Getting to Know Luamanuvao Dame Winnie Laban

Talofa! It is Samoan Language Week - Vaiaso o le Gagana Samoa from Sunday 30 May to Saturday 5 June. Gagana Samoa is the third most-spoken language in New Zealand after English and Te Reo Māori and half of all Samoans live in Aotearoa.

A year ago we had our first cafe chat with Luamanuvao Dame Winnie Laban and thought we'd catch up again. Dame Winnie is Assistant Vice Chancellor (Pasifika) here at Te Herenga Waka - Wellington Uni, a former Member of Parliament and Labour Party spokesperson for Pacific Island Affairs. 

We chatted to Dame Winnie about her ambitions for Pasifika students here at the University, her passion for education and the benefits of bilingualism. 


What’s your day job?

Assistant Vice Chancellor (Pasifika). My job is to build Pasifika student and staff success.


What's your connection to Vic Books?

I buy books, I drink the coffee and I meet lots of people for breakfast at Vic Books.


Last year you introduced us to your 'big' project, the Fale Malae, a 21st Century Pasifika meeting house and place of belonging for Pacific peoples and all New Zealanders. How are things progressing and what effect has Covid had on that project?

The COVID Pandemic has not slowed us. The Fale Malae project is advancing well and the site is now at the Frank Kitts Park and is now included in the WCC  long-term plan.


You are a Breast Cancer survivor and ambassador. In April this year, your Relay for Life team raised $11,000 for the Cancer Society of New Zealand. What benefits do these kind of experiential fundraisers have beyond just raising money?

The Relay brings together a wide range of people to participate in a common cause. The VUW team included students, staff and their family. Young and old; fit and unfit, all having fun and raising money for the Cancer Society.


We've just had Graduation including Pasifika Graduation which was its own celebration in the Hub. Is that your favourite time of year? 

Yes! Education is my passion. I love to see the joy of Pasifika students and their families at the University's Pasifika Graduation Celebrations.


The theme for this year's Samoan Language Week is "poupou le lotoifale, ola manuia le anofale" which means strengthen the posts of your house, for all to thrive. How do you see this theme in the context of Pasifika education? 

We need to become more aspirational and bold in our approach to Pasifika Education. We are strong when all our ‘aiga are strong, when our agencies are strong, and our teachers and lecturers are strong. No one should be left behind. We need to all work together to drive Pasifika education and success for all. 


How important are language weeks now? Shouldn't the celebration and support of Pacific language be an everyday thing?

We celebrate our Samoan language every day. 


The $108 million package for Pacific communities, was announced in the 2021 Budget last week, and is being classed as important protection of Pasifika culture. Were you pleased with the amount allocated to language and tertiary education? 

Yes. Language is important for the transmission of culture. It is good to see funding for the revitalisation of Pacific Island languages.

Winnie and the Relay for Life team. Photo: Image Services, Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

What are you reading at the moment?

Sista Stanup Strong - A Vanuatu Women’s Anthology published by Victoria University Press 


Are you enjoying it? Why?

I am thoroughly enjoying this book - it was a pleasure to launch it at Vic Books last week. And see just how much interest there was in it. The place was packed! 


What are your Samoan reading recommendations?

Everything by Albert Wendt. 

VUP is releasing a new book in Gagana Samoan, out soon!


Last year you recommended everyone read the works of Tusiata Avia. Avia became the first Pasifika woman to win an Ockham, New Zealand's most prestigious literary award, for her book The Savage Coloniser. How important is it to see Pasifika recognised nationally?

Totally important!


Which literary character do you most identify with and why?

The ‘sisters’ in the work of Audre Lorde. Bell Hooks and Maya Angelou.

Hardback or paperback?



Best thing about working from home?

The food


Favourite coffee? 

Caffe Latte at Vic Books!

Winnie at last year's Vic Books Christmas Party