Tongan people’s resilience and strength will overcome the impacts of a volcano, tsunami and the coronavirus, writes Koro Vaka’uta.
Just six months ago, my Tongan father passed away. But I’ve been seeing him around a lot lately — in my mind’s eye at least.
A month ago, when his homeland was hit by an unprecedented volcanic eruption and then a tsunami, I thought of him as the streets he’d guided me through, over years of visits, became torrents of water across our TV and computer screens.
As I waited all week to hear how our family in the kingdom had fared, I thought of the joyful times we’d shared in homes around Tongatapu. But, more importantly, I saw Dad’s heart shining in the community response to those in need.
A top priority in Dad’s life was his dedication to his family and to the wider Tongan community. He’ll always be a remarkable figure and role model for me. But perhaps he’s not extraordinary when it comes to the sense of service evident among the thousands of Tongans all around the world.
Immediately after the disaster, Tongans sprang into action with family prayer meetings and plans to help — from all across the Pacific, New Zealand, Australia, the US and beyond.
For instance, high profile athletes like our Olympian Pita Taufatofua and former All Black Malakai Fekitoa launched GoFundMe pages to raise money for those in need in Tonga.
Auckland’s Mt Smart Stadium got even more attention in the world’s biggest Polynesian city as it became the hub for collecting and sending supplies. There was a huge turnout there as volunteers packed barrels with non-perishable items and touching personal messages to loved ones in the kingdom.
But there’ve been other pockets of activity around the country. For example, in Palmerston North where they’ve been packaging items for shipping across the Pacific. There’s been major action in Porirua as well.
And in Ōamaru, home to one of Aotearoa’s fastest growing Tongan communities, the Waitaki District Council has been supporting efforts from local groups who are collecting items including seeds, which will be vitally important in the coming weeks.
My own cousins in Whangārei, Tāmaki Makaurau and Te Whanganui-a-Tara gathered water and canned food for our family left to fend with limited resources after the tsunami and ashfall from the eruption.
We’re grateful that our family remains physically well, but we know that at least one of their homes has been destroyed, and the wrestle with layers of ash across the land has only just eased after recent rains.
Thankfully, it isn’t just the Tongan community digging deep to contribute to those living in the aftermath of this deadly event.
Many tangata whenua in Aotearoa responded swiftly with messages of support, and there was a touching online karakia event lifting up the kingdom in heart and mind.
The Kīngitanga moved quickly to send aid, with the Māori King, Tuheitia, holding close and fond ties with Tonga’s royal family.
Other Pacific communities have mobilised as well while Auckland’s Sikh community have filled trucks with emergency supplies bound for the Pacific.
The New Zealand Government has given at least $3 million of humanitarian aid, NGOs have rolled out campaigns to support Tonga, and private sector aligned groups like Te Rourou Vodafone Foundation are pledging to match donations of up to $200,000.
Over 50 containers have now landed at the port in Tongatapu to complement the immediate aid sent there with the help of the Australian and New Zealand military. All this will go a long way to helping Tonga rebuild and recover over time.
And rebuild and recover they will, even with the country’s first Covid-19 outbreak casting a shadow across relief efforts.
Why am I so sure? I again hark back to my father, whose pride in being Tongan knew no limits. He would often regale the family with tales of Tonga’s historic feats across the Pacific — and with anecdotes of how resolute Tongans were when it came to holding on to culture and tradition.
Last week, Tonga’s prime minister, Hu’akavameiliku, reminded me of these accounts when he spoke of the Tongan people’s resilience and strength to overcome the impacts of a volcano, tsunami and virus.
I’ve seen this response first-hand, covering the aftermath of Cyclone Gita in 2018 and being moved by the show of positivity and grace in the face of that tragedy and devastation.
The Tongan approach to accept trials with humility and without resentment provides a strong platform for recovery.
I remember this in Dad’s life, in his uncanny ability never to hold a grudge or be angry at what life might throw his way.
I miss Dad, but I’m thankful that I need only to look around me and across the seas to see reflections of him — and of his love for his fellow Tongans.
Koro Vaka’uta (Te Rarawa/Tonga) is a senior communications advisor at the Human Rights Commission, and before this he was RNZ’s Pacific News Editor.
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