Ashalyna Noa from Canterbury University discusses the importance of Vaiaso o le Gagana Sāmoa.
Sāmoan language week is a platform for our Sāmoan identity to be acknowledged, visible, and valued in Aotearoa New Zealand. It is the one week in the year that we come out from being under a ‘Pasifika’ umbrella to highlight the uniqueness and beauty of Gagana Sāmoa.
Although it is officially celebrated nationally over one week, the challenge for me is to ensure that I continue to learn and grow in my culture all year round. Vaiaso o le Gagana Sāmoa is a week where I acknowledge where I am on my Sāmoan identity journey as it continues to evolve.
Spending most of my childhood in Auckland, I was regularly exposed to Gagana Sāmoa. Sāmoan was my first language and I spoke it fluently until I started primary school. My father sadly passed away when I was young, however, my mother ensured that we maintained links with my paternal ‘aiga. My brother and I would spend each weekend and every school holiday with our grandparents. With my grandfather being a Minister at a Sāmoan Methodist Church, we were surrounded by the vibrancy of Gagana Sāmoa, culture, and everything that came with it.
As I got older my fluency in Sāmoan plummeted. When I was 12 years old my ‘aiga moved to Christchurch and I no longer had the benefit of my Sāmoan social safety net. I was no longer surrounded by my grandparents and Sāmoan speaking ‘aiga. We had fewer ‘aiga in Christchurch and they were less exposed than we were to Gagana Sāmoa. We were limited to my mother,
aunties, and uncles conversing in Sāmoan at our occasional gatherings. Since my mother is Catholic, we attended Catholic mass at an English-speaking parish when we moved to Christchurch.
I became less confident to speak Sāmoan to the point where I was self-conscious to even try. I have always been proud to be Sāmoan but losing confidence to speak it made me feel embarrassed. I feared others would mock the way that I sounded or mispronounced words. I also dreaded the perception that to be Sāmoan you have to speak the language, as I could only understand it and no longer speak it fluently.
I was resigned to the fact that despite being New Zealand born, I looked different from what a ‘normal’ New Zealander should look like. Some people assumed that I wasn’t from New Zealand and frequently asked questions insinuating that I was foreign. When people learnt that I was Sāmoan, they would ask me random questions about Sāmoa. At times I struggled to answer as I had never been there (until later in life) and we did not learn Sāmoan history or geography in school.
Throughout school, I never fully felt like I fitted in. In Auckland and Christchurch, I attended predominantly Pākehā/Pālagi schools where I was one of only a few Sāmoans in my year level, or at times in the whole school. As Sāmoan was not offered in school, I learnt te reo Māori. Since there were some similarities in the languages, it was one way for me to feel a sense of familiarity within the school environment. I felt like I wasn’t a real Sāmoan and not a real New Zealander.
During my time studying at the University of Canterbury (UC) this all started to change again. I continued to learn te reo Māori, became part of the Sāmoan Students’ Association, and connected with the Pacific Development Team; together they created a Pasifika community on campus for me and other Sāmoan students. Māori, Sāmoan, Pasifika peoples, and spaces together forming a sense of belonging for me at UC. They were like my extended ‘aiga where I felt safe to explore my identity and became comfortable in my own skin.
As we know, languages are more than just the words that we speak. Each word has meaning behind it and when put together reveals narratives and an inside view of a culture. It is often said that when learning a language, you are simultaneously learning parts of that culture. It also provides a sense of belonging, because even when you are far away from your community, you have this connection that transcends space and time.
For people to truly thrive in a community, they need to feel like they belong and celebrate their identity. Vaiaso o le Gagana Sāmoa for me is twofold: firstly, it enables the diverse Sāmoan population in Aotearoa New Zealand to feel and celebrate that we belong by deepening our own understanding (and that of others) of Gagana Sāmoa and culture; and secondly, it provides an opportunity to share the uniqueness and beauty of our language and culture with non-Sāmoans. Vaiaso o le Gagana Sāmoa is a window where others can learn to appreciate and value what our language and culture offers, with our diverse Pasifika communities now woven into the fabric of this nation.
Ia manuia le vaiaso o le Gagana Sāmoa.