Mentor draws on Tongan roots

23:34, Sep 10 2012

Emeline Afeaki-Mafile'o has created a unique Pasifika approach to mentoring young people that is especially adapted to migrant families.

She has established an enterprise that employs a team of young Pasifika people to provide mentoring support and life-skills education to hundreds of young students in South Auckland.

Two out of every five children born in the Auckland area are from Pasifika ethnic groups, with the six major groups comprising Samoan, Cook Island, Tongan, Fijian, Niuean and Tokelauan. Figures show that 60 per cent of these people were born in New Zealand, and by 2026 they will make up 12 per cent of New Zealand's workforce.

Unfortunately these Pasifika people have the lowest qualification levels of any ethnic group in the country. This is related to the high percentage of Pasifika young people who leave school with little or no formal attainment. Mentoring is a way to help address these gaps in achievement, and it also helps create a bridge from the opportunities and resources of schools to the lives of local families and their communities.

Afeaki-Mafile'o is a New Zealand-born Tongan (Kolofo'ou and Ha'apai), Samoan (Falefa and Savelalo) and Maori (Ngati Awa). She was raised in the Mangere suburb of South Auckland, and has been involved in youth work in the area since the age of 19.

She worked with various social service agencies as she studied and completed three degrees - a Bachelor of Social Work (with honours), a postgraduate Diploma in Social Sciences, and a Masters of Philosophy in Social Policy.


At the age of 25, Afeaki-Mafile'o began Affirming Women, a support services agency that would connect local young women with role models who could mentor and educate them in various life skills. In particular, she targeted those young women who were seen as being 'at-risk' because they were identified as being involved in teenage prostitution or had suicidal tendencies.

In the early days of her agency, Afeaki-Mafile'o ran the services from a two-bedroom unit (belonging to a grand-aunt) in Papatoetoe. She survived without government funding, relying instead on donations and church tithes. Affirming Women proved successful, gained attention and government contracts soon followed.

The agency expanded its services to also include mentoring to young men, and children, and the business name was changed to Affirming Works. Afeaki-Mafile'o moved into a larger Papatoetoe home in order to accommodate her growing team of Pasifika mentors. Within a short time, more than 400 students each year were participating in an Affirming Works mentoring programme in a South Auckland school.

The mentoring process reaches into areas that are not usually accessed by our formal education system. It helps young people establish goals and learning journeys that are woven into a wider context of their communities and cultures.

It was from reflecting on her own journey of exploration into self, cultural and community identity that led Afeaki-Mafile'o to create the innovative Affirming Works approach to mentoring.

A major influence, while growing up, was attending an English-speaking, predominantly Pacific Island church.

The dominant Pasifika cultures within the congregation included her own Tongan culture, which taught her 'to unashamedly identify myself as a product of Tongan communality, and as a descendant of the Pacific's oldest kingdom'.

Her main mentor and role model throughout her life has been her paternal grandmother, Emeline Francis Afeaki. This grandmother was an English- Samoan woman who married a Tongan husband and had 12 children. She then left Tonga and emigrated to New Zealand, worked three jobs, and brought all her children and her husband out to settle in South Auckland.

'My grandma has always been my motivation, partly because I am named after her and also because, if I made a name for myself, I felt she would be proud and honoured,' Afeaki-Mafile'o says. 'She was one of those ladies that, even though she had over 60 grandchildren, 20 great grand- children and three great-great- grandchildren, she managed to make you feel you were her favourite. That's how I try to make all my young people in my programmes feel - special.'

Affirming Works has created a collective model of mentoring which is designed to support the holistic development of any young person, irrespective of their ethnicity. Mentors assess the needs of the young people and organise the encouragement and activities designed to bring into fullness the talents and skills of each individual. A team of specialist mentors is also available - such as a psychologist or social worker, a literacy and numeracy tutor, or perhaps a sporting or educational coach. Almost all the Affirming Works mentors are fluent in their own Pasifika languages, but the mentoring involves much more than just dialogue. The mentors are expected to be role models who are actively demonstrating the shared Pasifika principles of love, respect, humility and support.

'These values form the basis of how our Pasifika mentoring is structured. We explain that the programme is lifestyle-led, which means we employ mentors who are themselves role models and 'walk the talk' of their expectations for the young people,' Afeaki-Mafile'o says.

The main mentoring programme offered through Affirming Works is called Tupu'anga (to grow from your roots) and it is delivered to Year 11-13 high school students.

In the years 2006-2008, more than 300 students were on the Tupu'anga mentoring programme in high schools, and 95 per cent of these students either remained in school, or made successful transitions into higher education or the workforce.

An alumni association of former students who had been through the various Affirming Works mentoring courses has been established.

'We wanted to make sure that the young people were finishing university, or finishing the places that we were helping them to transition into,' Afeaki-Mafile'o says.

'This group meets every fortnight in our offices, and we are encouraging them to take more of a leadership role where they can give us feedback on our programmes, and tell us what has been useful for them.'

In 2010, Affirming Works moved its premises into a former cafe in Otahuhu, partly to save money because of the reduction of government funding to schools for the mentoring schemes.

Meanwhile, Afeaki-Mafile'o and her family returned home to Tonga on one of their regular trips to reconnect with relations. While there, they thought they would buy some Tongan-grown coffee for use in their Otahuhu cafe.

A call to the Royal Coffee business led to a change of direction. The person on the phone asked her: 'Are you interested in buying the coffee? . . . or would you like to buy the coffee business?' It turned out that the firm was being auctioned off in a liquidation sale.

Afeaki-Mafile'o and her family put in a bid, and quickly found themselves as the new owners of the business.

Back in New Zealand, the management of the Affirming Works programmes was handed over to one of the mentors, while Afeaki-Mafile'o and her husband shifted their family home back to Tonga to concentrate on the new business.

The name of the coffee has been changed to Tupu'anga, and the business has been re-established as both a fair trade and social enterprise. By roasting the Arabica beans before they sell them, the business is also able to pay local farmers a fair price above the world-wide coffee commodity rate. They are also able to employ many more Tongan workers on the coffee farms, and in the roasting and packaging of the coffee.

A substantial amount of coffee is exported monthly to Affirming Works in South Auckland, and is sold to assist with the cost of delivering the Tupu'anga youth mentoring programmes.


How Communities Heal

Affirming Works is at

Tupu'anga Coffee is at

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