E.P.I.C Langafonua – Empowering Pasifika communities in Melbourne
Strongly inspired by her Tongan heritage, Elisapeta Vavalo Vaihu – also known in the community as Malia Vavalo Vaihu – decided to set up a playgroup for Pasifika children in her local community in Melbourne.
As a full-time home maker and a mother of nine children aged between 3 and 16 years, Elisapeta Vavalo truly understands the challenges that come with staying connected to one’s culture whilst also embracing life in Australia.
“It’s a constant juggling act. There’s a real need to be able to navigate and understand how to manage it.” she said.
In 2015, when she started setting up the playgroups, Elisapeta Vavalo was supported by local churches, community group Japara Community Centre in Yarra Ranges and local primary schools. The idea evolved into what is now an established organisation – E.P.I.C Langafonua.
With the continued support of the Pasifika communities and the additional support of the local Casey Council which helped support the second playgroup, E.P.I.C Langafonua expanded to provide education, advocacy and translation services.
E.P.I.C is an acronym which stands for ‘Empowering Pasifika in Community’ – the central mission of the organisation. The second word Langafonua loosely translates to ‘forging the land’.
“It encapsulates the spirit of determination that many Pacific families can relate to when they settled in a foreign country, setting up a future for families and for their children,” Elisapeta Vavalo Vaihu explained.
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As a firm believer in the power of education, Elisapeta Vavalo explained that playgroups are a great starting point to foster cultural connection at home and to bridge the gap between the two worlds. The playgroups were originally started to encourage Pacific families and communities to maintain their native languages and connections to their culture.
The playgroups involve not only young children with Tongan heritage but also those of other Pacific Islander backgrounds, including Niuean, Samoan, Tuvaluan and Papua New Guinean. Elisapeta was looking at a more inclusive way of engaging those from the Pacific Islands as a way of reaching out and storytelling.
Through this process, she developed strong connections with many other Pacific mothers, and together they began to offer cultural dancing classes for young girls, music workshops for under-fives and educational programmes at local schools.
“It was just a joy to meet with parents and make contact with them and know that it was genuinely making an impact somewhere, especially for our young children.”
Since starting the playgroups five years ago Elisapeta Vavalo has had the opportunity to develop partnerships with community centres museums kindergartens and primary schools. E.P.I.C is also leading the Victorian Museum’s Pasifika section for their annual ‘Romp and Stomp’ program.
Elisapeta Vavalo has developed a strong understanding of what the Pacific community needs in order to achieve a real sense of belonging. For example, she has worked with adult children of first generation immigrants who are now starting their own families, and explained that many of these young families struggle to stay in touch with their heritage.
“We can instil in our people the legacy of our Pacific ancestors as navigators. That means not only adapting to living here in Australia which we can be proud of, but also holding onto the uniqueness of our position. In essence it goes back to what the acronym stands for – empowering each other.
EPIC Langafonua has also partnered with Little Ocean Voyagers to deliver a creative and interactive Pasifika-inspired programme for youngsters learning about cultures of the world.
“My experience as a Lead Educator and Co-ordinator in early childhood settings both in NZ and now Australia, I can’t stress enough the importance of the work groups such as E.P.I.C aims to to deliver. I observe that identity is at the heart of the struggle of our Pasifika trying to juggle both their heritage and the western culture they live in. Without these Pasifika playgroups childcare centres and programs we are setting our own children to fail in this society. The morals & values that have been set before us by our ancestors they are important tools for our people to be able to draw on. E.P.I.C ‘s work is a way that our communities can tap into these tools. Such settings can only be beneficial to help bridge a gap”. – Rosemary Fisiihoi-Mann – Pasifika Educator (Melbourne).
To learn more about E.P.I.C Langafonua visit their Facebook HERE.