Monday, November 03, 2014

Marching and fighting

[My essay 'Marching and Fighting in the Friendly Islands' was a runner-up in this year's Landfall Essay Competition, and has been published in the latest, 228th issue of New Zealand's oldest surviving cultural journal. The essay was my attempt to understand the school-on-school violence that troubled Tongatapu last year, and sometime made parts of the island's only city feel like a riot zone. 

Here are some excerpts from my essay, along with some photographs I took while I was researching it. Buy Landfall 228 and get the full text, as well as the work of the other finalists in this year's competition.]

Every year students from the schools of Tongatapu assemble in Nuku’alofa, and march through the centre of the city to the Tongan royal palace and the country's parliament. After wandering down to Taufa’ahau Road to join the crowds celebrating School Parade Day, I was confronted by the Liahona High School brass marching band.

Liahona is a village in the centre of Tongatapu that is famous for its emormous Mormon temple, which comes complete with a faux-gold steeple, and for the large SPEAK ENGLISH ONLY PLEASE signs that are nailed to its bus stop. The Mormons are regularly accused of wanting to turn Tonga into a replica of that latter-day Zion, Salt Lake City. Fifteen thousand Mormon converts from the Friendly Islands have settled in the capital of Utah, with the assistance of the American church, and wags insist that the green colour of the Liahona school flag and uniform is a reference to the green card that all Tongan Mormons allegedly covet.

The band I encountered on Taufa’ahau Road took their inspiration not from the staid streets of Salt Lake City but from the vulgar and lively city of New Orleans. Led by a young man wearing a gold crown and the sort of white and gold suit that James Brown appropriated from southern Baptist preachers fifty years ago, the Mormons alternated fusillades of jazz with casually synchronised dance moves. They might have line stepped off the set of Treme, David Simon’s post-Katrina tele-portrait of New Orleans’ embattled but joyous dancers and singers. 
The Mormons were followed down Taufa’ahau Road by members of the Anglican St Andrews school, who carried a Scottish flag and thumped on outsized drums. The Anglicans had chosen austere blue uniforms, but students of Apifo’ou College, the huge Catholic institution on Nuku’alofa’s swampy eastern margins, showed off reds and oranges and were led by a young man twirling a rainbow-coloured cane.

As school after school marched past I remembered a recent suggestion by Lose Miller-Helu, who was one of my colleagues at the ‘Atenisi Institute, a doggedly liberal little school on the outskirts of Nuku’alofa. Lose believed that ‘Atenisi should send a detachment to the parade. “The whole of Tongatapu will be there” she had told one of our staff meetings. “People will notice. We could beat on drums, one of the students could blow a flute, we could all dress up, and march in lines…”

When I asked them, though, ‘Atenisi’s students were unimpressed by the prospect of becoming footsoldiers in Lose’s army.

“That parade is very tiresome”, Tevita Manu’atu had said, looking up from the volume of Nietzsche he was reading in a corner of the classroom and scratching his Afro. “You’ll think it’s impressive because you will not have seen it before. But every year is the same. The same banners, uniforms, slogans. No change. No development.”  Other students simply laughed or sniggered when I asked for volunteers for a march down Taufa’ahau Road. 
A day or so later, at one of the gatherings where ‘Atenisians drink kava, gossip, sing Tongan poems, and argue about subjects like pre-Socratic philosophy and local politics, the poet and dramaturge Murray Edmond, who was visiting our institution, tried to reconcile Lose’s and Tevita’s positions. “Think of it in a Zen way” he urged. “You’re participating by not participating. You make your contribution by being absent.”

Now that I was watching the parade I was pleased that ‘Atenisi hadn’t attempted to join it. How could we compete with the dance moves and jazz solos of the Mormons, or the sartorial splendour of those Catholic schoolboys?

The crowd that stood on the pavements of Taufa’ahau Road – thick concrete pavements laid a couple of years ago, by the Chinese coolies imported to rebuild downtown Nuku’alofa after the riot of 2006, but already cracked and tilted – was applauding loudly, but many of the marchers appeared both solemn and subdued. An hour or so later, as I walked westward towards the ‘Atenisi campus, I saw handfuls of them waiting for buses in the shade of coconut trees that craned their necks curiously over the iron fences of Nuku’alofa’s suburban front yards. A Liahona student had thrown his puffy white hat onto the roadside dust; a tuba sat, snout-down, in the lap of a yawning classmate. An inmate of Lavengamalie, the school of the fissiparous, wildly Pentecostal Tokaikolo Fellowship, was pulling at the brass buttons of his waistcoat, loosening his tie, and sucking in the hot afternoon air.

Looking at these handsomely and uncomfortably dressed young men, I remembered a story that a senior New Zealand trade unionist told me about a journey he had made to Cuba. Not content with wearing a T shirt adorned by Che Guevara’s glare, the trade unionist had gotten a tattoo of Che on an intimate part of his body. When he was finally able to visit the nation he admired, he took the opportunity of joining a huge march held to celebrate May Day.

As they stomped through downtown Havana the marchers chanted slogans against imperialism and for socialism, and waved placards decorated with portraits of Che and Fidel Castro. Walking home after the march, though, the Kiwi friend of the Cuban revolution noticed hundreds of abandoned placards. Once they had appeased party bosses by performing their annual ritual, the marchers had dumped Che and Fidel into the nearest gutter. I wondered whether the student paraders of Nuku’alofa were motivated by the same sort of dull duty as the reluctant marchers of Havana.

Back at ‘Atenisi I found Tevita Manu’atu lying on a long bench in the sun, reading Facebook rather than philosophy. When I offered him my theory about the motives of the school marchers, Tevita recovered his Nietzschean querulousness. “They have passion for their school, but they show it in their own way” he insisted. “They show it by fighting. Go downtown late on Friday night – you’ll see students from different schools facing off, fighting. They use fists, but sometimes also bush knives. Sometimes petrol bombs get thrown.”...

A month or so after School Parades Day fighting between Tongan schoolboys made the news in Australia and New Zealand, and kicked off a tearful public debate in the Friendly Islands.

Tupou College and Tonga College are the country’s two oldest and most prestigious schools. They also have a long history of warring. One night in June, in revenge for some previous act of violence, hundreds of Tupou College students piled into a truck and other vehicles and descended on the home of a Tonga College student in Ma’ufanga, an eastern suburb of Nuku’alofa. By the end of the evening one hundred and fifty Tonga College students were in hospital, and one hundred and fifty Tupou College students had been stuffed into the cells of Nuku’alofa’s central police station. 

The principals of both schools were soon crying and praying on television, and Tonga’s Police Commissioner, a grave, gaunt palangi mysteriously transferred from his beat in New Zealand, told a radio station that his force could not solve the problem of schoolboy warfare. Letter writers to Tonga’s newspapers called for the closure of both Tupou and Tonga colleges.

A week after the riot in Ma'ufanga ‘Atenisi held a kava session in honour of the veteran Pacific journalist Tony Haas, who was keen to talk about the problems of the Friendly Islands. Between downing cups of the sacred brown liquid and singing – or, in my case, uncertainly humming – the poems of Queen Salote, we discussed Tonga’s schoolboy wars.

Tevita Manu’atu was in no doubt about the cause of the latest violence. He pointed out that the rivalry between Tupou and Tonga colleges went back to the 1880s, when King Tupou I had founded the Free Wesleyan Church to free his country from what he considered the imperialist influence of the London-based international Methodist movement. Tupou’s mentor was Shirley Baker, a former Methodist missionary turned Tongan nationalist, and Baker’s great enemy was John Moulton, an ‘orthodox’ Methodist who opposed the establishment of the Free Wesleyan church and maintained close relations with the British High Commissioner for the Western Pacific. 
Encouraged by Moulton, thousands of Tongans refused to join the new church; these dissidents, who became known as the fakaongo, suffered imprisonment and beatings. One night in 1887 a band of Moulton’s disciples tried to assassinate Shirley Baker as he rode his horse along Nuku’alofa’s waterfront. Baker dodged the bullets, but hundreds of fakaongo were exiled to a small Fijian island. Eventually the outcasts were recalled to Tonga, and allowed to form their own Church of Tonga.

While Tupou College is run by the Free Wesleyan Church, Tonga College is a government school, and has always been hospitable to students from Church of Tonga families. Tevita Manu’atu sees the recent battles between the students of the two schools as a recurrence of the struggles of the 1880s. “They’ve fought each other ever since then” he said, “and they’re not going to stop”. 
Maikolo Horowitz, a long-time staff member at the ‘Atenisi Institute, had a different perspective on the schoolboy warfare. “Has anyone noticed”, he asked the kava circle, “that only the Protestant schools are at war? Apifo’ou College has no problems with violence. The Catholics don’t fight.”

Maikolo grew up in a Jewish section of New York City with a kabbalist father and a Trotskyist mother, and has always been interested in the sociology of religion. He discussed Emile Durkheim’s famous contrast between the high suicide rate in Protestant northern Europe and the relatively low rate in Catholic southern Europe. “Protestants are tightly wound” Maikolo insisted. “The Protestant internalises violence through repression and then externalises it.”

The Tongan-Waikato sculptor and scholar Visesio Siasau could not accept Maikolo’s dichotomy. Visesio grew up in an intensely Catholic family, and attended Apifo’ou College, but has begun to create astonishing artworks which juxtapose and sometimes fuse the symbols of Christianity with the imagery of traditional Tongan religion. He has shown the ancient artisan-God Tangaloa Tufunga writhing on a cross, and Hiku’leo, the overseer of Pulotu, the Tongan land of the dead, befriending Mary and Joseph. 
“Catholicism works subtly” Visesio said, “but its doctrine is more powerful because of its subtlety. It is a total system, a total view of the world, totalitarian”. Visesio could not see Tonga’s Catholic minority, which has been excluded from power by the Tupou dynasty and helped to found the pro-democracy movement in the 1980s and ‘90s, as a bastion of liberalism and pluralism. His syncretic artworks, with their implicit appeal for religious tolerance, have not always delighted his family.

Visesio wondered whether Tonga’s warlike schoolboys weren’t simply aping the behaviour of their elders. “There is violence at every level of Tongan education” he said. “Teachers beat senior students. Senior students, prefects, beat younger students. This is all legal, legal and expected. Is it any surprise students go out and fight their peers?”

‘Opeti Taliai, the Dean of ‘Atenisi, didn’t disagree with Visesio, but cited boredom as an additional reason for schoolboy warfare. “These schools are stuck out in the countryside” he pointed out. “These boys sit in the bush without any stimulus. They aren’t taught how to use their minds. They don’t read, think.” ‘Opeti noted that old boys of many schools are involved in the violence. “They finish school and go back to their villages and have nothing to do” he said. “They can’t take part in the agricultural economy, either because they don’t have the skills or because of a lack of land. They are surplus labour. They find it hard to marry. Their school is what they have.”

‘Opeti’s comments made me think of the role that the geography of Tonga’s largest island might play in its social problems.

From the air, Tongatapu looks like a small place. As they fold their trays and click their seatbelts, passengers on incoming jets can glance out their windows and take in the whole island, from the beach-lined curve of Hihifo peninsula in the far west to the sun-struck rooves of Nuku’alofa in the north to the big plantations of the southeast. With its flat fields of crops framed by coconut trees as straight and pale as the pillars of Greek temples, the island looks both orderly and inviting.

On the ground, though, Tongatapu is more complicated. The smoothest and widest road in Tonga connects the airport, in the southeast corner of the island, with Nuku’alofa. Paved roads strike out hopefully from the airport route, only to decline, in a few metres or kilometres, into muddy tracks shelled by coconuts and tormented by sharp turns. The plantations that looked like tracts of savannah from the air turn out to be tangles of chest-high tapioca or vanilla. Creepers studded with thorns and thistles guard ancient sunken pathways between the fields. The traveller’s eye looks for relief toward the horizon, with its empty stretches of ocean, but is blocked by those walls of coconut trees. 
Unlike rural New Zealanders, with their penchant for isolated farmhouses and lifestyle blocks, Tongans countryfolk live together in tight little villages. Only outcasts, madmen, and the odd palangi hermit live in the stretches of bush that lie like a sea between official settlements.

The broken roads, claustrophobic fields, and uninhabited zones of the Tongatapu countryside can make visitors very lonely very quickly.

With its English-speaking population, its colonies of Chinese and palangi, its cafes, bars, and supermarkets, Nuku’alofa is a place apart from the rest of Tongatapu. Some Nuku’alofans refer to the inhabitants of the villages beyond their town as ‘fakapoule’, or the ‘the unenlightened ones’. Many wealthier Nuku’alofans are more familiar with Sydney and Auckland than with the outer villages of their own island. The self-consciously modern village of Liahona is an exception to the rule of the countryside. 

The riot that destroyed a third of downtown Nuku’alofa in 2006 was blamed on Tonga’s pro-democracy movement, but it was teenagers from Tongatapu’s remote villages who did much of the burning and looting. ‘Iliasa Helu, the son of ‘Atenisi’s late founder Futa Helu and the keeper of the institution’s library, told me that he saw cars speeding up and down Taufa’ahau Road, through the smoke from the ruins of Chinese-owned stores and the city’s cinema. “They were opening their doors and leaning out the windows and shouting at us” ‘Iliasa remembered. “They were shouting ‘The capital will return to Lapaha!”

Built on the shore of Fanga’uta lagoon in the east of Tongatapu, Lapaha was the seat of the ancient Tu’i Tonga dynasty, which dominated the country until being pushed aside by Tupou I in the nineteenth century. Today Lapaha is a village of overgrown stone monuments and dried-up moats, whose Catholic inhabitants complain of neglect at the hands of Tonga’s establishment. For some of these marginalised Tongans, the 2006 riot was a chance for revenge.

Some Nuku’alofans have seen the recent schoolboy riot in Ma’ufanga as another invasion from the countryside, and another hint of the future. The uniformed young men and women who strode so smartly through Nuku’alofa on School Parade Day may return, in different dress, to conquer the city. 
I drove out to Tupou College one warm afternoon with ‘Opeti Taliai and the Kiwi architect Andrew Alcorn, who was looking for an antique fale-church – a dome of light, handcut logs lashed together with thousands of coconut fibres – which had stood on Mount Zion, the Nuku’alofa fort that had been the besieged stronghold of Christianity on Tongatapu, before being moved somewhere inland. We turned off the road around Fanga’uta, the shallow muddy lagoon that takes a bite out of northern Tongatapu, and drove south, into the centre of the island, past fields filled with burning elephant grass. 

A great circle of wooden cottages radiated from a concrete office block on which a hermit crab, the emblem of Tupou College, had been painted in blue. The cottages belonged to teachers, ‘Opeti explained: staff, as well as students, are obliged to live on this remote campus. The Dean of ‘Atenisi gestured at a large concrete house that sat on a grassy mound. “That mound was built a long time ago, for the fale of a local chief” he said. “It’s a sign of status. They’ve built the headmaster’s house there.”

The students lived and studied in a complex of rectangular, low-rooved buildings behind the office. Further back still was a wall of coconut trunks. “There’s a big plantation out there” ‘Opeti said. “It goes all the way to the airport. The students grow a lot of food. The school tries to be self-sufficient.” 
As we walked across the campus, searching for the curving walls of the Mount Zion fale, ‘Opeti pointed at the wire grill fitted tightly across a window. Faces smiled through the wire, and somewhere behind them a deep, bush preacher’s voice recited a series of prime numbers so slowly and reverently that it might have been reading the Lord’s Prayer. “I’m afraid they’ll grab us and put us in the Tupou uniform”, ‘Opeti whispered.

An unsmiling teacher wearing a blue tupenu, a white shirt, and a blue tie eventually emerged from the office to tell us that the fale from Mount Zion stood on the other side of the island, in the grounds of the Wesleyan theological college. ‘Opeti asked him whether we might make a short presentation to any senior students who were not in class. “They might like to know about ‘Atenisi, in case they’d like to study there next year” he explained. The teacher, who still hadn’t introduced himself, produced a tiny key, unlocked a large metal door, and ushered us into a dim room filled with rectangular tables. We stood in the gloom and waited, until half a dozen students filed in, smiling tightly. They were wearing blue tupenu and white shirts, but they lacked ties.

‘Opeti spoke to the students in Tongan. I sat down on a stool and listened hard, but could only understand his introduction and the occasional palangi proper noun: Heraclitus, Kant, Hegel. The students listened mutely. 

Shortly after ‘Opeti dropped the mysterious name Heidegger, a rat ran across the floor towards me, skipped over my feet, which had not had time to recoil, and disappeared through a fist-sized piece of rust in the bottom of the door. When we were back outside, in the bright and suddenly comforting afternoon light, I told ‘Opeti and Andrew about the rodent. ‘Opeti, who grew up in the Tongatapu countryside, began to laugh. “What did you expect it to do?” he asked. “Did you think it was going to raise a paw, and ask to go to the bathroom?”

...Before I can ask any more questions a bell rings.  A fat man is standing under the administration building’s hermit crab, waving his hands. Without looking at me, the students hurry off in his direction. “They probably have work duties” ‘Opeti tells me, as I walk back towards his car. “Lots of work in that plantation. We should get back to town.”

We drove back through the circle of teachers’ homes, down the long road to the lagoon.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Blogger Richard said...

I subscribe to Landfall and read your essay today. I was surprised to see it there as, I had no idea there was an essay competition. (I see there is one every year it seems.) It is a good essay indeed with the method of using people to comment from a central point (where they talk and drink kava).


I've read this before (on here or somewhere) but I think you worked on it.

[I noticed a small (significant?) nominal change between the online text and that in Landfall. However, not perhaps relevant to the overall essay.]

1:05 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

Thanks Richard. I've spent more time writing about Tongan in NZ than I did back up there. I suppose there's a tradition of making a journey, frenetically putting down notes (either online or in a journal!), and then trying to make sense of them back home.

Do you remember Jack Ross' A Strange Day at the Language School', which was runner-up in what I think was the very first Landfall Essay Competition about fifteen years ago?

The essay as a form may be making something of a comeback in NZ, with the popularity of Landfall's competition and the publication of collections like Then It Was Now Again. Did you see Nicholas Reid's review of Murray's tome?

2:12 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I didn't see Reid's review. Like me he got on quite well with Paterson (who published 3 of my poems) and I have to say I agree with many of Reid comments although I haven't finished Murray's book. So, so far, I agree or am in more or less support and interested in Murray's (often angry or idiosyncratic, although actually in some ways that very 'inconsistency' puts him in the camp or general mode of Montaigne and perhaps Barthes, although it is true he doesn't inundate his pages with near-incomprehensible theory, his writing is not always 'easy' (which is good)): I also thought his reviews of Smithyman were very informative and stimulating. So I am disagreeing and siding with Murray Edmond and Reid. But it seems he is overall positive.

I had a copy of PNZ with a lot of interesting stuff, two other books I was reading, a leaking tap to repair, and then Landfall arrived...I read your essay and some poems etc in that. There is some interesting stuff in both PNZ and Landfall.

The essay is a great form. Quite difficult. I am not sure it is my forte as I tend, as many may have noticed, to digress and wander...But I enjoy reading them. I sometimes prefer reading about writing and writers than their actual 'primary' works. Although such as Barthes and maybe Steiner, Sontag, and others (Geoff Dyer) have almost made it their forte, and indeed it is an art form in itself. (If we can really so clearly demarcate the 'forms' of Art.)

Some of my reviews were quite good but I needed more discipline. Once I was in Brian Boyd's class and had an essay to do on a modern writer (I chose 'Metroland' by Julian Barnes as it was about the shortest book. I followed all the rules, prepared it, but ended up writing a crap essay and Boyd rightly rubbished it. I did much better when I wrote with no preparation and virtually no revision, so that when in stage 3 we had open exams I treated them the same and did no preparation, just wrote what came into my head at the time...every man to his humour.

It's a pity more haven't commented here on your essay.

That essay by Jack I recall but I forgot it was a runner that one that had a girl in it who was contemplating suicide or was upset or something, possibly being far from home: I remember it was very good also. It had the personal element. The objective, theory laden, 'Zizek says this', 'the materiality of the signifier', 'the xzdfgdzdzdfgism' with masses of completely incomprehensible stuff is not for me.

4:59 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Reminds me of a weird lecture I went to when I was studying Romantic literature (ca 1994). The lecturer I did not know, but many of such as Wystan Curnow seemed to think he was important, but he spoke in a mass of abstractions that left me feeling I was listening to a lecture by a Serbo-Croat with a severe hangover while simultaneously an insane Mongolian was lecturing in his language, Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring' was on full volume, Hitler was giving a speech, there was a domestic dispute erupting, and added to that a theoretical physicist was talking about cosmology as if lecturing other mathematicians and was as clear as a blank undulating wall in a nightmare. Sitting there, listening to it, was agonizing. I had no idea of anything he was talking about. I felt stupid or stupider than I presumably am or was.

So, some clarity in essays, as well as some meat, and avoidance of jargon or references (unnecessary). We all reference people but too much leaves the audience wanting the whole thing to end.

But you avoided that.

Yes, the Blog for example, suits the essay form. People are all getting better at it.

Imagine you were writing for the New Yorker. They would pay good money, [the $3000 first prize was nice but some journalists and reviewers might get as much as that with two reviews or essays in the US or Britain etc] enough to make a living on. Those kind of journals. Updike, E.B. White, Perelman, and Thurber are only some who made a lot of their living by such means. I actually tried. Ron knew someone who was an editor on the New Yorker, so I proposed to the editor that I contribute news of alternate writers in NZ, and sent some poems etc. Of course there was no reply. But someone with a higher profile might even break in there. And there are many magazines.

It's a way to go for someone with energy and ability.

5:00 pm  
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12:30 am  
Blogger Unknown said...

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9:05 am  

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