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Day out . . . Oamaru children Terisa (left, 11) and Juneen Matagiola (10) celebrate their Tuvaluan heritage. PHOTO: GUS PATTERSON

Stepping into St Paul’s Church in Oamaru on Saturday was like a visit to the Pacific Islands.

About 200 people from Tuvaluan communities across the South Island gathered to celebrate the small island country’s independence.

Tuvaluan groups in the South Island take turns to host the event, and Saturday’s event was the first for Oamaru’s growing Tuvaluan community.

Known as the Ellice Islands when ruled by Britain, Tuvalu gained its independence in 1978.

The Pacific nation has a population of about 12,000 people and Oamaru Tuvalu Community Group president Robert Laupula said the push for independence came to “maintain our culture”.

With many people since migrating to places such as New Zealand, it was important to have events along the lines of Saturday’s to continue that, he said.

Those in attendance took part in a welcome ceremony, and were treated to traditional dancing, singing, art and clothing displays, prayers and, of course, Tuvaluan cuisine.

One of the event organisers, Eleanor Eliesa, was up until 4am decorating St Paul’s Church hall and preparing food for the day.

She moved to Oamaru from Auckland about four months ago, and had tried to get as involved as possible in the local community.

“[Independence Day celebrations] are a bit of an eye-opener for my daughter, Angela-Rose,” Mrs Eliesa said.

“I’m half-Tuvaluan, half-Samoan, so it’s important to stay in touch with my culture.

“I speak three languages [Tuvaluan, Samoan and English] with my daughter, so she knows she has other cultures within herself.”