16 May 2019

Why islanders celebrate Rotuma Day

7:39 am on 16 May 2019

"Noaia e mauri se aus atakoa"

It's that time of the year when, if you're Rotuman like me, you feel special wherever you are.

Attending this week's Rotuma Day celebrations in Auckland - seeing familiar faces and making new connections - has left me happy and proud.

It has been humbling that I have the opportunity as a Rotuman and a journalist to witness the occasion - beautiful and rich in history - and to share in the joy of knowing that my language and culture is alive, despite a listing on UNESCO's endangered languages list.

Rotuma is a Fijian dependency but closer to Tuvalu than to Suva and, while it's influenced by Melanesian Fiji, the Rotuman culture is a little similar to that of Tonga and Samoa.

About 2000 people live on the island with 10,000 on mainland Fiji and thousands more, like me, around the world.

Speech language therapist at Massey University Emily Jones (in red) and her family got to experience eating the Rotuman way.

Speech language therapist at Massey University Emily Jones (in red) and her family got to experience eating the Rotuman way. Photo: Christine Rovoi

Rotuman language tutor, Nataniela Amato-Ali, said he hopes a re-enactment of the island's cession to Queen Victoria in 1881 will help people understand why May 13 means a lot to Rotumans.

Mr Amato-Ali said 'Rotuma 1881', performed by the New Zealand Rotuman Fellowship Group (NZRFG) in the South Auckland suburb of Mangere, was a response to a request from the young people for a more inclusive, active and fun way to commemorate the day.

The show was also a response to "a lot of misinformation, or lack of it" about what actually happened on May 13, 1881, he said.

"A lot of Rotumans either have a skewed story or a misinformed story. Some of them don't even know why we celebrate this day every year," he said.

Rotuma arts and crafts go on display

Rotuma arts and crafts go on display Photo: Christine Rovoi

So, what does May 13 mean to Rotumans?

"We celebrate it because it's the day on which we became part of the British Empire - when Rotuma was ceded to Great Britain," Mr Amato-Ali said.

"Rotumans consider the time under Britain - the time under Queen Victoria as a golden age for us. And that is why Rotumans look back to that day and say, Oh, that's when all the good things happened to us.

"There'll be people who may not hold that view but nonetheless they celebrate this day because it is the day that we all, as a community, globally decide to celebrate."

Mr Amato-Ali said they were able to acquire some video footage from the island which brought the story alive on Monday night.

"The youth have come together and put this production together and learned their lines and so we've used their skills with technology," he said.

"As with all youth these days, they're very tech-savvy. So, we've used that skill set to produce this.

"We've got imagery from the island. We've done our research.

"And so, a lot of it is based on what is written about the events leading up to and the actual cession of Rotuma to Great Britain," Mr Amato-Ali said.

A display of Rotuma handicraft.

A display of Rotuma handicraft. Photo: Christine Rovoi

The NZRF group is also holding a youth night 'Rotuma - te is 'otomis haharagi' at Auckland University and a three-day free camp from Friday with a show 'Nga Kakano: Rotuma - Journeys of Identity in Aotearoa & Beyond' at the Auckland Museum in the evening.

Also on Monday night, members of the Auckland Rotuman Fellowship Group (ARFG) celebrated with traditional dances and feasting at Western Springs.

They also held an arts and crafts exhibition and for the first time in NZ, guests sat on the floor to 'A te fak Rotuma - eat in the Rotuman way.

A Rotuman lei (tefui) sits among other crafts from the island.

A Rotuman lei (tefui) sits among other crafts from the island. Photo: Christine Rovoi

Organiser Jioji Vai said they were happy with the turnout and looked forward to seeing more Rotumans come out to celebrate their language and culture this week - only the second year Rotuman Language Week has been held.

"And from then we've just built on a new programme and something that's engaging, and informative, but also new for our people," Mr Vai said.

Rotuma Day is when the islanders come together to celebrate "our culture, our identity, our people - it's just about getting together," he said.

"And that's something we want to continue. Fiji does it very well. And it's happening all across the world. And it's something we have done every year here. Celebrating culture and people."

Members of the Auckland Rotuman Fellowship Group celebrate their language and culture on Monday.

Members of the Auckland Rotuman Fellowship Group celebrate their language and culture on Monday. Photo: Christine Rovoi

Mr Vai said he would like more emphasis put on the language and the UNESCO listing was important.

"To be listed, I think that was a wake-up call for all Rotumans.

"We just need to keep working on teaching. That's something we're trying to work on but also trying to push for Rotumans to identify in the sense that they are Rotuman - something we lack in doing.

"When people ask us where do we come from, we tend to just say Fiji, and it's the most easiest thing. People know where that is.

"I think it starts at home. And then you know, joining the communities and engaging in the programmes."

Mr Vai paid tribute to the elders in the community who "have paved the way to where we are today".

On Tuesday night the group held a storytelling session, Hanuju as well as song sessions about 'Life - growing up on Rotuma: the past, present and future', led by the elders in the community.

The ARF's Rotuman Language Week includes sports and games, a diversity show, a movie night and a Pasifika festival - a first for the group.

As for the NZRF, its 'Rotuman Kato'aga - celebrating our language and culture' will be held on Saturday with Pacific Peoples Minister Aupito William Sio as chief guest.

The celebrations end on Sunday with thanksgiving services in Epsom and Western Springs.

"Faiaksia e hanisi"