[I'm grateful to the indefatigable Giovanni Tiso for including my essay 'Pass the Ta'e, please' in the special New Zealand issue of long-time Aussie cultural journal Overland that was launched last week in Wellington. Giovanni has blogged about his work as the guest editor of Overland 219, and his issue has been reviewed by Fairfax journalist Philip Matthews.
My contribution to Overland is part of a long-running campaign to convince my fellow palangi that the little island of Tongatapu, and not New York or Berlin or Shanghai, is the hippest and most interesting place in the world to live, make art, and take drugs.
My essay describes the night when the kava circle at 'Atenisi, Tonga's legendary radical school, is visited by thirsty members of the artistically and politically radical Selaka Club. I don't want to discourage anyone from buying a copy of Giovanni's Overland, so I'll only reproduce the first quarter or so of my text.]
When I worked at the ‘Atenisi Institute, a small and poor university on the outskirts of Nuku’alofa, the capital and only city of the Kingdom of Tonga, most of my Friday evenings began the same way. I would come home from my last class of the week, shower and change into a fresh tupenu, or Tongan skirt, and then walk out to buy a bag of drugs with my employer’s money.
Halfway down Tupoulahi Road, on the eastern side of Nuku’alofa, I would knock on the door of a fibrolite cottage with cardboard in its windows. A small boy would open the door, and wordlessly exchange ‘Atenisi’s ten pa’anga note for a bag of brown powder.
Across the road from my drug house was a yard where dozens of concrete pillars, foundations of an invisible house, rose a few feet through weeds, and pigs gnawed watermelon scalps. Forty years ago, the yard had been the site of one of the first Fofo’anga clubs.
Fofo’anga is the Tongan word for the pumice stones – light, porous, pink-white things – that wash up on the beaches of the kingdom’s one hundred and seventy islands. Futa Helu, Tonga’s most important modern intellectual, thought of Fofo’anga when he set up a network of clubs where people could, in return for a small donation, sit, talk, and consume kava, a drink made with cold water and the pounded and ground roots of the piper methysticum plant.
For hundreds of years, and possibly much longer, kava had been consumed by Tongan men at carefully organised ceremonies. Almost every important public event in Tonga, whether it is a wedding or a funeral or a coronation, still involves ritualised kava drinking, where highly ranked men – royals, nobles, local chiefs - are seated close to the bowl, and long, decorous speeches are made.
Helu’s Fofo’anga clubs popularised a new way of enjoying kava. In the 1950s and early ‘60s, Helu had studied at Sydney University, where he befriended the classicist, philosopher and political provocateur John Anderson, and became part of the circle of bohemians known as the Sydney Push.
Inspired by the boozy and disputatious gatherings of the Push and by the symposia of ancient Greece, Helu set up a new sort of kava circle after returning to Tonga in 1963. He asked his friends to sit wherever they liked around his kava bowl, and encouraged them to discuss both the political and economic problems of Tonga and the philosophical connundra he had encountered in Sydney.
Helu’s kava circle became both notorious and very popular, and by the end of the ‘60s he and his followers decided that Tonga needed a set of kava clubs where thought and discussion could move as freely as the fofo’anga that float between the kingdom’s islands.
Today every suburb of Nuku’alofa and every village outside the city has at least one Fofo’anga-style club, and many have two or three. The clubs raise hundreds of thousands of dollars every year for charities, and no politician can hope to be elected without touring them. The Fofo’anga club that made its base on Tupoulahi Road has moved to salubrious new premises beside the sea.
After buying my bag of kava, I would carry it across Nuku’alofa. By the end of any weekday, the city’s cars and dogs and pigs had stirred clouds of dust off its coral streets. On a Friday evening, coral dust mixed with smoke from hundreds of backyard fires, as pigs turned on spits and potatoes roasted in pits in preparation for weekend feasts. I walked through the smoggy dusk past shack-shops selling bootleg DVDs, currency exchange bureaus set up in the front rooms of old villas, and lots burnt black by the riot that destroyed a third of central Nuku’alofa in 2006. Beside the city’s main street statues of Tonga’s kings and queens stood surrounded by razor-tipped wire. A series of steeples outreached the highest coconut palms, monuments to the fundraising skills of the kingdom’s competing Christian sects.
On the western side of Nuku’alofa’s main drag I turned down a long straight lane that ran beside a series of ponds where pigs sloshed about lethargically. The lane ended outside the two-storey Lolo Masi building, which was the least dilapidated of the dozen or so structures still standing on the campus of the ‘Atenisi Institute.
Like the Fofo’anga movement, ‘Atenisi grew from the kava circle Futa Helu established fifty years ago. Helu had studied subjects as different as philosophy, classics, English literature, opera and mathematics during his time in Sydney, and he was often asked to share his knowledge around the kava bowl. Eventually his students offered to help him build a school. ‘Atenisi is Tongan for Athens, and Helu encouraged every student he enrolled to study the Greek language and Greek philosophy, as well as Tongan song and dance.
By the middle of the 1970s ‘Atenisi had more than a thousand students; by the end of the ‘80s it had become the base for Tonga’s pro-democracy movement. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, though, buildings were crumbling and rolls were falling. Paul Janman’s feature-length documentary film Tongan Ark, which was shot in the years before Helu’s death in 2010, shows lecturers addressing classes of two or three students, and pigs laying siege to a library.
On the evening I am remembering, cars were parked outside the Lolo Masi building, and bikes leaned against its open windows. Inside, some of ‘Atenisi’s students had dragged a long table and plastic chairs across the concrete floor to the centre of the room, and placed a big kava bowl and a pile of wooden cups on the table.
I emptied my kava into a filter bag held up by Tuiahai Helu, a grandson of ‘Atenisi’s founder. Helu looked like the young Will Smith, and played guitar for One in Blood, one of Nuku’alofa’s noisiest bands. Tevita Manu’atu, a nineteen year-old with a huge Afro and a thorough knowledge of Nietzsche, poured water through the bag, and the bowl began to fill with the mud-coloured national drink of Tonga.
Visitors took places around the table. A few ‘Atenisi graduates had come along to sing with current students and talk about the school’s heyday. A handful of members of the Baha’i faith had stopped in on their way to their own school’s kava circle. A dozen or so expatriate palangi – teachers, aid workers, resort managers, surfers, beachcombers – were swapping anecdotes about mosquitoes. A lanky young man in the tropical blue uniform of Sia’atoutai, the theological college run by Tonga’s establishment Free Wesleyan Church, stepped through the door and grinned, ready for another evening of arguments about the nature of the Trinity and the errors of Papists and atheists.
I heard ‘Opeti Taliai and Michael Horowitz creak down the stairs from their offices. Taliai was an ‘Atenisi gradute who returned as dean after getting his PhD in New Zealand; Horowitz was a former student of Herbert Marcuse and activist in America’s New Left, who settled in Tonga in the ‘90s and quickly became a friend and employee of Futa Helu.
At traditional kava ceremonies, the drug is dispensed by girls or virginal women; at ‘Atenisi, whoever sits closest to the bowl does the job. Tuiahai Helu dipped, filled, and passed cup after cup; drinkers downed the kava in one gulp, as though they were taking shots of liquor, then reached for the lollies that Tuiahai scattered across the table. I bit into a jellybaby, and the bitter taste of the drink disappeared.
“I hope I don’t have to carry you out of here, Sikoti”, Tuiahai joked. Many kava clubs stay open all night. My tongue and lips were already numb; after a few more cups my limbs would become light, and the walls of the Lolo Masi building would seem to soften and retreat...
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]