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Show Me How To Lea Faka Tonga: Andrew Joakim

I was recently tagged by some social media friends on a series of entertaining Tongan language instructional videos.  The videos appeared to have been created and uploaded to YouTube by a Palangi named Andrew Joakim who has a North American accent and an armful of Polynesian tattoos.  In his videos, Andrew demonstrates that he can accurately and confidently pronounce Tongan words while also making jokes, pointing out cultural differences, and even demonstrating his Tongan and Samoan dancing skills.

Andrew’s videos caught my attention because I am also a North American accented Palangi and Tongan language learner with my own collection of Polynesian tattoos.  I couldn’t help but wonder, who is Andrew, and where is he from?  It is rare to come across someone like Andrew in a place that is geographically and culturally so far away from the tropical islands of Tonga.

I am sure that many Tongans and Samoans who have enjoyed Andrew’s humorous style of language instruction have also been curious as to who this mysterious Palangi is, so I tracked him down and asked him some questions.

Please read below for the full interview:

 

Todd: Let’s start with the basics then, where are you originally from?

Andrew: I am originally from Tottenham, Ontario, it’s a small town in Canada.

 

Are you part Tongan?

I’m not at all Tongan or Polynesian. My mother moved to Canada from Scotland and my Dad moved here from India.

 

Eastern Canada isn’t known for having a significant population of Tongan expats, so how did you first find out about Tonga? What made you want to begin learning about Tongan language and culture?

I went to play rugby in Inverell, NSW Australia. All of the other import players were from Tonga, our club had a connection with the Ha’ateiho Spartans. I hadn’t heard of Tonga before that. I was working with them, and I was fascinated by their stories about home.

Our team went for an end of season trip, and I fell in love with Tonga. Usually when on vacation, I would get sick of the place by the end and look forward to going home. But when visiting Tonga, I didn’t want to leave.

After that, I went to play in Dargaville, NZ, and I lived in a house for import players, they were all Tongan. I used to watch a Maori TV show Te Reo and learned a bit of it. I worked at Silver Fern farms, there were plenty of Tongans. All of the signs at work were in English and Tongan, so I started picking a little bit up.

 

What year was that?

I went to Australia in 2007, played 2 seasons, Tonga in 2008, NZ in 2009

 

What was it about Tongan culture that had such a profound effect on you?

Mostly it was the attitude of the people. They are such genuine, friendly and positive people. I remember I was walking by myself and I was seen by a group of friends eating, they called over to me to come join them.

 

Where in Tonga did you spend most of your time?

When I first visited, just in Nukualofa. But in 2010 my parents were considering buying a bar in Neiafu, so I went with them. They didn’t end up getting it, but I became friends with a family and ended up staying there for 6 months, this was in Utungake.

 

So your parents share your affinity for Tonga?

Not really, they were just interested in a change, but it was too dramatic of a change for them. They ended up settling in British Columbia.

 

Do you have plans to move permanently back to Tonga or elsewhere in the Pacific one day?

My dream would be to split my time between New Zealand and either Tonga or Samoa, that way I could enjoy the best of both worlds.

 

Your Lea Faka Tonga instructional videos on YouTube are getting a fair bit of attention online as of late. How would you rate your fluency in the language?

I’m not as good as I used to be, when I was in Vava’u I was much better. I haven’t really had a chance to use it much since then. I can watch the Tongan Broadcasting Corporations news programs on YouTube and understand most of what they are saying, and in conversation I can get my point across. But now I am focusing on getting better at it, I want to be the best Palangi at speaking Tongan. Not for bragging rights, I just love the language and the culture, and I love the reaction I get from Tongans. After hearing me speak they think I served a mission, when they find out I haven’t they seem so surprised.

 

That’s a great goal, and we are up against some stiff competition! Are you a polyglot (speaker of many languages)? Or is it just English and Tongan in your linguistic arsenal?

Growing up in Canada we had to learn French, I only retained a little bit of it. After learning Tongan I learned Samoan. I am not as good in Samoan as I am with Tongan, but I learned enough for when I spent some time there teaching a computer class at a high school in Savai’i. I’m thinking of doing a video where I show myself learning Uvean, or Futunan, to show that adults can learn as long as they have the passion to do so.

 

So are you well travelled in the Pacific Islands?

I’ve been to Tongatapu, a few islands in the Vava’u chain, Savai’i and Upolu in Samoa. I would like to see Tokelau before the ocean swallows it up. Would also love to see Futuna, Uvea, Ha’apai, and the Niuas. If I were to go to Uvea and Futuna, it would be interesting to see how I could get by with the Tongan and Samoan that I know.

 

There is a lot of crossover with all of the Polynesian languages, the Austronesian language group itself reaches from the Pacific Islands all the way out to Madagascar.

Yeah, it’s fascinating.

 

Are there any Tongans that live near you in Canada?

Last summer I was a team liaison for the Ikale Tahi for their Toronto leg of the Pacific Nations Cup, and I got to meet the Tongans that live in Toronto. There are not many of them, probably no more than ten. It’s a small world, one of them is friends with my cousin.

 

Yes, there are relatively few intrepid Tongans who have settled on the cold eastern seaboard of North America. I know of only one Tongan family that resides in my home state of Pennsylvania, they own a very successful business in their town. There are surely more Tongans in Pennsylvania, but I have yet to meet them.

This leads into my next question: Many Tongans now live in places that don’t have established Tongan communities, which obviously makes retaining or learning the language more difficult. What tips do you have for learning Tongan in a place where it’s impossible to go out in public and practice by speaking directly to other people?

Listen to Tongan radio stations at a low volume, it makes you listen more attentively. Watch Tongan news on YouTube, even if you don’t understand most of it, just try to pick out the words that you do know. Speak as if you are speaking with someone, you have to actually say the words out loud to progress. At first, when I was learning the language just through reading, I found great difficulty in going to actually speak it. Knowing how to read it and write it is one thing, but the pathways have to be formed between the brain and the mouth, and it will only happen by actually speaking it. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, because you will, and you will learn from them.

 

And now people can also tune into your YouTube channel to learn Tongan from your instructional series. What is your ultimate goal here? Will these videos be an ongoing thing?

I want to get to the point where I can earn enough to devote all of my time to making even more videos. I have a lot of topics that I would like to cover, from weight loss, languages (next one will be Samoan), travel, religion, futurism, comedy sketches, rugby, meditation, lucid dreaming, really anything that interests me. I feel that people are moving away from watching scripted TV shows, reality shows, they seem so disingenuous. I have almost 1500 subscribers now, I would like to reach 100 000 one day. To be able to have that many people interested in what I have to show that would be a great privilege and responsibility.

 

As you know, there are many languages in the world that are in danger of extinction. Do you feel that the Tongan language is currently under threat? If so, what are some factors that you feel are currently contributing to the decline?

It’s hard for me to judge whether it is under threat or not, but I wouldn’t say that it is thriving or growing. In Tonga, many people would automatically assume that one who is able to speak English would be smarter than a Tongan who cannot. This view needs to change, because there are many different types of intelligence. For Tongans who move abroad, it seems that many of them do not speak Tongan to their children because they want them to focus on English. I wish they would realise that their children will learn English outside of the home, and that using Tongan in the home will not diminish their ability to learn English. I’ve had so many messages from 2nd generation Tongans who want to learn Tongan because their parents wouldn’t speak it with them.

 

The first YouTube video of yours that I saw was “The Difference Between Tongans and Samoans”.  What was your inspiration for making that video?

I found it interesting that cultures that share so much in common could have such rivalries. I noticed when I was in Australia that the Tongans and the Aboriginal Australians in our town did not get along, and then the same in New Zealand with the Maori and Tongans. Even in Canada, the Jamaicans and the Trinis (from Trinidad) have similar problems with each other. I think it’s most prevalent in the USA between Tongans and Samoans. I thought if I could point it out in a humorous way, it might help to ease the tensions. If you just tell them that it’s silly they might get defensive about it and dig in even more so, laughter is the best medicine.

 

One thing I personally love about Tongan and other Polynesian cultures is their ability to laugh, so your approach to the issue is really good!

Malo ‘aupito for the Talanoa Andrew, is there anything else you would like to say to finish up? Perhaps a sneak peak of what’s to come in your YouTube series?

In my YouTube series I am moving into actually learning how to say sentences now, the first two lessons focused more on the basics. For my weight loss vlogs, I’ve lost 40 pounds now, once I’ve lost another 30, watch out for a really funny video I’m going to make which will expose the weight loss industry for what it is.

For my YouTube videos, I want to give credit to Eric Shumway, my lessons have been heavily relying on his book, Intensive Course in Tongan. I just try to present it in a way that’s more suited for most learners in our present time.

 

Malie Andrew, keep up the good work and all the best for your future endeavours. How about we do a follow up interview next year conducted completely in Lea Faka Tonga?

Thank you Todd. Yes, that is a great idea.

 

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Andrew during one of his trips to Tonga.  Photo: supplied

 

Note:  For anyone in Auckland, NZ who is looking to learn Tongan (or another Pacific language), in addition to Andrew’s YouTube videos, please consider attending a language course offered by the Pacific Education Centre.  These excellent courses are free, available in several different locations around Auckland, and are taught by tutors who are experts in their language.

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Rarotongan Resort Ruins

When I first saw this abandoned hotel complex on my first trip to Rarotonga back in 2003 I was dumbfounded as to how something like this existed here, for it seemed so out of place on this dramatically beautiful tropical island.  I didn’t get a chance to explore the ruins on that trip, but I made it a priority to venture in there during my most recent trip to the island.

Work on it what was supposed to be a luxury Sheraton Hotel complex apparently started back in 1987, and ended sometime in the mid 1990’s when disgruntled workers dropped their tools and walked off before the project was completed.  They were fed up with working for weeks on end with no pay.  Depending on who you talk to, locals will give accounts of the ordeal that include tales of Italian Mafia connections, dodgy investors, large sums of missing money, unpaid workers, conspiracy, and cursed land.

Whatever happened, the result is a vast complex of unfinished buildings that have been more or less looted and vandalized.  Today the buildings are steadily rotting away as the thick vegetation overtakes them.  It is easy to see the potential that this place could have had, but there are no cash-strapped foreign tourists in sight at this beachfront resort.  The only residents are cows tied up to coconut palms, and the only visitors are presumably local teenagers who come armed with cans of spray paint and alcohol.

(Click photos to view slideshow)

 

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Skateboarding, Tongan Style

The village of Puke is the home of Tonga’s first purpose-built skateboard ramp, thanks to the efforts of Chris and Ashley Paquette who added it as one of the main features of their non-profit organisation, One Love Inc. The ramp was funded through the help of an online fundraiser, as well as the generosity of several local Tongan business owners who offered discounts on building materials.

Chris and Ashley relocated from the United States to Tonga with their three children in 2012. Chris, a master builder, grew up skateboarding and constructing skateboard parks with his brother in their home state of Massachusetts. Naturally, he brought his skateboards to Tonga, even though he was unsure if he would find any suitable places to go skateboarding. It didn’t take long, however, for Chris to become known for his willingness to share his skateboards with local kids, and neighbours were soon paying him frequent visits to go skateboarding. By appearance, the new skateboard ramp is a fitting addition to the Paquette property, as the colourful family home has become sort of a landmark in the area. Chris designed and constructed the unique dwelling completely out of locally sourced materials that he collected from various locations and stockpiled over a period of time.

Skateboarding originated in the United States in the 1950’s, but over the past two decades the worldwide popularity of the sport has grown exponentially. In recent years, skateboarding facilities have been built in several developing nations such as Afghanistan, Cambodia, Uganda, and Palestine as part of youth sport, education and empowerment programmes. Tonga appears to be one of the first Pacific Island nations to have a programme that utilises skateboarding for the purposes of enhancing the lives of young people.

Empowering and educating the Tongan youth through skateboarding is exactly what Chris and Ashley plan to do through One Love Inc., and so far the ramp has been very popular with local children who are often initially drawn to the ramp out of pure curiosity. Ashley says “The kids are amazing at skateboarding, both the boys and the girls. I’ve had the privilege of watching the kids progress, they are quick learners”, adding that skateboarding “gives these kids hope that they can do more than they think.” There are already plans in place to expand the existing ramp into a full-fledged skatepark as additional funding for the project becomes available.

As there are no stores in Tonga that stock the professional quality skateboard decks and other goods needed for ramp skating, all of these products must be imported from overseas. Ashley explains “We started out with two skateboards and 15 kids, and now we have 12 skateboards thanks to a few people who donated boards”. More skateboards will be needed as interest in skateboarding grows, and as the existing skateboards are worn down from the heavy use that they are currently receiving.

The ramp is the ideal size for beginners to learn the basics, and the Paquettes are open to helping anyone who is interested to learn how to skate. The ramp is only off limits when nobody is home, or when it is wet because the surface becomes slippery and dangerous. In addition, the parents of children who want to use the ramp must sign waivers to acknowledge that skateboarding is a potentially dangerous activity (Although statistically, skateboarding is safer than many traditional sports). Ashley says there are plans to do more fundraising for helmets and pads in order to reduce the overall risk of injuries, especially with beginners.

It is clear that the Paquettes have big plans for the future of skateboarding in Tonga.  “We have four years to get these Tongan kids ready” says Chris on the topic of the recent decision to include skateboarding in the 2020 Summer Olympics. In addition to the plan to construct a larger skatepark in Tonga, Chris and Ashley also want to conduct skill-based workshops specifically designed for Tongan youth. Once these programmes are up and running in Tonga, the Paquettes plan to spearhead more skateboarding-based educational initiatives in other Pacific Island nations.

For now, the Paquettes will continue to promote skateboarding in Tonga with their new ramp. Ashley explains how they are encouraged by the positive feedback they have received from locals, “They are so happy something is being done for the kids in Tonga. They ask how much we are charging for the kids to skate, and I always reassure them it’s free. It’s something positive for the youth of Tonga, and no one is trying to profit from it.”

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Chris and son, Indy cutting the transitions for the ramp.  Photos supplied: One Love Tonga Facebook Page

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Setting up the boards.

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Finished product.

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Click here to make a donation to One Love Inc.

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Mountain Dogs of Rarotonga

February 2016. When I looked up at the peak of Te Manga from down at sea level in Rarotonga’s main town of Avarua, something made me really want to climb it.  I imagined that the view would be amazing from the top.  I asked some locals if they knew anything about climbing Te Manga, and while nobody I talked to had gone to the summit before, a lady at the visitor’s centre informed me that it was off limits.  I gave up on the idea for a few days.

Then our local friend/host, Tony loaned me a book about hiking in Rarotonga titled Rarotonga’s Mountain Tracks and Plants.  It contained details of all the hikes on the island, how difficult they would be, how well maintained the trails are, and what species of plants you would encounter along the way.   I studied the Te Manga track section, which the book rates as being the most difficult hike on the island due to its many vertical rope sections that come one after the other near the summit.  Tony told me that what the visitor’s centre lady told me was inaccurate.  The trail was open, and all I needed was some nice weather to do it.

While I knew the Te Manga track would be a pretty serious hike, I was surprised to learn that it takes 5 hours return, that is, if you are fit and if you can manage to come back down without getting lost.  Rarotonga is such a small island that it seems like it would be impossible to get lost there, but the whole middle of the island is made up of steep jungle covered cliffs, and deep valleys.  I learned on this hike that getting lost here is a real possibility.

The following is a series of photos documenting my attempt at climbing to the peak of the highest mountain in the Cook Islands with some local dogs.

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Tony told me to bring this book back with mud stains on it, which I did.

 

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The trail.

 

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The trail starts as a road.  That’s Te Manga in the top right corner.

 

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When I got dropped off at the start of the trail there were 5 or 6 dogs all barking at me.  I felt intimidated at first, but I kept walking.  The older dogs of the group eventually went back to wherever they live, and these two followed me.  They seemed to know exactly where I was going, and they were excited to join me.

 

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This is where the real trail begins.  I could hardly tell, but the dogs knew.

 

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Crawled through this part.  Just after this place I met a group of people who were coming back down from Te Manga.  They told me that the trail gets “really sketchy” near the top.  I accepted this, and resolved to myself that I would turn back if it got to be too much.

 

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I kept thinking that the dogs would turn back, especially when the trail started getting really steep.  They kept following me, and sometimes leading me.

 

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This is the first of the many rope sections on the Te Manga track.

 

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These roots are the trail.

 

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With every step, hold on to something.

 

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It was at this point that I said bye to the dogs, thinking that there is no way they can get past this point (it’s way steeper than it looks in the photo).  To my surprise, when I got to the top they were already there waiting for me.

 

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Trail marker.

 

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The trail runs along some pretty sharp ridges that are covered in tree roots, and the ground starts to feel like a sponge under your feet.

 

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What is and what isn’t the trail can be confusing at times on the Te Manga track.  I tried to take note of every marker that I could.

 

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A tropical mosquito breeding facility.

 

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Getting closer.

 

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Getting sketchier.

 

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Shortly after this point there was a very steep rope section of the trail that the dogs couldn’t get up.  I left them there and hoped that they would still be waiting for me when I came back down.  I could hear this one whimpering for a while after I departed, he really wanted to keep going.

 

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Avarua from above.

 

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About 10 minutes after the point where I was sure the dogs would be stuck, this one appeared out of some bushes on the trail.  It was amazing because this particular part of the trail was on a sharp ridge, and I had climbed a vertical section using ropes to make it this far.  I have no idea how he did it, but I am sure he has done it before.

 

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The ecosystem really changes when you are this far up.

 

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Overlooking Ngatangiia

 

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Clouds and rain moved in very quickly, as they do on mountain tops.

 

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This is the last photo I took before stashing my camera away in my waterproof dry bag.  I kept going up the mountain and it did get “really sketchy” like the other hikers told me it would.  I climbed up vertical rope section after vertical rope section, thinking that there would be just one more until the top.  Even the mountaineering dog wasn’t behind me anymore.  I found myself exhausted, standing on a four inch wide ledge in the pouring rain.  This made all the rocks very slippery, and while I am sure that I was very close to the summit I had to make the decision to turn around because forcing myself to go any further would have been foolish and potentially hazardous.

 

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This is back near the bottom, a couple of hours after turning back from near the summit of Te Manga.  The trip down was an adventure in itself.  The dog that whimpered when I left him had attempted to climb up the steep section and got stuck.  When I came past him on the way back down he seemed distressed and I couldn’t leave him there. I had to hold on to the rope with my right hand and reach out as far as I could to grab his scruff with my left hand.  I was unsure if he would try to bite me, but I carried him back down the slippery rocks in the rain.  He knew I was helping him.  I also got off the trail at one point and felt seriously lost for about 10 minutes.  I kept going down, but the trail became obscured and every mistake meant an exhausting hike back uphill on loose footing to try to find the trail.  I went down one part until I reached a cliff, and there was no way to keep going.  I imagined myself having to spend the night up there because I only had limited daylight at this point.  At least I had the dogs.  Then I spotted an old blue ribbon on a tree branch in the distance, and I was very thankful that this got me back on the right track.

 

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This dog is a level 10 mountaineer.

 

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Even though I didn’t make it to the summit, I was happy to have made it down in one piece.  I wanted to keep these dogs.

 

 

 

 

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Reverend Socratez Sofyan Yoman, on behalf of West Papuans

Words, photos, and interview by Todd Henry. 

Archaeological evidence tells us that the indigenous Melanesian people of the island of New Guinea have lived in these lands for over 40,000 years. In more recent times however, the nation of Indonesia has claimed sovereignty over the western half of the island, now known as West Papua. Indonesia obtained control of this region in 1969 through what has been described as a rigged voting initiative where a carefully selected group of West Papuans were essentially tricked into giving Indonesia lawful jurisdiction over the land. Indigenous West Papuans are currently subjects of Indonesia, a country that they share next to nothing in common with. There are increasing calls for West Papua to be granted independence, but this is not something that the Indonesian government is willing to negotiate at this point in time.

Relatively little information has made it out of West Papua due to an official ban on foreign journalists by the Indonesian government, but reports coming out describe a situation that is overwhelmingly dire for the West Papuans. Local accounts of unwarranted arrests, rapes, shootings, torture, murdered children, and even genocide at the hands of the Indonesian military and police are far too common. 

Fortunately for the people of West Papua, the news of their plight is spreading through the help of concerned foreign leaders (including Tongan PM, ‘Akilisi Pohiva), a growing number of grassroots movements in various countries, and exiled West Papuans who make great sacrifices in order to raise international awareness for their cause. International support for the West Papuan people has been steadily gaining momentum, but many say that positive change must come before it is too late.

Reverend Socratez Yoman is a member of the indigenous Lani tribe of West Papua. He travels the world to speak on behalf of his people, and he is a pronounced representative of the West Papuan independence movement. Socratez recently visited New Zealand to give a series of presentations on the plight of the West Papuan people, and he was nice enough to take the time to answer some of my questions.


Todd: Reverend Socratez Sofyan Yoman, nice to meet you and I would like to thank you for doing this interview today. Can we just fill the readers in on who you are with some background information? Where are you from, and what is your personal story?

Socratez: Thank you Todd for your time, and for wanting to interview me. I was born in the highlands in West Papua on the 6th of June 1967. I grew up and went to primary school in my village, and for senior school I went to Nabire (a town in West Papua). After I finished senior high school I went to continue my studies at university, Cenderewasih University in Jayapura. I finished in 1994.

When I was back in my village I looked at my people’s situation, and saw the Indonesian military and police arresting my people. They were torturing and even killing. This is when I was in primary school. This is my own experience. When I went to the secondary school, it was a similar situation. I understood what was happening, and when I went to university I understood even more what is happening to my people in West Papua. I saw everyday how the Indonesian military and police attack my West Papuan people, arrested and tortured and then put them in prison, or killed them. I asked the question “why is this happening?” I realise that the Indonesians have occupied, or colonised West Papua. They are teaching Papuans everything Indonesian, Indonesian language, history, names, mountains, and heritage but they never teach about West Papuan cultures and history. I think they undermine West Papuans, they are killing all Papuan cultures and properties. This has been going on since 1963 until today, 2016, almost 53 years. We see also Indonesian military brutality on the people, on the behalf of the Indonesian territory’s insecurity.

This experience made me want to make it better. When I was in university I was always thinking about what we can do to help our people. I don’t know about the other students at university but this is what I was always thinking. This is an abnormal situation that is not good, and then I decided that I would go to study theology in West Java for one and a half years. After I finished, I went back to West Papua and I was elected as the General Secretary of the Fellowship Baptist Church of West Papua. I thought this was an opportunity to protect my people and speak out for my people because the church has values such as justice, peace, harmony, and respect for human dignity and human rights. The Bible says not to kill people, undermine people, or make people have a bad life. When I became secretary (in1998) I spoke out to oppose the human rights abuses, violations, and other atrocities happening in West Papua. In 2002 I was elected as the President of the Fellowship Baptist Church, and I got more chances to speak out for my people. Doing this is high risk, you know, because the Indonesian government is unhappy when we speak out and protect our people we go against them. Today I speak out to protect my people and make their lives better, better healthcare, education and economy.

Another problem faced by the Papuan people is that they have become marginalised on their own lands. They are hopeless and landless. Today, Indonesian migrants come in flocks and they are increasing in West Papua to become to majority in all sectors. They own all the businesses, shopping centres, restaurants, hotels, and public transportation are all owned by Indonesian migrants. The West Papuans are the owners of the land but they have become marginalised, and powerless. The people have been removed from their own lands for palm oil plantations. When they try to protect their lands they are stigmatised as being against the government, and against the law, and the people are arrested or shot and killed. Then the transmigrants from Indonesia settle these places. This is happening in West Papua.

 

It’s happening right now?

Yes, it is happening now. This is an atrocity.

 

I know a lot of countries in the Pacific region currently struggle with their own issues, but what makes the present situation in West Papua relevant? Why should the governments and the people of other Pacific nations worry about what is going on in West Papua?

 Yes, thank you. We get a lot of attention from our brothers and sisters in Melanesian and Pacific communities. For example, Vanuatu is a strong supporter of West Papua. The Solomon Islanders support West Papua, as well as the Tongans and the Kanaks (the indigenous Melanesian people of New Caledonia) because they are part of the Pacific community. They cannot be silent anymore when their brothers and sisters are dehumanised and colonised, and under the brutality of the Indonesian government. Now a lot of Melanesian and Pacific communities are concerned, especially Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands. They are with us 100%, the communities, church leaders, universities, and governments support West Papua. A lot of these groups in Vanuatu are united under one umbrella, The United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) https://www.ulmwp.org/. The people of Fiji and Papua New Guinea, not the governments, but the people support West Papua and they have formed grassroots movements to help us. Recently 20 bishops from Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands visited West Papua, and they could see what is happening to their brothers and sisters in West Papua. They support us.

 

‘Akilisi Pohiva, the Tongan Prime Minister, is the only Polynesian leader who has publicly shown support for West Papua. He raised his concerns for the people West Papua at both the UN General Assembly in New York in 2015, and also at the House of Parliament in London in May of this year. What does this kind of support mean to the people who are currently being victimised in West Papua?

 Yes, I believe that the Tongan Prime Minister sees people as a humanitarian. These are humanitarian issues and he is concerned. He sees with his heart and knows it is not a good situation. As the leader of an independent state he should support West Papua and I think he is a good person and made a good decision. I am very happy. On behalf of my people I would like to say thank you to ‘Akilisi Pohiva. I think other countries should follow his example in speaking out for us. This isn’t just a problem of Melanesia, or Polynesia, we see the human beings, and humanity. West Papua’s humanitarian issues are a global concern.

 

You are currently in New Zealand giving talks in order to tell the story of the West Papuan people and raise awareness of the human rights issues there. What can people do right now, even people in Pacific nations such as Tonga, to show their support for the people of West Papua?

They should support the ULMWP, as they represent the West Papuan people. People can also put pressure on their own governments to speak out, and they can put pressure on the Indonesian embassies in each country by sending letters to encourage the Indonesian government and president to engage in genuine dialogue and peaceful negotiation with the ULMWP and Indonesian representatives. This can be mediated by a third party. The voices of people and their solidarity is very important because West Papuan people today understand that they aren’t alone anymore. They have solidarities and friends, brothers and sisters all over the world. I came here to build awareness, not only in Pacific communities, but in all of the communities, Maori people, church leaders and communities, universities, and parliament.

I was last in New Zealand 10 years ago, and the human rights issues (in West Papua) have only become worse than they were before. More people are still being killed. We need support and solidarity from the people all over the world, not only from Melanesian and Polynesian communities. These are humanitarian issues, and human rights issues. Peace and dignity of the people must be respected.

 

People who are unfamiliar with the situation in West Papua may ask the question, “if what Socratez is saying is true, then why don’t we hear about it on the news?” Why is there so little news coverage of the situation in West Papua?

 The problem is that the Indonesian government does not allow the foreign journalists to visit Papua, so they cannot cover what is happening inside. Humanitarian workers also, like Red Cross International, they were removed from West Papua. Why? What is the Indonesian government hiding inside, because they do not allow foreign journalists to travel freely? The Indonesian government says that for 53 years they have developed Papua to make life better, but I ask what? Which part? Education? Healthcare? Economy? What is development? We don’t understand development! Indonesians say they are bringing development and are building shopping centres, hotels and the owners are Indonesian transmigrants. Development? They are building big roads to be used by the military and migrants cars. Is this development? What is the benefit for Papuans? There is no benefit. West Papuans generally don’t have cars, they travel by foot. This is a problem, and now the Indonesians are hiding something inside because they don’t let journalists or other outside people come in to see.

 

Why are the Indonesians so desperate to be in West Papua? Is it for the natural resources?

Good question. As you know, West Papua is very rich. Very, very rich. The worlds 3rd biggest mine is there. Copper, gold, all of these things we have. They (the Indonesians) need only natural resources, and they will remove, kill and commit genocide to the people. They are systematically killing the people, they have undermined and paralysed the people of West Papua. Economically, educationally, and culturally the Indonesian government are paralysing and killing the people because they want to take over the land. They want to be the owners of the land, and they want to benefit from our natural resources. They don’t care about the people. For example, recently four students were killed in Paniai on 8th of December 2014. They were killed by the Indonesian military but there has been no investigation. They don’t care about the people, they care about natural resources, about the money.

Now, West Papuan people like me and my friends, we are educated men today. We are no longer going to be silent, we can’t be silent anymore. Now is the time to protect our dignity, protect our lands, our natural resources, our cultural values, and protect our children’s and our grandchildren’s future. We strongly support the ULMWP as the West Papuan representatives. Octa Mote is the general secretary and Benny Wenda is the spokesperson. Octa is based in New York in the USA, and Benny Wenda is based in Oxford in the UK, and Leonie Tangama in the Netherlands.

Once again, I would like to reaffirm that ULMWP is representative of West Papua, and they have been granted the position of observer at the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) by the sovereign states of the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. This means that there is international recognition of the ULMWP. Now it is time, and it is now clear who Indonesia can talk to and West Papua has a representative, ULMWP, the West Papuan umbrella. Please, Indonesia come around the table to talk equally and it will be mediated by a third party.

Malo ‘aupito Socratez for coming to speak in New Zealand on behalf of your people.


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Socratez presenting at Auckland University’s Fale Pasifika. May 20, 2016

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Socratez pictured with Carmel Sepuloni (left) and Jenny Salesa (right)


Follow these links if you are interested in learning more about West Papua and what you can do to help:

https://oceaniainterrupted.com/

http://www.msgsec.info/

http://www.westpapuaparliament.org

https://www.freewestpapua.org

 

 

 

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Rarotonga’s Paradise Prison

While driving around the South Pacific island of Rarotonga one day back in February, I happened upon the main entrance to the island’s prison located just off of the narrow inner-circle road. At the entrance to the prison, a small sign advertised a tourist gift shop and I decided to go in for a look around. Often when we visit places, such as the peaceful island of Rarotonga, we tend not to think about the social issues that may lurk beneath the surface. Because of the close relationship that the Cook Islands has with New Zealand, and the fact that Cook Islanders are New Zealand citizens by birth, I assumed that convicted criminals in the Cook Islands were probably shipped off to serve their sentences in the New Zealand prison system. The truth is that I never even thought about this topic in regards to the Cook Islands, so I was naturally interested in this tiny prison on a tiny island in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean.

Since 1965 the Cook Islands have been an independent nation in free association with New Zealand, and in many ways the island of Rarotonga feels similar to New Zealand, but there are also many differences – some of these are obvious and others are hidden. The Cooks have their own elected Prime Minister, they create their own laws, they have their own courts, their own department of corrections, and their own prison system. Anyone born in the Cook Islands has a right to reside in New Zealand or even Australia if they wish, and there are sizeable populations of Cook Islanders in both of these places.

Inside the prison’s gift shop were 6 or 7 hand-carved ukuleles for sale, they appeared to be of reasonably high quality and made of native hardwoods. The prison guard on duty that day informed me that the ukuleles are made by prisoners currently serving sentences for crimes committed in the Cook Islands. The guard (we will call him Guard #1), a friendly and talkative older Rarotongan man, told me that he used to live in New Zealand for a number of years in the past. Thirteen years ago he came back to Rarotonga for what was supposed to be a short holiday, but he ended up never leaving again. He explained to me how many of his fellow Cook Islanders are currently overseas, many of them working low paid factory jobs, and struggling to pay off mortgages and feed their families. According to Guard #1, most, if not all, of these overseas-based Cook Islanders are entitled to family land in the islands where they could essentially live for free and grow much of their own food. Some Cook Islanders grow tired of living and working in expensive, fast-paced foreign lands and understandably make the decision to return to the islands, while others may never come back.

I asked Guard #1 if I could ask him some questions about the prison, and the rehabilitation programme so I could write a story about it. He suggested that I wait for the prison supervisor to come back from his lunch break, because, he said, “the ‘Big Boss’ can tell you more than I can”. I had some spare time so I sat and chatted with Guard #1 while I waited for the supervisor to arrive back at the prison. Even though I didn’t ask Guard #1 that many specific questions, he shared a lot of information about the prison with me on his own accord. I pulled out my voice recorder and recorded him as he talked about his views, and his experiences as a prison guard for the better part of an hour.

According to Guard #1, the prison on Rarotonga is the only prison in the Cook Islands, and criminals from any of the other 14 islands are sent here to serve their sentences. The prison population is comprised of 33 male inmates and 2 female inmates, most of which are under the age of 30, while “only a few” are over 40 years old. A small number of prisoners are “lifers”, serving life sentences for especially violent crimes such as murder- something that is fairly rare in the Cook Islands. He went on to tell me that many of the prisoners are New Zealand born Cook Islanders, but there is also a growing population of foreign nationals in the prison system including Indonesians, Chinese, and Filipinos.

The prison’s main feature is its rehabilitation programme, where prisoners learn to be plumbers, builders, electricians, handicraft makers, or are trained in other skills that will allow them to contribute something to society when they are finished serving their sentences. Some of the more trusted prisoners are actually allowed out during the day on work release programmes, and even the ones that aren’t allowed off of the prison grounds on work release are permitted to roam free on the prison grounds during the day. Prisoners are also allowed to go home to be with their families on holidays such as Christmas day. As the prison lacks any sort of substantial security fence or gates, several prisoners have simply walked off the prison grounds in the past. They do this mostly for the purposes of visiting girlfriends, or to eat at a favourite restaurant, but they are always quickly located and returned to the prison by the police when this happens. Rarotonga is a small island.

Guard #1 also shared some of his personal concerns with me in regards to an increase in criminal activities due to the changes that are currently taking place in the islands. “Many Cook Islanders are very worried about gangs from New Zealand coming here”, he said. “They are writing in to the local newspaper about it all the time.” The fears of local Cook Island citizens apparently aren’t unwarranted, and Guard #1 shared a story with me from many years ago when the first Prime Minister of the Cook Islands, Albert Henry, publicly turned away a group of Mongrel Mob members of Cook Island descent at the main international airport in Rarotonga. The Prime Minister had been tipped off that this group was coming from New Zealand with intentions to establish Cook Islands chapter of the gang. The act of denying them entry at the border was significant because as Cook Island citizens, they should have been given the right to enter and remain in the Cook Islands indefinitely, even if they are known gang affiliates or convicted criminals. Prime Minister Henry’s goal was to send a clear message to other gang members or criminals who may have been considering relocation to the islands: The Cook Islands are not the place to conduct criminal activities.

“35 inmates, way too many for a small island” said Guard #1 as he plucked the strings of a ukulele that he kept by his desk. This particular ukulele looked like a factory second, and appeared to be quite old. “This one isn’t for sale” he told me several times during our conversation. He didn’t explain why, but it was obvious that this ukulele held some sort of sentimental value to him. He began telling me about all of the prisoners that he has seen come and go throughout the years. “Some of them go and do good, but it is sad that others end up coming back to us”. Guard #1 clearly takes an interest in the wellbeing of prisoners even after they leave the prison system, and he talked about how he takes it upon himself to check up on them regularly as they transition from incarceration to civilian life.

Guard #1 also voiced his concerns about the increasing numbers of foreign nationals that are ending up in the Cook Islands’ prison system. “All of the prisoners here are Christians right now, there are one or two atheists, but we have church services right here on the prison grounds”, he said before adding “there aren’t any Muslim inmates, but there will be soon.” Many locals are apparently concerned about the future of their islands and indigenous culture, and the possibility of eventually being outnumbered by foreigners that are settle in the islands. The Cook Islands is surprisingly multicultural, and there is a growing population of foreign nationals who have acquired work visas or permanent resident status, primarily in Rarotonga.

Just then a prison ute pulled up outside. The “Big Boss” walked in and muttered a couple of things to Guard #1, and then he glanced at me with suspicion. Guard #1 introduced me and told boss man that I was interested in learning more about the prison. I stood up to shake the supervisor’s hand, but it was clear from his body language that I wasn’t welcome. I explained that I wanted to know more about the prisoner rehabilitation programme, and the ukuleles and other crafts that the prisoners make. “I think it’s a great initiative, and I would like to shoot some photos if you are ok with it” I said. “I’m not interested, and all of the information is on our website” he replied before adding, “you cannot just visit our prison any time you like to take pictures. So you need to leave now.” The situation got awkward very quickly. Perhaps he forgot that there is a sign out front actually directing tourists to visit the prison gift shop?

I can only assume that Big Boss believed that I was, for some reason, interested in making the islands look bad in some way. I genuinely meant no harm, and I actually view the prison’s method of rehabilitating criminals through the trades, handicrafts, and music as something that is empowering and hopeful. Perhaps something similar could be adapted to help prisoners in other Pacific Island nations? Either way, I felt quite unwelcome at this point, and quickly headed out of the building without even saying goodbye to Guard #1. I could hear the supervisor slam his office door closed as I went down the steps towards the car. Perhaps the Big Boss thought that I had some sort of interest in painting him, his prison, and the islands in a bad light by showcasing some sort of dark underbelly that exists in the Cook Islands’ society, something that well-healed foreign tourists would be completely unaware of while blissfully enjoying their holidays. His overall behaviour gave me the impression that he was simply trying to avoid talking about certain topics related to the prison. Little did he know, Guard #1 had already talked at length about these things while he was at lunch.

I didn’t buy any of the ukuleles.

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Guard #1

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Deported: An interview with Sione Ngaue in the Kingdom of Tonga

Words, photos, and interview by Todd Henry.

Ever since my first visit to Tonga in 2007, I have noticed an ever growing population of American accented and often heavily tattooed residents that appear to have just arrived in the islands from places such as inner-city Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, or Dallas.  In fact, these places are where many of them actually did come from before being sent back to Tonga as the result of their own criminal convictions.  These deportees make up a subculture of sorts within Tongan society, and the way of life they grew accustomed to in the United States, or other large industrialised nations, is in stark contrast to the way of life that is customary in the islands.  The vast majority of deportees that I have met in Tonga were deported from the US, and while I have heard about some who were deported from places such as New Zealand or Australia, I have yet to meet them face to face.  The fact that so many have been deported from the US when compared to other locations where large populations of the Tongan diaspora reside is both compelling and concerning at the same time.

Despite being born in Tonga, the deportees live almost as if they are exiles in their own land.  Many were raised in the US from a very young age after emigrating with their parents or other family members, and they may not have any recollection of life in Tonga before moving abroad.  Many of the deportees identify as being American, which they are in terms of their overall appearance and conduct, but not in terms of legality.  Their chances of ever being permitted back into the US are very slim, and those who realise this are generally able to at least partially integrate back into Tongan society through learning the language, culture, and utilising existing family connections.  Other deportees, however, choose to continue on the very path that got them sent back to Tonga in the first place, and inevitably find themselves in and out of the Tongan prison system as a result.

On my most recent trip to Tonga I met a man named Sione Ngaue.  He is an American deportee who now resides on his family land in the village of Nukunuku on the island of Tongatapu.  Despite his history, Sione is an example of a deportee success story.  He has managed to start a new family back in Tonga, and he works as a freelance artist and tattooer, specialising in traditional Tongan designs.

I cycled out to Nukunuku from Nuku’alofa one afternoon to visit Sione in his traditional Tongan fale, which is one of the few left standing in Tonga. We talked at length about his own personal experience of being deported from the US, and about his new life in the Kingdom of Tonga.

The following is a transcript of our conversation recorded on July 14th, 2015:

 

Todd: What is your name and when did you get deported back to Tonga from the United States?

Sione: My name is Sione Kihe Kai Ngaue, and I got deported from America to Tonga in 2008.

 

Do you want to talk about why you got deported?  

There were several things that led up to it, but in the end it was vehicular manslaughter.

 

What was the deportation process itself like? How did you first find out that you were going to be deported?

You usually know that you are going to be deported when you are like a year into the system, your prison term you pretty much know the warrants you have and things like that, you know you have an INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) hold real early. So when you are doing your time you know that you’re going to get deported.

 

So you serve the whole sentence and then you go?

That’s the way it is. Everybody who gets deported has to serve their time in America before they are deported.

 

How does the process of actually being deported go, do officials actually escort you?

Yes, you get out of prison and when you come out the gates you have INS officers waiting for you, you know, with cuffs again. So you come out of cuffs, to get put on cuffs. You know, they take the state cuffs off, and the feds put their cuffs on you and put you in their bus. So you go through the process all over again with the INS, but the one thing good about INS is that you know the longest you’re going to be there is three months and you will be sent home.

 

So do they fly with you on the plane?

They have to escort you, they make sure. The judge tells you, “you will be escorted”. Especially if you have a heavy record. Some have a lesser record only get escorted by one (INS official), and some will even get escorted by three. I was escorted by two, my older brother was escorted by three.

 

When you land in the destination airport, do they just take the handcuffs off of you and you go?

There is no cuffs on the plane, it’s against federal law and international law. You just give them your word and they’re like “I’m taking you home”, if you try anything you will go back to prison in the US and you will never get out. Behave and you will go home.

 

So when you land in Tonga, then do they have to release you over to the Tongan police?

No, if I wanted to I could have just walked off but I hung around the airport immigration for a minute and the guy told me that he saw me get off with those guys. Actually when we went through New Zealand they (the INS officials) bought me duty-free two bottles of whiskey and two cartons of cigarettes. Them guys, they were happy that I was a good guy, you know? I was happy to go home.

 

So did you have any family in Tonga when you arrived back after being deported?

I didn’t have a visitor for the thirteen and a half years I served, so I didn’t let anybody know that I was getting deported. I got out of the airport and I walked all the way home, my Mom was here, and my brother but they didn’t know. It was just all of a sudden, and here I am.

 

How old were you when you originally left Tonga for the US?

I left when I was four.

 

So in your mind you were American?

Yes.

 

What was it like essentially being an American by all accounts minus the legal side of things, and then having to integrate back into Tongan society? Was it a hard transition?

It wasn’t as hard for me as it is for some other deportees because I had family here already. I can speak for some of my deportee brothers and sisters who get sent down here, and who don’t have family. They have a harder transition. I had family here at the time when I got here.

 

Did you speak the Tongan language at that time?

Very little, very little. I could pass, just barely make it through. It wasn’t until I had been here for like six years that my Tongan really evolved.

 

Do you think that some of the deportees who are sent back try to continue with the gang lifestyle in Tonga that they left behind in the US?

Yes, a lot of them. Dozens. And they are now in the Tongan prison system, you know. Right out of the US system, and they didn’t learn. Coming with the same lifestyle from the US to Tonga, you can’t do that. Tonga is laid back slow man, you gotta go with it. You gotta go slow here.

 

How many deportees from the US would you estimate are here in Tonga?

Man…hundreds. I think there are over 400. I don’t think it’s reached the thousands, but when I was here there was like 300 or 400 from the US alone. That was six years ago.

 

Is there a reintegration program, or other support network for deportees when they arrive back in Tonga?

No, the worst part is that the ones that come from America, out of that system and they do long terms, you know ten years, 15 years. And they were taking some kind of psychological medication and then they sent them here to Tonga without it. When I came to Tonga, all I had was a picture ID, a passport. It was a piece of paper, that was my passport they brought me with. So I didn’t have any kind of medications or anything. A lot of these deportees, they’ve been on medication for all their lives and they get down here and just kind of let loose and that’s where they roam around going crazy. Tongan society ain’t gonna help them too much. People here won’t know what’s wrong with them to help them.

 

With all the deportees coming from the US who have essentially no support network in Tonga, are they essentially reforming the same gangs here?

It’s basically not like that anymore, I think it’s more like a of a single-man game. You know, you come down here, you start your little crew of three or four people and you do whatever you do to survive. Like I said before, they haven’t figured it out so a majority of them are in Tolitoli prison now.

 

I have been seeing TCG (Tongan Crips Gang) graffiti around, is that something that is currently active here?

It is, it is active in Tonga, but they really don’t know what they meaning of TCG is. You know, a lot of the local kids are getting involved in the painting and stuff on the wall but they don’t know the concept behind it for real. That’s the good part.

 

If you were given the opportunity, would you go back to the US tomorrow?

No, I wouldn’t. I would never go to the US, never again in my life do I want to see the US. I’m not angry, and I don’t have anything bad to say about it. I am the pilot of my own plane, you know. I have lived it, and I know America but I love Tonga. I love not having money and things like that, it makes me who I am and it’s no big deal.

 

Can you explain what you do now to survive here in Tonga?

As you know, I was incarcerated for thirteen and a half years and within that time I tightened up my artistic skills and I am a tattoo artist. I am slowly getting into paintings and everything else. I believe that when a man tells himself that he is a professional or a master in something, he ceases to learn more so I am an apprentice and I will be an apprentice until I die. This is what I do, I am a freehand tattoo artist. Always learning.

 

Is there anything at all that you could say you miss about the US?

The only thing I miss is a greasy cheeseburger, you know. That’s basically it. And it miss my brothers that are incarcerated right now, but they are still alive. That’s it. Other than that it’s all good.

 

Thanks for taking the time to talk today Sione. Is there anything else you would like to say about life in Tonga?

Life in Tonga is about one love, that’s it. That’s it. Laid back. If you ain’t got funds here, it’s not the end of the world. We eat coconuts, bananas, and papayas all for free. That’s what we say, ofa atu!

 

Malo Sione! Ofa Atu

The Ngaue family, Nukunuku, Tonga


One of the more remarkable stories I have ever heard:

“The pickaxe went in right through my mermaid here on my back”

“and it came out right above my bellybutton. I went and put it up against a tree to pull it out just like I saw in a movie once.”

“The cops here in Tonga hate me so they loaded me in the back of a truck and drove me to the hospital really slow.”

Sione and his wife Sulu, strong survivors.

Sione and his wife Sulu, strong survivors.


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Dignitaries and Deportees: Coronation Time in Tonga

Recently I was in Tonga for the coronation of King Tupou VI.  In fact, I was very fortunate to have made it to Tonga at all, as we were flying on standby tickets from New Zealand and every flight going out was oversold.  Thankfully it all worked out, and I got to experience Tonga in a way that I never had before.  While it is usually a rather sleepy place, the capital city of Nuku’alofa was at full capacity, as many overseas-based Tongans  made their return to the island for the coronation festivities.  I also was pleased to see that downtown Nuku’alofa was relatively clean and free of the discarded plastic bottles, food containers, and aluminum cans that are normally found scattered along the side of the road.  The sound of marching bands could be heard parading through the streets of the downtown business district.  The celebrations lasted for 11 days in total, and they included countless parades, singing, dancing, feasting, and partying.

There were also many foreign dignitaries in Tonga, as well as military marching bands from several countries including New Zealand, Australia, Fiji, and The United States.  I tried to attend as many of the coronation performances as possible, but unless one had some form of connection to the king himself, the view was generally very poor due to the large crowds that gathered around palace grounds.  Despite Tonga being a nation located in the middle of the South Pacific, there was an almost European feel to the style of the coronation formalities.  The decorations, manner of dress, and symbolism used by the Tongan royal family are largely not of Polynesian origin.  One performance I attended at the stadium seemed almost like a tropical island version of North Korea’s Arirang Mass Games.  It was conducted by thousands of Tongan schoolchildren who were dressed in red from head to toe.

Tongan society is highly stratified, and it was interesting to observe the ways in which many of those in the commoner class celebrated the coronation of the new king by offering gifts that sometimes appeared to be well beyond their means.  Many of the houses of commoners, especially along the parade routes, were intricately adorned with red and white ribbons and/or signs wishing Tupou VI and his wife a long and prosperous reign.  Tongans are generous people, and to many of them the coronation of a new king is a highly significant event.  It was great to see the Tongan people out socializing and celebrating while wearing their finest tupenus, ta’ovalas and puletaha’s.

I admit that because of where I grew up, I often struggle to make sense out of the concept of monarchy, and there were times that I looked at the apparent imbalances that exist within Tongan society through a critical lens.  If half of the money that was spent on the coronation was instead spent on upgrading infrastructure, many improvements could surely be made for the benefit of the people.  But this is Tonga, the only South Pacific nation to never have been colonized by a foreign power, and things are done mostly in accordance with the Tongan tradition.  If the Tongan people did ever want incite social changes, then I am confident that it would be accomplished.

An important lesson that I took away from this trip is how to control my physical and mental reactions when negotiating a stressful situation.  All facets of Tongan society operate on a vastly different system than that which we are accustomed to in the developed world, and Tongans possess an impressive ability to subdue their reactions no matter how frustrating or dire the circumstances may be.  The number one rule to follow in Tonga no matter what happens: Don’t react.  Don’t worry about time, or and form of consistency either.

I am pleased to share my photographs from a vibrant and festive time in the history of Tonga.

Ofa Atu,

TH

(click photos to view slideshow).

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Knocked Over in Christchurch, NZ

I lived in Christchurch for a brief time over the summer of 2003/2004, when I was in NZ as a working-holiday backpacker.  I shared a small substandard apartment with a Canadian guy named Logan, and two secretive Chinese students named Beibei and Mung.  That summer was perfect, and I felt as if I was living on borrowed time while everyone back in the northern hemisphere was freezing in the ice and snow.  I worked in a surf/skate shop on the corner of Lichfield and Colombo streets, skated the best park in NZ almost daily, met a lot of nice people, and enjoyed the consistent sunshine that bathed the east coast of the South Island that summer.  I will always have excellent memories of that time in my life.

Then on February 22nd, 2011 news came out that a serious earthquake had hit Christchurch.  Buildings came down all over the city, and 185 people died.  These were dark days for my city of sunshine.

I have been back to Christchurch a few times since the 2011 earthquake, and each time it seems to be getting better, but there is still a lot of earthquake damage to be seen around the downtown area.

This past weekend I travelled down from Auckland and skated around the city to check it out a bit more.  At times, I couldn’t tell where I was because there are almost no familiar landmarks left.  Other times I was confused because the street signs told me that I was somewhere familiar, but I almost couldn’t believe it because it looked so different.

Christchurch is currently getting rebuilt, and thankfully it is getting done properly.  Once everything is reconstructed and in compliance with strict building codes, Christchurch will be a sustainable city of the future that will be largely resistant to any future earthquakes (I was told that experts think it is unlikely that another one will hit like it did in 2011).  As a result of the 2011 earthquake, Christchurch received what many other cities would presumably like to have: a clean slate on which to create and realise a new vision.

(click photos below to view slideshow).

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Vanuatu Time. Long God Yumi Stanap!

I didn’t really know what to expect in Vanuatu before I left, and I arrived with no real plans except to explore the island of Efate and try to meet some of the local people.  Upon arrival, I checked into a guesthouse in the Freshwota district of Port Vila, which at first seemed a bit dodgy (rooms available by the hour).  However, once I met Marie, the kava-addicted Francophone Ni-Van manager of the establishment, I realised that I would be experiencing Port Vila from a local perspective.  Thanks to Marie, and her friends Stephan and Mere I was fortunate enough to be taken to some kastom (custom) villages around the island, local markets, historical sites, areas of cultural significance, and some other places that tourists generally do not have the opportunity to visit.

Marie also showed me around to all of the best nakamal (kava houses), where locals sit in the dark to drink bowls of the strongest kava in the Pacific.  The kava is so strong that a special place for spitting and rinsing is designated outdoors.  It is best to avoid nakamal if the sound of spitting and hacking will potentially make you feel sick.  Kava, however, is not like alcohol.  Instead of the normal behaviours associated with alcohol consumption, kava seems to make participants want to bestow nothing but goodwill upon anyone they may come into contact with.  One local told me that several years ago Vanuatu tightened up their liquor laws and relaxed their kava laws, causing a drastic drop in alcohol-fuelled crime and violence that were once commonplace in the islands.  The widespread use of kava could play a major role in making Vanuatu one of the safest and friendliest places to visit in the region.

Below are some photos from my trip, in the order that I took them (click to view slideshow).