We are excited to introduce you to an emerging Tongan researcher, Linda Palavi. Over the last few years, Linda has transformed her upbringing and lived experience supporting fanau in becoming smokefree, by undertaking a thesis which explores the experiences of Tongan women in cessation support services. I learnt a lot from Linda, particularly around the unique tikanga and values of Tongan culture which she described to me as an enabler for fanau wanting to engage in cessation support services.  

Kia ora Linda, I’ve been really looking forward to talking to you and learning your story. Perhaps we can start by you sharing where you’re from? 

I was born and raised in Pt Chev, Auckland- which I know is an odd place for Tongan people to grow up! I have three brothers and have lived with my parents all my life. My dad migrated here from Tonga when he was 16 or 17, and my mum in her early twenties. They came here for a better life, not just for them, but for their kids- especially in education and in work, and I’m proud to be working in an area today that will hopefully help others in our Tongan community.


It sounds like celebrating your Tongan whakapapa is a big part of the work you do too?

Being Tongan is a big part of who I am with my cultural upbringing- it’s played a big part in the person I am- the value of fanau (family), our language which is so similar to Māori. 

To me, being Tongan is about maintaining and respecting relationships. This is something I’ve taken from my culture to my work.

The roles you play within a Tongan community are really unique to our culture, particularly the leadership of women. There’s a strong hierarchy in our families which is celebrated in our practices. The brother/ sister relationship is really important where it’s the sister who has the final say (tauhi va). 

The relationship to our aunties is also important and they have a special role in my life, as my dad’s sisters. They act as another female role model. That’s why you’ll see the groom in Tongan weddings give a cake to the dad’s sister(s) to recognise the relationship.

There’s also a cultural ideal of a Tongan woman - a ‘good’ girl who’s well behaved, which makes me question our smoking statistics because I wonder how correct they are [laugh]. That’s one reason I was interested in doing research in this area because I wondered how accurate these studies were for our women and I understand the importance of talking woman to woman, to understand their lived experience and reality.


And I guess that brings us to your research, because I know you’ve looked at the experiences of Tongan women in smoking cessation services- why was this topic important for you?

For me, I come from a family of women who smoke. My mum had smoked since she was 16, and she’s now in her fifties. I grew up around my aunties and mum outside smoking, smoking after church. It’s a way of connection- catching up, gossip [laughs]. But we all know the harms of smoking, and so did my mum- she’d tried everything to quit and wasn’t able to, so I was interested to understand the services available to her- how they operate and how much support they are able to offer to Tongan women like her.


Interesting- what did you find?

I think the biggest finding for me is that we need to utilize culture within health. We overlook culture as a tool to improve services. For example, like using the role that Tongan women have as leaders within their family to encourage better use in services - if a Tongan woman comes into it’s a service for support, are their older, knowledgeable women to support her and act as role models? 

I think it’s easy to point out all the things that aren’t working, but the solutions can be harder to find because we’ve become so institutionalized. For Tongan women, there’s no one simple solution. We have to recognize all the social determinants, like poverty, education, class, and culture.

How we understand and conceptualise health should be a big part of how services should be run- if it’s a pasifika service, it should be run to use pasifika health models. Life revolves around the family, so in essence it means moving away from a Eurocentric model to fanau as the model of health.


Very true, and something I can recognise being Māori.  How have you grown or changed as a result of doing this work?

Well I actually think it’s had the biggest impact on my mum- after thirty years of trying to stop smoking, she actually quit because of me starting my thesis. My mum was my motivation- she tried all services, patches, but she just went cold turkey after seeing how passionate I was about this work. We’d been trying to get her to stop smoking her whole life, and after my research, she was inspired to quit.

I think she could see how passionate I am about it- how angry I was at the system and how annoyed I was at service delivery failing my fanau.


That’s pretty amazing, and I think it demonstrates your point about whānau being the model and solution for health

Exactly. Change will occur when family and familial relationships are the model. My mum’s doctor has been telling her to stop her whole life- you might be educated about health in general but are you a role model that the community wants to turn to for support?


It sounds like you’ve been an inspiration to your mum with her health. What are your dreams and aspirations for you and your fanau?

I want to turn the tide on our health- I don’t want Māori and Pasifika to have the worst stats. It’s that injustice that drives me to do this work.

I want to continue in research. I didn’t understand how important health research is, and how it can change the system. You have an important voice which can be translated into service delivery.

My dream for my fanau and for all Pasifika is to have services which recognize our health rights and needs. I want healthy Pasifika people.