As soon as I read Mele Payne Lynch's letter, I was anxious to see the responses.
Two particular letters caught my attention for different reasons, but both letters have one thing in common ... they make great lengths to sidestep the issue of environment/resource conversation raised by Mele.
Sione Ake Mokofisi's letter reads as if he lives amongst the Tongan populace. His misuse of the pronoun "we" to inflate his credibility as their cultural gate keeper falls flat when you realize that he actually means "I" and his words are just his own opinion.
Sione resorts to a tactic commonly used by hate mongers ... dehumanizing their targets with labels and name calling.
By grossly mislabeling Mele as a Westerner, as an outsider, he aims to distract readers from her message of environmental/resource conservation with carefully crafted words to impress upon the readers that Mele has never been or is familiar with Tonga or Tongan culture, which is absolutely false.
Ironically, he does his finger pointing and cultural gate keeping from the comfortable confines of his home in Salt Lake City, Utah. Anyone else see the hypocrisy in this? Sione's berating of another Tongan for being "Western" while living in America, behind a computer afforded to him by way of Western technology, seems really pretentious.
The other letter that caught my eye was from New York.
In Tonga, genealogy is paramount. So, what better way to cut down the core of a person than to ask the proverbial question, "Ko hai koe?" which presents as a simple and innocent inquisition, but in reality, it is the ultimate Tongan expression of the middle finger.
This venomous letter is a big roundabout way of saying "Ko hai koe?" to Mele and provides absolutely nothing to advance the dialogue, although the letter writer did prove, in her own words, her lack of education. (I think she'll benefit more from a dose of common sense)
Mele is being accused of robbing Tongans of their right to be Tongan, yet, there are inifinite ways, tangible and intangible, to identify with being Tongan.
The ceremonies and rituals we've witnessed with the recent events of the past few weeks might be codified but it doesn't mean it cannot be adjusted. HRH Princess Pilolevu herself said "culture can only survive as it caters to the needs of its people."
I suspect that if His Majesty King Siaosi Tupou V decides to make alterations, the rest of Tonga will follow. Changes in Tongan culture have occurred throughout history, and even Sione cites some of these changes. As we can tell, Tonga still continued to be Tonga and the people of those times adapted to those changes.
As for the proverbial "Ko hai koe?" posed by the the letter writer from New York, I won't speak for Mele, but I'll say this - Mele Payne Lynch represents to many of us young Tongan-Americans the epitome of the American dream. Mele came here and made a life for herself, filled with a long list of notable accomplishments.
Mele Payne Lynch is a fellow Tongan that I emulate, which is more than I can say of so many Tongans in America of her generation, who appoint themselves to be our leaders in the community but have continued to fail us on a consistent basis.
The letter writer from New York asks Mele, "What have you done for Tonga?"
Mele, like many Tongans from abroad, contribute to Tonga's economy by traveling to Tonga regularly and circulating her hard earned money in the stores, the markets, the cafes, the hotels.
According to Tonga's Department of Statistics, Tonga's tourist industry is "bolstered substantially by overseas Tongans' visits "home" for holidays and special events. Of the reported 35,000 tourists who visited the kingdom in 2002, about half had come to visit friends and relatives. This is more than six times the proportion of visiting relatives just two decades ago, and a clear indication of the currently critical role of Tongan migrants in the tourist economy." (quoted in Small & Dixon, 2004).
But it's more than just money - Mele brings to the table a wealth of experience in project planning. She has the foresight required to uncover hidden problems that could pose problems for the future of Tonga.
With that said, I will also echo Mele's call for environmental/resource conservation.
I was in Tonga in from June to July of this year. It was a length of time that allowed me to observe several things. In downtown Nuku'alofa, I witnessed everyday traffic jam, except for Sundays, but it starts right up after midnight without missing a beat. There are way too many cars in Tonga. New buildings are popping up with insufficient amounts of parking space. People are crowding the sidewalks because cars have taken over their walking space, even with the visible "Do Not Park Here" signs. Downtown Nuku'alofa is neither pedestrian or traffic friendly. With the growth in traffic, there are still no methods implemented to control traffic flow. There are no traffic lights nor traffic cops, except for when royals are traveling. Tonga's motorist population is growing at an alarming rate and the government is ill prepared to deal with it.
Let's talk about the garbage. There was heaps of litter on the curbs. Clogged street drains restrict the flow of rainwater, creating mud puddles filled with garbage. Out of curiosity, I looked in one drain and saw that is was filled to the top with layers of caked mud. I saw a condom floating with cigarette butts in a pond holding the monument of dolphins next to Pangai Si'i. Even several days later, it was still there. Smoke from burning trash of nearby homes blanket downtown every afternoon, even overpowering the lovely smell of freshly baked bread. The very few garbage receptacles in town were all overstuffed with garbage.
The landfill at Popua was just depressing. The site of trash spilled over the street into the ocean and then seeing the impoverished people of Popua compete with pigs for discarded goods was just too emotionally draining. The overabundance of plastics, the diapers, the tires in the landfill is an indicator that Tongans have rapidly embraced consumer culture and again demonstrates there isn't a plan to deal with such growth.
I was so disappointed when I went to visit the Ha'amonga to see it covered in graffiti. I had to side step the piles of cow manure to see the 'esi maka faakinanga, which also was covered in graffiti. The surrounding area was unkempt, except for the area where the cow was grazing.
We waste time in debating what is Tongan, yet, one of our most important historical landmarks is completely ignored and looks like crap.
That day, I wondered what message it sent to outsiders and that was quickly answered when a small group of palangi tourists at the site could hardly hide their disappointment at the blatant disregard for the Ha'amonga.
Tonga has every right to modernize, but it must be done at a judicious pace. Since the people of Tonga have now embraced consumerism and are outpacing proper methods of control, it makes Mele's message of environmental/resource conservation extremely relevant.
And can we PLEASE have an honest discussion about Tonga's future without self appointed cultural gate keepers mucking up the issue? Without people dismantling the dialogue by imposing their own definition of what it means to be Tongan?
Tongans, in Tonga or abroad, have a right in addressing these concerns without being labeled by others as being fie me'a or fie hÃ¢. Let's not get caught up in name calling that we completely miss the big picture.
I hope Mele's letter a generates a long string of meaningful discussion and side steps the trappings of the vocal few who have a perpetual need to be culturally coddled.
Richard Tulifaukiave Wolfgramm
rwolfgramm [at] gmail [dot] com