Fakalofa lahi atu! (translation: a warm greeting to you).
Something that you might not know about me is that I was born on a tiny island in the South Pacific; Niue Island. My mum is Niuean and my dad in Australian. They met in Perth in the 80s, fell in love and moved back to the island to start their life together. I came along not too long after, they got married and all was going well. They hit a bump in the road when my dad as a teacher was unable to get work, so they made the tough decision to move back to Australia, where they proceeded to have their other four children and set up their livelihood there. I left Niue when I was less than two years old, and did not return for 25 years, when my entire family went together for the first time.
I can still remember the smell of the air and the feeling of the humidity hitting me in the face as I stepped off the plane onto the tarmac at 2am that day in October 2007. It was the most overwhelming feeling to be setting foot on my birthplace and mother’s homeland. In a way that is hard to describe, every time we return to the island, it feels like coming home. Although I only lived there for a short time as a baby and would surely not remember much from my time there, there is something that pulls at my core every time we are there. I believe that the cultural connection, the connection with the land, language and people are all what drives me to return with our family every few years.
On that first visit back to Niue, I was fortunate enough to have my then boyfriend (soon to be fiance as he proposed on the island that trip!) accompany me. He totally fell in love with the island, with its rugged coastline, crystal clear water, warm air and amazing people. You will often hear him talking to people about Niue; he is the biggest advocate; sharing stories about diving, fishing, food and cultural experiences. In fact, we both loved our first visit together in 2007 so much that we vowed to return for our wedding. We had such a desire to share my birthplace in all its incredible beauty and cultural significance with as many of our family and friends as possible.
In 2009, we returned with 50 people joining us from Perth including all of my hubby’s immediate family and partners, my entire family and a large group of super keen friends. The whole wedding was an adventure as at the time, there was only one flight in and out of the island per week. In order to get there, you must fly via Auckland, then direct to the island from there. It’s a gruelling couple of days, including crossing the international dateline, so when you finally land in Niue, you have gone back in time, arriving in the afternoon of the day you departed (despite almost 2 days travel!).
So we wanted to make the most of our week there, knowing this might be the one and only time people were able to see Niue. We wanted our family and guests to experience island life at its best, including as much exposure to the cultural and traditional foods and activities as possible. We were so lucky to be supported by amazing family and friends on the island who hosted traditional gatherings with guests enjoying the preparation and participation in an ‘umu’ (undergound ‘oven’ that steams food over a period of hours), visits to the bush gardens, snorkelling at local caves and lagoons, fishing trips and scenic drives around the island. The actual wedding took place at the same church my mum and dad were married and I was baptised in, perched on the cliff overlooking the ocean.
At the reception, we included a combination of traditional foods with the buffet, so guests were able to try some of the local fare. This included several whole cooked pigs, which is always a crowd pleaser! The reception also showcased some traditional Niuean dancing, singing and the gift giving ceremony known as the ta tika tupe. This was all set on a deck perched above the Pacific Ocean and is something we cherish as a once in a lifetime experience that we share with our guests. We still have friends talk to us about a reunion on the island, which we would love to organise one day. It was a magical week.
We took our daughter to the island for the first time when she was 13 months old. We feel so strongly about showing her the other side of her culture and feel it is an incredible way for her to experience this side of her heritage. Since then, we have returned every two to three years, taking with us each subsequent child. Our youngest was lucky enough to get there for Xmas as a four month old in 2020. Including 2007, we have been back a total of six times!
Every time we visit, we make sure the children have ample opportunity to engage in the many aspects of their culture. We make the most of the local events that are happening, depending on the time of the year, this varies. They have witnessed traditional ear piercings, constitution celebrations, traditional dance performances, village fairs, food preparation and other activities such as the traditional market, fishing and swimming in the popular spots. We spend time with the Niuean aunties, uncles and cousins; listening and practicing the language, attending church on Sundays and getting involved wherever we can. In 2016, when we were back for my sister’s wedding, we also held a (much smaller scale) traditional hair cutting for our son, which was another fantastic cultural experience for the Aussie family.
It makes me feel so proud when I watch my children dance with their grandma, or practice speaking the language. I love to see them help to prepare the food and enjoy eating it. Last time we visited, my eldest son (five at the time), was obsessed with the ‘tahi’ (sea) tracks. One of his middle names is Tahi, so he loved driving past the signs with his name on them. He wanted to visit every sea track whilst we were there, unfortunately, we didn’t make it through all of them but we have some more to visit when we return!
When we are in Perth, we try to attend as many of the events hosted by the Perth Niuean Community as possible. These are a great opportunity to stay in touch with the Niuean family, practice the language, observe the traditions and of course, enjoy the food. The community in Perth is active and passionate, it is always such a wonderful experience every time we attend, and we are welcomed with open arms and treated like family, no matter how long it’s been since we last saw each other.
My hubby and I feel very strongly about spending some extended time with the children on the island. We have talked at length about taking the children across for a year of schooling, which would allow us to really immerse ourselves in the community and gain a deeper appreciation for the culture that we are not able to achieve on our short visits as holiday makers. As I’m sure you can appreciate, it is a massive decision though to up-root the family and take the children away from their friends, school and everything that is familiar to them. We would also have to leave our support network, parents, friends and creature comforts. Niue is a beautiful place, but it is still a developing nation, which means that many of the amenities and choices we take for granted in Perth, are no longer an option. The cost of living can be very high if you don’t have access to your own land to grow food or a boat to fish, as everything must be imported via plane or ship. Accommodation can be difficult to come by, but we are lucky to have access to family accommodation, very close to the capital of Alofi. These are all the logistical considerations we debate about, yet we still believe the benefits of the time away will far outweigh the small inconveniences.
In particular, in this day and age, and Niue being such a small nation of only 1,700 people, it is vital that families such as ours spend time on the island and share the culture and language, in order to preserve it. There are 28,000 Niueans living in New Zealand and approximately 10,000 living in Australia, which means that the Niueans living away from the island have the greatest potential to positively impact on the culture being maintained and passed down through the generations. I am absolutely committed to sharing this precious heritage with my children and hope that they will share with their children and beyond.
I know there is an increasing amount of research emerging that reflects the relationship between an individual’s connection to their culture and their mental health and well being. There is a compelling argument to promote young people, particularly of indigenous backgrounds, to know their heritage, and have that connection to their land and their people. Many cultures today are being subdued and not celebrated, either through a desire to ‘integrate’ into another culture or through the culture not being passed down through the generations. Do you have a special connection with a culture that you are promoting in your children? How do you ensure your children know their heritage? I’d love to learn more about how you encourage your family and children to know their roots. Please share!
Monuina e aho!