Victims of laukovi
Palangi Kiwis are unromantic about the 737s and 747s which land at our airports in such numbers every day. We flock to events like Warbirds Over Wanaka to gaze at fragile Spitfires, but few of us, it seems, feel much reverence for the awkward-looking vehicles we give the rather unflattering nickname 'jumbo jets'.
For the late great Tongan intellectual Epeli Hau'ofa, though, the establishment of regular commercial air links between tropical Polynesia and the rest of the world by 737s and 747s in the 1970s and '80s was a cause for awe and celebration. In his seminal essay 'Our Sea of Islands', Hau'ofa argued that relatively cheap air travel was allowing Pacific peoples to overcome an isolation imposed by colonial powers in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and to reestablish ancient connections with each other. In prose that has the power of an epiphany, Hau'ofa dissolves the boundaries between ancient and modern history, and presents the Polynesians who fly south or west to jobs in Australasia, and return at Christmas time burdened with gifts and homesickness, as the corollaries of the navigators and sailors who guided vaka over huge seas hundreds or thousands of years earlier, during the exploration and settlement of the Pacific.
Hau'ofa's compatriot 'Okusitino Mahina has also exulted over modern air travel. In his poem 'RTA the Airline', Mahina hails Royal Tongan Airlines, the company which competed in the Pacific with Qantas and Air New Zealand before going bust in 2004, in language that recalls the mighty past:
He kuo fakatuputupulangi
Ngahau oma 'o e Hala Pani
He sika 'ulutoa 'i he Vangai
Fetu 'u 'esiafi si 'ene ma 'ali
'O malama 'a e 'otu 'ailani...
Fluttering towards the heavens
Is the swift arrow of the Pine Way
Like javelin-throwing in Vangai
A shooting star flashes by
Lights up the isles in display...
Yet international travel has brought difficulties as well as rewards to Pacific peoples. Epeli Hau'ofa's optimistic vision of contemporary Oceania irked some of his fellow scholars, who felt that he had forgotten that poverty and restrictive immigration laws keep many inhabitants of the region isolated. In his book What Happens to History, Howard Marchitello explained that:
Some were quite taken aback by Hau'ofa's"romantic idealism". Here were arguments about the cultural autonomy of ordinary people, even mythopractical allusions that attributed their current freedom of movement to the legendary travels of mythical ancestors to the heavens above and the underworlds below, while seeming to ignore the this-worldly system of neo-colonial domination transmitted locally by comprador ruling classes and multinational corporations...
While the peculiarities of colonial history and modern politics give some Pacific peoples - the Niueans, the Cook Islanders, the Tokelauans, the American Samoans - easy access to the First World, many others find their way to opportunity obstructed. The Kiwi historian and former journalist Mark Derby has talked about travelling to Tonga in the late 1970s, and meeting young men who had decided to seal themselves inside the containers that were about to be loaded on ships at Nuku'alofa's port, in the hope that they might emerge days later in Auckland or Sydney. Some of the men Derby spoke to had made the hot, dark, dangerous journey as stowaways before, only to be arrested, a few weeks or months later, in one of the notorious 'dawn raids' the Muldoon government made on illegal migrants from the Pacific who hid in the slums of South Auckland. Today it remains difficult for Tongans to emigrate to New Zealand, unless they have a number of close family members living here. Hundreds of illegal immigrants are still deported from this country to the tropical Pacific every year.
In a guest editorial for the summer 2011/12 issue of Sites, the long-running New Zealand-based journal of sociology and cultural studies, Michael Horowitz argued that the widespread condemnation of deportees to Tonga and Samoa was unjustified. Accusing the deportees' detractors of 'laukovi', or malicious gossip, Horowitz presented data on repatriated Tongans collected over the last few years by the country's police force. The figures of the police show that the vast majority of the Tongans sent home from New Zealand, Australia, and the United States had not committed violent crimes in those countries, that between 2008 and 2010 only three deportees were convicted of crimes in Tonga, and that only three of the six hundred people convicted of rioting in 2006 were deportees.
Horowitz suggested that, far from being a young gangbanger bringing violence home from the West, the average Tongan deportee is 'a male between 30 and 50 years old, repatriated for immigration violations in either New Zealand or the United States'. Because of the impact of laukovi, repatriates often fail to gain secure employment after their return to Tonga, but they nevertheless avoid committing crimes.
Michael Horowitz's careful rebuke to the hysteria surrounding deportees does not discredit Epeli Hau'ofa's vision of the reopening of Oceania by dynamic Pacific Island migrants, but it does help to make us aware of the difficulties which many migrants face, even after the end of their journeys abroad. Horowitz will be talking about his research into Tongan society and his latest novel at the launch of brief next Saturday. Come along and have a drink with him.
The launch of brief 44-45 will be held at the Onehunga Workingman's Club, 158 Onehunga Mall, from four until seven o'clock on Saturday the 26th of May.