Tufuga: A voice for her people

Stories / Tufuga: A voice for her people

Her full name is Tufuga Holatu Lagatule and at 75 she has a lot to be proud of.

At the age of 17 she arrived alone in Wellington from her small village in Niue. It felt like she’d landed on another planet. Now she’s the matriarch of a family into its fourth generation. Tufuga has been, still is, a tireless advocate for Pasifika people in her adopted home city of Christchurch.

Perhaps the key lies in her name. “’Tufuga Holatu’ has to do with orators, and carries the meaning of ‘always moving forward.’”

At a time in her life when she’d be forgiven for sitting back and reflecting on her many achievements, which include being awarded a QSM in 1988, and being made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2008 for her work with Pacific communities, Tufuga’s still on the move, albeit with the help of a walking frame, a wheelchair and an obliging driver. For wherever Pasifika people are gathered in Christchurch, Tufuga Lagatule is likely to be among them. Tufuga audio

Mum’s retired? Yeah right!

Tufuga is possibly among the liveliest of residents in her comfortable home unit – one of a quiet eight-unit Housing New Zealand complex in Papanui, solid enough to have withstood the earthquakes that have damaged so much of Christchurch. She has seemingly remained solid despite a number of major changes lately. She was widowed two years ago after 50 years of marriage, one of her sons packed up his family to move to Australia after the earthquake of February 2011 to become the fourth of his siblings to live overseas, and she’s still gaining her strength after an illness from which she was not expected to recover.

Her daughter Audrey lives close enough to come and help prepare a regular meal for her mother, bringing with her three-year-old Peyton, the great-grandchild who is obviously the apple of Grandma Tufuga’s eye. It is her great-grandchildren, the fourth generation, who give her the most enjoyment and satisfaction at this time of her life. She has 18 of them at last count, and 15 grandchildren.

“They come here and they keep me alive, especially this little one,” she says indicating Peyton, who is quietly watching TV.

Tufuga describes herself as a “retired” social worker – the ‘r’ word delivered very much in verbal inverted commas.

As one of very few Pacific Islands people, let alone Niueans, living in Christchurch, she has for decades been a prominent go to person for that city’s Pacific community. Even after her near-death experience in March last year which saw the family gathered at her hospital bedside and her life support turned off, Tufuga, a woman of strong faith, says she felt the Lord was just saying: “It’s not your time, you’ve still got a lot of work to do.”

“It was a miracle to us that she came back to us,” Audrey says as Tufuga chuckles: “I woke up in the morning and said, ‘What’s wrong with you people, where’s my toast? I’m hungry!’”

“We’d ideally like Mum to sit back and relax, but that’s not Mum,” Audrey adds. “No one seems to know that Mum’s retired. Anything to do with the Pacific community, they still come to Mum for advice.”

Finding her voice

Life as a Niuean in New Zealand has given Tufuga plenty of opportunities to hone her advocacy skills. She and her then husband-to-be worked in Wellington factories before moving to Christchurch in the late 1950s, where they married and raised their family of six.

She remembers the decades through to the 1970s as extremely tough ones for Pasifika people. Most were doing menial jobs, in factories, cleaning toilets or gutters so their children could have a better life. “They were treated as second-class citizens,” Tufuga says, “especially during the dawn raids by immigration.” She recalls that as a very scary time where you had to carry identity papers even though Niueans, unlike those from other islands, were New Zealand citizens. To the authorities all Pacific Islanders looked alike.

“You were made to feel like a nuisance and the attitude was, ‘Go back to where you came from, this is not your country.’” It awakened something in Tufuga. “I was not going to let all these people say these things to me. I just gave it back to them.” She learned where and how to fight her battles, which agencies to go to for support for her people, and how to establish services.

“I won’t say I’m a spokesperson – but I’m a person who gets angry when things are not happening for our people,” she says. “I have always said Auckland people have the capacity, because of the bigger Pacific population, to get things. In Christchurch and further south we don’t have that jelly and ice cream like they do; we’ve got to fight for it all the time.”

Going the extra mile

Tufuga’s role as a social worker in Christchurch was a pioneering one. There was no template for Pacific Island services during the 1970s and even into the 1980s, when she found herself working for what is now Child Youth & Family.

“I tell you what, I was a doctor, I was a nurse, I was a teacher, I was a social worker, I was a minister – all those things,” she says.

She remembers having to put her job on the line several times, going the extra mile to get help for Pacific families. Like the time when she successfully persuaded a local chemist to help out a couple with a baby who turned up at her office with their newborn wrapped in a towel. “They had nothing,” she recalls.

Another long-term role was 17 years as Pacific representative on the District Parole Board where she had a particular interest in the welfare of women prisoners, often arranging for them to be sent closer to their families.

The church has always been a huge priority in Tufuga’s life, and she’s held office as an elder of the New Zealand Presbyterian Pacific Island Council. She’s also been a cultural advisor to the Ministry of Social Development and Child Youth and Family, and convenor of the Pacific Reference Group for the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology. She’s always taken a strong interest in what happens in Niue, with its tiny population of around 1200, compared with around 22,000 Niueans in New Zealand, and has travelled back there several times over the years.

Matua groups

Nowadays she’s a leading light in Christchurch’s matua groups, most based around the individual island ethnicities, which aim to bring older people together. Older people’s needs are quite high, Tufuga says, adding that a lot of her generation are shy and often won’t speak up for their rights.

“That’s where I come in. If I don’t open my mouth and yell, they don’t see us as needy people.” She uses the metaphor of making frangipani leis to explain the need for inclusion.

“Those leis are never to be broken; if you break the lei and there’s one frangipani out, you need to bring that frangipani back into the lei – it’s always that circle. So when you see something’s wrong with the older people, you make sure that’s it’s not going to happen again.

“The matua groups here are very active – they have speakers coming to talk about their health and wellbeing and exercise. They’re learning how to eat the right foods, and the wrong foods not so much, learning how to keep warm – all the safety things that we are not familiar with; and in their own languages, that’s the good thing about it.”

The other thing about the matua groups that’s important to Tufuga is that the elders can travel down memory lane together and tell their stories about coming to New Zealand and about their home islands. She is eager that those stories have an audience – that they are passed on to the grandchildren and great-grandchildren, the New Zealand-born generations. For this reason the small Niuean matua group includes children like Peyton.

“It’s a continuing legacy for the generation to come, for the future and survival of Niue as well as the culture. It’s important that they don’t forget they are Niueans; they don’t forget they have a language, they don’t forget that their roots are back in Niue,” she says.

The cycle of life

“Sometimes I do have concerns about growing older,” Tufuga says. “I feel, oh my goodness how many more years? That I’ll be moaning that I couldn’t do something, that I’ll probably go to a home! These things do go through your mind – it’s natural for you to think this way, but you do not live by it, and you cannot dwell on it. You always find a positive corner of your thinking mode.

“Each year, another comes with new things. There’s no reason for anybody to be unhappy about it or feel sad about it, because that’s what the cycle of life is all about. You get older and another crop grows. So our great-grandchildren will grow into a sense of knowing that this is what Grandma has left us, this is what Grandma always talked to us about, and they can have a laugh about it.”

Ageing positively

Asked about the key to successful ageing, Tufuga doesn’t hesitate. “To be myself,” she says emphatically. “Never to be anything else than yourself, and to help others who are less fortunate than yourself. Age positively – be happy! There are a lot of lonely people on this earth and there is a lot that you can do. Try not to be lonely. Find somewhere where you can get somebody – your neighbours, your club wherever you go, share your time with them and not think of yourself only.”

Although she doesn’t deny the importance of money, Tufuga says material things have no real importance in her life. There was a time when she would have liked to own a house but that was not to be. “I just take what I have and thank God every moment for providing. If I’m comfortable, I’m happy.”

She is grateful to have her family’s support, but doesn’t hold so much with the traditional attitude that it’s a duty to look after parents. “That’s back home,” she says, “but it’s still practised here. What I don’t like to see is us old people making our children feel guilty that it’s their job to look after us. My children helped me because they saw the need. They will help me get back my energy so it enables me to do little things that I can do.

“I don’t have a bucket list. I grab a day, each day as it opens. I grab the opportunity and what I do with it – that will be the important thing. The Lord gave me a second chance and how grateful I am because he saw what was good in me, and he allowed me to live and put into place all these things. I think now I am much wiser than I was – I’m 76 this year. A bit of wisdom is kicking in!”

This story is part of a series exploring retirement wellbeing. The series is one way the Mental Health Foundation helps people prepare for a later life that has meaning, purpose and joy.