Saturday, October 23, 2010

FAI TOTONU: Doing the Right Thing

'Atenisi University (where I work as an Economics instructor and librarian) has a tradition of hosting occasional evening lectures by people with something compelling to talk about. Recently we had the great pleasure of hearing Dr. Eric Shumway, currently the head of the Mormon Mission to Tonga, reflect on his 50 year love affair with the Kingdom, which began when he was assigned here as a young missionary. He quickly became fluent in the Tongan language, and most of us in the Peace Corps know him because of the excellent Tongan language course he developed; he was the first language trainer Peace Corps Tonga used way back in 1967.

Most significantly Dr. Shumway has developed a profound appreciation for the Tongan culture and the values it supports. He presented as clear an understanding of these values as I have heard, and I'd like to share some of what he said.

The young missionary was first assigned to a remote village, “trapped in an alien, hostile environment” and told not to leave the village until he was fluent in Tongan. Suffering from culture shock and a “cold despair” he was eventually saved by the “immense friendliness of the Tongan people.” One of his first lessons from his Tongan teachers was about four behaviors “essential to your happiness and your effectiveness” as someone wanting to “be Tongan.” These are:
  1. First, Kai pō is forbidden. Kai pō, (eating at night or in the dark or on the sly, without sharing) is a serious offence in Tonga, sometimes generating negative reactions, even scandal. Kai pō is the metaphor for and the embodiment of selfishness. You must not only share, but share your best. You seek the interest of others first.
  2. The second essential behavior. “Oua ‘e kai filifili.” Don’t be picky about the food that is offered you. Learn to eat everything with relish. Gratefully take advantage of every love offering.
  3. The third principle – ‘Oua ‘e mohe ‘uli, don’t sleep dirty, bathe before you sleep. This motherly counsel caught me off guard but then I remembered that most of the palangi coming to Tonga over the years, especially in the earlier days, came from cold climates where a once a week bath was the norm. Obviously, a once only a week bath in Tonga could create unfortunate social consequences. I took the counsel as hygienic. Stay healthy!
  4. The fourth behavior was to become fluent in the language of expressing gratitude; “Koe koloa ‘a Tonga koe fakamālō: Saying thank you is the real wealth of a Tongan, and accepting the thanks of others as sufficient “payment” for any kind service on your part.”
Dr. Shumway's talk was filled with good stories of his personal experiences and appreciations for the Tongan “generosity of soul.” A well known public example of this is the story of Queen Salote at the the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II which he related this way: “Another aspect of generosity of soul is the reverence with which one subordinates one’s own needs to the comforts and convenience of another, particularly a person considered to be of rank or importance. Queen Sālote of Tonga manifested this trait in 1953 at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in London. As with many monarchs and heads of state, she participated in the coronation ceremonies, including the grand procession of royalty. It was a cold, gloomy day. Tens of thousands of excited spectators stood in the rain along the procession route to catch a glimpse of all their majesties from around the world. Unfortunately the steady drizzle had forced the royal entourage in the procession to seek cover by bringing up and securing the hoods of their carriages. In so doing they became virtually invisible to the public view – not so with Queen Salote of Tonga. She refused to cover up but rather rode in full view of spectators. Though completely wet, she smiled and waved to the adoring crowd, who responded with loud applause. Newspapers, radio, and television stations praised the radiant Tongan queen for her deeply moving regard for the British queen and her people. She later recorded her feelings saying:
“'I was so caught up in the warmth of the people and the feelings of grace flooding my heart from the recent ceremony that I could not bear to be excluded from any part of that day, good and bad. …….I just suddenly got the feeling that I wanted to join the people in the happiness of the day, and my Tongan heart was excited and foolish. But I am still thankful that I was soaked with rain on that significant day …. I did not notice what others were doing: I was too busy doing what I thought I should do … whether I was noticed or not. I was only happy because of the … warmth that the people felt for their sovereign.'”
“The media heralded Queen Sālote’s action in the most laudatory terms, but she deflected the praise by suggesting that in the Tongan way of life it is impossible to seek one’s own comfort if it would disappoint or discomfort someone else.”

He elaborates further: “This generosity is part of the traditional attributes of a True Tongan that every preacher, poet, and chief’s spokesmen or matapule articulates and sings about, the five golden badges/sashes of a true Tongan or āfei koula:” These are:
  • 'ofa – or love
  • Faka'apa'apa – Respect and reverence;
  • Tauhi va – maintaining warm relationships and social obligations;
  • mamahi'i me'a – loyalty and passionate commitment; and
  • loto-to – humility and a ready and willing heart.
As a foreigner wanting to be Tongan, especially on the eve of the transfer of political power, I am going to indulge in a bit of fie poto and suggest a 6th āfei koula – namely fai totonu. For without fai totonu – that is, honest, integrity, and doing what is right, fair, and just – then all the other virtues or āfei koula are corruptible.” Love can become favoritism, respect can morph into mere flattery, and maintaining relationships may result in cultivating only those relationships that can provide advantage. Loyalty and commitment can result in excitability and being carried away by emotion. “Fai totonu holds on to the purity of these Tongan virtues, unites them as one golden set and protects them from corruption. Fai totonu is the shield and  protection against kaipō – in its many forms of consuming or controlling selfishness, ignoring the needs and desires of others.”

In our experience here we have experienced many instances where these virtues have been expressed, such as when a neighbor comes to our door with big plate of food from their Sunday umu, how the school children who are fortunate enough to bring a lunch to school readily share with those who did not. And we have also seen the corrupted versions he talks about. For example it's not unusual for food to be prepared when an official from a government ministry or the head office of the church plans an official visit. This is nominally done out of respect, in humility, and to express sociability in adherence to these virtues, but in reality the practice has become institutionalized; the food is expected, but despite the expectation of those who prepared it the official may simply load the food into the car without accepting the hospitality involved with sharing. It is a testament to the Tongans' generosity of spirit that such behavior is accepted (sai pe: no problem).
Dr. Shumway concluded by describing an encounter with an old friend as he arrived in Tonga three years ago on this assignment as President and Matron of the Tonga Temple. His old friend “was the embodiment of the āfei koula virtues of Tonga. He was a great chief, a district officer, a loving nature, a devoted subject, a deeply religious person and member of the United Free Wesleyan Church. .   .  I greeted my venerable friend affectionately and asked him off-handedly: 'Siaosi, how is our country?' I was surprised at his answer and the emotion with which he gave it. 'Well,' he said 'We all still go to Church, we still sing to the high heaven, we still say our Amens to the prayers, but with regard to fai totonu, (that is honesty, integrity, and doing right guided by a sense of justice) – we are empty as a people.'”

How often have I heard the prayer that the impending changes to our political system would somehow restore and reaffirm fai totonu in government – But we the people are the government. And the question remains how do we get the āfei koula off our shoulders and our chests and into our hearts – How do we anga ’aki these virtues, so that they are not just decorations or badges of a false honor and an empty rhetoric, but real qualities of heart and soul?”

I came to Tonga to gain perspective from a different culture to help me better understand my own. As a citizen and product of the most consumption oriented culture ever, I am constantly challenged personally and in my teaching to understand and appreciate the Tongan generosity of spirit, in its pure as well as its corrupted expressions. It appears to be a challenge for many Tongans as well. A recent story in the English language newspaper profiled one of the candidates for parliament who has visited each household in his district in the last month. He expected the topmost concern of villagers to be reviving the economy. But these are people for whom a consumer culture is relatively new, who don't really understand globalisation and are not so sure it is the best future for Tonga. “What kept coming back to me, from rich and poor, from old and young, was that people just wanted their new government to be faitotonu—to just do the right thing, be honest with them, not corrupt.”

A worthy wish for any government.  Thank you, Dr. Shumway.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

I Saw Three Ships

MV Otuanga'Ofa, MV Ajang Subuh, MV Pulupaki @ Queen Salote Wharf

The big event in Tonga this week was the arrival of the long-awaited MV Otuanga'ofa, the new passenger and freight ferry built by Japan to meet Tonga's critical need for reliable transport between its far flung islands.  It was greeted Friday afternoon (October 15) by an ad hoc flotilla and escorted to a berth at Nuku'alofa's Queen Salote wharf.  This ship was originally commissioned in 2005 when the Tongan government realized that the MV Olovaha, its workhorse ferry since 1981, was at the end of its useful life.  Since then construction delays (which have been blamed on the operator of the competing private ferry, the MV Pulupaki, who is also a member of Tonga's parliament) and the resulting ill-advised purchase and subsequent sinking tragedy of the MV Princess Ashika have underscored the urgent need for the new ship.

Tonga's only port usable by freighters is here in Nuku'alofa.  Most freight and all passengers wishing to travel to the other major islands and a few smaller islands rely on ferries.  The Shipping Corporation of Polynesia, the government owned operator of the Olovaha, has provided the bulk of the freight service, but because the Olovaha was slow, uncomfortable and reportedly "bobbed like a cork" most passengers preferred to ride the MV Pulupaki, operated privately by Uata Shipping. 

The Olovaha was damaged in a hurricane in 2003 and required major repairs.  Since then her operation became increasingly problematic, and in 2005 the government began planning for her replacement.  The government of Japan offered assistance, and planning for the construction of the Otuanga'ofa began.  The Olovaha was finally removed from service in late 2008.  She has sat in port since then and is slowly being dismantled for scrap. 

The government then began its search for a temporary replacement and ended up purchasing the ill-fated Princess Ashika.  After serving less than a month it sank in August, 2009 taking 74 passengers with it to a watery grave (see previous post:  "Remembering August 5").

 Since that time until just a few months ago the only ferry service has been provided by the MV Pulupaki, but its service has also been plagued by seaworthiness issues. Last Christmas it was ordered berthed after a marine survey indicated the need for repair.  So for several months there was no freight and passenger service except for the airline service provided by Chathams Pacific.  Outer islands had to scramble for ways to get needed provisions students were late getting back to their schools on Tongatapu after the summer break. No one knew for sure when the Pulupaki would return to service, but she was suddenly determined to be fit for service after her owners defied government detainment orders.  In the meantime the Peace Corps reassigned five volunteers serving on outer islands, whose only transportation at the time was the Pulupaki, for safety reasons.

Meanwhile the government continued its search for a temporary replacement for the Olovaha, finally finding a new Indonesian ship, the MV Ajang Subuh, which it was able to lease for a year.  With financial `help from Australia and New Zealand, the Ajang Subuh arrived in Tonga in April and began service in May.  With a capacity of only 70 passengers and 200 tons of cargo it has been only a stop gap measure.  But since many Tongans refuse to ride on it (remembering the government told them the Ashika was safe, too) it has served very nicely.

Which brings us to the long anticipated arrival of the Otuanga'ofa, which will carry 400 passengers, 400 tonnes of cargo, and promises to be the reliable transportation option the country has sorely needed.  Dock upgrades are in process in all her ports of call, but the government is still looking for an operator.  If interested contact the Ministry of Transportation ASAP!.