Kautaha: a strengths-based approach to building health and wellbeing
Pacific families and communities are taking increased control over their wellbeing and future, with initiatives such as Whanau Ora and Fanau Ola. With this trend comes a corresponding need to better understand the philosophies of these indigenous cultures.
Here HPF Executive Director Sione Tu’itahi explores kautaha: one of the underlying concepts that inspire and inform the Māori and Pacific view of self-sufficiency and self-determination.
Kautaha is a model for working together towards a common goal. It is underpinned by a set of related and coherent principles that takes a unified approach and focuses on strengths, potential, and solutions rather than on accentuating problems and deficits. For these reasons the kautaha approach has been highly effective across history and could be successfully adapted to collective endeavours such as Fanau Ola, socio-economic and community development.
Kautaha is a Tongan term and a Pacific concept with several layers of meaning. Its Samoan equivalent is ‘aufa’atasi. The Māori synonym iskotahitanga.
The concept and practice of kautaha seems to draw on the collective nature of Tongan culture, which is also a common feature of other Pacific cultures. The approach is strengths-based and complementary rather than being competitive and adversarial. It promotes striving for excellence and the common good of all. The final outcome is a more equitable distribution of wealth and wellbeing.
In the Tongan context, one definition of kautaha is that of a group of people or parties who agree to work collaboratively in order to achieve their common purpose. In Tonga ‘ufi (yam) farmers in the village would come together and form a collective labour force (kautaha toungaue) that moved around and tended the yam garden of each member. Similarly, the women would form a kautaha toulalanga or koka’anga/kautaha of weavers or tapa makers.
On a regional level, a few decades back, some of our great tufunga (nation builders) established a kautaha, now called the Pacific Islands Forum, so that they could talanoa (talk) more freely about our political and socio-economic needs as island nations.
Unity in diversity is a philosophy that embraces biological and cultural diversity as essential to human existence. Unique differences are seen not only as inherent characteristics and rights but also appreciated as strengths to be respected, celebrated and utilised for the collective good[i].
To illustrate the efficacy of unity in diversity, let us briefly look at two examples. First, all human organs and body parts are of different shape and form and they all have different functions. But they all contribute to one purpose: the wellbeing of the whole human being. Second, cultural and ethnic groups of the world may be different in colour, shape and form, but they all belong to the human race and are dwellers of one planet. They have a choice to share their collective, common, global resource in order to live together, or they continue to squabble over it and, consequently, die together.
Importantly also within the process of kautaha, is the central principle of va(space)[ii]. The maintaining of that relational space (tauhi va) guards the wellbeing and progress of the individuals as well as the collective .
The kautaha approach is effective when its underpinning principles are adhered to, and used to inform the practice.
Some of these principles are: angatonu (integrity), fefaka’apa’apa’aki (mutual respect), lelei fakakatoa (collective good), tukupa (commitment), tu’unga tatau (equality), and tuha mo taau (equity).
The word and its meaning
Analysed linguistically, kautaha is made up of two related but distinct root words. The first is kau – to belong, to join, to participate, or to become a partner. The second is taha – to collectively unite, to become one, to collaborate.
In one sense, kau reflects an invitation by a caller, and a choice of the called to join, or not to join. Taha implies that the intention of the caller is to collaborate with the invitees, and to work in unity towards a common purpose which will serve the common good.
The invitees are expected to subscribe to the same set of values and goals. In another sense, kautaha means coming together to talanoa[iii] (talk) and then agree to collaborate on common needs and aspirations. There are no callers and there are no called. While all are equal collaborators, this is not to say that kautaha means unity by conformity or uniformity. Rather, kautaha is about unity in diversity.
Kautaha offers us a model of unity and cooperation that empowers and benefits all members of the cooperative. It is a valuable concept of Whanau Ora and can be applied across a wide range of health promotion initiatives.
[i] Pacific Islands Forum. (2005) The Pacific Plan, Pacific Islands Forum, Suva
[ii] Mahina, ‘O. (2004). Reed Book of Tongan Proverbs, Auckland, Reed Publishing (NZ) Ltd
[iii] Manu’atu, L. (2000). Tuli ke Ma’u Hono Ngaahi Malie: Pedagogical possibilities for Tongan students in New Zealand secondary schooling, unpublished Doctoral thesis, University of Auckland, Auckland
By: Sione Tu’itahi
Edited by: Jo Lawrence-King