By Pippa Brown: Pacific Media Centre
Publisher and broadcaster Kalafi Moala led an intimate and spirited philosophical public discussion last night on what it means to be Tongan with a sense of place in the world.
The issues of modern Tonga and how to take the country forward without losing its sense of identity dominated the discussion as the kingdom moves into a fresh era as it progresses toward developing a new constitution.
When Tongans express a sense for democracy there is also a voice saying “please don’t touch my Tonganness, my identity that was established over 3000 years ago,” says Moala.
“Even radical reformists do not want to break up this system.”
Moala, who publishes both the Taimi ‘o Tonga and Tonga Chronicle, was being hosted by the Pacific Media Centre at AUT University to talk about his new book In Search of the Friendly Islands and the constitutional reform consultations.
As the problems of diaspora and the dispersing of people and culture become greater with the issues of globalisation, consequential loss of identity were likely to become more prominent, he says.
Moala introduced the statement, ‘I belong, therefore I am’, and contrasted it to ‘I think, therefore I am’, as being fundamentally important to Tongans and other Pacific peoples in knowing who they are.
He says young people are starting to question who they are as they move among other social structures and although this can relate to anyone, it applies in particular to people in the Pacific.
The quest for identity is a huge thing in the sense that for so many years being Tongan has been taken for granted.
“It is not so much that ‘I have’ but my belonging that shapes everything else that I am,” says Moala.
“In Tonga, the social relationship starts with the family, from the immediate family to the kainga (extended family) which contribute to the grouping of the families who make up the village which combine together to become a region and a nation which then become the fonua.
Moala says the more people look at this belonging and social structure within Tonga, it shows how the relationships work within the family and the strong traditions and headships that lead.
“It’s the people, it’s the land, it’s the nation,” says Moala.
The difference is that Western identity is based on what a person does while Tongan and Pacific identity are based on who people are and the relationship with family, village and so on.
“It is not what you do that really matters in the relationship,” says Moala.
“I belong, therefore I am: Belonging is the relationship of who we are and how we base our relationships in Tonga,” says Moala.
The structure is clearly defined even before Christianity. It is always important that we have a head of the structure from the immediate family where the father figure protects, provides and teaches to the emotional support the mother brings, he says.
Within the relationship courtesy, loyalty, sharing and love are very much part of the social structure. In this sense of structure or Kainga there is always a headship person to relate to.
It is very clear in this society knowing who people relate to, family, kainga, village, and nation and within this nation, the head, says Moala.
“We as a nation are progressing toward reform and the people want changes to happen but they are saying please don’t let it affect my Tonganness and my relationships and relationships to the land and the issues that need to be resolved spiritually for our future,” he says.
Concept of land
Tongans have a strong relationship to the land. The Tongan concept of land and the spirit and life of the land we belong to always remains even as generations come and go, says Moala.
The system of tenure and generational inheritance remains in the sense of Tonganness when returning to the homeland.
“The issues of land extend to the ocean and seabed,” says Moala.
The oceanic kingdom of Tonga comprises 169 islands, 36 of them inhabited and extends over a distance of about 800 kilometres.
Spirituality plays a large part in Tonganness. Moala sees the strong thread of spirituality that binds the people in their relationship with one another and the land as becoming stronger.
“The movement of people across borders is opening up more spirituality as there is more out there to explore,” he says.
Modernisation has made some issues difficult to grasp within the Tongan and Pacific world which are clearly defined in Western terms.
“It is important for us to find conceptual tools that we can use to construct new thought patterns to allow us to find what we are looking for,” says Moala.
“As scholars, media and academics we are trying to probe into this new era of Pacifica and we need to find and create the right conceptual tools."
“The challenge of walking into the future is how we develop new tools,” he says.
The consensual methods we traditionally use to provide solutions to problems are deep in our culture together with the peace and harmony that come with it says Moala.
He says one of the problems of cultural dispersion and diaspora is that wherever Tongans and Pacific Islanders are in the world they encounter these issues of identity.
“In international cities where there are large populations of Pacific Islanders churches become very important and almost like a refuge,” says Moala.
He thinks the Pacific as a region identifies with a lot of similar issues that we need to find a solution for.
“It is important to find the tools to walk down the aisle together and discover who we really are,” says Moala.
Vaea Hopoi is a student who also works with youth who are dependent on alcohol and drugs. He thinks the biggest problem for Polynesians is a loss of identity and not knowing where they come from.
“I believe you must know your history to know who you are now and to know where you are going in the future,” says Hopoi.
Moala questions why the Pacific region is trying to solve the current Fiji political problem in an confrontational way.
“Why not solve it in a Pacific way and let the Pacific sovereignty leaders meet Fiji and see how we can open up the dialogue,” he asks.
Moala thinks New Zealand is a country that is standing in confrontation with Fiji so Māori may offer a solution. Going in as an outsider hasn’t worked but to look at the issue as Pacific brothers in the broader sense of fonua may work.
“It hasn’t been solved within the current framework so we need to find another one,” he says.
He thinks the Forum had the right to suspend Fiji “but we don’t need to keep beating them up.”
Moala says the heads of government in the Pacific Island Forum may have some conflict with the duality of the Pacific and Western frameworks.
It is important to apply criticism and look at the challenges facing the Tongan and Pacific Island people he thinks. He says rather than standing outside and looking in we need to come to the culture.
“While it hurts talking about these things it feels good to be a part of it,” says Moala. “We need to report on it but report on it from our own perspective.”
David Robie, associate professor in communication studies at AUT and director of the Pacific Media Centre, commented on how Moala was one of the only journalists in the Pacific who is reflecting on these new issues of belongingness and sense of identity.
“Media reflects a society and its sense of identity and yet in the Pacific this is very much influenced by New Zealand and Australia,” says Dr Robie.
Moala thinks people need to learn to be comfortable with the two sides of traditional belonging and Western way of thinking, to overcome the confusion with identity.
He says some concepts cannot be explained because the tools are not there and “it may be a role for Pacific scholars to investigate and construct these tools and find how to put it in words”.
Top photo of Kalafi Moala last night by Pippa Brown; photo of Moala and Taimi in Nuku'alofa by David Robie. - PMC .
Pippa Brown is an AUT Graduate Diploma in Journalism student on internship with the Pacific Media Centre.
In Search of the Friendly Islands, by Kalafi Moala, published by the Pasifika Foundation
Taimi 'o Tonga