Teu le Va

Teu le va is a Pasifika concept that encapsulates the most critical component of engagement with Pasifika peoples. Having a sound understanding and putting this principle into practice will improve your engagement and outcomes with Pasifika communities. Let’s take a look at the literal and metaphorical meanings of this phrase:

Teu means to beautify, cherish, nurture, and care for.

le va means the space between; the relationship.

Therefore, the literal meaning for ‘teu le va’ is to care for the space in between.

The va is both a physical and spatial dimension, as well as a conceptual or relational space. Pasifika academic and poet, Emeritus Professor Albert Wendt ONZ, Samoan poet and writer, put it this way:

In your own culture, is the space between people as well as inanimate things seen as empty, or does it hold meaning?

Whatever your answer to the above question, can you reflect on how the opposite of your culture will impact on your worldview, relationship-formation and relationships?

As has been covered in previous modules, relationships are critical in Pacific cultures. Again, some say that in western societies that ‘knowledge is power’, and that the equivalent for Pasifika communities is “family is power”. The importance of family and community often shape how Pasifika peoples make their decisions.

Essentially, the concept of ‘teu le va’ can be used as a guiding principle to effectively engaging with Pasifika peoples – the underlying principles include:

  • the need to directly involve Pasifika peoples, their families and communities in the development of strategies/proposals/plans
  • ongoing collaboration between key stakeholders across disciplines in order to build a sound knowledge base
  • ensuring that any strategy/plan/research is relevant for a range of audiences (e.g. parents, communities, workers, etc)
  • to ensure the focus of the strategy/plan/research is to focus on success, realising potential, fostering agentic behaviour and identifying opportunities.
ANAE, M. ‘Teu le va: a Samoan relational ethic’. In Special Issue: Indigenous Knowledge: Past, Present, Future, Knowledge Cultures 2016, Vol.4, Issue 3 pp.117

‘Teu le va’ hightlights that before providing ‘interventions’ or imparting ‘knowledge’, the bridge of trust must be built. This is what it means to “teu le va” – or to nurture the space between.  Herein lies the reason why strengths-based engagement is vital. Firstly, it provides a positive platform upon which to build trust, and secondly, this will also provide an avenue for solutions and new ideas to be co-constructed, so that your clients feel valued, validated and that they have ownership in those solutions.

Teu Le Va – Auckland Museum Pacific Dimension 

Remembering Pasifika peoples are collective is always helpful when seeking to engage – if working with an individual, consider who that individual is inextricably linked to (related by blood/lineage, nuclear/extended family, other social links such as church, community, peers and friends etc). You may not need to engage all of them but enquiring about those to whom they are connected by va or space will assist you.

Also, the va concept can also provide insight into influencing factors on your clients decision-making. Your client may make decisions that prioritise their families, friends or church leaders etc, because they are maintaining the space in between their relationships – and often because those same people have prioritised them in order to teu le va too.

Building rapport and trust will only help your engagement. Showing humility and asking questions will always help – including questions around your client’s world that is broader than your direct reason for making contact. For example, if you are a health professional, asking a client about his/her children, their ages, interests etc show a genuine and broader interest.

Some ways you can show humility in Pasifika cultures is by:

  • taking off your shoes for a home visit;
  • attempting to pronounce names correctly and checking if you have;
  • ensuring you are either standing or sitting at eye-to-eye level with your client (especially if they are sitting, it is considered rude and condescending to stand and talk down to them);
  • bending/crouching if you walk past them
  • having some Pasifika art/ornaments/etc on display in your office to show prior connection and interest
  • if appropriate, provide food for larger scale events remembering that the underpinning principles of eating together is relationship and reciprocity. Therefore, if it is a smaller-scale event or food is not appropriate, try and offer something as a form of value-exchange (e.g. merchandise, stationery etc?).

Teu le va highlights how relationships are key to successful engagement. It also shows why Pasifika peoples have a special, intimate relationship with land and other inanimate things that may seem strange for people from outside of their cultures. Often there is a deep, cultural explanation as to why this is so – much of it underpinned by the importance of “teu le va”. The same concept is conveyed in the Tuvaluan culture:

Before you move on, watch this TEDx Talk by Maori leader Tame Iti – a Maori “activist” who provides an insight into how his own strategies in dealing with the Government were underpinned by Maori tikanga or principles – a speech which highlights many of the elements and principles of this section. 

Tame explores how the old saying of “Te ka nohi ki te ka nohi” (Dealing with it eye to eye) creates a far more productive space for open dialogue around any issue.


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