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Professor teams with nephew to teach Samoan language to local children

Rowena Reid and students in black shirt and lavalavas in a classroom.
Rowena Reid teaching Tava’esina students.

It’s Saturday afternoon. Ceiling fans gently spin above about 100 children seated cross-legged on the La’ie Elementary Cafeteria floor. All heads face a single figure sitting just above them on the faded green steps, smiling as she softly prompts them to repeat after her. 

“‘Savalivali’ means go for a walk,” the children repeat in sing-song chant, squirming in their lavalavas and black T-shirts that display the name of their group, “Tava’esina.”

Tava’esina is a Samoan bird, explained Tofamamao “Semi” Taulogo, the group’s creator, who said he chose the name because of the accompanying Samoan proverb.

“E mamae le tava’e i ona fulu. It means the tava’e bird is proud of its feathers,” said Taulogo. “As Samoans, this is how we show our pride in our culture.”

The birth of  Tava’esina

The woman teaching is Taulogo’s aunt, Rowena Reid, assistant professor in the Center for Learning & Teaching, Distance Learning, Faculty of Sciences and Faculty of Culture, Language & Performing Arts. She has taught Samoan at BYU–Hawaii for more than 20 years.

“I’ve had a lot of requests from the community to teach Samoan for adults,” said Reid, who explained she could never find the time, despite a few tries here and there over the years.

After attending her grandchildren’s Polynesian dance recital, Reid said her passion for perpetuating Samoan language and culture was renewed.

“I thought, ‘What about Samoans? Come on. You’ve got to teach your own, your own language, your own dances.’”

Reid said she knew her nephew already wanted to teach dances, so the two of them combined forces and created Tava’esina, a Laie-based group for children and youth ages to learn Samoan language, dance and culture. 

Tofamamao Taulogo sitting on a stage with hands raised with children in front raising hands too.

They began by creating a website, tavaesina.com, to see if there was an interest, explained Reid, who said she was floored by the number of people wanting to sign up. 

“We were worried because there are a lot of kids, but the kids are so busy. You know you’ve got school. Then you’ve got games Saturday mornings, and now you’re going to ask them to come again at 1? And I thought, ‘Well, we’ll just wait and see,’” said Reid.

Taulogo, the driving force behind Tava’esina, described how the idea first came into his mind and the vision he has for its future. 

“It’s small right now. Just one hour. But I know it will grow.” He also explained how the gospel played a considerable role in the inspiration behind Tava‘esina. 

Taulogo shared he wondered for years what he was supposed to do with his life, and when he started coming back to church and “striving to do the little things,” ideas formed in his head. 

“I see this going on for a while. I see it building people and bringing everybody together, not only in culture but also through the Lord and the gospel.” 
“Everyone will probably see it as just a little dance group. If we do this how we’re supposed to and build it to where everyone is sharing their and talents with each other, then that will be wonderful.”

A platform for families

Children wearing black shirts and lavalavas lined up smiling in a room.

Taulogo explained his vision is for people from all over the community to share their knowledge and talents for everyone to benefit. “I’m just one person, but there are so many people in our community who teach and who don’t really have a platform, a place to share themselves,” said Taulogo.  

Most of the children who attend are Laie and Kahuku-based families with Samoan heritage. However, adding all are welcome, Taulogo said he was delighted a couple of women from Honolulu and Kaneohe also brought their children. 

Although the group has officially only met a few times so far, Reid shared how parents have already volunteered to help out, with one father stepping up to assist in teaching Samoan language to the youth.  

“I do notice some parents do strive to teach their kids,” said Taulogo. “But at the same time, I know sometimes they are just busy, and they don’t really have time to teach these kids. So, this is just to help bring everybody out and actually set a time slot aside to teach them.”

Joy Dela Cruz drives from Kahuku to bring her 6-year-old granddaughter, who is half Samoan and half Filipino-Caucasian, to Tava’esina every Saturday. 

“I love that she’s getting the exposure to that side of her culture,” said Dela Cruz. “She does get exposure, but this is more intentional teaching, as opposed to when [she’s] with [her] cousins [and] may not be as tuned in. But I think here she understands it’s a class, so her attentiveness to it is more than it might be in just a family setting.”

Reid explained she received many phone calls from parents after the group’s initial opening social, expressing their gratitude and saying they have meant to teach their children Samoan for years. 

Reid added her personal experience. Despite teaching Samoan on campus for more than 20 years, her children struggle to speak the language fully and have recently asked her to teach Samoan to her grandchildren.  

“For us coming from the islands for the first time in the mainland, you teach your kids English because that’s the language of the world,” explained Reid. 

“You have to learn English to communicate in business and school. So, you just speak English, and then you speak Samoan to whoever can understand you, like your mom or your sister. Then, you turn around and realize your kids don’t know Samoan. It’s kind of sad.”

A language of dance

Girl in black shirt and maroon lavalava sits cross-legged on the floor clapping hands with other children lined up beside her.

Reid shared how Tava’esina uses dance to show a love of learning Samoan language and culture.

“It was never a written language. You just learn through singing. That’s how we tell our stories. We don’t write it. We sing it,” said Reid, who explained how she plans to teach the children the words, pronunciation and meaning behind any song Taulogo decides to incorporate in their dances.  

Dela Cruz said she believes groups like Tava’esina are crucial. “I’m a teacher myself, so I know the importance to me of perpetuating culture with my students. I think it’s equally important to me for my granddaughter to identify with the language, practices and food – every part of it.”

She added her granddaughter loves it and looks forward to it every week because of the dancing and how Taulogo makes it fun for the kids. 

“Parents say, ‘Oh my child’s not a dancer,’” said Taulogo. “[But] everybody’s learning. I’m still learning. The teachers are still learning. Everybody’s learning at one time… just come.”

Due to coronavirus concerns, all Tave’esina activities have been canceled at this time. Check with the website tavaesina.com for contact information.