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Tongan Language Week: When a short teaching post in Tonga turns into a year-long lockdown

'Alakihihifo Vailala

‘I thought I was quite competent in the language...wrong’

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

In February 2020 at the age of 18, I moved to Tonga to teach violin voluntarily at a school in Nuku’alofa called Tailulu College.

As I said my farewells to family and friends, I was unaware that it would be a year until I would get to see them again - as news of Covid-19 lingered in the air.

When I arrived in Tonga, I was smacked in the face by the usual heat wave that greets everyone while stepping out of the plane. I reached home in Haveluloto and was greeted by my grandmother.

On my first day at Tailulu College, I got to the school assembly late and had to walk from the back of the hall to the front in a crowd of about 600 students.

I was introduced to my students. They would eventually become my biggest teachers during my time in Tonga.

For our first violin lesson, I got everyone to familiarise themselves with the instrument.

I remember having to translate violinTeaching at Tailulu proved that to be wrong.

terminology - English and Italian - into Tongan, with words such as scroll, bridge, tremolo and fingerboard.

Thankfully, I managed to get through the lesson without accidentally swearing.

Before moving to Tonga, I thought I was quite competent in the language; as I grew up with my grandparents who strictly spoke Tongan at home.

Teaching at Tailulu proved that to be wrong.

During my classes, I was lucky enough to have students who were always willing to correct my Tongan which helped me build my language skills - although the corrections mostly came in the form of snickering and teasing.

After a month of teaching, Tonga closed its borders to the world and went into Covid-lockdown for four weeks.

During lockdown, it was a special time to connect with my grandmother as she spoke of her times growing up as a young girl in Tonga.

I also got to experience Harold, a category 4 cyclone that hit the island in 2020.

After returning to school a couple of weeks after coming out of lockdown, the Tailulu brass band was given the opportunity to play at an event where then Prime Minister Pohiva Tuionetoa would be attending.

My students courageously agreed to play alongside the brass band. It was their first-ever performance in an event where we all left feeling “mafana” (warm) or an outburst of great emotion.

My Tailulu string group continued to play at events and I expanded my work teaching violin to form a string group within my village of Haveluloto.

Throughout my time teaching, I learned to appreciate the beauty of the systems of Tongan society; where the four golden pillars that guide Tongan society were always prevalent.

These four pillars are, Fakaʻapaʻapa (respect), loto tō (humility), tauhi vā (nurturing relationships) and mamahi’i me’a (loyalty/passion).

I admired the great communal efforts I saw firsthand when families, churches, villages and schools would show up when a member of their community was in need.

‘Being able to speak my mother tongue has helped me connect with my people’

Whether it was a birthday, birth, funeral or even just the kind gesture of sharing their Sunday umu with their neighbour, support was always there.

Towards the end of my time in Tonga, I held a string concert for my village string group. For almost all my students, it was their first time playing individually in front of an audience.

I presented a speech in Tongan thanking parents, students and family as although my actual family were kilometres away, I never felt alone in Tonga.

I find that being able to speak my mother tongue has helped me connect more with my people and culture on a deeper level; especially when it comes to traditional Tongan music, because it’s something that holds a special place in my heart.

However, I do not believe that being able to speak Tongan makes me more culturally aligned than another Tongan who can’t.

Tongan identity is defined by our shared culture, values, and connections, not solely by our linguistic abilities.

I left Tonga with a profound sense of fulfilment and strength in my spirit, enriched by my experiences and memories in my homeland - an experience that is forever etched in my heart.

Hero Image// 'Alakihihifo Vailala (far left) pictured with students from Tailulu College in Nuku'alofa, Tonga. Photo / Supplied

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