The Pasifika community: firmly planted in Melbourne’s west

The family friendly Nesian Rise Festival showcased the best that Pasifika culture offers.

A strong Pasifika presence in Tarneit is bringing together community through a vibrant community garden and cultural festivals.

Pacific Islanders have long traditions of telling stories through dance and patterns in carvings, tattoos and other artefacts to teach each other and the wider community about their heritage and culture.

These stories describe their creation, identity and the journey to their current lands to provide guidance for living in harmony with each other and the environment.

All with the biggest smiles you’ve ever seen

That’s what it means to be part of the Pasifika community, something that the people of Tarneit have experienced first-hand, thanks to the growing Pasifika presence in Melbourne’s west.

The word Pasifika is used to refer to the people, cultures, and language of Pacific Island groups, including Sāmoa, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Tonga, the Cook Islands, Niue, Tokelau, Tuvalu, and other smaller Pacific nations.

Tarneit is one of Melbourne’s fastest growing suburbs and the Pasifika presence there has grown steadily since the early 2000s. This has resulted in several large-scale community projects that have shaped the multicultural landscape of Tarneit.

From little things, big things grow

A local Pasifika community group have turned a modest patch of vacant grassland beside Tarneit’s Penrose Community Centre into a vibrant community garden. But it’s so much more than that.

‘This is a first of its kind for Pasifika communities of Australia - to have a space that we can connect to culturally,' said President of the Pasifika Community of Australia, Tonya Toi.

The fenced garden includes raised planter beds, sheds and water tanks, and a range of seasonal flowers, fruits and vegetables, as well as a cultural hut.

But this garden isn’t just bringing together Pasifika communities, it's bringing people together from all walks of life to cultivate and learn about food.

‘Although it's run and managed by the Pasifika Community of Australia, we have visitors from so many different backgrounds - people from Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Spain and many more,’ explained Tonya.

‘People walk past the garden to pick up their kids from school and can see that some of our crops are ready, so we invite them in to help themselves. Everyone is welcome.’

'Recently, two women - Somalian refugees - were walking past the garden and they could see that we were harvesting. We gave them some lettuce and corn, and they told us that they had never seen lettuce while it's still in the ground.’

‘We all looked at each other and thought, this is the whole purpose for this garden. We educate people on how to harvest, prepare and cook food. It’s a full circle experience. We were very humbled. It’s a small space, but what we do with it is incredible.’

Directly opposite the garden is the site of the Nesian Rise Festival, a Pasifika youth event which took place in January 2023. It was a large-scale showcase of the Pacific arts and culture through dance, fashion, music and food.

Pasifika youth sing out at Nesian Rise festival

Whether it’s traditional or alternative urban hip hop and R&B style – there's just something special about Pasifika music.

Something that young Pasifika music artists in Melbourne’s west are ready to share.

The family friendly Nesian Rise Festival showcased the best that Pasifika culture offers – delicious traditional food, cultural performances, dancing - there was even a siva afi (fire dance) workshop.

‘In the Pasifika community, when you hit the right note, it is contagious,’ said Tonya.

‘Around 5,000 people attended – we had live bands and DJs of all ages, but the performers were mostly Pasifika youth.’

‘The joy on the faces of our youth and the feeling of belonging was incredible. They now want to have a festival every week.’

This unique event brought together other community groups too.

‘Tarneit is a very diverse community. People from the Sikh and Indian communities came to enjoy the culture and food and music. We always support each other and enjoy each other’s events to learn more about another culture.’

The future

Off the back of the success of Nesian Rise, another Rise Up Youth Festival is planned for later in the year, as well as Carving with the Cops which will celebrate Pasifika culture and their strong relationship with Victoria Police in Melbourne's west.

'Through wood carving you can carve your stories, your emotions,’ explains Tonya. ‘Art and craft are individual to our individual countries. We learn from each other, united under the Pasifika umbrella.’

The Penrose Community Garden was made possible with a total of $170,000 in funding for its development and activation from the Victorian Government’s Tarneit Suburban Revitalisation Board, along with $90,600 in funding from Wyndham City Council.

The 3 festivals were made possible thanks to $200,000 in funding from the Tarneit Suburban Revitalisation Board with an additional $30,000 in in-kind contributions provided by Pasifika Community of Australia.

Learn more about the work of the Tarneit Suburban Revitalisation Program.