It’s hard not to be impressed by Emeline Afeaki-Mafile’o. At 25, she started her own non-profit mentoring service, Affirming Works, which has gone on to help thousands of Pacific youngsters and their families in the more than 16 years since. It’s still going strong, supported by a family-owned coffee business in Tonga, and community cafes in Mangere and Mt Roskill, which Emeline and her husband Alipate run — with one foot in South Auckland, where she was born and grew up, and one foot in Tonga. Here she tells Dale Husband about how the death of a childhood friend got her started down that track.
Mālō e lelei, Emeline. Thank you for joining us on e-Tangata. I have to say I’m intrigued by your interesting heritage, which I understand includes Tongan, Samoan, Māori, and Pālangi connections. Can you start, please, by telling us a bit more about that?
Well, both my parents are half Tongan and half Samoan. My mum, Edith Percival, grew up in Samoa, and spoke both Tongan and Samoan, so I heard the language regularly in our home and amongst friends.
My dad, Loloma, only spoke Tongan, but I had no idea that his mother, Emeline — who I’m named after — had no Tongan in her at all.
Her father was James Herbert Brown, who was of Ngāti Awa and English descent. And her mother was Samoan, from the Tofae family in Falefa. They were business people and they lived in the Ha’apai islands in Tonga. I was told they owned a smaller island that produced copra, and later they owned stores and a bakery.
So my grandmother Emeline grew up in Tonga, and married a local — my grandpa, Sefo Afeaki.
And then Grandma came to New Zealand, worked, bought the home here in Otāhuhu, which we still have, and then brought her husband and 12 kids over from Tonga.
And because they owned their home, no one checked for overstayers at the back.
Grandpa died early, I think the year I was born. So my dad and his brothers and sisters grew up here. And they married Niuean, Samoan, Cook Island and Tongan.
So we have these really diverse cultural gatherings: Pasifika, Pākehā and Māori. It’s beautiful. And it’s been natural for me to feel multicultural and to think that way — I felt I had permission because my first cousins were Niuean, or they were Tongan, Samoan, or Māori.
Were you born in Tonga, Emeline?
No, I was born here in New Zealand. South Auckland-raised. And I went to Favona Primary in Mangere with Jonah Lomu, which was quite cool. He was a family member. Then on to St Joseph’s in Otāhuhu, because my family were Catholic — and then McAuley High School.
Your life has taken on some interesting twists and turns. What were the major influences for you in deciding the path you went down?
The passing of my friend from cancer had a massive impact. She was 18 and I was 17, but we’d become “blood sisters” when we were 10 or 12. We’d vowed to live together and die together. Grieving is a powerful emotion — it really knocked me. And because of that vow, I spent some time contemplating what I should do with my life.
Then, for some reason, I just sensed that if she wasn’t here anymore to live a full life, maybe it was my responsibility to live a full life on her behalf. It was a great revelation to have at that age.
And I just started using that grief to look for better opportunities, and to really start to understand what was good for me. And I realised that I needed to leave that community where we’d been so close. I wanted to move out of the area because it reminded me of her.
At the time I was doing a science degree at Auckland University. So I applied to get into the social work course in Albany — and then I got into a student hostel last minute because someone dropped out. My parents drove me out there. I actually thought Albany was out of Auckland because I’d never been out of Auckland.
It was a big thing for my parents, for me to leave home without me being married, because I’d had a real island upbringing. So I went to Massey University in Albany and did a social work degree. And I actually think it was in the absence of my culture that I really appreciated who I was.
After that, I went to live in Tonga and wrote my master’s there. And I learned all about my culture and my identity. I worked at the ‘Atenisi institute, which was both a university and a secondary school. I taught English at the secondary school and taught Tongan Social Policy at the university, all about my history and background and stuff. Got qualifications for that piece of work.
I’ve just always had a heart for community and Tonga, and Pacific in general, because of my heritage being mixed with Samoan and Tongan.
Some outsiders might say: “Look. They’ve been at war. The Samoan and Tongans have never really got on.” Does that create some internal conflict for you?
I just believe that we’re 100 percent of all of the above. People sometimes ask me: “How much Tongan do you have?” And I’m like: “I’m Tongan. And I’m Samoan. And I’m Māori.” It’s not how much I have. That’s my heritage. That’s who I am. I have genuine, authentic relationships with families across those cultures, and I’ll advocate and do what’s necessary for them.
Last year when the Rugby League World Cup games were on, my kids went to the games with Tongan, Samoan, and Kiwi flags. You know how it is. We just acknowledge the cultures and the beauty of them all.
I’m assuming that your decision to head for university after McAuley High came after some academic success at school — and perhaps after years of being a bookworm. Is that how it was?
As a matter of fact, I didn’t really read my first book until I was 19. I don’t recall reading at all through school. I think I just woke up at 19 and started reading and learning stuff. I’ve really always enjoyed learning and seeing life as an opportunity to learn and to grow and develop.
But for me, learning is about giving back to your community. So when I started learning, what little I learned was enough to share with other people in my community — probably because they didn’t know how to read. So I helped adult learners and children.
And because you’re in a migrant community, I’ve always seen my capacity to learn as helping the next person. That’s something I’ve been trying to pass on to my own kids.
When you lost your very dear friend in a formative stage of your life, that sparked independent feelings in you. Perhaps you were forced to grow up in a hurry as a result. But we know a lot of our Māori and Pasifika people, as young adults, have to make a difficult transition from their life within an extended family, don’t they?
Now, on reflection, I see that as a stage of what I call “individuation”. And I can see the grief of young Pacific adults when they’re leaving their families. It’s because we have such a tight, spiritual connection within our whānau.
But, to cope in both worlds in a Western society, and to hold on to the values of your own culture and family, you have to be able to navigate in both and still stand on your values. I’ve been really fortunate to be in places, where, yes, I’m the only Pacific Islander, I’m the only brown person — and I’m trailblazing.
I think, though, that we have something unique to offer society — and because the demographics are changing, in the near future there’ll be much more Māori and Pasifika representation across society. We see that already in our current government. So it’s really important that we maximise our ability to contribute our own values and culture.
At university level, you started off with social work which tends to attract people who want to help others. Then you moved over to social sciences but ended up doing a master’s degree in philosophy. What did you have in mind as you followed that path?
I began to see that effective social work requires a change in society — and that government policies need to change. So we really have to get into changing the policies that determine the way that social work operates.
They say you don’t really learn stuff at university because it’s all theory and when you go into real life work you find it’s all different. But, for me, it was really key to learn to articulate some of those worldviews and philosophical perspectives — and to do so in a way that allows you to remain Pacific and different.
So those years were helpful. But I think my biggest learning has come from Affirming Works, the mentoring programme that I set up in 2001.
I’d done a few stints in Child, Youth and Family. Did a few stints in the community. But most of my work was just done freely — in my parents’ community and with people in our local community.
And I saw that some of the biggest struggles came from the New Zealand-born kids not really knowing where their parents were coming from. Not understanding them at all. Most of my time was just explaining to them simple stuff. Like why the boys were separated from the girls. And why the girls get told what to do by their bossy aunty.
It’s all these cultural contexts that parents don’t articulate. They don’t say why they practise these things. When you grow up in the islands, there’s just an assumption that you’ll understand. You just watch and you learn — and everyone gets it.
But there’s no explanation in the New Zealand setting. So I just took it upon myself to explain things to a lot of young people that were in trouble and frustrated with their parents, or with their leaders.
It’s common for there to be two completely different worldviews in one household. In my case, there were my parents, learning how to become more like New Zealand people. And then there was me, born in New Zealand, trying to understand them as Tongans.
And there was a problem with language anyway. My mum and dad spoke Tongan to each other, but not to us. And Mum’s English wasn’t that great. Your parents make choices and sacrifices because they envision a better life for their child.
So I can understand now why my parents were so upset when I decided to go back to Tonga.
I understand you’ve been going backwards and forwards between Tonga and New Zealand for a number of years, but now you’re actually living in Tonga?
Yes. I married a lovely Tongan man, Alipate, and in the past 10 years, we’ve been dividing our time between Tonga and New Zealand. We did three years in Tonga, then a few years in New Zealand, and then in Tonga again. Mostly led by whānau obligations rather than our businesses.
But now we actually live in Tonga. I won’t say indefinitely, but I have committed to home-schooling my kids in Kolonga, the village we now live in where my husband is from, at least until they’re sent away for secondary schooling.
So, of my granddad, with his 12 children and hundreds of grandchildren, I’m the sole descendant who returned to Tonga. It must’ve seemed crazy. My parents were like: “We’ve come here. We’ve left that life to give you a better life. Why would you go back to Tonga?”
Why did you? And how important has it been that you did?
It’s been massive. Some of that core resilience comes from your culture and your identity. It’s knowing who you are. And I think it’s amazing that I’ve had the opportunity to go back to Tonga and learn my parents’ roots and my culture.
Last year, we had 50 of my dad’s family return to Tonga for a family reunion. So the kids are in Tonga. My work is in Tonga. We’ve had my dad visit us and there’s just been this lovely renaissance of culture for my family.
I’ve seen New Zealand-born Pacific Islanders who’ve never been to the islands, who’ve missed out on their culture — and I’ve seen some of them get in trouble. Those are the ones that are most at risk or most vulnerable and don’t have that resilient core to be able to sustain themselves through difficult times.
They don’t have an understanding of why their parents do things a certain way. That’s heartbreaking for me. And again, that’s probably why I do Affirming Works.
Which is a neat kaupapa. Let’s talk about it. Back there in your mid-20s, you set up Affirming Works to mentor young Pasifika people who needed support. How did that come about?
Well, initially, I worked for the Manukau Youth Centre and I had a programme called Affirmative Women. Then Affirming Women. At the time, I was working in nine secondary schools with young women, teenage prostitutes, and youth who were suicidal. It was really about self-values, self-respect, self-esteem. All those things.
It was really popular and we had many more males than females referred to us. So we ended up, five years later, changing the name to Affirming Works. And we’ve just kept mentoring more and more young people.
I stopped counting two years ago, but by then we’d been mentoring over 7,000 young people through Affirming Works. It’s really just heart. You probably give more than you get from it, but there’s so much value and satisfaction in seeing a need, finding a way to help, piloting it — and then rolling it out.
Two years ago, I designed a new family violence programme for Tongan families and we’ve already mentored over 100 families in that programme. And what I’m loving now is that we’ve got nearly 20 staff on our books, and we have 20 to 30 contractors a year.
I’ve got a new CEO and young managers who’re doing that for other young people in the community. That’s what we’re passing on. And there’s all this engagement with the community. It’s hearing their voices, and knowing them, and calling them by name.
That’s where I sit when I’m working on policy. I can see these people. I have a relationship with them. They’re my neighbours. It’s real.
This is all a reminder that sometimes all a young person needs to make a change is just one adult who believes in and supports them.
Yeah. We’ve had some amazing experiences. I can think of a young Samoan boy who brought a knife to our first mentoring camp. He became one of my sons, and he’d call me Mum. He became a journal writer. His journal started out with scribbles, and threats, and graffiti, and then just beautiful handwriting.
I’ve still got his journal. Still got his art. Still got a drawing he did for my son, who’s 10 now. He’s gone on and is married. Has two kids. When he finished high school, he got a plumbing and carpentry scholarship. It’s just boys becoming young men.
Some of them have gone on and graduated from tertiary education and then have come back and said thank you. But I think that what we’re doing is just being a heart in the community. There shouldn’t be any need for a programme or an organisation. And we should be reaching out not just to young people, but to old people, too.
It’s something that has really grown on me. The kids have been so rewarding. And it’s helped us not to be so self-focused and, instead, to be thinking about what you can do for others.
Thank you, Emeline, for your rich kōrero. But just before we finish our chat, how about turning to coffee? Because you have a coffee story to tell, don’t you?
I do. And it’s this. Because of my heart for Tonga and marrying that lovely Tongan man in 2006, we moved to Tonga to do some work, returned home a few years later. But again on another visit in 2010, the opportunity came up to buy a coffee business. And it was on the land of my Samoan-Tongan-Māori grandma.
So we tendered not just for the coffee business but also for the return of the land to the family. We got that sorted and stayed for three years to build a factory, restore the existing coffee farm, and also learn all about coffee.
Is that your coffee at the whare down at the Otāhuhu train station?
That’s your coffee?
Choice. Okay. But what’s so nice, what’s special, about Tongan coffee beans?
Well, it’s Arabica, which is a top coffee. We’ve been told that we’re fifth-ranked in China and we’re trying to get documents to prove it. And we sell out at times, because we use it for the community cafes, which are all under Affirming Works, which contributes to us being a non-profit service.
But, anyway, our coffee is very good quality.
I’m big on coffee. Almost a guru, I reckon. And I can vouch for that.
#TAGTONGA: Helping Tonga rebuild
Affirming Works (AW), which has been providing mentoring services to Pacific communities in New Zealand for over 16 years, is leading the charge to unite, collaborate and rebuild Tonga through a new initiative called #TAGTONGA, which lets you TAG a family, destination and purpose through monetary donations. To TAGTONGA email email@example.com.
This is a community-led aid initiative set up by Affirming Works in both New Zealand and Tonga to help with the rebuild of Tonga and its people who were severely affected by Cyclone Gita on 13 February 2018.
#TAGTONGA provides a direct donor option for those in New Zealand and abroad wanting to make a monetary donation to cyclone-affected family and friends in Tonga. In times of crises, we as Pacific communities rally together hence the organic community response to the crisis through the new aid initiative.
#TAGTONGA enables people to determine the destination of their donation. Donors can TAG a village, family and/or the purpose of their donation through a specific cause or project. AW will provide evidence of direct spending and reporting to our aid partners to enable good accountability of donations made.
Should you wish to 'tag a destination, family, purpose' please email our TAGTONGA team at firstname.lastname@example.org and they will provide you a form to fill out the necessary details. See also: https://givealittle.co.nz/org/affirming-works-limited