Saturday, May 20, 2017

Reading 'Eua

[I know that I seem to be relying on the podium to support me, and that any moment I might dive, or rather slide, into the text I'm trying to read, but it was a pleasure to appear at the Auckland Writers Festival yesterday, in a Pacific Tales session that also featured Courtney Sina Meredith, Gina Cole, and Brit Bennett. I was given ten minutes to read from The Stolen Island, and tried the following passages out on the audience, in an attempt to convince them that they ought to take their next holiday on the wonderful island of 'Eua...]


Although many of my students had travelled overseas, as singers and dancers and musicians in ‘Atenisi’s performing arts society, few of them had set foot on ‘Eua. The island is only twenty kilometres from Tongatapu, and can be reached by a three hour ferry ride or an eight minute flight, but it feels like one of the Kingdom of Tonga’s remoter outliers. Where Tongatapu is flat, copiously cultivated, and adorned by scores of villages, ‘Eua is high, bushy, and underpopulated. A reef lies only a few metres off the island; fish as tiny and bright and skittish as butterflies live in its gashes and basins. The reef is so close to shore that ‘Eua has few of the good beaches or deep lagoons that palangi holidaymakers crave.
‘Eua has been neglected by scholars, as well as by tourists. The island’s rainforest is the largest in Tonga, but it has hardly been explored by botanists. The thousands of caves and sinkholes in its highland have yet to interest speleologists, and the ancient forts on its ridges and hilltops have gone unsurveyed and unexcavated.
‘Eua’s people are as unusual as their environment. ‘Eua has been inhabited for thousands of years, and in pre-Christian times acquired its own deities and storied sacred sites. But most of the indigenous ‘Euans lived along the island’s western coast, in villages that looked across the water at Tongatapu; the plateau in the centre of the island and the highland above its eastern coast remained almost uninhabited.
Eight decades after the resettlement of the ‘Atans on ‘Eua, another group of refugees arrived on the island. They had come from Niuafo’ou, the northernmost piece of the Kingdom of Tonga. Niuafo’ou is a volcano whose crater is filled with water that periodically steams and boils. In 1946 the water turned to lava, and poured out of the lake and over Niuafo’ou’s villages and plantations. The island was evacuated, and its people were resettled on ‘Eua, where they found the dialect baffling and the air cold. Some of the Niuans eventually went home, but many stayed on ‘Eua. They built houses and churches on the island’s plateau and named these settlements after the devastated villages of their homeland.
The three peoples of ‘Eua have maintained their separate identities and settlements. Sometimes only a road separates different villages with different dialects and cultures...
In the morning I walked to Kolomaile. I had put on a ta’ovala, the woven mat Tongans wear around their waist for formal occasions, and filled my backpack with folders of photocopied documents. The morning was cool, by Tongan standards, but I was soon sweating.
The road south along ‘Eua’s plateau was lined with villages. Some of them – Esia, Futu, Petani – had the names of the long-lost settlements of Niuafo’ou; others had been established by the descendants of ‘Eua’s first inhabitants, and harked back to ancient sites on Tongatapu. Sometimes different villages sat on either side of the road, their churches and kava clubs confronting one another. Chinese women with blank faces sat behind the metal grilles of squat buildings, selling sim cards and unlabelled packets of locally grown tobacco. The road was made from crushed coral, and the plateau’s winds had turned the trunks and leaves of roadside mango and ironwood trees white.

As I walked, I counted the denominations: Free Wesleyan, Catholic, Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness, Baptist, Church of Tonga, Independent Church of Tonga. Satellite dishes rose as proudly as spires from some of the larger houses in each village. The berms beside the road had been mown and weeded, but burned out cars and utes lay across them, like victims of drone strikes.

Kolomaile was the last village on the road, the southernmost village in Tonga. Most of the houses were rectangles of weatherboard. Mould was painting them green. In front yards elderly women wearing straw hats and black skirts raked leaves and shards of coconut shells toward the road. A skinny suckling pig turned on a spit, then disappeared in a puff of brown smoke.

The village’s store was staffed by a young Tongan woman who looked at me blankly through her metal grille. The store rubbed shoulders with a corrugated iron shack where a dozen men smoked and stood around a pool table. When I stepped inside the shack the game and the conversations went on. Nobody looked at me, and I couldn’t think of anything to say. I stepped back outside and tried to deny my embarrassment by ordering something through the grille of the store. The shelves behind the unsmiling storekeeper were almost empty; I eventually asked for a couple of lollipops that had melted into their wrapping. When I pushed a two pa’anga note through the grille the woman giggled quickly, and pushed the money back at me along with the sticky sweets.

I saw a middle-aged woman in a black dress and massive ta’ovala walking into the village, and hurried towards her. She saw me coming and turned quickly down a side road, scattering some chickens. I turned south, and walked towards the southern end of the village, where the art deco spire of a Mormon church rose out of bush. An elderly woman was walking north, carrying a plastic bag filled with taro in one hand and a plastic bag filled with firewood in the other. I waited for her to turn down a side road, into the heart of the village, then followed. She heard me following and walked faster. I increased my speed. In a minute or two I was walking alongside her, and she had to stop, put down her bags, and acknowledge me.

‘Malo e le lei. Malie. I’m interested in the history of Tonga. I’d like to talk to someone who knows about the history of Kolomaile, of ‘Ata. I have some documents that – ‘
‘Are you looking for the minister?’
‘No. Well, maybe. I want to talanoa about the history of ‘Ata. I have tohi. I have makasini.’
‘Go and talk to Mozzy.’
‘Mozzy?’
‘Masalu Halahala. He is senior. His family started ‘Ata. He knows the stories.’
She pointed at a blue and white house a couple of streets away.
‘I was on ‘Eua in 2013. I talked with a young woman, Pesi – ‘
‘Pesi isn’t here. Pesi went to Tongatapu to be with her sister.’
‘Can I help you with those bags?’
‘’Ikai. 'Alua.’

Pigs and dogs followed me to the front door of the little blue and white house. I knocked, waited, knocked again. I heard laughter, and turned to see a couple of women in an adjacent yard staring at me. I waved at them. They laughed again.

Masalu Halahala took several minutes to answer the door. ‘I was sleeping’ he muttered, squinting at his doorstep. He must have been more than sixty years old, but his hair was as thick and black as the bristles of a paintbrush. He was wearing a tattered blue raincoat, which he tried unsuccessfully to zip up. ‘It’s cold’ he said. ‘Too cold for Tonga. Too cold for ‘Eua.’

While I repeated the introduction I’d tried on the elderly woman, Masalu coughed loudly. ‘Pesi is gone’ he said. ‘She lives on Tongatapu now. If you want to talk with me, come back here on Sunday.’
‘Back to this house?’
‘Back to this village. Come to our church. I am Free Wesleyan. You have a  family, eh?’
‘Yes, I have a wife, and two boys, Aneirin and Lui.’
‘Only two, eh?’
‘Well, it’s hard in Nu’u Sila – expensive, these days, to have kids.’
‘You too poor, eh?’
Masalu was chuckling. I thought about the green houses and sagging telephone wires of Kolomaile.
‘It’s different in Auckland. You have to pay a mortgage, and – ‘
‘Big families are good. But you bring your family to church. Kava at nine, service at ten, eat afterwards.’
‘That sounds great. I’ll be there!’
Masalu yawned and shut the door. 

1 Comments:

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