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Published Friday 12 May 2023

Noa'ia ‘e mauri! Welcome to Rotuman Language Week!

The theme for Rotuman Language Week 2023 is, Vetḁkia ‘os Fäega ma Ag fak hanua, which means Sustaining our Language and Culture.

The Rotuma is a nation and language not many people know about, with only 1,500 people living on the island, and less than 20,000 Rotuman’s around the world. This small pacific nation is presently in UNESCO’s Top 50 endangered race and cultures.

Going on those numbers, the chances of finding someone from that Island is not easy. But here at Capital, Coast and Hutt Valley, we are lucky to have tracked down Project Manager Capital Projects, Gabe Penjueli.

Born in Fiji, Gabe moved to Rotuma as a child with his parents who moved there for work.

Gabe, who speaks Rotuman fluently, describes Rotuma as a “small piece of paradise, just rich with everything”. He and his partner are cultural leaders for the Wellington Rotuman community, teaching dance and the language to others. It is their mission to educate others about Rotuma as Gabe understands they are a minority and that it is a very “complex” language. He also wants people to simply know his culture “exists”.

“Our key focus is to help our young ones and try and help them speak the language because it is a very complex language,” he said.

“My folks were very strict on us learning the language at home and we want to do the same for others so they use it in their homes too. It’s vital we do this because we are a minority race. Next to nobody knows about us. If you say to someone I’m from Rotuma, they’re most likely to say, “Where?” or, “I don’t know where that is.”

He went on to elaborate about the language saying there were multiple pronunciations for many letters on their own!

“Our language itself is so unique. For example, the letter ‘A’ alone, wherever you position the macron, apostrophe, or dot, can have eight different sounds or pronunciations. So it’s not an easy language to learn, and the way it’s written and designed, it’s tough to teach. So the long-term goal is to create a language teaching app to help others learn otherwise we will risk losing it all together.”

But once you’ve nailed the language however, Gabe does say it has its benefits.

“When you learn the language of Rotuma, you can pick up other languages more easily, such as Samoan and Tongan. Within the first six months I was here I could do a korero in Te Reo Māori. My Māori friends would say to me, how can you pick that up so quick and easy? I would say simply because of the Rotuman language.”

For Rotuman Language Week, the Pasefika sector at Capital, Coast and Hutt Valley, including Gabe, hosted a lunch for fellow colleagues. Members from the Projects team had never heard of Rotuma. He also put a small presentation together to educate them about his Island home.

The Wellington Rotuman group, who Gabe is a cultural leader for, will be performing some cultural dances at Te Papa tomorrow (Saturday, 13 May) at 10.30am and 2pm at Pataka Museum, Porirua. This day is a special day for it is when Rotuma was ceded to Great Britain.

Stay connected online by visiting the official NZ Rotuman Language Week Facebook page.