Sione Taiala


Sione Taiala's portrait
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“We talk about being a coconut down here and we laugh about it, but I don’t say that in Auckland because some of our Polynesian people will be offended. Over here in Ashburton, it’s fun being a coconut. There’s nothing wrong about it. Coconut is the tree of life in the Pacific!”

Hailing from Tonga, Sione the motivator has built strong foundations for a life dedicated to success, based on the lessons of his upbringing and Christian experience. His eleven brothers and sisters were educated in a family of natural leaders, to parents who were staunch Wesleyan Methodists. Sione the traveler has sought knowledge and wisdom; two things which encouraged him to leave Tonga, first for Fiji and then for New Zealand. This is a trait which still prevails forty-one years later as he talks about his desire to empower the local Tongan community here in Ashburton through knowledge and education. Sione the man, has known love, loss and a lot of life.

He arrived in New Zealand in the early 1970s as a student, before finding love with ‘a nice young kiwi lady from Ashburton’. They were married and settled first in Auckland then moved to Ashburton twenty-nine ago. More than their love for each other, Sione and his wife Kay shared common dedication to service and leadership. She has now passed but Sione has kept this flame alive. He never relinquishes an opportunity to teach, empower and guide people around him; especially young Tongans.

Sione’s life in New Zealand was not always an easy journey. He tells us that he first experienced unemployment here. He remembers that his wife and himself had to go ‘on the dole’ for a short time after they relocated to Ashburton. This concept he explains, was one that was completely foreign to him. It was an idea that he ‘hated’, not so much because of his cultural heritage but because he came from a family who worked hard and who made things work. Few people outside Sione’s community in Ashburton know that his family was part of the foundations of his local village in Tonga. He humbly reminisces on the pivotal role that his family played in helping the village thrive and on the sense of responsibility that was inculcated in his brothers, sisters and himself from their childhood. It is not surprising then, that for such a proud Tongan, finding himself dependent on the state, even temporarily; was a difficult pill to swallow.

There is something about the way that Sione carries himself, something about his choice of vocabulary, something about the way he takes notes of his thoughts and the time that he takes to articulate them that reflects this the values he grew up with. MAF, now AsureQuality, gave him a good job twenty-nine years ago, but he is so much bigger than his employment, I think.  I suspect that he always was. Part of Sione’s dream is to encourage many ethnic migrants in rural and urban New Zealand to think beyond pigeon-holed manual labour and service roles mentality. He believes that migrants can in fact offer so much more. He firmly believes that migrants should use their prior achievements as positive foundations and stepping stones; especially for those from emerging or developing countries like Tonga, Nigeria or Latin America moving to core countries like New Zealand or Australia.

This is not to say that migrants are not given the same opportunities as local communities; however, the challenges to succeed are often much more diverse and difficult to overcome for a migrant. Migrants in New Zealand are still in a minority; yet, Sione thinks that one of the challenges to us thriving in New Zealand is what he calls the ‘minority-mindset’. Talking from experience, he explains that rather than giving up on ourselves and accepting an unfair status quo “migrants can learn by following previous migrants’ pathways. How did they succeed? After all, we’re a country of migrants.”

It has been predicted that migration will continue to grow exponentially in New Zealand, in the next five years and even more so in rural New Zealand. While migration has been steadily growing, the opportunities offered to migrants are still disproportionate to the skills, experience and expertise that migrants bring to the community. Sione worked hard all his life so that he could open the doors of opportunity to his children. When his family and himself moved back to Ashburton, they had to learn to adapt to being what he calls being an ‘extreme minority…among all the whites’. At that time, migration to rural New Zealand was practically inexistent and minorities were practically invisible. Moving to Ashburton from Auckland which comparatively had a large population of Pacific Islanders was certainly a culture shock! Nevertheless, it was one that Sione and his family welcomed. The Taialas were given many opportunities to thrive here; something that resonates with many migrants who move to Ashburton.  In 2004, his daughter Kalo became the first Tongan in the Ashburton community to graduate with university degrees. This is something that Sione is particularly proud of. His son, Caleb joined the police force and now his children have kept the flame of leadership alive; a legacy developed in Tonga, carried through to New Zealand and passed on to them through stories that Sione expertly weaves and most importantly; lives. Family has remained a strong pillar pf Sione’s sense of identity. He acknowledges the impact that his wife’s family’s undying love and ongoing support made to his family for so many years. This sense of kinship enabled him and his own family to overcome some of their life’s challenges.

Sione is currently working on historical research on Spiritual revivals in Tonga. This led to investigating archeological and anthropological theory and evidences; retracing the lineage of the Tongan Empire through to the Inca Trail. He has been researching this fascinating history and theory for seven years and hopes to write a book and share his findings with Tongans. He also hopes that he can lead Tongans by example to embrace everything that they are and everything that they can be once they understand that there are no prescribed boundaries as what they can achieve. Maybe you should ask him about it next time you see him…