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Mapu 'a Tonga

Updated: Jun 15, 2022

"Mapu" can mean different things in Tongan, according to context.

Mapu= marble

Mapu mapu=Whistle

Mapu'i= To be whistled at

Mapu hoi= heavy sigh

Mapu 'a Tonga is the nickname/hingoa fakatenetene of my father's home island of Fonoifua in the Ha'apai Island group. According to my Uncle Sione Langi, Fonoi got its nickname "Mapu 'a Tonga" when the local seafaring warrior, Tai Fonoifua, whistled to warn/frighten enemies that he could see them coming and he was ready to kill them if they didn't turn back. His whistle was like a challenge, "I see you, come if you dare!" and his whistle could be heard all the way from Tonga. I don't know how much of it is true but I like my uncle's storytime version lol.

Anyway, Fonoi is part of the 3 islands collectively called "'Otu Mu'omu'a" consisting of Nomuka, Mango and Fonoifua islands. 'Otu Mu'omu'a means "front-row" because when you reach the Ha'apai Island groups, these are the first three inhabited islands you'd see if you're travelling by boat before you reach Pangai, the Ha'apai island group capital.

The first time I visited my father's home island, I was 12. I was seasick and vomited 90% of the time from Nuku'alofa to Fonoi during the 8-hour ferry ride. The seas were rough, the ferry was cramped (it was the Alaimoana ferry when it was still in operation) and the stench of vomit filled the air. I swore in my 12-year old little head this was gonna be my first and last time doing this trip as I went to sleep.

It was the crack of dawn when my cousin shook me awake, telling me excitedly "Look! There's Fonoi !". All I could see was a little marble-like dot in the distance, aaaaand the vomit came up again. My cousin realised he should have left me sleeping, at least then I wouldn't be puking on him. I remember being bent over the side rail of the ferry, dry heaving and staring pathetically at the ocean for a good hour or so, until my cousin apologetically patted my head and said: "Ok, look up now, there's Fonoi".

This is my first memory of Fonoi from 2005. The beaches were white, so much whiter than the beaches in Ha'ateiho or any beach in the mainland. There was so much sand, maybe 30 meters in length if you measured from the water at high tide. So much sand. The water around the island was clear blue, and you could see the vibrant coral forests thriving right down at the bottom of the ocean. "This was worth the horrific ferry ride" was what I thought at aged 12.

I was there only for a fortnight but my cousins took me swimming every day. They showed me secret beaches that you'd have to climb down a cliff to get to, and parts of the island only accessible by canoes, which were the best spots for catching octopus (I never managed to catch any by the way). They showed me a small freshwater spring, where finemaatu'as would draw water from to boil pandanus leaves with. They'd take me on bush walks, and randomly pick off mangoes, fekika, pineapples and coconuts from any trees along the way as a snack. "Aren't we stealing these fruits?" I'd ask cautiously. They looked at me like I was an idiot. "This is your grandfather's plot. That back there was your grandfather's brother's plot. Over there is our family plot. This is all family land". And that was that. I returned to Tonga a very tanned 12-year-old, extremely proud that I was not seasick the ferry ride back.

The second time I visited Fonoi was in 2012. I was 19 and this time, my then 12-year-old brother came with me. I was excited for him because he was now the same age I was when I first went to Fonoi. He had grown up only hearing stories about Fonoi and was excited about the trip. We went on the 'Otu'anga'ofa ferry, and neither of us was seasick, to my surprise.

The 'Otu'anga'ofa ferry was a relatively large ferry and "cleaner" in comparison to the Alaimoana. However, due to its size and the fact that none of the 'Otumu'omu'a islands (Nomuka, Mango, Fonoi) has a proper wharf for the ferry to dock properly, people would have to jump off the ferry and into a smaller wooden motor-powered boat to reach their destination.

Nomuka is the biggest island in the 'Otumu'omu'a group, so the 'Otuanga'ofa would go as close as possible to its reefs, and people going to Mango, Fonoi or Nomuka would have to jump off the ferry as the wooden boats came close to the ferry. You had to time your jump right, too, because if you didn't, you'd fall into the sea. It was still dark when we had to jump off the 'Otuanga'ofa and into our cousin's wooden boat, so I went to sleep again. Just like before when I was 12, I was rudely awakened by my cousin at the view of Fonoi on the horizon. This time though, I sat up and watched as the marble-like dot became bigger and bigger.

1st picture above: My then 12-year-old brother, 19-year-old me and our cousin.

2nd Picture above: 'Otuangaofa ferry. We had to jump off this ferry.

3rd picture: My cousin's wooden boat full of passengers.

Below: Pictures of Fonoi.

It wasn't the Fonoi I quite remembered at age 12. Sure, the waters were still clear, but there weren't as many colourful fish swimming in the coral forests. Heck, the coral forests looked tired and lacklustre. Did the corals lose their colour? Were they always whiteish? The sand was...still kinda white but had it shrunk? Is there less sand on the beach? Did the beach shrink? Was the beach this small? It's still pretty, but was it really this small? Was everything this small or did everything just look bigger back then because I was small? I had so many questions but I kept my questions to myself as I wanted my brother to form his own impressions about the island.

My brother is named after our father's father. 'Aisea. Because of his name (and I suppose the age gap between him from my sister and I), he has always been the family favourite. Our older cousins and our mehikitanga/aunties, in particular, spoil him rotten. The entire time we were in Fonoi, I remember our aunties were always telling me and my cousins off for taking my brother around the island where he could get hurt because it was dangerous now. Ummm, they didn't seem to care when I did that when I was 12. What's dangerous around the island now? lol.

My aunties were right though. Fonoi was definitely not what I remembered, and it had become dangerous. The secret beach you had to get to by climbing down the cliff? The cliff was so eroded and the trees you had to grip to get down to the beach were brittle and fragile, and my cousin told me it was too dangerous to go down there now. The sea had taken away the sand, so if you fell, it was pure rock and ocean down there. The water was getting warmer and there aren't as many octopuses as before but there were many poisonous sea snakes. That small freshwater spring? It was green and murky and smelt like the ocean. No one boiled pandanus from that water anymore. The bountiful mango and fekika trees? My cousin told me it still bears fruits, but each year it gets smaller and smaller. The pineapples on my grandfather's plot of land? No more because the land had been overgrown with weeds as everyone was moving to the mainland.

I listened as my cousin told me if the seas were particularly rough during high tide or king tide, the following day, it would look as though parts of the island had been scraped away, and the island gets smaller and smaller. Tongans tend to make jokes, even in serious moments to keep the conversation light. I'll never forget the sad laugh on his face, as he told me more stories of how Fonoi, his home, my father's home, my grandfather's home...was slowly disappearing.

Left: Eroding cliffs around Fonoi

Bottom right: Mango hunting near the spring water.

It's now almost 10 years since I last visited Fonoi. Occasionally on social media, a cousin shares videos or photos from their latest trip to Fonoi. Some things still look the same, like the people still living there. Some things are drastically changed, like the receding amount of sand along the shorelines that do shrink every year.

For me, I had grown up in Ha'ateiho on the main island. Ha'ateiho to me is home. Fonoi to me was a place I know I had roots from, but it was a place I visit when I wanted to. But Fonoi is still home to my few relatives who still live there, and someday, it may no longer even be there, even if I wanted to visit. When you live on the mainland, you get so disconnected from the very visible and very dire effects of the rising sea levels and climate change on the smaller outer islands. You hear about it and people talk about it, but it won't make sense until you see it, and when you do see it, your heart will break. This is reality. Our islands are disappearing.

It seems ironic that Fonoi is part of what they call the 'Otumu'omu'a group. The front row. Maybe it is a foreshadowing sign that it will be the front row of the Ha'apai islands to sink and disappear due to sea levels rising and global warming. This is reality. Our islands are disappearing.

I wish I could whistle like Tai Fonoifua to chase away all the bad things happening to the island, but I can't. I can't help but sigh when I think of what's happening to Fonoi and many other small islands and hope my pen, instead of my whistle can help make a difference by raising awareness. This is reality. Our islands are disappearing.

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