Women 'ignite a fire' to keep cultural traditions alive

A Tongan community group in New Zealand hope their efforts to make koloa, or cultural treasures, inspires other Pasifika community groups to explore and preserve their own cultures.

Akomai Heritage have recently completed a week-long interactive exhibition of the inner workings of a koka'anga (ngatu-making work party) with sprawling exhibits of beautiful finished pieces of Tongan ngatu or bark cloth and other koloa at the Te Papa museum in Wellington.

One of the founders of the group, Kaufo'ou Katoa-Taulata, said it stemmed from a desire to strengthen connections to their Tongan culture.

"Ngatu is embedded in every fibre of our culture and our heritage," Katoa-Taulata said.

"We are born into ngatu and we are buried with ngatu. We celebrate with ngatu and we also mourn with ngatu," she said.

Kaufo'ou Katoa-Taulata said their journey of rediscovery began in 2017.

"This started three-and-a-half years ago when we, the women's fellowship of the St John's Uniting Church, came together and we started doing little displays and little workshops and little heritage jobs."

Katoa-Taulata said they started out learning how to make ceremonial baskets and blankets.

"Then we started thinking, 'let's go bigger; we have seen these smaller things being made overseas but we haven't seen a ngatu being made outside of Tonga', the real authentic ngatu."

To help realise this vision Katoa-Taulata said they reached out to the elders in their own families.

"We have the resources and the knowledge of our mothers who are gold and so we decided, 'let's use our mothers to the fullest and to the best of their capacity' while they are still alive and strong enough to impart that knowledge to us."

Katoa-Taulata said that is how the name Akomai Heritage was chosen. "Literally it is the cry to say 'mothers teach us. Teach us to know and teach us to teach others'."

And there are many others, of all ages, involved in Akomai.

The group's entire ngatu making process from the pounding of the hiapo (mulberry tree bark) to the rubbing, joining and dyeing of the feta'aki (bark paper) on the papa (convex table) covered with kupesi (pattern boards) to the final painting of the ngatu involved three generations of Tongan families.

One of the teenage contributors, Daphnie Katoa, said at first she did not understand the significance of what she was being taught.

"When we first started, I was like 'what is this for? I don't need to be here. I don't know how to do it' but then as we went on I realised that the reason for our weekly gatherings for this koka'anga was to teach us so that we can carry it on and teach other people."

Now Katoa said she feels blessed to have taken part.

The largest ngatu on display at the Te Papa exihibition was the church launima almost 23 metres in length and four metres in width.

It was so long it that it was only stretched out to its full length for the opening of the exhibition.

Most of the designs and geometric patterns on the ngatu displayed were distinctly Tongan such as the floral motif called the koesei, the kingdom's coat of arms and the kanoa.