Sione Tui’tahi’s work in health promotion has recently seen him elected president of the largest health promotion and education organisation in the world — the International Union for Health Promotion and Education (IUHPE). He’s the first Indigenous person to be appointed to this role. And that promotion is part of a growing recognition and respect in international circles for Indigenous knowledge and leadership. 


Mālō e lelei, Sione. Can you start off by giving us a glimpse into your early life and your family connections, please?

My full name is Sione Tupou Tu’itahi and I grew up in Tonga, which is my first home. Aotearoa is my second home. But I see myself as a global citizen because of my work and because of my learning and travel. I think of the world as basically a global village.

I grew up on the island of Ha’ano, in Ha’apai. But I was actually born on the main island, in the village of Houma, because the usual practice for births was that the mother would go back to her mother for maternal support. A few months later, I was taken back to Ha’ano, to the village of Pukotala, where I spent the first six or seven years of my life.

My mother’s parents went to the island to serve the community, as my grandfather was a minister of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga. My parents met and married there, and we children were raised on that island.

Pukotala at that time was a small village of less than a thousand people. Families lived off the land as small farmers, or off the sea as navigators and fishermen. 

They lived within the capacity of Mother Nature. They took enough from the sea and the land to live and were careful not to upset that balance because it was a very small, fragile, and volatile environment. 

I learned the basics of community health, environmental wellbeing, and wise leadership within that village environment.

Then we moved to the main island, Tongatapu. And, believe it or not, Dale, we stayed with our grandparents in the village of Kolovai, where your own mokopuna have whakapapa. My grandparents were serving the church at Kolovai then.

We were taken there to be closer to the secondary schools, because there wasn’t any secondary school on Ha’ano, only primary schools.

I went to a few different secondary schools, but Atenisi Institute, a private school in the capital of Nuku’alofa, was where I enjoyed my high school education the most. The founder, Professor Futa Helu, was my best teacher.

He didn’t try to mould me into a passive learner, but helped to develop my critical thinking. He was also a great storyteller, who explained complex subjects with simple stories.

Sione’s parents. Melaia Fisi’italia (Talia) Tu’itahi, aged 93, and his father Penisimani Takavaha Tu’itahi, 92. (Photo supplied)

What I’ve learned over the years from our Tongan son-in-law is that there’s a strong, matriarchal thread to Tongan society. Can you touch on that for a moment? Is that an accurate perception?

We’re often seen as a patriarchal society. Our nobility is comprised of the male heirs, not female. Together with the monarchy, the 33 nobles hold all our land, which they distribute as estates to the men in our villages. 

But women do still have a very influential position. In fact, socially, women can have higher status than men. In my case, my sister is of a higher rank than I am.

And there are certain cultural events and practices where the role of the higher-ranking sister is clear, such as at a birthday or a tangi. So, the best of the best, in terms of the seating position, or the treasures of fine mats that are gifted by the extended family — those things must go first to the sister.

I’d say there’s a complementary role between men and women. They have their specific roles to play, and when these roles are in balance, you can see the wellbeing of the whānau and the community.

So, yes. From the outside, you might think that it’s the men who call the shots. But, no, you have to consult the wife, you have to consult the elderly women.

How did it come to be that you ended up in Aotearoa?

After high school, my first job was at the only radio station at the time in Tonga. I left that and came to New Zealand for my big OE. 

I came with the aim of studying journalism at Wellington Polytech. But I ended up staying with my two older brothers in Auckland who didn’t want me to go down to Wellington because, in their view, I was too young to be on my own. 

I ended up working in factories for almost a year where I saw how Māori workers, along with Pacific peoples, were not treated well, and not paid well, either. Racist jokes and remarks were prevalent and openly used against them by their non-Māori and non-Pacific co-workers. 

The experience was an eye-opener for me because Tonga wasn’t colonised and we are first-class citizens in our own country. 

I observed the long arm of colonisation and racism. And I didn’t like what I saw, so I went back home. 

And from there, I got a scholarship from the British Government, so I went to England and studied management and mass media at the Darlington College of Technology and the Newcastle Institute of Technology. 

It was a time of valuable learning. I learned not only in the lecture room but also from field trips and study tours of media institutions in Newcastle and London. 

Sione working as a radio broadcaster in Tonga in the 1970s.

Did you return to Tonga after your studies?

Yes, and I remained there for close to 20 years. I came back to Aotearoa because I had an accident — I fell off a ladder and broke my right femur. And the injury was serious enough that it couldn’t be treated in Tonga. So I was flown over here for surgery and treatment at Mercy Hospital in Auckland. 

The post-op care and checkups took more than two years, which was long enough for my wife, Tupou, and our three children to want to stay. The children — Kalolaine, our adopted daughter, and our boys Rizvan and Saia — were enjoying the education here, and most of the extended family were already living here. So, we stayed — and our youngest son, Benjamin, was born here.

Then, I changed my career and retrained as a teacher at the tertiary level. I started by teaching cross-cultural communication and Tongan studies at PIERC Education, which is now called the Pacific Language Centre. And I went on to teach at both Massey University and Auckland University. 

As a teacher, I valued the opportunity to teach and help students from the least advantaged backgrounds to achieve their academic goals. Very often these students were the first in their family to gain a tertiary qualification. They carried the hopes of their families — and they’ve gone on to be role models and sources of inspiration for others. 

I also started and co-led a Pacific strategy for Massey University. That was almost 20 years ago now, and it’s still making a difference to many Pacific students and families and their communities.

Can you talk a little about your experiences as a media person in Tonga, please, Sione?

I joined the media sector at a time when Tonga was still peaceful and slow in its social and economic development. But it was gathering momentum because there were more and more Tongans who’d gone overseas to further their education — and they were bringing back new ideas. They saw a need to change things for the better. 

You see the same pattern in other Pacific nations. With the closing of the colonisation era, and with most small island nations becoming independent, our people explored new ways of how we might govern ourselves in the region.

The media plays a pivotal role in educating and informing society, and in setting the agenda for what people need to talk about. And this is even more crucial in a culture where it’s largely speech rather than the written word that counts. 

In Tonga, there weren’t that many publications and magazines, other than the one newspaper where I was working at the time, and the radio station.

Tonga is a small community, and almost everyone is your relative. So speaking the truth without fear or favour through the media is quite challenging. But you have to maintain that ethical role to be effective in your job of informing the community. 

By the 1990s, it was clear that there was a need for change. And the media went through its own transformation. People in the media found themselves being challenged to not only be more professional and ethical, but also to have a good grasp of the factors contributing to the transformation of Tonga from a constitutional monarchy to a more democratic form of governance. 

I think it’s important to add that change wasn’t just within the political arena. It was a cultural transformation, too. We’re seeing changes in Tongan society — for instance, to our notion of family and the role of faith-based organisations — because of the growing influence of overseas education, migration, trade, and the media. At the same time, social institutions such as the family, the church, and traditional leadership roles, have been losing their influence on communities.

And so the Tongan media was challenged to remain true to its goal, to tell the truth as it is, without fear or favour. 

And that challenge is still there, because Tonga is still going through the transformation process that started some 30 years ago. Transformational change doesn’t happen overnight. 

Like other Pacific nations, we’re still trying to understand new forms of governance, and sorting out what needs to be kept and what needs to be phased out.

Sione and Tupou with their children and grandchildren in January 2021.

You speak of a strong influence from Aotearoa, because a lot of people came here from the islands for education, and took new political ideas back home with them. You’re not totally absorbed by politics, though, are you? I hear you’re also a muso, Sione. What’s your instrument?

I play the ukulele. That was my first string instrument, but I also played a guitar at high school. I used to go to school during the day and play in a band in the evening to make a bit of money for my school fees and personal needs.

These days, I rarely play in public, only with my friends and my community. Basically, it’s just me and my wife enjoying these songs with our moko.

And to go back to your politics question. No, I’m not interested in partisan politics. It’s too often adversarial and divisive — and it’s not very Pacific. But I am interested in good governance and leadership and building a prosperous and peaceful society through healthy public policy and community development. That’s why I work in health and education.

Let’s talk health, then. You’ve taken on some very senior roles, including executive director of the Health Promotion Forum of New Zealand. And I was intrigued when your bio said you do a lot of talking about religion and global issues having an impact on Pacific health. Which makes me wonder about how you think religion might affect the health of Pacific peoples?

Spirituality plays a central role in the life and wellbeing of Pacific communities. We hold on dearly to spiritual values that have been there since before Christianity and other religions came to our shores. These are our Indigenous faiths and religions.

You know, love was not brought by Christianity to this part of the world. We have aroha. We have ‘ofa. We have love. We have justice, kindness and sharing, reciprocity. Those rituals, principles and values have been guiding us for aeons before other forms of religion came into the Pacific.

And spirituality, whether it’s in the form of introduced religion or Indigenous traditions, plays a pivotal role in the health and wellbeing of society.

Today, when you see the extreme wealth of a few and the poverty of the majority, there is great injustice there. It’s because we’re greedy. We accumulate wealth at the expense of our neighbours. We exploit the environment, and we exploit each other without giving everyone a fair share.

Religion and spirituality give us a framework that helps us to see the world and to relate to the environment and to each other in a way that is fair and ethical — and to make sure that we give back to Mother Nature.

Sione with some of his staff from the Health Promotion Forum of New Zealand, when he was awarded the 2019 New Zealand Public Health Champion. (Photo supplied)

I’m pleased you touched on our Indigenous knowledge, because part of the colonisation process was to decry that Indigenous institutional knowledge. Now, as president of the International Union for Health Promotion and Education (IUHPE), you seem to have a chance to weave together the best of western and Indigenous knowledge. What do you hope to achieve in that area?

In our collective journey as humanity, we’ve come to a point where we see our interdependence as one world and one people. We also realise that the prevailing way of thinking and understanding life, which is largely driven by Eurocentric views, is actually causing all the challenges that we’re facing today.

For example, this notion that we are separate from Mother Nature, that we control Mother Nature, that we can exploit Mother Nature to the max and throw back what we don’t want without any consequences. 

We’ve now reached a point that we can no longer exist as human beings if we continue that lifestyle. If we continue to use that knowledge system which informs our economic systems and political systems. 

Many people now recognise that Indigenous knowledge offers solutions that will help humanity as a whole. We’re at a point where Indigenous knowledge is marching from the margin to the centre.

As an example, the Secretary General of the United Nations said about two years ago that the planet is broken and humanity is on a suicidal pathway, but that one of the places to look for hope and solutions is the knowledge of Indigenous peoples.

Another example is that, last December, the World Health Organisation put together a charter to inform our pathways for moving forward as a global community. It’s called The Geneva Charter for Well-being, and it calls for a centring of Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous leadership.

For the wellbeing of our global community, we need solutions that will work. And it’s clear that Indigenous knowledge contributes to that. An example of the efficacy of Indigenous knowledge is that 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity is in land where Indigenous peoples live.

In other words, despite all the challenges of colonisation and racism and the persecution of Indigenous peoples, because of our knowledge, we’re still able to contribute to the wellbeing of Mother Nature, live comfortably with Mother Nature, and therefore help to preserve Mother Nature. 

What have you learned from the Māori experience of inequities in health? And how do you think the Māori model can influence wider health in the Pacific?

One way of looking at this is to consider that Aotearoa is located within the broader Moana-nui-a-Kiwa. There’s a collective pool of knowledge that we can tap into — a huge repository that our ancestors accumulated for us.

For example, understanding, as they say down the line, that “I am the river, the river is me”. We’re inextricably one with Papatūānuku and Ranginui — and that knowledge is common across the Moana, to all Pacific cultures. It’s an understanding that we must live within our means, within the sustaining capacity of Mother Nature. 

It’s unfortunate that other forms of knowledge, focusing on creating material wealth at the expense of ecological wellbeing, became dominant in our part of the world. But we are now addressing that, using our Indigenous knowledge.

And there’s a huge contribution at the global level from both the knowledge of tangata whenua and of people from Moana-nui-a-Kiwa.

At a recent WHO conference, people referred to New Zealand as leading the world in terms of understanding wellbeing as being broader than just economic wellbeing.

Here in Aotearoa, we understand wellbeing, hauora, as holistic, as being about our physical, mental, spiritual, environmental and cultural wellbeing. And it’s about the whānau, hapū and the iwi — the wellbeing of all, not just a few.

It’s also understanding that we are kaitiaki, and we guard the wellbeing of Mother Nature. We don’t own Mother Nature — Mother Nature owns us. And there’s this notion of acknowledging the rights of Mother Nature, as Tūhoe have done, with Te Urewera being a legal person, and as the Whanganui iwi have done with the river.

That means New Zealand is right at the front in teaching the world to recognise Mother Nature. We might take it for granted in this part of the world, but it’s quite profound for those who were brought up in a culture and in a knowledge system where they see humanity as the boss of everything.

When you look back over pre-European history in this part of the world, you can see that we are a people who have lived sustainably and harmoniously with Mother Nature. Those may be new lessons for other parts of the world, but it’s old knowledge for us. We need to govern and work together for the wellbeing of the whole, not just a few. 

And that’s where my contribution will add value. Through the work of the IUHPE, I’ll be able to promote our set of values and contribute to the wellbeing of the planet. When we focus on the whole, the parts will benefit. And those benefits will come back to us here in Aotearoa as well. 

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

© E-Tangata, 2022

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