Celebrating Rotuman Day in New Zealand

Radio New Zealand journalist, Christine Rovoi, continued her coverage of the Rotuman Language Week festivities in New Zealand. Although an outbreak of Covid-19 in Fiji has forced Rotumans there to cancel this year’s Rotuma Day celebrations, the pandemic has failed to dampen the islanders’ spirits in New Zealand.

Fiji recorded its fourth covid death yesterday as the Suva and Nausori corridor, home to three towns and one-third of the population, goes into a lockdown from 11pm tonight to 4am Wednesday morning.

Fijian President Jioje Konrote, who hails from Rotuma, said the world was hit with this deadly virus and Fiji was no exception. In his Rotuma Day message, Konrote said while he was relieved the coronavirus had not reached his island home, the effects on Fiji’s main island Viti Levu were devastating.

Last year, Rotumans in New Zealand were forced to take their language week celebrations online because of the pandemic. It was their first on the government’s Pacific language weeks.

Last night, Rotumans were able to gather together in Wellington to mark 140 years of the island’s cession to Britain. The Museum of NZ’s Te Papa Tongarewa hosted the event. However among the smiles, singing and dancing, one thing was evident: New Zealand Rotumans are fighting to keep their endangered Pacific language alive.

The language, with only about 15,000 speakers in the world, is listed on the UNESCO List of Endangered Languages as ‘definitely endangered’. The language is distinct from other Pacific languages and from Rotuma, a Fijian dependency of tiny islands about 650 kilometres northwest of Fiji’s capital Suva.

While fewer than 2,000 people live on the island, there are about 800 Rotumans in New Zealand, and many others reside in Fiji and around the world.

The Secretary and Chief Executive at the Ministry for Pacific Peoples, Laulu Mac Leauanae, was also at Te Papa and paid tribute to the elders and youth in the community for keeping the culture alive. “It was amazing. So many things, the language and all that but the singing, the singing of the hymns hearing the language, seeing so many Rotumans in the room – over 200, it felt like a 1000 when you hear the singing. But it was just the spirit in the room, was amazing.”

Laulu said one of the biggest elements of the ministry’s work was the importance of culture, language and identity. “We’ve been supporting all of the Pacific languages here in New Zealand and Rotuman is the first of many weeks of celebration of different languages.”Has he learnt any Rotuman words? “Noa’ia e mauri, which someone told me means hello,” Laulu replied.

This year’s theme for Gasav Ne Fäeag Rotuạm Ta – Rotuman Language Week – is Tutur häk ne måür lelei – the four pillars of life and wellbeing: spiritual, physical, psychological and social.

New Zealand’s Parliament also marked the occasion with the Rotuman community invited to the house where they presented tefui garlands to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, the Speaker Trevor Mallard and other MPs including National leader Judith Collins.

The prayer service was delivered in Rotuman by Labour’s Taieri MP Ingrid Leary, who had lived in Fiji and has links to the community. Leary said it was an opportunity for her to celebrate her children’s unique culture and language.” It felt like history was being made,” she said. “It was beautiful to see the community come in. We sat there in the Speaker’s lounge as the garlanding was going on, pinching ourselves and saying we never imagined in a million years that we would be standing in the NZ Parliament together celebrating Rotuman Language Week. And that I would be saying the prayer in the house which was a great honor.”

Leary said this week’s celebrations were also an important part of the revitalisation of a “beautiful and endangered language, an opportunity to celebrate the new wave of cultural leaders who have bravely stepped out to make Rotuman arts relevant in a modern context”. She said the islanders were honouring their traditional practices, but added it was also a great excuse for Rotumans everywhere to get together as a community and have fun.

The president of the New Zealand Rotuman Fellowship Group, Maria Fuata, agreed. “It makes us unique in terms of a Pasifika people in Aotearoa New Zealand. It’s also not about promoting and teaching the language, it’s actually about preparing for the next generation which is the majority of our population. But also connecting that to our elders and making sure we pass that on in a safe but in a authentic way – not missing any of our genuine Rotuman knowledge and culture.”

Fuata said there was also a huge responsibility for all Rotumans to step up together to take that on.

The Rotuman Language Week ends on Saturday.

Next in the series of New Zealand Pacific Language Weeks is Samoan. The Vaiaso O Le Gagana Samoa kicks off on Sunday 30 May and runs until Saturday 5 June and coincides with Samoa’s 60 years as an independent state this year.

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