Februay 20, 2009
(This entry is an edited version of an article I wrote for the next Peace Corps Tonga newsletter. My Peace Corps assignment is to teach Economics and reorganize the library at ‘Atenisi University.)
TONGAN Professor 'Ilaisa Futa 'i Ha'angana Helu (age 75) passed away on Tuesday, February 2 in Tongatapu. He was an icon of late 20th century Tonga, highly learned in Tongan culture and language as well as Western philosophy, literature and science. He founded and guided the only truly independent institution of higher learning in Tonga and had enormous influence on the pro-democracy movement. He loved Tonga deeply, and because of that love was one of the harshest critics of some contemporary Tongan trends.
Futa was born in 1934 at Lotofoa in Foa, Ha'apai, and he was one of the founding class of 12 in the newly established Tonga High School in 1947, which was started by the government to provide a secondary education for Tongans comparable to what was then only available in New Zealand or Australia. He passed the New Zealand School Certificate exam in 1951 in every subject but could not qualify for a scholarship because of his punishment history (mostly for his long hair). However, his extended family financed his education by making copra, and he attended Newington College and the University of Sydney in Australia from 1952-61.
In Australia Futa was more interested in learning than earning a degree, and he studied philosophy, English literature, mathematics, and physics, and he developed a love for Italian opera. After 10 years in Australia he was called home by his family, but instead of following his family’s expectations and embarking on a career in government he stayed in Nuku’alofa and began informal studies in Tongan culture and history, ethnography, and Italian opera.
He began attending fiekava (traditional men-only social gatherings around the kava bowl) and these sessions quickly became known for the conversations Futa led reflecting his insights and stories from his Western education as well as his knowledge of the Tongan language and history. Former student Sefita Hao’uli(1): “Before long it became known that Futa brought a new and refreshing dimension to these gatherings, and that the kava aficionados were now joined more and more by a wide range of people all keen to hear Futa and his stories. He introduced Socrates and the Greek philosophers, Homer, Shakespeare, Milton and others into the conversation so interestingly that it was never above anyone’s head.” He became a tutor to students who were having trouble keeping up with school, and later he began night classes for civil servants interested in improving their English and mathematics. These classes led him to begin ‘Atenisi Institute, which in English means "Athens," in 1963 as a night school. At this time there was a bulge of high school age students and a consequent demand for secondary schooling that could not be met by existing schools, and so ‘Atenisi High School was started by Futa and a group of parents in 1964. The first classrooms were traditional Tongan fale built of branches and thatch; later buildings were constructed by students, teachers and parents from timber they cut and milled themselves. In 1971 experimental university level classes were offered in Tongan culture, philosophy, mathematics, and English literature which led to the formal founding of ‘Atenisi University in 1975.
Probably the most ambitious project undertaken at ‘Atenisi was to establish a performing arts school. “Notwithstanding his and his institute’s existence in a swamp amidst all the apparent signs of poverty including the unfinished buildings and minimally equipped classrooms that constitute ‘Atenisi, in 1987 the ‘Atenisi Foundation for the Performing Arts (AFPA) was established. . . . The cynics and skeptics have long been silenced as, despite its humble material circumstances, AFPA has developed into an exciting and strong creative force. Its regular concerts contribute much to the artistic life of Tonga . . .” (1)
The editors of Polynesian Paradox (1) call Futa "one of the giants of modern Tonga, and indeed of the whole Pacific." Kalafi Moala, one of his earliest students: “I never cease to be amazed at this man’s knowledge. He is well read and a tireless thinker. There are three particular aspects of Futa’s life that come readily to mind when thinking about his contribution to Tonga. First, his incredible knowledge of Tongan history and culture that make him one of the most authoritative voices on any matter pertaining to Tongan society. Second, Futa has been a distinct voice in establishing a foundation of learning in which education is not just for utilitarian purposes, a means of getting employment, but a system of pursuing truth and the learning that would lift life to a higher level. Third, the contribution that he has made through his teaching on critical thinking: Futa personifies the notion of the critical thinker, which is, for Tonga, a radical one, and one lived out in his life and those of his students.”
From the editors: "For non-Tongans he is a paradox: a deeply traditional man, steeped in Tongan culture, but also the most articulate, thoughtful and strident critic of Tonga values and society. He led the way in Tongan studies at secondary and tertiary levels, but is a devotee of European civilization and especially its thought and music. The enigma of Futa has attracted many foreign scholars as well as Tongans to seek him out both for the pleasure of his company, for what they might learn from him, and sometimes simply to be a part of the exhilarating and audacious experiment that has been his whole life and work."
Futa was a scholar and a teacher, but never earned a degree. He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Literature by the University of the South Pacific in 1999 and has authored numerous books on Tongan culture. He retired as the ‘Atenisi Institute's Director and Dean in 2007 as his health was in decline, particularly due to Alzheimer’s disease.
The last word is from former student Sefita Hao’uli (2): “Futa may have been the founder of the ever-fledgling 'Atenisi Institute and University on the swampy western fringe of Nuku'alofa, but for those of us who came to know him well, he will forever be the scholars' scholar, the tutor to a nation, a mentor to the growing Tongan intelligentsia, an authority on Tongan arts culture, and a humble but courageous critic of Tonga's powerful elite.”
(1) Polynesian Paradox, a collection of essays in honour of Futa Helu on his 70th birthday edited by Ian Campbell and Eve Coxon, currently out of print.
(2) Letter to the editor, Matangi Tonga.