Author: Koleta Savaii
Every parent wants their child to do well in school. We all know that a good education is the key to a wide range of opportunities that ultimately lead to a “good life”. Now, people have their own ideas about what this good life entails. But we can all agree that it is one which is free from hunger, poverty, homelessness, fear of crime, and ill-health.
Academic wellbeing encompasses young people’s attainment of knowledge, skills, concepts, and strategies that enables them to succeed in school, and eventually to deal with the increasingly complex worlds of family life, work, and citizenship.
There is considerable research that has been carried out globally to identify pathways to achieving academic well-being. These include improvements in school curriculum, young people’s diets, their home environment, teacher behaviour, community participation, and the removal of toxic stress. While valuable, this data is by no means the full story, especially if we want to understand the ways in which we can improve young Pacific people’s academic well-being.
Pacific students are not doing so well in New Zealand schools. The data also shows that Pacific females are doing much better in secondary through to tertiary education than their male counterparts.
To make sense of these findings, Professor Tagaloatele Fairbairn-Dunlop argued that we need to review educational outcomes through a Pacific gender lens, so that we can identify how cultural expectations might influence the school experience today.
So, what is this “Pacific gender lens”? To explain, I’ll reflect on my own journey.
I am a Samoan female. I was born in New Zealand, but I spent majority of my childhood and teenage years in Samoa. I was raised by grandparents, uncles, aunts, church family, and village – yes it does take a village to raise a child.
My grandfather was my idol. He taught me how to read using the Samoan Bible. He said reading the newspaper was a waste of time, all the knowledge I seek is in the Bible. He taught me how to write my name... I have never come across anyone so patient. He taught me basic maths: ‘I am giving you a dollar, go to the shop and buy me a .50cent razor blade, how much change should you come back with?’ But my favourite memories of him were the nights where he would tell me a fagogo (a Samoan form of storytelling). Through his fagogo I learned about my family genealogy, the markers of our family lands, the origin of our matai (chief) title and its meaning, and my responsibilities as a Samoan female.
I wanted to be just like him. I wanted to speak the language of the matai. I wanted to be a skilled orator. I used to follow him to village meetings and listen to the matai debate village issues. The majority of the matai in these village meetings were men. Even the boys my age had business in the meeting house. I hated that I wasn’t a boy. Girls don’t do matai stuff, or so I thought.
‘Focus on your education, my child. If you succeed in school, you can have anything you want in this life’, my grandfather said. And that’s how I ended up in a New Zealand University; although I still envy my male cousins who seem to know how to do everything.
This is the gendered division of roles and responsibilities in thefa’aSamoa that Professor Fairbairn-Dunlop and many Samoan scholars write about. Unlike the Western division of labour where women are subordinate to men, Samoan men and women have complementary roles. In traditional times, men were responsible for political authority, defence and warfare and the production of food and women were responsible for moral authority, ceremony and hospitality, and the production of exchange valuables such as the ie toga (fine mats).
For the maintenance of society’s well-being, everyone was expected to behave according to their ascribed place. While these ideological divisions were held, actual roles might be modified according to need, opportunity, and the desire to maintain the family good.
In applying this Samoan gender lens to the New Zealand educational data, Professor Fairbairn-Dunlop found that the Samoan male norm which discourages failure hindered boys’ full participation in academia. his was one reason why the majority of Samoan males were drawn to non-academic avenues such as sports, to retain their prestige. While females were using the opportunities education offered to learn new skills and knowledge, their participation in the public domain still remained minimal.
Like Samoa, many Pacific cultural systems are influenced by gender and a consideration for factors such as age, family status and place. These inform Pacific peoples roles, responsibilities, behaviours and expectations. The academic wellbeing of Pacific youth is contingent on our understanding and recognition of the influences of these cultural systems, in addition to improvements in other areas affecting young people’s education including school curriculums, nutrition, the home environment, and communities.
Author: Koleta Savaii
“Who am I?” is a question that we have no doubt asked of ourselves at some point during the course of our lives. But perhaps the stage at which this question becomes a preoccupation is during our adolescent years. Our teenage years are a complex time; we undergo tremendous transformations physiologically (e.g. puberty), psychologically (e.g. advent of formal operational thinking), and socially (e.g. acceptance of adult responsibilities), all embedded within larger social, cultural, and historical contexts and forces.
For many Pacific peoples, the answer to the question ‘Who am I?’ is reflected in this quote by the Head of States of Samoa, Susuga Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi:
"I am not an individual; I am an integral part of the cosmos. I share divinity with my ancestors, the land, the seas and the skies. I am not an individual, because I share a tofi (inheritance) with my family, my village and my nation. I belong to my family and my family belongs to me. I belong to my village and my village belongs to me. I belong to my nation and my nation belongs to me. This is the essence of my sense of belonging."
As captured in this quote, Pacific peoples view the self as comprised of their social relationships, their land and physical resources, and the spiritual. This view of the self and the relationship between the self and others features the person not as separate from the social and environmental context, but as more connected and less differentiated from them. The emphasis is on attending to them, fitting in, and harmonious interdependence with them.
Hence, the Pacific self cannot be viewed independent of Pacific culture. As envisioned by the Fonofale model, the Pacific self as a Samoan fale envisages Pacific culture as the roof. Culture represents ethnic-specific Pacific values and beliefs as the overarching or holistic philosophy of life. The roof is traditionally thatched with sugarcane leaves and when properly prepared and attached the first time, it will last approximately 10-15 years. The cone shaped roof allows rain to easily fall to the ground without moisture permeating the leaves and causing leaks inside. Of course, during sunny days the high dome allows the heat to rise and seep through the thatching, cooling the house. Today, however, most roofs are made of imported materials (i.e. timber, nails, and corrugated roofing iron) but the fundamentals remain the same.
Samoa has a well-known saying ‘e sui faiga ae tumau fa’avae’ – ‘practices may change but the foundations remain’. Likewise, our ethnic-specific Pacific cultures are constantly evolving and adapting to the changing times, but the fundamentals remain. These include: reciprocity, respect, genealogy, tapu relationships, language of respect, and belonging:
For our Pacific youth in New Zealand, their cultures may consist of these Pacific concepts, plus elements from other cultures they are exposed to at school, in their communities, and on the Internet. Establishing and securing an identity is no doubt a challenging task, but our youth are faring well regardless. There is also a general interest among our young people to learn more about their ethnic-specific Pacific customs and traditions, as evident in the needs of the young people who come to TYMS.
It is well established that when young people develop a strong sense of who they are and where they are headed, they are more likely to engage in successful adult roles and mature interpersonal relationships. Consequently, when they are unclear about who they are, they are highly likely to engage in destructive behaviour, experience distress, and have difficulties maintaining healthy relationships with others.
“In the social jungle of human existence there is no feeling of being alive without a sense of identity” (Erik Erikson)
At TYMS we believe in the value of knowing and having a firm sense of one’s identity and cultural heritage to achieving overall wellbeing. But we also recognise the changing times and contexts in which our young people live today. Cultural identity is central to our program, which we address in our academic mentoring programs and incorporate in our everyday practices.