Tonga: After the storm

Tonga is still recovering from nature’s battering, but that’s all the more reason to go there, says Tracey Cooper.

Taniela told us to meet him there at 12.

“Last street on the left before the cemetery before the hospital. Second house on the right.”

Given the lack of road signs on Tongatapu and the broad definition of the word “street” in Tonga, it’s amazing we found the place.

Turns out Taniela couldn’t make it, so we woke up his mate Tēvita Lātū, who’d only been asleep for a couple of hours.

“I work at night, there’s less noise, less people. I work with the kids in the early evening then paint through the night.”

Tēvita and Taniela Petelō are part of Seleka International Arts Society Initiative, a renegade group of Tongan artists introducing young people in the capital Nuku’alofa to the world of contemporary art. For 10 years they’ve provided a space for more than 100 local kids and people of all persuasions to express themselves.

“I was having kava with a mutual friend and doing some painting. After a few weeks, some kids came in and drew with crayons. Over time we had up to 30 kids come in. Some started painting,” Tēvita says.

Until February, Seleka had a gallery and workshop on the shore of the nearby Fanga’uta Lagoon. But like many of the 70,000 people who live on the low-lying, 260sq km island, they lost the lot when Cyclone Gita hit on February 13, bringing the strongest winds and biggest storms to hit Tongatapu in 60 years.

The place was hammered. Five months on, the evidence remains everywhere you look.

Homes, buildings, churches, schools, crops, trashed.

Like everyone else, the Seleka artists are doing what it takes to recover. They’ve got an online fundraising thing going on, are exhibiting their work, and trying to raise enough money to build a new studio. Until then, they gather each night in a poorly lit carport, drink kava, and paint — thanks largely to a rescue package of art supplies from friends of friends in London.

Tēvita lugs an armload of paintings out to the carport and lays them on a paint-covered trestle table. More paintings are rolled up in a corner.

“Have a look,” he says.

We do. They’re cool.

Tēvita is an Auckland Grammar boy with a Fine Arts degree from Sydney’s National Art School. He’s a pretty well-known, somewhat controversial artist in Tonga and his paintings are a brilliantly surreal contrast to the usual stuff tourists get to see.

The price hardly matters when you know the proceeds are going to a good place. And Tongatapu is a good place.

Despite its out of the way location surrounded by lush crops, word spread and things had been going well. Business was good. But Cyclone Gita treated the cafe and the surrounding crops with equal savagery.

“The next day I came here and I could see the neighbouring village. I’d never been able to see that before. It was hidden behind the trees, but the trees were all gone, everything was gone,” he says.

Nature recovers faster than people and four months on, the village is once again out of sight and the cafe is surrounded by flourishing crops and open for business.

Niuvakai is waiting for a container of building materials to arrive from New Zealand before he rebuilds properly, but he’s cobbled together a lean-to out of the wreckage.

Niuvakai and his niece serve up barbecue chicken and lamb, lu sipi (mutton in taro leaf), lu palumasima (corned beef in taro leaf) and the best breakfast deal in Tonga from a couple of gas burners and a toastie machine. Bacon, sausage, omelette, toast, tea and coffee and a peaceful and picturesque location all for less than NZ$10.

Rebuilding is under way everywhere you look in Tonga, but there’s so much to do.

The infrastructure seems okay but hundreds of homes and buildings are still boarded up, missing walls, roofs or windows or just a pile of rubble on a concrete pad. People are still living in tents.

The Talamahu Markets in Nuku’alofa are showing the effect of the lost harvest, with empty market benches and little in the way of fruit on offer. They’re importing bananas.

Despite all that, now is probably the ideal time to consider Tonga for a winter break.

Aside from everything you expect from a tropical island holiday, you get to help our Tongan whānau and contribute directly to their rebuilding economy. And that feels pretty good in itself.



Air New Zealand

flies to Tonga, with one-way Seat fares from $236.

For details on the Tanoa International Dateline Hotel.

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