Tongans are world champions at showing up. And whether it’s to support their beloved rugby league team Mate Ma’a Tonga, or to provide urgent aid to families back home in the wake of last month’s massive volcanic eruption, and the tsunami that followed it, Tonga’s team of 100,000 — that’s roughly the number of Tongans living outside their home islands — are used to punching above their weight.
Even so, as Emmaline Pickering-Martin, a Fijian academic, writes here, there’s much that Tonga’s friends and neighbours can do.
She was one of the many who joined the effort at Mt Smart Stadium in Auckland, where a host of volunteers were seeing that supplies — some as basic as water — were being packaged in drums for immediate trips to Tonga.
Over my 35 years of living in the Pacific region, I’ve seen my fair share of disasters. I’ve lived through a few major cyclones — like Bola, Kina, Ami and Ian, just to name a few.
And, in the wake of those cyclones, I’ve spent weeks, sometimes months, doing the clean-up with my family. Sweeping oceans of water out of our homes, getting down on my hands and knees to scrub muddy concrete, and, my favourite clean-up job, finding treasures from our homes scattered through the plantations after the big rains.
Along the way, I’ve learned a few valuable lessons. The first and most important is that, when you’re with your family, it will all be okay.
The next has been that we can count on our community to pull through. Because we are never alone. That knowledge is what sustains me as an adult navigating life in the diaspora here in Aotearoa.
So, when I heard about the volcanic eruption in Tonga, it came as no surprise to me that there was a large contingency of Tongans in the diaspora who were ready for action the very next day — organising their community and finding ways to support their whānau back home in the midst of this scary disaster.
We’ve seen it before in Aotearoa. The Tongan community can mobilise in the blink of an eye and TURN UP. Man, do they turn up.
Across my socials, I saw heartbreak and fear. People who were sick with worry for their families. People too distant from the disaster to give direct help, but ready to mobilise our communities.
The Aotearoa Tongan Relief Committee, headed by Labour MPs Jenny Salesa and Anahila Kanongata’a Suisuiki, popped up on my news feed courtesy of Tongan community leader Manase Lua. And there were any number of initiatives out there, from Give-a-Little pages to sanitary-item drives to bottled-water drives.
The relief committee’s project to “fill a drum for your family” was something tangible that needed helpers, so I went to join the throng through the week.
The love, the ‘ofa, was being shared.
When something is Tongan-run or related you always feel a sense of pride for Tonga, even when you aren’t Tongan. Well, that was my feeling as I drove up to Mt Smart that Saturday morning.
When I rocked up for a 7am briefing, the line into the stadium was already snaking down to the main road, past Maccas and beyond. Cars filled with volunteers and drums and boxes and bags of food and supplies for their whānau back home. And this was a Saturday!
Throughout the day, the procession and the unloading carried on. Packets of crackers and noodles, canned food, bottles of water, and cleaning supplies. All sorts. It was all so bittersweet — and in an atmosphere of urgency and care. People looked worried, grateful, and tired.
I saw interactions between whānau, as they packed each other’s drums. I heard laughing and snatches of conversations about family. Saw smiles and heard hope alongside frowns and tears.
The ‘ofa was very much visible.
Being in the midst of this and seeing the organising committee at work was a reminder that when Pacific people want to get things done, not much can stand in our way. From VIPs being undeterred by the complicated logistics, all the way down to bleary-eyed teenagers making a commitment this Saturday morning.
It wasn’t just a community finding a way to help, but also to grieve. And it was beautiful.
The ‘ofa was being embodied by all.
My tiny role for the day of volunteering was to write the manifest for the containers we filled. This meant reading the senders’ details from Aotearoa and the recipient details from Tonga — and recording what was in the drums and where in Tonga they were going.
I spent roughly seven hours reading names and addresses. How brilliant are Pacific names! It was my privilege to read through hundreds of Tongan names — representing, in effect, hundreds of years of history and ancestral strength and knowledge.
An added privilege for me was being able to make the connections of language and place names. I’d get help at times by turning to knowledgeable older Tongans nearby who’d tell me how some Tongan places were connected with my favourite spots in Fiji.
That was a reminder of just how close we really are, of how at one stage we weren’t confined by imaginary lines in our moana.
At that stage, that Saturday, when the telecommunications were still disrupted, many people had no idea how their family in Tonga were faring. Over there, they were coping with whatever was facing them and perhaps with a landscape (mentally as well as physically) changed perhaps forever.
Later, I read a tweet that described how people finally getting in touch with their loved ones in Tonga could hear a difference in their voices. They could hear the joy and relief but they could also hear the distance and pain.
It’s one thing to support a country through a natural disaster but it’s a whole other thing to be there living through the disaster itself and then trying to rebuild.
As someone who’s done both, I can honestly say that for us here in the diaspora and for those back in Tonga, nothing will ever be the same. There’ll always be that sense of fear and, among us here, a hunger to provide support.
It’s been a month now since the eruption and tsunami, and Tonga still faces multiple challenges including its first Covid-19 outbreak. I hope we can continue to shower Tonga with the same ‘ofa as it battles on through its recovery.
Emmaline Pickering-Martin was born in Suva and raised between Ba and Nadi in Fiji. She migrated to join her whānau in Aotearoa in the late ‘90s, and has three children who share Fijian, Māori, Sāmoan and Tuvaluan whakapapa. Emmaline holds a master’s in Pacific Studies from the University of Auckland. She is currently the communications advisor for Hāpai Te Hauora Māori Public Health and works as an advocate for Māori and Pacific communities.
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.
If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.