Young  bride faces the nightmare of a mother-in-law’s fakalotoloto


Every year when I go to Tonga the very first thing I remember is the miserable life I went through when I married my first husband. I am from Niua and I assume that everyone understands the poverty and the misfortune people of Niua experience.

I grew up in a poor family. The house we lived in was built from pieces of timbers my father gathered to make sure we were safe from rain and sunlight. There were only two of us children, my young brother Maka and me. Our only source of income was fishing, growing and weaving.

I left school when I was in form 3. I told my father I wanted to drop out and help him and my mother so we can still help put my younger brother through school.

I still remember vividly the times when my father would wake up early every  morning and go to sea to fish. He would only return when the sun approached the western horizon. Whatever the catch was we cooked it as kiki (meat) for the haka (cooked crops or fruits) whether it was cassava, breadfruits or green banana. If there was no fish, then the kiki for the day was ‘umaki vaihaka – eat the haka and drink its water as kiki, or kai hamu – eating the haka without kiki.

My mother’s weaving was shipped for sale to Tongatapu to help pay for my brother’s school fees.

One year a team of surveyors from Tongatapu arrived in Niua to survey the island and after becoming friends with one of the staff we got married. As a result I had to follow my husband Paula (Tongan for Paul) and relocated to the main island Tongatapu.

It was a journey I was looking forward to, but never knew it would be my misfortune. When my mother-in-law, ‘Ana heard his son had married me, a poor and uneducated woman from Niua, she waited until we arrived so she could exploit me. When we arrived in Tongatapu we drove straight to my hubby’s home and when the vehicle was about to stop I heard my husband’s mother crying out her ill-feeling towards me and ordering the driver to take me out into the road. That was the first time I witnessed how Tongan women became fakalotoloto (show their displeasure at the person their sons marry by abuse and crazed outbursts of behaviour).

That was exactly what had happened to me. I will never forget how my mother-in-law angrily ran away to show her dislike for me when we arrived. I entered the  house and sat down by the door, but no one even spoke to me so I just slid back outside with embarrassment and sat on the grass. My husband called me to come inside, but I just sat there and pulled the grass out of the ground as a way to divert my mind from the sorrow I had encountered and thought about the way back to Niua.

When I went inside again with my hubby my father-in-law greeted me and told me to go and have a rest. He also told me not worry about his wife and said she was sick. We both laughed and  I went to the room and changed my clothes. It became dark when my mother-in-law came into the house and asked about me: “Where is the animal from Niua? Tell her to go outside into the road.”

My mother-in-law talked angrily and said to her son:  ”We are staying here in Nuku’alofa (capital of Tonga) with plenty of beautiful women and you went to Niua and brought back the rubbish heap.” I sat on the bedside with tears running down my face and wished I had wings so I could fly back to Niua. However my husband encouraged me and told me that if I loved him I should ignore what his mother did and never leave. Life moved on but everyday my food was tear drops, eating was bitter, sleep was repeatedly disturbed and life was tasteless because of the way I was treated. I was treated like an animal. I did my utmost to make sure everything I was told to do at home would always please my mother-in-law, but she never appreciated anything I did.

We had a son, Fili, but when I left the hospital and went home, my mother- in-law told me to find somewhere else to live and claimed our son had been fathered by another man. I just patiently took it in and opted to stay. Life was more difficult for me after my first child was born. I thought the birth of my son, who was my mother-in-law’s grandson, would have changed her attitudes towards me, but it did not.

After two years I got a call from my mother that my father had died from pneumonia and I immediately assumed he had become ill as a result of his regular morning fishing trips. I tried to attend his funeral, but since there was no ship to the island that month I did not go. I wept at the death of my father, but the fact was my burdens were then heavier. Even as I lost my father I was overwhelmed by problems with my husband’s family.

It was not long afterwards that my mum asked me to come to Niua as soon as I could because she was very sick. I decided to go and I took my son with me. The day we departed my mother-in-law told me to go and never come back. I just took it in and never uttered a word. I went to Niua and looked after my mother. She was lucky to live. I told her I would not return to my husband, but my mother told me to return to my fuakava (the one I made an oath with to keep as husband)  and absorb every bitterness and misery my mother-in-law threw at me. She advised me to never ever answer back my mother-in-law when she spoke to me angrily or do anything to harm her.

“Just be patient to the end,” my mother advised.

We left Niua and when we arrived at the wharf in Tongatapu I called my husband to let him know we were back and asked him to come and pick us up. However, my mother-in-law answered the phone  and said Paula was not at home and had gone with his wife. I was grateful I did not have a heart attack when I heard what she told me. I asked her which wife Paula went with as I was the wife and I had returned from Niua, but she hung up on me.

We took a taxi to our home in Fasi , but when we arrived it was dark and the door was locked. There were no lights on. Suddenly my husband arrived in a car. I went to greet him but then a woman get out of the car and went into the house. My husband came to me and asked when we had arrived. I told him I had called to let him know we were coming, but the phone had been answered by his mother. My husband apologised and asked me to take my son and get into the vehicle so he could take us to stay with his cousin in Tofoa for the night before we moved in with my young brother Maka the next day and stay there while he filed for divorce.

As he finished talking to me I suddenly blacked out. I woke up in hospital and I was alone except for my son, who was playing by my side. I called my brother and he came and took us home. We lived with my brother, but at the same time I was still in great pain and wept from time to time because of what had happened. I repeatedly called my husband, but he insisted that we would divorce. We stayed with my brother and waited for the next ship so we could return home to Niua. While we were waiting to leave my husband arrived and gave me a letter to sign then left.

A week later I received a call from my husband’s partner asking me to come home and look after my husband as he had suffered a stroke. I told the partner our divorce with my husband had been filed and that I was waiting for the result. The partner said she would not marry my husband. I took my son and returned home to look after my husband. Once we stood at the door my mother-in-law cried deeply and apologised for the fact that she disliked me and my son. She had been fakalotoloto and she thought the woman she liked would love her son. However, she had shown that she would only love him when he was in good health and when he was sick she left him. I told my mother-in-law that since I married her son her attitudes towards me had been a bitter pill to swallow, but I had patiently accepted it. I reminded my mother-in-law that I loved his son whether he was healthy or sick,  but it appeared she did not appreciate it at all. I told her I would look after my husband as he was husband and my son’s father.

My husband and I were reconciled and he lived for another 11 months before he died. After the funeral I told my mother-in-law I had to go home to Niua with my son, Fili and look after my mother who was bedridden. A month later, before I could go home, my mother-in-law suffered a stroke. I looked after her for about a month before she died.

Later on I was befriended by a palangi from Switzerland and eventually married him and moved to that country. Even though both my parents have died I help families on Niua and my brother in Tonga.

My son has married and my advice to him was not marry a woman because she was rich, beautiful or educated.

“Marry a woman who will love me, and you,” I said.

“Bring home a woman who believes in God; a woman who, even though she is ignorant, is honest, of good character, prudent and satisfied with what she has.”

To mothers who read this, I say to you:  Love your daughter-in-law no matter what her situation is and where she comes from.

We never know of what will happen tomorrow. You could dislike a person and she might turn out to be the only one to look after you when you are bed ridden.

Editor’s note:

This story was written in Tongan by a woman who identified herself as Emma Dikken from Niua Toputapu, but now living in Switzerland. The story was published and went viral on Facebook. The 3370 likes and 2280 shares it has as of Sunday, September 13, was huge considering the number of Tongan Facebook users. Many commentators said this was one of the most touching stories they had ever come across. Attempts to contact Dikken on Facebook were unsuccessful.

Kaniva News could not confirm the authenticity of the story and whether it was based on a true incident or was just fiction written to depict the negative effects of the Tongan cultural practise of fakalotoloto and to encourage people to do away with it.

Fakalotoloto is the practice in which parents interfere with how their children chose their wives or husbands. It means to harbour or show a grudge towards somebody because you dislike them for marrying one of your children. The practice is normally exercised by mothers. It normally starts with them advising the children to let them know if the mother was fakalotoloto. If the son, for instance, insists that he will marry a woman then the next step is for the mother to go public and make comments to neighbours or people close to the woman and tell them she does not want her to marry her son. Usually this is followed by exchanges of words in which the woman’s family responds to the mother’s messages. If the couple eventually marries the mother will escalate the way she shows her fakalotoloto by shouting out her anger during the wedding ceremony or even tearing off her clothes and running half or barely naked across the scene. However this way of showing fakalotoloto is hardly seen nowadays.

The fakalotoloto practice could be based on a number of factors and the story by Emma Dikken has depicted some of them. The geographical location was one of these factors. Niuatoputapu and Niuafo’ou are the farthest islands in the north of the Kingdom of Tonga. Because of their locations they are behind in almost everything that people living in Nuku’alofa have in terms of lifestyle, technology, communication and education. From a cultural perspective, people living in Tongatapu look down on them.

Sometime the practise of fakalotoloto is followed with the practice of fakamotumotu in which the mother or parents cut off contacts with their son or daughter. The fakamotumotu can be for a short period of time before any reconciliation is made. However on some occasions the practise of fakamotumotu ki he mate (fakamotumotu till they die) occurs. This would normally follow failed attempts by church leaders or paternal aunties to reconcile the situation. Other factors on which this practice is based include whether children have a good education and jobs as well as their family background and economic status.

The writer also raised one important way of living that drives Tongans to fight themselves out of poverty whenever they get the opportunity to do so. It was the type of haka (cooked food) and kiki (meat or fish) families have. They denote the economic status of the family. A family in poverty cannot afford meat, but they can afford fruits and other crops. The children were advised to eat the haka and drink the water at the same time so they would be satisfied with food.

This type of situation is mentioned in most Tongan ceremonies or celebrations overseas in which a family member from a poor family in Tonga is celebrated for an achievement, for example in education. In the speeches made during the celebration the haka hamu (haka without kiki) or haka hamu ‘umaki vaihaka (haka without kiki but the water of the haka) is usual to mention as what drives that person to become a success. Just because they wanted to work hard to put good food on their tables for their famiy as they did not want to repeat the poor situation they experienced in Tonga.

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