This post is an attempt to find a great responsibility for the planet from my current commitments and responsibilities in the place I live now.
I honour our ancient glaciers, who around 25,000 years ago reached out as far as Zurich, and made the landscape here the liveable place it is. As the ancestors of those original glaciers disappear we must never forget, and continue to show gratitude for the fertile land we now live on.
Family and Local Responsibility
Sonja and I rent a two bed flat in a building of six flats that belongs to Baugenossenschaft (building co-operative) in Männedorf. Männedorf is a municipality in the district of Meilen in the canton of Zürich in Switzerland. The advantage of renting from a building co-operative is that rent is lower than market rates, and that you typically have interesting neighbors. Our opposite neighbours are a young couple from Germany with a young child, who both work for a nearby engineering company. We are all friendly with each other, and try to have an annual party to keep familiar. The advantage as a family, is that the only thing we share is the hallways and the utility room, and Louie has many friends nearby. A little more privacy with two young boys (3) and ( is a big advantage over a WG (wohngemeinschaft-shared apartment). This is our fourth place of abode, after two WGs and an apartment.
We started living in Männedorf because of twist of fate, and because Sonja’s mum lives 10 minutes away, and because Sonja’s grandparents (before they passed away) lived close by. Why on Lake Zurich? And not Zurich or elsewhere? Sonja had such a strong connection with the body of water, five minutes walk from us, we wanted our children to experience something similar.
We have strong connections with nearby families who we first lived with, and others through our children. We live in a relatively narrow band of affordable properties to rent, along with many other people who work in the caring professions or have some migrant history. A few streets up the hill are zones of expensive flats and large houses.
There are many other reasons why we live here (and not in London or Spain). Sonja has made it possible by retraining to become a teacher. One reason that stays very present for me, is that somehow I feel closer to my ancestral places of origin, Poland and Germany. We can see mountains from our balcony.
Responsibility to Tonga
How and why have I developed responsibility to friends and family in Tonga and to a vague idea of the Tongan people, the Tongan nation and Tongan connectivity?
I have bumbled along without ever really making my responsibility explicit to myself or others, partly I think because no-one in Tonga asked me to be responsible to the Tongan nation, though individuals I have a long relationship with, such as Emeline Lolohea (my adoptive Tongan mother) have asked me for support in ways that imply and grow responsibility. Somehow the generosity and inclusion demonstrated so many times in my interactions in Tonga and with the diaspora has slowly melted the deep individualist ethos cultivated in me from such an early age in London, as the only way to get by and escape the accident of one’s birth in a place of our parent’s choosing. Perhaps, by becoming aware of inherited and accumulated responsibility (and resistance to responsibility), I can grow and act with more responsibility and generosity for our living planet?
If time is a measure of responsibility then my prime responsibility lies with Sonja and our two children. I spend an average of two days during the week looking after our youngest son and two afternoons/evenings with our eldest. Weekends for the most part are also spent with the family. Last semester, work for Films for Future and the University of Zurich, took one day a week each. This year, I have a strong wish to continue supporting Films for Future, with or without a salary, to find more paid work and to focus on projects that have value in relation to climate change.
I spend one hour a week on Whatsapp with my mother in her care home in Ealing. This feels like very little, given I owe my mother the gift of life, and more. Emeline Lolohea calls me, or I call her at least once a month on messenger, and we chat about the kids, her family, her health. For years now I pay her a monthly pension to support her and ensure that she does not want for anything medical or for her health. This is clearly a long overdue commitment born of our relationship since 1998, prompted by the realisation that actually if I did not take action on some issues, there would be no action. I learn much through Emeline of current health challenges in Vava’u, and judge myself for not having found a way to improve health communication and health outcomes in Vava’u.
I had thought that the Healer and the Psychiatrist and Project Pouono would have supported or prompted initiatives on health issues in Vava’u, either through NGOs based in New Zealand or Tonga. But three years later, I see little evidence other than in an improved relationship between Emeline and some key individuals in the ministry of Health. I have to acknowledge the intractability of health issues in Vava’u, the lack of political will and finance in Tongatapu and Vava’uan diaspora on this issue, the my inability to mobilise support at distance. Or perhaps, I need to have more patience. Positive change takes time, I need to be ready to help when necessary, and find those opportunities that have improved health communication and more funding for health service in Vava’u in their broad aim.
It frustrates me that after researching, writing and making a documentary film on questions of health in Tonga that I cannot contribute more to where health means the most, where it is a question of the life or death of relatives. This is where the overwhelming responsibility and direction of an academic career, must take some responsibility. It was only in the final years of 11 years of teaching at the University of Kent that it was possible to receive financial help for the production and completion of the Healer and the Psychiatrist and Project Pouono. Had I been at a New Zealand based university, connected to Tongan and Pasifika colleagues (and funding sources), I have no doubt that I would have achieved more. But my wish to stay in Europe as an act of responsibility to my own ancestry, and connections made through eco-villages and dance projects, was an act of meaningful self-care, to find a life of connectivity to my people. But who are my people? My kainga? I am the child of a disconnected diaspora. There is a radical difference in terms of connectivity, between my upbringing and the upbringing of Tongan children in the New Zealand diaspora.
I remember drawing friends circles every year to remind myself who I knew and how I knew them, through university, place of living, Salsa, contact improvisation and family. But they were more maps of fondness than actual responsibility. Friendships and the support that they bring, don’t feel like responsibility with a capital R, because there is no guarantee they will endure beyond the times that meeting friends brings you into connection. A while back, my friendships faded even more into the background when I faced more than a year of divided responsibility to ensuring care for my mother in London, my academic job in Kent and my family responsibilities in Switzerland. There was little time for anything else, and I felt I could not do justice to any of the three. I am very grateful for some very special relationships forged at university, that have endured and mean a lot to me. Mutual support is very present, freely given but rarely demanded.
I know my connections through the va (connecting space) to friends and family in Tonga will last for ever, and last for my children also because of a culture of responsibility and a celebration of connectivity. Perhaps that is why, I always want to be useful in Tonga, because it sustains my soul. Other than the responsibility to my students at University I never aspired to be useful in the United Kingdom in the same way. From an early age I had the impression that a political life in the UK, was the privilege of the very few, and my enduring memories of childhood are of my parents doing their best to create an ethos of inclusion for us, against a tide of exclusion. Without the sustaining support of a community from my parents countries of origin, we connected to the stories of underdogs.
I can leave my country of birth, because my parents did the same. We create the kinds of relationships that anticipate separation. Somehow responsibility is inclusive in Tonga and exclusive in the UK, you have to work so hard for the privilege of responsibility, that in Tonga is granted by being helpful. So now I am in Switzerland, with a growing sense of how I can be responsible here, and I ask how can I use the privilege of being in this place, to act for the planet and more equitable human futures?