Saturday, 28 June 2014

Tapa is everywhere ...

Around the beaches of 'Eua you find the white, naked branches of mulberry, which have been stripped of their bark, and the fibrous material immersed in the lagoon for days to cure it. The bark is then beaten out into strips, which are bound together to make the beautiful Tongan tapa cloth ... the most elaborate in the Pacific. I came across this guy in the back streets of Nuku'alofa beating out the bark all day on his porch ...

When finished, the tapa cloth is stained, and made into a fabric that is gifted at weddings and funerals, or turned into a bags or wall ornaments, such as these in the downtown markets of Nuku'alofa.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Tonga's first elected PM (a troubled man)

This evening I talked to Dr Feleti Sevele, Tonga's first elected Prime Minister, a troubled looking man, who didn't seem too comfortable speaking with me, and says foreign journalists often misrepresent Tonga. He came to power a few months after the pro-democracy riots of 2006, which razed much of the CBD of Tonga's capital to the ground and left a number of rioters dead. I met him at a cocktail party at the NZ High Commission to encourage links between NZ business and Tonga.

Sevele told me the royal family of Tonga had been at the forefront of educational reform in Tonga, and that the rioters had set back the move toward a more progressive system. He was angry at the slurs cast on the aristocracy.

Now an aristocrat himself, Lord Sevele, he has every reason to look troubled ... Tonga is still a semi-feudal monarchy, where the beefy soldiers patrolling the grounds of the King's opulent palace refuse to allow you to take photos of the palace through its gates (I tried unsuccessfully today).

The democracy movement continues to inch forward while the kings cling to power, and robustly defend an out-dated power structure. In his book, 'Swimming with Sharks', journalist Michael Field lists the eccentric schemes and corruption the Tongan royal family has been involved in. A recent king appointed an official court jester, a Californian who disappeared with hundreds of millions from the State coffers.

This same king was involved in a scheme to turn sea-water in diesel, thereby solving Tonga's fuel supply problems in a single stroke. The businessman promoting the scheme, a confidante of the king, was also trying to secure Tonga as a dumping ground for nuclear waste.

Meanwhile, many of the king's subjects live in poverty; power cuts throughout the islands are a frequent occurrence; and the infrastructure generally totters. Tongans have become massively dependent on remittances from their nationals living abroad and on foreign aid from NZ, Australia, Japan and China. This aid dependency culture further impairs the healthy development of the economy. Of the 26 seats in Parliament, 17 are reserved for elected candidates, the remainder are held by nobles.

Small Pacific nations have become mini-battlegrounds for big power rivalries. New Zealand political leaders say, 'Well, if we don't proffer aid, the Chinese or Arabs will.' This Realpolitik undermines the long-term growth of these struggling young nations and drives the people into dependency on their advanced nation neighbours.

None of this seems to supress the natural esprit of the Tongan people, or their ribald and mischievous sense of humour. It's this spirit and warmth that makes the islands such a joy to visit ... and it is this very tolerance and good humour that seems to prevented - thus far - the overthrow of their monarchy.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Encounter with a tiger shark

On a scuba dive in 'Eua, I was making my way through a maze of towering coral heads on the northern reef. The visibility here is up to fifty metres, in clear blue water ... the profusion of fish life is breath-taking, and on an average dive you might see a dozen different species; clown fish, angel fish, butterfly fish, pipe fish ... a batch of piscine licorish all-sorts, created by some kind of divine art director in a fit of inspiration.

At about twelve metres, my dive buddy tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around to find a two metre tiger shark, mottled and quite still in the water column behind us.

The poised beauty of the creature was what struck me ... this animal is near threatened, and is the second most dangerous species to humans, after the great white shark. This has lead to indiscriminate culling, which when combined with over-fishing for its fins has wiped out large numbers of this magnificent species.

After he had inspected us, the shark swam off. I was reminded that this is the shark's natural domain, not ours ... My dive buddy snapped this pic ...

The kids of 'Eua

Today I played rugby with a Pali and Sabrina on the main street of 'Eua ... Sabrina had a mean spiral pass ... a young Piri Weepu in the making. Pali was still struggling with his catching game, but could be one to watch for the future.

Kids are everywhere ... in the streets, hanging out on the verandas of churches, kicking balls around the vacant lots ... harassing the herds of pigs that roam freely on the island, riding bikes and thronging the Chinese shops. With internet access absent or rare, kids on this island are still doing what kids for hundreds of years have been doing; having reckless adventures in the outdoors, coming croppers, and getting up again and dusting themselves off with infectious grins and cheeky self-confidence.

Despite their material poverty, children on this island have a warmth, spontaneity and verve that is lacking in some of the kids of the West. Kids in advanced nations have been hedged about with so many fears ... and no doubt picked up a whiff of the materialist and advancement neuroses that afflict so many of we adults. Combine that with a distrust of strangers, and our kids have been robbed of some of the delight and joyful exploration of the world that was more common a couple of generations ago.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Timote's loan club ...

On 'Eua, the dominant life-form is the pig. These confident animals trot down the main streets of the villages en convoi, rummage on lawns, plough up driveways, and generally out-muscle all other creatures including humans. 'Eua is a poor island, with many of its 5000 residents living in tiny corrugated iron shacks, surrounded by muddy lawns, on which these pigs run rampant.

Today I met Timote, clad in a crisp black lava lava and Bundaberg bomber jacket. A good-looking guy, with a sparkling gold filling, he's providing low-interest loans to subsistence farmers to help them generate crop surpluses to sell to market. About half of Tongans cultivate their own basic food needs.

Most of his 347 clients are women, in fifteen villages throughout 'Eua. Cultivating cassava, taro, tapioca, vanilla, and avocados, they are the new upwardly mobile 'Euans. With $1,000 paanga ($NZ 750) loans on the model of the renowned Grameen Bank, they can lift themselves out of poverty and invest in their children's education. Village members approve each other's membership of the 'loan club' and it's a model that has helped revolutionise aid in the developing world.

Big top-down grants from wealthy nations are often soaked up by corrupt local officials and government bureaucrats. Tonga is run by an antiquated feudal monarchy with a woeful record of mismanagement and was judged sixth most corrupt nation in the world by Forbes Magazine. Micro-finance loans empower villagers by placing the money directly into their hands. Defaults are almost unheard of, because of the strong social pressure within the loan club.

Last week I snorkelled the 'Eua reef with a Frenchman from Rouen, an American from Washington DC, and an Englishman all based in the Tongan capital, and all working for South Pacific Business Development, Timote's microfinance organisation. They are idealistic young folk in their twenties, inspired by Grameen founder Mohammed Younis' revolutionary concept.

Humpback whales arrive at 'Eua

I've arrived on 'Eua, a small island in the Tongan chain, at the same time as the humpbacks from Antarctica. The whales travel up the plunging Tongan trench from the Southern Ocean, and this week turned up in the waters off 'Eua. The tell-tale geyser of their spout can be seen for up to half a kilometre away by the sharp-eyed. The whales give birth and suckle their young during the winter months in these waters, which are shallow enough to protect the newborns from great white shark attack from below.

I came to this island twice last year, and have got to like its lazy ways, the absence of supermarkets, restaurants, garages ... in fact the complete dearth of any of the essentials of western life. I can even like the opulent churches, with their world-class choirs singing in razor-sharp harmony.

Today I walked to the northern village of Houma, gateway to lush tropical forest and great sea caves which form natural cathedrals looking out west to Tongatapu. The island, 50 million years old, is being slowly pushed up by the collision of great plates 40 kilometers to the east along the Tongan Trench.

The road to Houma is long and straight, and immaculately paved, unlike every other road on the island. Half way to the village I came across George, a heavily tattooed man in his thirties, parked in his expensive looking black tricycle by his taro patch.

His wife was tending the soil nearby. Both George's feet were clad in bulky white socks. He was being pushed along by his tiny sister in law, Luciana, whose dress was dirty, and whose smile was brilliant and shy. George told me he was due to visit Auckland for a disability reunion. Most of his family live in the suburb of Mangere.