From humble beginnings in 1999 at a garage in Mangere, Akoteu Kato Kakala Early Childhood Education Centre is now a thriving establishment in Otara, thanks to the undeviating vision of Meleane Lolohea Pau'uvale.
For close to a decade, teachers and language advocates Meleane and husband Siosifa, who has since passed, worked tirelessly to set up the ECE at their South Auckland home, until their hard work paid off.
“In October 2004, the New Zealand Prime Minister at the time, Helen Clark, visited our garage to advise us of the successful funding to build our new centre in Otara,” Meleane says.
“What a blessing that was for us and our community, and on June 1, 2006, Akoteu Kato Kakala was licenced as a Tongan language nest in Otara for 33 children, and it is still going strong.”
From this initial establishment, Meleane says she and her team of educators have inspired new centres and new home-based centres, and the mentoring of parents, relatives and kainga, who have travelled down various career paths.
Born and raised in Ha'akio Tukulalo Olo’ua, Vava'u, Meleane spent much of her life in Tonga before moving to New Zealand.
After meeting her husband, the couple taught in Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga high schools for three decades before they relocated to Aotearoa, with their four children.
“We migrated here with our family to seek further educational opportunities for our children when our eldest finished high school – education has always been a part of us,” Meleane says.
On arrival to their new home, the couple did some relief teaching, and it was not long before Meleane realised the stark differences between New Zealand and Tonga.
“Parents were busy working and there were basic Tongan core values our children needed to learn, especially the Tongan language and culture.
“This is when I started a playgroup in our garage in our home in Mangere.
“I was fortunate to know a few Tongans at the Ministry of Education who helped me with the process, which made it a little easier to licence the playgroup in 1999.”
“I then started to look into taking courses, so I could become a registered teacher here in New Zealand.” Meleane worked tirelessly for over over 10 years in the garage to build the vision of Akoteu Kato Kakala.
With unwavering commitment from the Akoteu Kato Kakala team, the ECE has become the only Tongan centre to have received the highest recommendations from the Education Review Office (ERO) over consecutive years, she adds.
The centre is also constantly evolving due to the pandemic and the uncertainty it brings for in-person learning.
Akoteu Kato Kakala has recently launched a new app and digital resources; a kainga ako book, and a homework centre to celebrate the resilience and wellbeing of kainga ako (families, relatives, friends, community who are connected through ako).
Uike Kātoanga’i ‘o e lea faka-Tonga - Tonga Language Week (September 5-11) is always celebrated by Akoteu Kato Kakala, with art exhibitions and urging the community to proudly take part in language activities.
“Our role has always been to encourage our fanau and kainga ako to be confident in who they are as Tongan people.
“We would like to continue to build the Tongan koloa (treasures) so our children can grow up with abundance of koloa and feel koloa’ia (rich in Tongan values and cultures) that they are Tongans.”
This year, due to COVID-19 restrictions, the fifth of nine Pacific Language Weeks supported by the Ministry for Pacific Peoples (MPP) has been moved online.
Meleane says the centre has a week-long online programme planned, focused on holistic AKO, lotu and mana, Tongan food, talanoa, ta’ovala and Tongan attire, Tongan games and sport, tau’olunga and ‘umu and a celebration of luva kakala, where staff will showcase handicrafts and hand-made kakala made during Tonga Language Week.
“We are excited to experience a different way of celebrating Tonga Language Week this year,” Meleane says.
“COVID-19 should not be a barrier now but an opportunity to experience new avenues of learning we have never experienced before. It can only make us stronger - malie Tonga.”