“Holomui ki mu’a – Walking backwards to the future” – TRA Conference 2013


by Manase Lua
TRA Secretary

True to its theme, the 15th Conference of the Tongan Research Association (TRA) walked backwards into the future. The Conference was officially opened and blessed by the Chair of the po lotu and worship session, Rev Dr Liufau Vailea Saulala at Tuingapapai Church, Mangere on Sunday, 7th July. Choirs from various Tongan Churches around Auckland performed majestic and uplifting songs of praise, punctuated by the profound messages from the pulpit varying from a stern telling off at the start, to memorials for fallen friends and even humour from the pulpit. TRA Chaplain Rev Paula Onoafe Latu outlined the history of the TRA from its beginnings inspired by the efforts of Prof Epeli Hau’ofa, Prof Ron Crocombe, Prof Albert Wendt and Dr Henry Evans Maude. They were at the forefront of a movement for Pacific people to study and research Pacific things. From this movement was born the Tongan History Association established in 1989 by Rev Dr Sione Latukefu, Prof ‘Ilasisa Futa Helu, Dr Elizabeth Wood-Ellem and others. Now called the TRA, it is an international network of Tongan academics, researchers, students and artists, basically, anyone Tongan or interested in the study of anything about Tonga.

Day 1 – Lotu/Religion

Rev ‘Ilomaisini Lea chaired the first day with the day being blessed by Rev Tavake Tupou. The committee felt it was appropriate to start the conference with the theme of Lotu or religion to represent our foundations and roots based on our history as a nation given to God by King Tupou I. The conference would end with the wonderful finale of hope for tomorrow behind us, as represented by the Arts day and youth performances at the closing dinner. Rev Paula Onoafe Latu’s opening keynote address spoke of the importance of valuing the rights of indigenous knowledge holders to tell their chronicles – tala tukufakaholo. He cited a number of prophets of Tonga and outlined key epochs and eras of profound change which define us even to this day. Other speakers included Ofa Ketu’u, Dr Karlo Mila-Schaaf, Prof Sitaleki Finau, Dr Palatasa Havea and a Cook Islander Areti Metuamate writing about the life of the late King of Tonga HM King George Tupou V.

A panel session was held later that afternoon chaired by Sandra Kailahi where the role of the church was discussed. Rev Tavake Tupou reminded the audience that the Church is about the body of Christ. Dr Karlo Mila-Schaaf raised the issue of suicide amongst Tongans, specifically a case inside the sanctity of the church. The discussions were intense to say the least. The day was capped off in the evening by a glimpse into our immediate past with a full rendition of the fulitaunga kava ceremony. Out of respect to Kauha;a’uta traditions, Mafimalanga the presiding matapule asked for a non-Tongan to be the taumu’a for the ceremony, Wendy Pond kindly accepted the request and took the role with the silent respect and grace it deserved. The whole ceremony was narrated in both English and Tongan including a tau’olunga or dance by a descendant of Kavaonau from Fa’imata, ‘Eueiki the original birth place of kava in Tonga.

Day2 – Education/Ako

A special tribute must be made to Dr Timote Vaioleti who agreed to chair the second day despite having to fly that same evening for a conference overseas. Dr Vaioleti even sacrificed his own speaking slot to make room for others. The opening keynote address by Dr Melenaite Taumoefolau looked into the reasons of Pacific student underachievement in New Zealand. Her presentation provided a great backdrop for the other presenters, especially from Anapesi Ka’ili and her group all the way from Utah in the great United States of America who shared their wonderful experiences in establishing a Charter school that targets Pacific students.  The TRA thank Anapesi for making the long trek to Aotearoa to share with us all. Dr Palatasa Havea presented a very sober reminder to all about the importance of caring for the environment especially in Tonga. Other speakers included Bill McIntyre, Mele Katea Paea, and Dr Semisi Taumoepeau. Melino Maka presented on the economic benefit of whaling for Tonga but perhaps the most “different” presentation but engaging none-the-less was the presentation by Seini Pifeleti on the cutting issue of how castration affects the behavioural responses of lambs. Perhaps the most powerful moment of the day was the presentation by Alisi Tatafu and her students, particularly the school student who talked about their personal experience of losing a sibling to suicide, a huge issue for Tongans and a thread that ran across the whole conference.

Sefita Hao’uli skilfully facilitated a very vibrant panel session later that afternoon around the deliberately provocative issue of our children, their futures and their career pathways here in New Zealand. Special guest panellists included lawyer Soane Foliaki and Tongan sports-star/accountant Emosi Koloto. The evening was capped off by a viewing of the “Tongan Ark” film on the life of Prof ‘Ilaisa Futa Helu by Paul Janman. 

Day3 – Health/Mo’ui napanapangamalie mo e mo’ui filio’i

Viliami Toafa, a Manager at Langimalie Health Centre chaired of the Health and Wellbeing session on day three. The opening keynote address by Lita Foliaki set the scene for the day introducing themes around general health and well-being – “Ke mo’ui lelei ‘a e kainga”. She was followed by Dr Dianne Sika-Paotonu who was able to articulate and ground her research into designer vaccines that she is involved in developing to combat cancer. Soana Muimuiheata presented some appetite suppressing statistics on overeating just before lunch. Other presenters included Dr Gerhard Sundborn who presented on his Kelston beverages study and Eseta Finau who showcased the Pasifika Medical Associations successful Healthcare Heros programme with the schools. One of the original TRA members and former Vice-Preisdent Dr Tangikina Steen came all the way from Australia to present her insightful paper on the duty of care in relation to the Australian version of the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme from New Zealand. A strong mental health contingent delivered excellent papers including Dr Mele Taumoepeau, Sione Vaka and Dr Karlo Mila-Schaaf who introduced cutting edge research she is undertaking.

A health panel was convened by Ikamafana Tameifuna who has had a long career in the health sector and the public service both here and in Tonga. John Pulu from TVNZ’s Tangata Pasifika programme also filmed and interviewed people at the conference on the issue of youth suicide – http://m.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=ogrgx2pOgeY&desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Ffeature%3Dplayer_embedded%26v%3Dogrgx2pOgeY

Day4 – Arts/’Aati

Without a doubt, the jewel in the TRA crown for this conference has to be the Arts day. TRA wishes to acknowledge Dagmar and all the Matala and No’o Fakataha members for keeping the faith and not faltering in the vision to ensure we give our children a beacon of light in terms of their creative aspirations and talents in Arts, and what a light it was. Nina Tonga chaired the Arts session on Day four. The programme was so crammed packed with presenters and performances that time literally had to stand still! Dagmar Dyck gave a compelling account of her personal journey as an artist. Sopolemalama Filipe Tohi followed with his story that reinforced Dagmar’s assertions not to stifle the creative abilities of our children in the arts. Tongan parents often tell their children not to waste time in things like drawing, music or dancing, when these could be the very thing that they are best at doing. Dr Billie Lythberg all the way from the UK presented with Dr Phyllis Herda, a fascinating paper on the pala tavake worn by the Tu’i Tonga with a curious name starting with Pau, but ending with something quite peculiar for a name in Tongan! Papers were presented by Kolokesa Mahina-Tuai and Paul Janman. A wonderful and moving presentation by Dr Helen Ferris-Leary set the tone for the rest of the day with her “Moana Philosophy”.

Throughout, we were treated by poetry from Mepa Vuni, Maryanne Pale and Karlo Mila-Schaaf. The performance piece by Sesilia Pusiaki and Amanaki Prescott was truly magical and there were tears in the room watching the beautiful contemporary fused traditional dance of the youth to old faikava melodies. To cap it off, Dr Melenaite Taumoefolau chaired the last session introducing three Tongan architects and artists, Bruce Moa who presented on the Tu’i Tonga Architecture, Maui’atalanga ‘Ofamo’oni on the “Architecture of a Tongan Library” and Tomui Kaloni on his inspired “Ma’uma’uluta”.

Day 5 – AGM/Closing Dinner

The final and fifth day of the Conference was reserved for the Tongan Research Association Annual General Meeting in the morning and then the grand finale, closing dinner at the Fale Pasifika. The final evening and closing event was handed over to the youth and they did not disappoint. Students and young Tongans performed lakalaka, tau’olunga, sang and generally gave a wonderful display of how proud they were to be Tongan. It can only be described in one word – magical! You had to be there.    

So, as we look to the past from the present, heading into an unknown future…

And despite all the challenges… Tongans managed to anchor the sun for a time at AUT in Manukau. This feat was made possible by the Kau Maui who supported us, backed us and who lent a hand to skilfully anchor and chair each day. As such, the 2013 TRA Conference Committee would like to acknowledge all our wonderful presenters from around the world. We thank the parents and children who came to support and help out. To the Session Chairs – Rev President ‘Ilomaisin Lea (Chairman of the TRA Conference Committee), Dr Timote Vaioleti, Viliami Moli Toafa and Nina Tonga, we thank you. Also, the Panel Chairs – Sandra Kailahi, Sefita Hao’uli, Ikamafana Tameifuna and Dr Melenaite Taumoefolau, thank you so much for hearing our calls for help. For the first time ever in TRA history, a strategic partnership with the Arts was forged with an entire day dedicated to the Arts. TRA thanks its newest members from Matala and No’o Fakataha Tongan Artists groups headed by Dagmar Dyck and Sopolemalama Filipe Tohi. Now the journey begins. To our sponsors, Langimalie and the Tongan Health Society, Pasifika Medical Association and AUT for hosting this event in the heart of Polynesia in Manukau, South Auckland, what can we say? but the Tongan saying – “Koe koloa ‘a Tonga ko e fakamalo” – Our thanks is the only treasure we have to give in return.

The committee wanted to make this a community event and charged a very low registration fee to attract the community, families and students to come along and support. Although overall attendance could have been much higher, most people who did take the time to come left inspired, some were challenged and others even provoked to anger, but that’s all good. We apologise for any shortcomings on our part, but we did our very best with the little we had. We all live and learn.

God bless you all until we meet again.

For further information and more detailed updates please go to our official website:


For further enquiries relating to the TRA Conference please contact the Secretary, Manase Lua (027) 215 7759 or email: nasflo@xtra.co.nz

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