Fa’anānā Efeso Collins (42) was one of only two Pacific candidates elected on to the Auckland Council in last October’s local body elections. (The other is long-serving councillor Alf Filipaina, who also represents the Manukau Ward.)
He’s the youngest of six children of Samoan immigrants who settled in Ōtara, and the first in his family to get a university education.
Here he chats to Dale about the Auckland he grew up in.
Tēnā koe, Efeso. Thank you for joining us on e-tangata. Now I note that you carry a first name that sounds Samoan and a surname, Collins, that doesn’t. Can you tell us about how you came to have that combination?
Efeso is the name of my mum’s father. He was a Methodist minister. In English, Efeso is Ephesians. From the Bible. The hope was that one of us kids would end up as a minister because we’re one of those good Samoan families — all going to church. I think Mum’s still praying hard that one day I might become a minister.
The Collins surname came from an Irishman who, way back, had come over to Samoa. And Dad, when he was preparing to come to New Zealand, thought the best thing to do was to find a Palagi name and try his best to fit in.
So he chose the Collins name rather than the name his brothers and sisters were using in Samoa, which was Tauili’ili Lia.
The other name I use now is Fa’anānā. That is the ali’i matai title from my mum’s village of Satufia in Savai’i. I spent a few years with my mum’s family in Savai’i and I went to school at Vaega primary school before I completed my schooling in New Zealand.
That choice of surname is a reminder of the cultural safety path your dad was trying to pave for you, wasn’t it? Does it make you feel uncomfortable at times, when you realise what needed to be done in order to get on?
Yeah. But Dad took those steps because he felt there was a real need for him to fit in. He wanted us to have a good footing from the outset.
And we’ve got another Collins line – the father of the late Jerry Collins and my dad are cousins. I kinda knew we were connected.
The surname Collins may or may not have opened doors, but it’s definitely something that we’ve learned to embrace. I’m actually quite proud of the Irish connection because I know the Irish are “out there” people who’re always fighting for justice — and I hope that part of our Irish lineage is in my blood now.
One challenge was when I was at school in New Zealand and some people struggled with the name Efeso. My teachers would often butcher it. I remember one teacher saying: “Your name is too hard to say. We’ll just call you Phillip.”
Being a good Samoan boy, you just laugh along with it. But then I got used to being called Phillip – just because the teacher wasn’t in the mood to learn the Samoan vowel system. Which isn’t that difficult.
It wasn’t till much later in my life that I could see there’s a real injustice around that because the names my parents gave me come with a history. They come with meaning. So to be told “we’ll just call you Phillip” says a lot about the society we had then.
If we’re going to see young people, especially Māori and Pacific, reach their full potential, we’ve got to embrace their histories. Their genealogies give our young people a sense of identity. And that identity needs to come through in every sphere of their life.
No doubt establishing that identity is especially hard for young people growing up so far from the Pasifika worlds where their grandparents and ancestors lived their lives.
As a matter of fact, some years back I did research on youth gangs and one of the things we discovered is that predominantly young Pacific people had much more connection to their street than to their particular ethnic identity.
For me it was quite eye-opening and saddening that it was their affinity to their street which gave a sense of identity to so many of our New Zealand-born Pacific kids. It wasn’t, for example, their Samoan surname, or knowing their village and their genealogy back in Samoa.
And it’s serious because, as we start to lose a sense of deep identity, we have the beginnings of anti-social youth behaviour.
I understand that your dad, Tauili’ili Sio, and mum, Lotomau, had six children and you’re the youngest. How were those growing-up days?
We were raised in Ōtara, in state housing. We grew up on Featherston Crescent and then around the corner on Preston Road. So I went to East Tamaki Primary and Ferguson Intermediate School.
Then, in my last year of intermediate, a Palagi teacher said I shouldn’t stay at school in Ōtara because I was “too bright”. My parents just nodded away like, what does that mean? And then they got all these applications for me to apply for schools out of the zone.
It was during that “brown flight” thing in the 1980s where we were being told not to speak Samoan at home and not to go to school in Ōtara if you wanted to do well.
Surprisingly, Auckland Grammar picked me up. I’m not sure whether it was for the rugby or because they saw some academic potential. But I only lasted a couple of weeks. It was too hard for me. The cultural shock was just too much.
Then I went to Tangaroa College and felt right at home. Had a great time and really enjoyed the school.
With that “ban” on speaking Samoan at home, what became of your Samoan fluency?
I was fortunate. I probably have the strongest Samoan of my siblings because my brothers and sisters went to school during the time we were told not to speak Samoan at home because, so it was said, that would be detrimental to our learning.
But, when I was born, my parents had started speaking a lot more Samoan in the house. They’d got quite sick of having these really basic conversations because their English was very basic and the kids’ Samoan was very basic too.
I feel for my older brothers and sisters because, when we’re in Samoa, they can communicate to an extent but then they feel a bit left out because their language comprehension isn’t as strong as perhaps mine is.
That’s another part of the identity crisis faced by New Zealand-born Samoans. And perhaps that helps explain why we feel such a strong connection to our streets and to our schools. It’s because that experience of going back to Samoa has us feeling inadequate if our Samoan language isn’t strong.
Today we’re fortunate in that we’ve got bilingual units in schools but that didn’t exist for us as Samoan kids growing up in the ‘80s.
There was a deliberate attempt in the early days to “pepper-pot” the housing in Ōtara. You will have heard the term. It was to mix up the various ethnic groups. Palagi whānau, Māori whānau, Pasifika whānau. It was an experiment in the ‘60s. What do you make of it now?
By the time I got to school there weren’t many Palagi families left there.
I look back at my time in the ‘80s in Ōtara and all my friends were Māori and Pacific. Tawera Nikau’s family were just across the road from us. I didn’t know he’d go on to fame and maybe I would’ve hung out with him more and played a bit of league if I’d known that.
Anyway, we grew up in a supportive Māori and Pacific environment. Those were the days where you and your neighbours would share everything. Like sharing their catch when they’d been out fishing.
You knew all the neighbours and, if Mum and Dad were running late from work, we’d be sent across the road to them — or one of them would come over just to keep an eye on us.
As time went on, Pākehā families moved out and so we didn’t have the mixed communities that perhaps was the intention.
And more and more, we’re seeing our own families leave Ōtara — sell up thinking that it’s good to get half a million dollars. But once you’re off the property market ladder, you’ll never get back on unless you go and buy a house in some faraway area — and you’ll never be able to get back into Auckland.
I grew up in the 1970s and I remember a standoff between Māori and PIs. A lot of Māori, our family as well, felt threatened and, of course, the Pasifika peoples weren’t going to back down because they’re strong-willed too. So we had this tension between the tangata whenua and these new arrivals. And, back in those times, Ōtara was seen as quite a violent community. What’s your impression?
Yes. You’re right. One of the tensions we certainly felt as we were growing up was that, although we got along with Māori families, we sensed that they felt they were being hard done by because New Zealand had treated them unfairly but here they were bringing all of these guys in from the Pacific to work in the factories and take up all the jobs.
As a Pacific community we see Māori as our brethren who will reach out to us almost naturally but, back in the ‘80s, there were definite standoffs.
I know there were a lot of us in the Samoan community who started to join groups like the Stormtroopers and the Black Power because people found a sense of community within some of those gangs.
Growing up, we had the Stormtroopers on one side — they were popular in Ōtara —and we had the Mongrel Mob in another part of Ōtara. But I’ve never felt any fear around the gangs because I’ve always had a sense they were just as interested in their families as we were. Perhaps that’s why my dad got on with them so well. They all used to play billiards together.
I’ve never felt a sense of fear or anxiety around the gangs in Ōtara. I saw them as a family — and a lot of us were at church together. We were just people getting along beside each other.
Māori look back at a history where we’ve been marginalised and compromised by the Pākehā political system. And I guess we’re looking towards Pasifika people as allies to battle against the injustices that the Westminster system has imposed on us. But some Māori feel our Pasifika people are more compliant with the political system than they should be – perhaps too eager to stand for office, when they really should be standing beside us and fighting the system.
I agree with that sentiment. My own people may be unhappy with my views, but I believe that a lot of Pacific politicians have been giving into a system that’s feeding them but that’s not bringing our people forward. There’s a whole lot of rhetoric around the rising tide lifting all the boats. But too often the rising tide is only serving white middle-class New Zealand.
And too often, as our people have been climbing their career ladders, they’ve forgotten about their roots.
They lose sight of the bigger picture when they start eating the fine food and receive the fine finances that have their bank accounts looking very healthy. And, instead of addressing the wrongs that need righting, they help to advance an agenda that suits the interests of mainstream New Zealand.
I’ve heard university lecturers saying, in coded ways, that Māori and Pacific people are dumb or that they don’t try hard. That they’ve got too many issues at home, they’re poor and they waste their money.
But all of that deficit thinking is a result of the colonial system that continues to impose itself on indigenous people. So we’re constantly in the battle to survive. And I don’t believe we’re here just to survive. We’re here to flourish. We’re here to blossom.
What can we do to avoid being dominated by the mainstream agenda?
Well, we can’t propel ourselves forward if we’re constantly succumbing to that agenda. We need politicians, we need educators and we need broadcasters who’re going to fight for indigenous spaces and rights.
When you look across the globe, you can see the impact of colonisation on indigenous communities. They’re very ill communities. They’re impoverished communities. They have very low levels of home ownership.
And the research is telling us that the reason for indigenous and migrant people having such high rates of diabetes and cardiovascular disease is that they’re in a constant state of fight. So they’re producing that hormone you produce when it’s fight or flight. It’s cortisol.
The research is indicating that, because of colonisation, right from birth we’re constantly producing cortisol because we’re locked in a struggle to fight back, to push back, to defend ourselves.
Do you think that the media and the school system should be doing a better job of pointing to this reality?
Yes. I do. The fact is that we’re in a constant war and what mainstream media does — and what some of our history books do — is play it down. As if it doesn’t really exist.
When I went to school, I learned something about what they called the “Māori wars”. I look back now and wonder how we could blame Māori for those wars when it was the colonialists that came in and stole their land. And yet we’re calling it the “Māori wars”, as if it was wrong for Māori to say: “Hold on. This land belongs to us.”
I get angry when I hear Māori being told: “You’ve got enough. You’ve had Treaty settlements. We’ve been really nice to you. We’ve been giving you benefits. For goodness sake, just be quiet.”
I’m inviting Pākehā to be serious about partnership because they can’t keep holding on to the power bases. On to everything. Which is what we’ve seen in education, what we see in business and what we see in politics.
Of course, there are Māori and Pacific people having more influence these days. But, overall, the fact is that we’re still on the factory floor. We’re just dressed nicely now.