How did they meet and end up in Dunedin?
My mum, Judith, and her family are from Dunedin. She was a nurse, and in the early ’70s, she decided to go to Sāmoa and volunteer at the hospital in Apia. That’s where she met my father, Maheu Papau. Dad’s Tuvaluan and he’d gone to Sāmoa for high school and then studied at the polytechnic there. He was an outboard motor mechanic.
Not long after they met, Mum had to go back to Dunedin and Dad followed her. It was about 1973. They got married in the rest home where Mum worked. Dunedin in the ‘70s had such a small Pacific community, so they were an unusual couple.
I’ve heard you talk about your parents and their roles as church leaders. How did that happen?
Dad always had it in his heart that he wanted to be a church minister. In Dunedin, he’d been working as a welder, a boiler-maker. He’d tried several times to get into Knox College for theological training. But he kept getting knocked back because his English wasn’t good enough. And then finally he was accepted.
When my father graduated, I think there were 28 Pacific Island ministers in his class. They were all sent to different parts of the country, many of them to small rural communities.
I was in high school when Dad was posted to St Andrews in South Canterbury. It’s this little country town near Timaru that no one’s heard of, about halfway between Dunedin and Christchurch.
There were two other Sāmoan ministers who were posted nearby with their families. About half an hour south, at a parish just outside of Waimate, was Reverend Karima Faiai, who’s now the minister of Manukau PIPIC. His son Anauli Faiai is one of my colleagues at Tagata Pasifika. Then about half an hour inland at Pleasant Point was Reverend Asora Amosa. One of his sons is the actor Fasitua Amosa.
We all had similar experiences growing up. We all had to get up and do Bible readings, performances, play the organ, play music, run the Sunday schools and youth group. It was just part and parcel of being a minister’s kid in a country environment where the congregations were really small.
I have one older brother Telagi, and two younger siblings, Sina and Tuvalu. We all played a big part in helping our father’s ministries.
And how long did you spend there?
We spent about two years in St Andrews. Sina and I went to Timaru Girls’ High School. From there, I went to the New Zealand broadcasting school in Christchurch and studied radio, which took about three years.
In St Andrews and Timaru, there were no Tuvaluan families. And I didn’t grow up with cousins nearby who were Tuvaluan. I didn’t grow up with the language around me.
So, in Christchurch, I really got involved in the Pacific community. I gravitated towards other Pacific students, and I’d always wear Pacific Island jewellery and patterns –— anything to show people that I’m an Island girl. My motto was be proud and loud in the cold Christchurch winters.
At broadcasting school, I was the only Pacific student in my programme. There was one Māori student in my year, Eruera Rerekura, who became a reporter with Te Karere at TVNZ. I remember at lunchtimes, I’d leave the radio students and find the other Pacific students outside the library to hang out with.
It was a white environment but that wasn’t a big shock to me. Growing up in the South Island, you were always the only brown face, or the only Pacific person in a room. And I was always conscious of that lack of representation. I knew whoever was around me was going to form their whole perception of my culture and community from what they saw in me.
I remember, when I was about seven, Dad telling us kids that we had to try twice as hard because we’d be judged for being Pacific, even though we were also Pālagi. He knew from his own experiences in Dunedin about the stereotypes and discrimination that came with who we were.
My siblings and I didn’t experience the blatant racism. It was more the assumptions people made. For example, when my sister and I first got to Timaru Girls’, they wanted to put us into a lower level English class because they thought we wouldn’t be able to keep up with the curriculum. They didn’t even bother to check how we’d gone at our previous schools.
But I think generally people are good. Yes, there are those who are deliberately racist and derogatory, but my own experiences and childhood in the South Island have shown me that there are a lot of people who just haven’t had any exposure to Pacific communities, or even any different cultures at all.
I think about my great-aunty on Mum’s side. When she first met my dad, she asked Mum whether she was sure about marrying a “dark man”. But, over the years, as she got to know Dad better, they became really close. Years later, when she was in the rest home, she was always asking for her “favourite nephew”, who was my dad.
Of course, things are different now. But I’ve always felt we take that kind of thing for granted in Tāmaki Makaurau. Just being around different people and communities gives you a broader and better informed view of culture, identity and ethnicity.
I like how you’ve explained that, Marama. Brings home the importance of seeing different kinds of people and cultures around you. I’d love to hear a bit about how you picked broadcasting as a career. Did you like being on stage and performing as a kid?
Well, being pastor’s kids, we were always at the front of church. It’s almost like you’re given this schooling on how to perform and speak publicly.
I enjoyed reading and I enjoyed performance. And I decided that I’d like to get into broadcasting. I remember when we were in Timaru, I used to hear the news being read by Niva Retimanu, who’s Sāmoan. I remember the pride I felt. I was 16 and I’d copy her every time she did her sign off: “I’m Niva Retimanu.”
I had no idea she was in Timaru, on what I think was Port FM. I thought she was on a national radio network. But, listening to her reading the news every single day made the idea of being in the media seem possible.
And then, seeing people like Catherine McPherson on What Now, and Stephanie Tauevihi. I thought: “They’re just like me.” When you don’t see yourself reflected in your community, and someone comes along who looks just like you, it’s so powerful. I really felt that growing up.
It always annoyed me when Polynesian people were portrayed as the dumb person or actor or clown in advertisements back then. And I wanted to be a part of changing that.
My dad was pretty disappointed when I told him that I wanted to do media and broadcasting. He thought I’d be an accountant. I remember him looking at this old transistor radio we had in the lounge and his face was just so downcast and depressed.
But he was so proud of me later on.
You were part of the early days of Radio 531pi, the first Pacific radio station we had in Aotearoa — and then Niu FM which came out of that. It must’ve been pretty special.
It was amazing. Looking back, I think me and 531pi were just meant to be.
As part of our broadcasting course, we had to do internships. A lot of my classmates were going off to ZM and More FM — all these mainstream, commercial radio stations.
I tried a lot of different places, but I just fell flat at the interviews. I ended up doing some work experience at Port FM in Timaru and I saw this ad for a role at Radio 531pi. I applied and came up to Auckland when I got it. I started as a daytime announcer, and then I became a reporter when we set up our newsroom. Sefita Hao’uli was our manager, and he believed we needed to have our own Pacific Island news in New Zealand.
I think about all the Pacific shows that were running at the time. Before we had Niu FM, there was a Saturday night show with Teuila Blakely, Oscar Kightley and Lua Maynard on 531pi. It was this pocket of Pacific pride every Saturday night on an AM station. They would reign on the airwaves till midnight.
They talked about issues and topics that you just didn’t hear anywhere else. It was fun, it was raw, and it was cool. They were given a space to talk about whatever they wanted. And as a staff member, a colleague and a listener, I was so proud to see myself reflected in their voices.
I have so many great memories of 531pi. Back in the day, we had this studio at Ramsgate Street in Ellerslie. There’d be the on-air staff inside the smaller studio, but off-air, behind them, was this huge community of people who’d turn up for the radio show.
They’d come for the evening language programmes. The station would run in English during the day, but, in the evenings, our communities were given time to run programmes in their own languages.
And every group came with enough food to fill up three or four trellis tables, to keep them going through their evening shows. Poke, mainese, donuts. I’d be finishing for the day, and I’d hear: “Marama, come and eat. Marama, come and have a cup of tea.” I was single and didn’t have kids so I had nowhere to go. One night, I’d be sitting with the Cook Island show, next night it’s the Niuean show. So I’d have my dinner, my dessert, and my cups of tea.
There was something magical about those early years. Apart from Tagata Pasifika, we weren’t represented anywhere else in media. Everyone knew that, on their night of the week, they’d be able to listen to 531pi and hear their language and their songs — and that meant a lot. Even for our smaller communities like Tuvalu, it might have been just two hours on a Friday night. But you knew all of the Tuvaluan homes in West Auckland were tuning in.
It must’ve been quite a different vibe in Auckland from what you had in the South Island.
I just lapped it up. Honestly. I really thought I’d arrived in the heart of Polynesia. Auckland was on a different level. I couldn’t believe it. There was a Pacific theatre event every couple of weeks. I’d go to the Tuvaluan dances at the New Lynn Hall on Friday and Saturday night. And then on Sunday mornings, I’d have my gospel show shift at 6am on 531pi.
We were the only 24/7 Pacific community radio station back then. It was before Radio Sāmoa had been set up. And we were young. I think all the presenters were in their 20s.
And while it was mostly our parents and aunties and uncles who were listening, we also had a growing audience among younger people — people who’d been to the islands and wanted that island vibe and music when they were back in New Zealand. And we were the only station playing it.
I think a lot of those younger listeners saw themselves in us. I don’t know how to describe it, but there was this pride in our young people reconnecting with their culture and roots, and 531pi was part of that.
What about your own journey? I know how proud you are of your Tuvalu community. How’s your Tuvaluan?
When I first came to Auckland, it was the first time I’d had the choice of going to a Tuvaluan church, and it was one that Dad had set up, the Niutao Presbyterian church in west Auckland. It was special because it’s the first Tuvalu congregation set up just for one of our islands. We speak in our own dialect, and sing hymns from our island.
I was the Sunday school teacher. And because a lot of our aunties, mums and grandmas couldn’t speak English, and I wasn’t fluent in Tuvaluan, I started to learn.
We’d have these monthly meetings where I’d have to do my Sunday School report and I’d be trying to speak in English. And they’d yell from the pews: “Tavili faka Tuvalu!” Speak in Tuvaluan! So I’d speak my broken Tuvaluan and try and share what we were doing.
I started to use my language more and more. I remember when I began to understand what the aunties were talking about. It was a revelation — because they can gossip! I loved being part of all of it, and it’s a journey that I’m still on.
I think often, as New Zealand-born PIs, we can give up quite easily and think: “Oh, well, I did an evening language course and I tried.” Sometimes, you’d rather run away because it can be so hard to re-learn who we are.
So there was something special about just sitting with that, being within your community and letting that journey take time. It builds a sense of identity and alofa that’s hard to describe. It’s so strongly held together — like sinnet.
I’ve gone from this Tuvalu-Pālagi who can’t speak the language, who doesn’t know how to dance, to really being grounded in my community.
I remember my first Tuvalu independence celebration. I looked like a robot with my unco dancing. But I wanted so much to be part of everything. And even now, I try and get to as many of our community events as possible. I’ve always got my mat in the car, and my titi, which is the Tuvalu dance skirt, and my fau, our high-vis plastic flowers.
When we come together at our Tuvalu feasts, we have fātele, which is Tuvaluan traditional dancing. After the meal, the tables are moved to the side and the mats come out. The men are in the centre, and start beating the ground. They start making little circles around each other. And we women put on our titi.
And then we just celebrate and dance. It’s not performative, or a show, it’s just us expressing joy.
As a New Zealand-born Tuvaluan, my language has been a journey of 20 years. And I’m still not fluent. But I know who I am and who my people are. And church, my Tuvalu community, and my work in Pacific media are all part of that.
Let’s turn to your current work. A lot of us know you as one of the faces of Tagata Pasifika — alongside your co-host John Pulu. How did you get into television?
When I finished in radio, I went to Pacific Beat Street which was a Pacific programme on TV3. It was on Saturday morning, and I was doing research and helping with stories. Then a reporting job came up at Tagata Pasifika.
I was one of the younger ones when I joined. I’d grown up watching Tagata Pasifika so it was incredible to be there and to be telling our stories authentically.
I’ll always remember the Christchurch earthquake. We were trying to get the Pacific families who were affected. It’s so much harder when it’s such a small population. But it was amazing to see our stories within the context of that disaster. People coming together, helping each other, staying in each other’s garages.
There was one Sāmoan young man, Jeff Pelesa Sanft, who passed away. His family let us come into their home, in the midst of their grief, and shared what it was like for them at that time. I’ll always treasure that spirit of generosity and patience.
As Pacific journalists, it’s important that we tell our own stories. There’s a different lens when it’s told by others. Our background and experience determines not just how something is framed, but how we interact and approach families and communities. It’s why Tagata Pasifika and other Pacific-specific shows and platforms are invaluable.
And how did you come to be part of the news reading team at RNZ?
I wanted to try something different. I’ve been doing the RNZ daytime newsreader role for more than three years now, and it works well alongside my presenting role at Tagata Pasifika.
I remember the first three or four months, I was so unsure of myself. I’d come to a totally Pākehā environment, and I’d see some of the Pālagi words and think: “What is this?” I had to get a bit of guidance, and get used to how things were done at RNZ. The other side of that is I can help with the pronunciation of words in Pacific languages.
We used to roll our eyes when we’d hear the sports commentators butchering the names of our Pacific players. It used to be so normal to hear that from mainstream outlets. Now, there’s far more awareness among presenters around pronunciation, and why it’s important to get right. I like being able to help with that.
I think, after 25 or so years in the media, one of the hardest things is seeing how a lot of the issues our communities struggle with haven’t changed. Things like home ownership, and not being able to get ahead even though we work so hard. I covered these things at 531pi, then at Tagata Pasifika as a reporter, and we’re still talking about them today.
So there’s a sense of sadness that although we see sectors where we’ve made huge gains, for a lot of people, basics like housing and living costs are a struggle.
At the same time, there’s this incredible spirit in our community of resilience and just getting on with it. I think our job as Pacific journalists is to tell all the different stories in our communities.
I often think about my daughter Teoge, and what kind of place I want her to have in this country. I think about my Tuvalu community who continue to gather — at church, at Friday talavou (youth group), and at our Saturday feasts and dancing.
I want Teoge to be right in the centre of that. I want her to grow up knowing who she is, being secure in her identity and culture, and also knowing the challenges we face and why. And I want her to know that being our authentic selves, proud Tuvaluan in Aotearoa and the Pacific, is how we’ll all move forward together.
(This piece has been edited for length and clarity.)
Made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
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