Table Tennis is providing a powerful distraction for the people among the most affected by the volcanic eruptions and tsunamis, which devastated their homes on the islands of Mango and ‘Atata.
At least 150 people had been evacuated to Tongatapu for temporary shelter after the terrifying events of 15 January. Their homes were on some of the closest populated islands to the volcano.
They had extraordinary stories of survival to tell – struggling to escape to high ground and then sheltering under make shift tents as volcanic ash and rocks rained down and tsunami waves destroyed everything they owned. They were evacuated by the Government and taken to Nuku’alofa.
The Mango community is staying at the Free Wesleyan (FWC) Hall at Longolongo and the ‘Atata people at the Free Church of Tonga and other places, while discussions continue about their long-term homes – possibly on Government lands.
Bounce it back
But the trauma has taken its toll on the communities' psychological health and they turned to the Tonga Table Tennis Federation Inc (TTTF) for help.
Netina Latu Vea, CEO, of the Tonga Table Tennis Federation says the town officers sought help and the government granted permission to move table tennis equipment into both evacuation centres.
“Engaging in safe, inclusive and fun table tennis activities fosters social cohesion in the group and allow the children to engage in positive activities lessening their fears and recollections of the terrifying event from 15 January volcanic eruptions and tsunami,” she says.
It wasn’t an easy operation to get the table tennis tables, bats, net and Bounce It Back Manual to where they were needed because of COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns, but they were successfully delivered.
And plans to assign a TTTF staff member to supervise sessions are now also underway – at this stage, just for the Mango youth.
TTTF BiB Development and Relief Dream Building Development Officer, Selemaia Lo’amanu was allowed to start regular visits to the Mango centre last Friday Feb. 25, after receiving permission through the Ministry of Meteorology, Energy, Information, Disaster, Environment, Climate Change and Communication (MEIDECC)
“It was agreed that social distancing, face mask wearing and hand washing will be strictly observed. Selemaia is planning to conduct COVID-19 weekly rapid test before visits,” Netina says.
On the first visit 32 young people and children were taught how to play table tennis and began practicing the game. Thirteen of them are under the age of 12. Selemaia will visit the Mango Centre every Wednesday and Friday for the foreseeable future.
It’s hoped he will get into the ‘Atata evacuee centre in the near future when the COVID restrictions are lifted. But, in the meantime, the equipment has been delivered and the games can begin.
Netina says it’s expected the Mango and ‘Atata islanders will remain in the evacuation centres for at least 3-4 months until the more permanent settlement by the Government.
She says Tonga Table Tennis is grateful to local and international partners TASANOC, ITTF-Foundation and ITTF-Oceania for the ongoing support towards TTTF and our people during this time. This outreach program is funded through the ITTF-Foundation reaching out to remote communities.
The trauma of their recent experiences will no doubt remain with the displaced communities for a long time to come – but, in the meantime, the smiles of joy on the children’s faces as they play table tennis brings happiness in these difficult times.