Sunday, June 30, 2013

Murray Edmond in Tonga: some photographic evidence

When Skyler and I decided to take advantage of the 'Atenisi Institute's mid-semester break and travel back to New Zealand for a couple of weeks we were full of fond feelings for friends and relatives on Te Ika a Maui, and forgetful of the brutal weather that Kiwi winters can bring. When we caught our flight south the barometer at Fua'amotu airport read twenty-eight degrees Celsius; two and a half hours later we stepped into an Auckland night that was a full twenty degrees cooler.

I've spent this evening wedged between a small heater and a computer in a suburb of Kirikiriroa, where the temperature is stuck in single figures. I've been uploading some of the photographs Skyler and I took in Tonga, and hoping that the tropical skies and evergreen trees on my screen will somehow bring a little Tongan heat into the room.

If you're annoyed that I haven't shared a little tropical warmth with you, by placing a cocktail-orange sunset or a langurous palm at the top of this post, I suggest you direct your complaints at Brett Cross. When I told Brett, a month or so ago, that the veteran New Zealand poet, playwright, dramaturge, and academic Murray Edmond was preparing to visit Tonga and to do some teaching at the 'Atenisi Institute, the director of Titus Books demanded I provide him with photographic proof of the event.

Brett's scepticism is in some ways understandable. My powers of persuasion are negligible, and the task of persuading a cultural activist as busy and important as Murray Edmond to pay his own way to a relatively isolated island and give a lecture and a theatre workshop there pro bono would normally be well beyond me.

But it wasn't my wit and cooking skills which drew Murray to Tonga and to the 'Atenisi Institute. During his decades as the Head of the Drama Department at the University of Auckland, Murray has worked with many actors, playwrights, and texts from the tropical Pacific. Only this year he helped his Tongan-New Zealand PhD student Michelle Johansson stage Mele Kanikau - a Pageant, a controversial, seldom-produced work by the legendary American Samoan John Kneubuhl, at Auckland's Fale Pasifika. Students like Johansson and texts like Mele Kanikau had made Murray want to take a firsthand look at tropical Polynesia.

Skyler, Aneirin and I picked Murray up from Fua'amotu airport and began to drive him to Nuku'alofa, along a road lined with churches, hibiscus hedges, and Chinese-run stores selling bootleg DVDs. When we reached the village of Vaini, though, we found our way blocked by a procession moving slowly up the middle of the road. A dozen women clad in torn and dirty mats that began near their ankles and almost hooded their heads from the sun loitered near the back of the crowd.

As she sat with her foot on the brake, Skyler explained to Murray that the women were taking part in a funeral procession, and that they were wearing a type of ta'ovala, or ceremonial mat, that symbolised, through its size and bulk, that they were mourning a family member who had held a higher rank than them. Skyler added that Tongans usually wore their shabbiest ta'ovala to funerals, in order to symbolise their sense of loss. The palangi habit of dressing up for the dead baffled them. While Skyler spoke a brass band marched slowly past us into the procession and struck up a tune.

It was hot in the car, and we could only move forward at the pace of the grieving crowd. A dirt road appeared on our left, and I suggested to Murray that we turn onto it, and take one of the several alternative routes into Nuku'alofa. Another traveller might have been eager to get to Nuku'alofa, get out of the car, and get into a cool shower. Murray, though, waved away such ideas. He had produced a battered red notebook from his bag, and had begun to scribble in it. "Everything here is fascinating" he said. "I'm in no hurry to drive on."

Murray was determined, from the very beginning of his visit to Tonga, to experience and learn as much as he could. Over the next six days he managed to give a public lecture which brought together his memories of growing up in the conservative city of Hamilton with a tour of colonial and postcolonial New Zealand poetry, to run a theatre workshop which somehow managed, in the space of a couple of hours, to turn fifty timid Tongan adolescents into scribbling playwrights and beaming actors, to talk individually with many of 'Atenisi's students about their studies and their ambitions for the future, to meet with two local theatrical troupes, the Baha'i-inspired On the Spot outfit and Fili Tonu, which is employed by the Ministry of Health to promote awareness of subjects like safe sex, to attend a raucous Fili Tonu performance held in a burnt-out lot left over from Nuku'alofa's 2006 riot, to visit and learn about many of the important historical sites on Tongatapu, like the stone monuments built by the ancient Tongan Empire in the east of the island and the giant 'tsunami rock' in the western village of Kala'au, to read and explicate one of his poems on Tongan public television, and to sit for hours around a series of kava bowls talking about subjects as different as the Book of Genesis, the theories of Eric Von Daniken, and the New Zealand political scene in the 1970s.

Murray's energy and curiosity were inspiring. When I look now at the photographs (click to expand them) taken during his visit, I feel the warmth of his personality, as well as the warmth of the tropics.




Anonymous Anonymous said...

how do we no these r legit..?

8:10 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Good to see Murray there. He is a very intelligent and very good poet. His plays are great also. He would be positive. I would forget things and get mixed up but Murray is onto to it. "Everything here is fascinating." That is a great attitude...

He's is energetic for sure. If I get to a place that is hot or humid or strange I'm not always very positive. When I was in Fiji I got a bit paranoid and negative, and a lot of the time I didn't do that much: this is how the heat interacts with medication I take.

But it was also a fascinating place so I can imagine Tonga is also.

Good photos - why not caption them with a short explication of what was going on and what the punters are looking at? There is a facility for that...

9:38 pm  
Blogger Rachel Fenton said...

Why were you wearing the mat? And what were the plants growing out of the rock?

10:37 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

2 whites lording it over a colonial possession...makes u sik!

11:19 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

Hi Rachel,

a ta'ovala is useful, and sometimes even essential, at formal events, so Cerian bought me one, after getting advice on an appropriate style from the locals. Murray and I were about to head off to what turned out to be a rather fearsome church service in Folaha, the home village of 'Opeti Taliai, 'Atenisi's dean.

I've been goggling, trying to discover what sort of vegetation is growing on the trilithon, and what significance it might have. I suspect that, like the coke cans and plastic bags that lie on some many roadsides in Tongatapu, the plants are an example of the Tongans' relaxed attitude to public rubbish.

7:35 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think most Westeners have a "relaxed attitude to public rubbish" too, in that there's usually a civic body which picks up after them. Throughout the world in Western nations, when those civic bodies go on strike, rubbish accumulates as if people don't know how to dispose of it.

9:50 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

There's also a rubbish collection service on Tongatapu, anon - in fact there are two. And on the neighbouring island of 'Eua there has been a major push to reduce the dumping of rubbish, with the creation of a rubbish collection service and the providing of large blue bins for folks to dump their rubbish in free of charge.

Despite these measures, the dumping of rubbish at places like beaches continues, much to the displeasure of Taki Hausia, a prominent figure on the island and an outspoken advocate of eco-tourism. Taki has gotten the nickname 'the rubbish man', because he drives about 'Eua cleaning up other people's mess.

I don't think, given all this, that we can easily avoid the conclusion that there is a fairly relaxed attitude towards the dumping of rubbish in southern Tonga, at least.

I suspect that this attitude might reflect a long history of dumping organic rubbish, which decays and eventually disappears without human intervention, and the relatively recent appearance of large quantities of inorganic goods.

4:47 pm  
Blogger FreshyNZ said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

3:04 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Hi Freshy,

but I guess there's a more fundamental question: is rubbish bad? We have a horror or seeing, say, toilet rolls lying by a roadside. We hasten to pick them up. But perhaps we make a subtle and unexamined decision to turn give inorganic rubbish lying on the roadside a different ontological status to, say, stones lying on the roadside. Is there any important reason why we should do this? What does it really matter is piles of rubbish lie about, if this rubbish does not have a palpable effect on the environment? A toilet roll is not a barrel of dangerous chemicals, or a slick of oil.

We seem to be haunted by the memory of the function that a piece of rubbish had, before it became rubbish. Thus we see a toilet roll and feel horrified, because we remember its association with bowels and bad smells.

A similar preoccupation with the history of an object's use seems to be part of Eastern Polynesia culture - I think of the reluctance of many of my Maori co-workers at the Auckland museum to touch a newly unearted adze, in case it had been used for highly tapu activities like waka-building - but this preoccupation seems absent from Tongan society.

Adrienne Kaeppler has written about Tonga's unique grave decorations, which often feature 'rubbish' like old beer bottles and cans, and which dismay Western visitors, and suggested that, for Tongans, the history of an object's use is irrelevant to its current value.

9:40 am  

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