When Samakau Penivao wore a traditional black sulu to school he was sent to the principal's office because it wasn't part of the uniform.

But instead of getting in trouble, the Whangārei Boys' High School student was encouraged by principal Karen Gilbert-Smith to write something to the Board of Trustees so the school uniform policy could be amended to include the traditional garment.

So the Tuvaluan 15-year-old got together with friends Solomone Ahio, who is Tongan, and deputy head boy Kaline Masitabua, who is Fijian, and did exactly that.

"I wanted to wear it to represent our countries and our culture - to keep it alive," Penivao said.

Advertisement

Now the sulu - known as tupenu in Tonga- is part of the school uniform.

Whangārei Boys' High School principal Karen Gilbert-Smith encouraged the boys to go down the right avenues to get the uniform policy changed. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Whangārei Boys' High School principal Karen Gilbert-Smith encouraged the boys to go down the right avenues to get the uniform policy changed. Photo / Michael Cunningham

But before it was allowed, some students wore it anyway. And like Penivao, they were sent to Gilbert-Smith's office.

She said she also told those students how they could go about changing the uniform policy, but they didn't follow through in the same way Penivao did.

"His eyes lit up at the prospect that he might be able to be part of a change that would be enduring for generations to come," she said.

Ahio heard about Penivao's goal to change the uniform policy after wearing a tupenu to school and asking a teacher if it was allowed.

The teacher said no but told him Penivao was having a meeting to change that and asked if Ahio wanted to tag along.

"The teachers were really supportive. They just said it's not part of the school uniform but you should talk to the Board of Trustees," Ahio said.

Solomone Ahio, deputy head boy Kaline Masitabua and Samakau Penivao were successful in getting the Whangārei Boys' High School uniform policy changed to include sulu. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Solomone Ahio, deputy head boy Kaline Masitabua and Samakau Penivao were successful in getting the Whangārei Boys' High School uniform policy changed to include sulu. Photo / Michael Cunningham

Masitabua said it took the boys about a week to write the letter to the board as they all contributed ideas on why the traditional clothing should be part of the uniform.

Advertisement

"Some of our points were that we're trying to step away from that racism or cultural discrimination. So by allowing us to wear our traditional sulu that is breaking that discrimination," he said.

Ahio said they also mentioned it could help with other students' cultural identity.

"Seeing his friends wear it could help him feel more confident and comfortable around his culture," he said.

The boys sent the letter three weeks ago and they presented their argument at a Board of Trustees meeting two weeks ago.

"They said this is good and you guys can start wearing it first day back at school. So we were smiling inside the board room and then went outside and started celebrating," Ahio said.

The boys said it feels good being able to wear them to school.