The Labour and Mana parties are rightly criticising
New Zealand’s government for not offering more assistance to Tonga in the
aftermath of Cyclone Ian, which has levelled hundreds of buildings and displaced
two and a half thousand people in the Ha’apai archipelago. The National
government initially offered a pathetic fifty thousand dollars to help the
victims of Cyclone Ian, and has since increased its assistance to half a
National’s stinginess is related to the struggle it
has been conducting against Tonga’s government for the last year. Along with
its allies in Canberra and Washington, the New Zealand government has been
alarmed by the warm relations Tonga has lately established with China. Much of Tonga’s
substantial foreign debt is now owned by China, and Chinese now dominate
business in the Tongan capital of Nuku’alofa.
Last year Tonga’s government attempted the de facto
nationalisation of the country’s domestic air service, by forcing out the New
Zealand-owned company that had run local flights and introducing its own
service using Chinese-made planes and Chinese pilots. New Zealand’s government
responded by questioning the safety of the Chinese planes, advising Kiwis
against using them, and threatening to cut aid to the country in half. The mean-spirited
response to Cyclone Ian is another attempt to punish the Tongan government for
its alliance with China.
The miserable response of John Key and co to Tonga’s
plight contrasts markedly with the way that Tongans reacted to a recent
disaster in New Zealand.
A few weeks after the earthquake that partly
demolished their city in September 2009, the people of Christchurch received an
unexpected gift: a cheque for eight hundred and thirty-three pa’anga – that is,
about six hundred thousand New Zealand dollars – raised by the people of Tonga.
Tonga is one of the poorer nations of the South
Pacific – a Tongan manual labourer can expect to earn two pa’anga an hour, and
many Tongan houses are no larger and no more robust than the average New
Zealand garage – but when the sufferings of Christchurch were discussed at
church meetings and at school assemblies, donation boxes quickly filled with
cash. On a per capita basis, Tongans donated far more to the relief fund for
Christchurch’s earthquake victims than New Zealanders. Their generosity might
seem all the more surprising, given that Christchurch is located a long way
from tropical Polynesia, and boasts only a small community of expatriate
The Tongan response to Christchurch’s tragedy has to
be understood in relation to Tongan notions of family.
The extended family, or kainga, is a crucial part of
Tongan society, and membership of such a family implies both giving and
receiving goods and services. Even if he lives in the city, and lacks the time
or the desire to maintain his own farm, a Tongan is obliged to help his
siblings and cousins work their plantations, and entitled to a share of their
harvests. If a Tongan earns a wage or a salary, then members of the extended
family will likely take a cut. If a Tongan runs a store, then siblings, uncles
and aunts, and cousins will enjoy generous discounts there.
The intricate system of obligation and exchange that
dominates life in Tonga extends beyond the kainga and influences relations
between nobles and commoners. Tongans who live on land administered by nobles
may, for example, be obliged to attend the wedding of that noble’s child or
grandchild, and to bring along pigs and tapa cloths as offerings, and to dance
and sing in celebration.
The word fatonia, or duty, is often used to describe
the quasi-feudal relations that Tonga’s nobility sometimes still imposes on
commoners. Within the kainga, though, fatonia plays a more positive role. It
can see more powerful and wealthy family members providing for poorer and
weaker cousins. Fatonia demands that widows and orphans be adopted and fed by
the kainga. Despite its poverty and its lack of a welfare state, Tonga is not a
place where the poor die of hunger and homelessness.
My wife and I got a lesson in the kainga system when
we settled in the Nuku’alofa suburb of Halano last February. Soon after we’d
moved into a sweltering house in the shadow of the local Mormon church,
neighbours began visiting with bags of taro, bananas and fish. After I went on
television to talk about the classes I was offering at the ‘Atenisi Institute,
former students of the school also began to visit with gifts. When we accepted
the bananas and the fish, relations were established. Soon I was tutoring
neighbourhood children in English and in history, and my partner was offering
bags of food – bananas and taro bought from the Nuku’alofa market, not pulled
from a plantation – to friends.
The generous response to Christchurch’s misfortune
reflected Tongans’ belief that they enjoy a family relationship with
New Zealanders. Decades of emigration have created sizeable Tongan communities
in several New Zealand cities, and turned certain parts of Auckland – Walmsley Road,
for instance, which runs between mangrove swamps and churches to connect
Otahuhu with Mangere – into virtual Tongan colonies. Most Tongans have friends
and family members living in New Zealand, many of whom regularly send money
The sense of a close, reciprocal relationship
between Tonga and its giant southern neighbour is often expressed when sport is
discussed. During last year’s Rugby League World Cup, I was repeatedly told
that the Kiwis were ‘really’ a Tongan team, because they boasted several
Tongan-born players. As I liked to point out in response, though, the team Tonga
sent to the World Cup included several players who had been born and raised in
New Zealand, and had never visited the land of their ancestors.
Now that Cyclone Ian has rampaged through the Ha’apai
archipelago, rendering seventy percent of houses on some islands uninhabitable,
Tongans are understandably keen to see the generosity they showed to
Christchurch reciprocated. John Key’s government is letting them down.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]