How do we first encounter and come to know Tonga, and how much of our previous experience colour our appreciation and understanding of the social and cultural realities of Tonga and Tongan health? For me the flights to Tonga and then Vava’u have always been opportunities to reflect on the long and winding journey of getting to know Tonga. We cannot help learning about somewhere new through what we know already,  but as we spend more time learning, we can explore and let go of assumptions we carry that hinder our appreciation.

This resource and talanoa space provides more information about the location and intention of this project and the documentary. It was prompted by the motif, on the far left of the front ngatu, designed by Tongan artists Ruha and Minaira Fifita. They were touched by Dr Mapa Puloka’s reference in the documentary to a spiritual ocean:

‘The nature motif is placed in the white space to emphasise its intimate relationship with the spiritual world- an ocean of fathomless depths’.

The powerful metaphor of ‘an ocean of fathomless depths’ can help us reflect on the potentially infinite ways people can come to know Tonga, how it can come to take shape in our attention in relation to a diversity of personal histories, ideas, ideals and connections. We have to recognise that there are more and less cultural sensitive ways to appreciate Tonga, that respect Tongan values and religious commitments and are critical of the enduring colonial ways we gaze at these islands in the middle of the South Pacific.

Take the islands of Vava’u for example. Type Vava’u into google, and you will find many ways you can explore Vava’u online. You can fly high above the islands or dive deep with humpback whales. These are both misleading starting points, particularly as few Tongans get to fly like drones above the islands, nor snorkel with humpback whales with the many tourists that visit every year. How we position ourselves in relation to what we we wish to learn, has profound impacts on what we can learn.

We sometimes cannot help the inherited positive and negative judgements that come to mind when we learn more about Tonga. Our responsibility is to make them explicit and explore their origins and implications and use them as steps towards deeper intercultural communication and cultural competency.

This project is still only one positioned way to get to know Tonga. It is both limited and enlivened by the attention on healing and the particular people who feature. It’s wider value, however, stems from the extent of collaboration, the influence of many Tongans, critical scholarship and the attention to actions to improve health outcomes. The purpose of art, of representation matters in a Tongan world-view.

Ruha Fifita names our starting point ‘api moana, or ocean homeland. As Tevita Ka’ili explains in Marking Indigeneity: The Tongan Art of Sociospatial Relations (pg 3) the term  ‘api moana (ocean homeland) was used by Queen Salote Tupou III of Tonga as a reference to Tonga in ‘Nepituno’ the famous song she composed in commemoration of the Royal visit of Queen Elizabeth in 1953.  He and others argue for the more culturally sensitive use of Moana to describe the Pacific Ocean.

Our key video starting point is the traditional healer, Emeline Lolohea, in the centre of Neiafu market. Here she shares why she has confidence in the documentary. At the end of the clip, she makes a connection to the work of the famous Tongan comedian Tinitini (Tevita Koloamatangi), whose face is on the Pangaimotu bus. You can see the documentary about Tinitini here.

The market brings the whole of Vava’u into Neiafu on Saturday.  It is a space of many encounters and opportunities for connection and learning. In fact, the clip of Emeline in the market is taken from almost three hours of footage where I followed Emeline around Neiafu. She was stopped so many times and met so many people on that day. She had to explain to so many people why I was following her with a camera, that I thought she would never want to see the camera ever again. But each time, she took time to explain why we were working together and the purpose of our filming. Each time there was a negotiation of positions and knowledge as Emeline found the space (va) to explain in terms resonant with the people we met.

Emeline Lolohea standing in the Saturday market and our filming together is metaphorical for me of the idea and concept of the negotiated space, an idea that had informed the intention and design of Project Pouono.  Drs Karlo Mila and Maui Hudson, have explored the this concept, an idea that originated in the decolonising focus of Maori scholar Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith. You can read their occasional paper here. The value for me of this concept is that it describes the interface between different worldviews and knowledge systems.

In their words:

”’The negotiated space then, is an intercultural space where conceptual links and breaks between distinctive and often incongruent knowledge systems are actively negotiated. The negotiated space affords opportunities for people to negotiate:

  • their relationship with existing cultural knowledge; [critical reflection]
  • their relationship with new cultural knowledge; [knowledge exchange]
  • their relationship with different systems of meaning and knowing; [understanding the limits of knowledge systems]
  • their relationship with culturally distinctive parties; [power relationships] and
  • how individuals manage cultural choices that arise from having awareness and access to more than one culture [dealing with multiplicity].” (Mila and Hudson 2009: 19).

So the space of talanoa is an opportunity for the learning, insight and culturally sensitive action that emerges from the ‘negotiated space’.

Here are some other resources that may be useful. Please free to suggest more in the comments below.

  1. Talanoa has a long history and is interpreted slightly differently around Oceania. Arcia Tecun (Daniel Hernandez), ‘Inoke Hafoka, Lavinia ‘Ulu‘ave and Moana ‘Ulu‘ave-Hafoka’s article ‘Talanoa: Tongan epistemology and Indigenous research method’ is a good starting point. It can be downloaded here. To read how talanoa has been used to research Tongan ideas and experience of mental illness in New Zealand, Dr Sione Vaka’s 2014 PhD thesis ‘A Tongan talanoa about conceptualisations, constructions and understandings of mental illness‘ is a great resource.
  2. Learn more about the models of Tā-Vā (Time-Space) theory of reality that have strongly influenced some scholars of Tonga and the Pacific. In this google drive are many papers, theses and other materials curated by Tevita Ka’ili of BYU.  This special issue ( Pacific studies, Apr/Aug 2017; v.40) has many definitive and useful papers.   Hufanga He Ako moe Lotu Dr ‘Okusitino Mahinais the creator of the Tā-Vā model, and by coincidence is originally from Tefisi in Vava’u, the same village as Emeline Lolohea. He features frequently in Project Pouono.
  3. Pacific studies scholars have long argued against the colonial gaze and for new visions of Moana.  For an excellent introduction to Pacific Studies download this free introduction to Pacific Studies. Many influential Tongans feature, including ‘Epeli Hau’ofa,  in the page long profiles that appear in the book.
  4. There is a rich anthropological literature on Tonga and the Tongan diaspora, drawn on and critiqued to varying degrees by Tongan and Pasifika scholars. Though I am a social anthropologist by training, I am also the child of immigrants and have a critical-appreciative take on the discipline. Without social anthropology, I would never had had the opportunity and privilege to spend time in Tonga.  Our contemporary society encourages commitment to academic subjects as identity markers, most Tongans I have met have a more pragmatic relationship with disciplines, as tools and routes to community betterment. Many eminent Tongans have studied Anthropology or done PhDs in anthropology.  Professor Epeli Hau’ofa was from the Vava’uan island of Hunga and did a PhD in Social Anthropology on the Mekeo in Papua New Guinea. Martin Daly’s bibliography is a rich resource and good starting point to explore the extent of anthropology’s and other discipline’s coverage of Tonga.
  5. Medical anthropology is a part of social anthropology that focuses on health and illness. I have located much of my research in relation to medical anthropology, and there is a history of medical anthropological research on Tonga and Oceania that is very useful stepping stone to better appreciation of health in Tonga.
  6. There are many fiction and documentary films on Tonga that give insights into Tongan life. Here is a summarised list.
  7. One way to start your journey into Vava’u is to read the opening chapter of my thesis, which introduces Vava’u through a typical weekend at the time I first researched in Tonga between 1998 and 2000. Read the chapter here. If there is interest I will post more video here of Vava’u in that period.

To talanoa and share your thoughts and impressions please join our Project Pouono facebook group.

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