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By Amanda Saxton
Students from Pacific Island communities are being disadvantaged by attending week-long funerals for distant relatives, community leaders say. So is preserving their culture coming at at the expense of academic success?
Three primary school-aged children pore over workbooks at Pikura Purotu's south Auckland dining table on Tuesday evening while half a dozen teens toil over a half-built shelf on the floor.
“Chop chop! Get out of here,” the mum of 15 and nana to 50 commands, making space for guests. “But that doesn't mean stop doing your homework. Don't think I won't test you later!”
Purotu hails from Pukapuka, one of the tinier Cook Islands, and is something of a benign Pasifika tiger mother. Her five bedroom home currently houses about 15 people: a multi-generational cast of her own brood, their cousins and their mates.
“It's pretty typical for our community,” the 58-year-old matriarch says. They do it for the support network, due to a lack of housing in Auckland, and because they are poor.
Purotu deliberately balances her island values – family, community, church – with Kiwi realities. She's a hard taskmaster when it comes to getting to school on time and doing homework “because everything is about getting that piece of paper”.
But the balancing act is not easy and Purotu knows of Islander families who slip and give up. Well intentioned parents pluck kids from school to attend funerals, for instance, which in Pasifika communities can last more than a week. While funerals are a chance to reconnect with tradition and far flung aunties, their length and frequency can sabotage a child's education, Purotu says.
She and her priest, the Reverend Fakaofo Kaio of the Onehunga Cooperating Parish, campaign for kids to spend a maximum of three days at a funeral – and only if the deceased is a member of their immediate family.
“I tell parents that as much as I love to see their kids at church, they lose confidence when they're away from the classroom too long,” says Kaio.
“You can imagine going to school and you don't know half of what's going on. You're just sitting there looking foolish. You wonder what's the point in even being there.”
He can do 20 funerals a year and the same crowd go to many.
Out of the 88,000 Pasifika students enrolled in schools around New Zealand in 2018, only 52 per cent attended school "regularly" – defined as more than 90 per cent of the time that they were expected to, according to data from the Ministry of Education. The national average was 64 per cent.
The number of Pasifika students enrolled in New Zealand schools has more than doubled since 2011, when 61 per cent of them attended school regularly.
Former secondary school teacher Siliva Gaugatao, originally from Samoa, is doing doctoral research at Auckland University. He focuses on Pasifika staff and student engagement.
Looking at eight years of the ministry's truancy data, Gaugatao is unimpressed.
“How have they let it get worse? I'm thinking we haven't really learned anything in that time,” he says.
A spokeswoman for the ministry says parents are primarily responsible for making their children go to school, but Gaugatao reckons teachers need to better understand the dissonance between school life and home life for many Pasifika students.
Recent migrants from the Pacific may not be in the position to help their kids with homework, for example, which could lead to students skipping school in a bid to avoid trouble.
“My kids bring home books, lots of books, which indicates to me that schools do expect parents to read with and to their kids,” says Gaugatao.
“I can do that, but what happens with parents who are not confident or strong enough in English? Or who might have two or three jobs to try and help the family survive.”
Wesley Tala'imanu is the executive director of Fonua Ola, a social services provider for Auckland's Pasifika. He believes poverty is the main reason kids are missing school.
His social workers go into three bedroom homes every day and find three large families within, crowds of kids camped in living rooms. It's conducive to neither homework nor health, he says.
“It's not a new thing for Islander families, living marae-style, but these places are uninsulated, unkept, you're all squeezed in together and when bad weather comes it is not good.”
Tummy bugs, cold sores, and the flu gallop through jam-packed households, infecting child after child. Tala'imanu says the sick ones, naturally, take time off school – but the healthy might get asked to as well, tending to the afflicted while their parents go to work.
Untreated strep throat can morph into rheumatic fever, which inflames the heart, joints and brain. It is also strongly linked with poverty and overcrowded living conditions. Last month, the Ministry of Health announced $12 million (US$7.9 million) would be allocated towards fighting rheumatic fever in Pasifika and Maori communities.
Cash-strapped parents that can't afford to go to the doctor to get antibiotics for their kids' strep throats also struggle to buy uniforms and petrol to get to school, says Tala'imanu.
In his view, predatory lenders pose the biggest threat to a newly arrived Pasifika family finding their feet financially.
“They come from place with no credit background. Then when they come here there are all these loan sharks and car yards just waiting to get them: it seems like such easy money, to both,” he laments.
Debt driven desperation can make people drink to forget or turn to pokie machines in a last ditch attempt at a windfall, says Tala'imanu. Addictions to alcohol and gambling disproportionately affect Pasifika people in New Zealand.
Booze is banned from Purotu's house – which is lined with photos of her beloveds getting married, as babies, and wearing traditional Cook Islander attire – because she knows too well how it damages families.
She used to bring local kids home for a feed if she knew their own parents were in a pokies den or on the piss. Fifteen people currently live in the five bedroom bungalow she and her then-husband bought in 1979.
In summer, the younger ones drag mattresses onto the deck. In winter they crash on couches. Most are Puroto's children and grandkids, but all have cousins and mates who know they're welcome any time.
Numbers rose sharply when one of Purotu's daughters – who has ten kids of her own – moved back home. Her landlord upped the rent, she couldn't afford it on her salary, so she now shares a king-sized bed with her three youngest children. The rest live with their dad.
Purotu recently replaced her carpet with tiles “because of all the traffic”.
By force of personality, Purotu is the effective ringmaster of what could easily be a circus. She preps school lunches at the crack of dawn, then leads everyone in devotional at 7am. Breakfast is porridge and "lots and lots of toast" – at its peak, the household would get through ten loaves a day – then it's off to school and work.
It's a hectic household, but clean and cheerful. Proof that communal living is not synonymous with slipping through societal gaps. When the teens were kicked out of the living room, some regrouped on the deck for an impromptu ukulele session. Others started dealing cards. Laughter was loud.
Purotu says she's always worked hard to keep everything in motion. She's been a butcher, shoemaker, and social worker, among other things. The family grows its own vegetables and invested in huge cooking pots early on. These days she's a volunteer social worker and driving instructor, for assorted charities. Her older kids, in the workforce, support her financially.
There are 30 years between Purotu's oldest son and youngest daughter, who is 13. Over that time kids "have gotten a lot more vicious", she says.
"Everyone wants the flashest, the latest, and those sorts of comparisons do lead to bullying."
Purotu used to buy her kids whatever was on sale, according to their needs. They were fine with it, she says, because there wasn't much variety in shoe or toy back then.
“But now kids get teased for wearing $12 (US$7.97) sneakers from The Warehouse. My kids don't even want to be seen with me when I'm wearing my $12 sneakers from The Warehouse," she says.
“I just say, 'Have you got a home? No. Have you got a car? No. Who puts food on your table? Huh. Those are reasons I'm in my $12 shoes and guess what? I can walk just fine in them'. But those sorts of arguments don't work at school.”
Purotu has no time for whinging. She's quick to recall her five-year-old self back on Pukapuka, heading off into the bush at 5am each morning to look for firewood.
“You'd bring it back on your shoulders or head, before you even started getting ready for school. Then you'd be lucky if you got lunch. And that lunch was always a coconut,” she laughs. She's also quick to recall why her parents left Pukapuka: to get their children an education.
Reverend Kaio hails Purotu as Pasifika beacon getting things right, and says everyone in the community should keep in mind their reason for being in New Zealand.
“It's one of the biggest challenges for the Pasifika families here, to get that balance of tradition and modernity. They're trying to do the best by their kids,” he says.
“But at the end of the day, education is the key to their future.”
SOURCE: STUFF NZ/PACNEWS
Pacific Islands News Association
Who & What is PINA?
International News Safety Institute (INSI)
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