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Tali ki Tahi: Fananga mei Motu

Updated: Jun 15, 2022

I think the cool thing about people who are incredibly proud of their roots is they have extensive knowledge about the local folklores and the histories of their roots.

This story is one such story from my father's home island of Fonoifua, in Ha'apai.

I heard this talanoa maalie about Fonoi from my Uncle Sione Langi and it's the story of Tai Fonoifua and Tali ki Tahi.

Tali ki Tahi is a lea Tonga/phrase associated with Fonoi. Some Fonoi people interpret this saying to mean Tali ki Tahi= waiting for the ocean. This refers to how the ocean is the main source of livelihood for people living on the island, and they wait for the ocean to provide their daily sustenance. Kinda wholesome, right?

However, (according to my uncle Sione) there is an alternate story of how Tali ki Tahi became associated with Fonoi. His story version is more bloody and violent though, and it involves Tai Fonoifua, the greatest sea-faring warrior from Fonoifua. (I first wrote about him in the Mapu 'A Tonga blog post). Anyway, here we go.

In the civil war to unite Tonga, King Tupou 1 recruited all the Kau Tau Tahi Ha'apai (Sea-faring warriors of Ha'apai) to fight for him against his enemy, the Vava'u noble, Finau 'Ulukaalala. Leading the Ha'apai Kau Tau Tahi were warriors from 'Otumu'omu'a, namely Tai Fonoifua of Fonoi and Havili-Pea-Tau of Nomuka.

Although Vava'u had their own Kau Tau Tahi warriors, they were no match for the Ha'apai seafaring warriors in speed and mastery of the oceans. Tai and Havili were shrewd tacticians. They were particularly skilled at sailing at night and killing their enemies at sea in the cloak of the darkness. With their efforts, King Tupou 1 was able to win the civil war and complete his efforts to unite the Kingdom.

King Tupou 1 acknowledged the military prowess of the Kau Tau Tahi from 'Otumu'omu'a in securing his victory, so he offered to give Tai Fonoifua and Havili-Pea-Tau mataapule titles, land in Tongatapu, koloa or animals as a gift for their efforts. However, Tai and Havili declined the King's offer and simply asked that he let them return to 'Otumu'omu'a so they can live the simple island life they are accustomed to. The King agreed so the pair rowed off in their canoes.

While Tai and Havili had not accepted any gifts from the King, they were still giddy with pride that the King himself had acknowledged them so highly. They decided to detour to 'Eua so they can brag about their achievements and boast the mightiness of the Ha'apai Kautau tahi but the 'Eua people were not impressed and beat them up instead. As revenge, Tai and Havili kidnapped the people in one of the villages, trapped them in a cave and burnt them to death. And off to Ha'apai, they rowed away.

They parted ways as Havili-Pea-Tau returned to Nomuka and Tai returned to Fonoi. Little did they know that a group of angered Tau-Tahi Euans were sailing towards Ha'apai, fueled by bloodlust and revenge.

According to local legend, Tai Fonoifua was so intuned with the ocean and the wind, that he instinctively felt the enemies moving towards Fonoi. He whistled to the wind as a warning "I know you're coming. Turn back. Turn back now!". As day turned into night, the enemies ignored his whistles and were coming closer and closer to Fonoi instead.

Tai Fonoifua knew that if the Eua warriors made landfall, they would easily kill everyone on the island. However, he also knew that the Eua warriors were not as competent swimmers as he was, and they were coming into HIS territory and HIS island. He would not lose.

"Tali ki Tahi!" whispered Tai Fonoifua. "I will await you at sea!".

In the cloak of the darkness, Tai Fonoifua swam out to sea, armed only with his war club, the po vai. As the Eua warriors neared the reef around the island, Tai Fonoifua dived deep and swam right under the enemies' canoe. With a swift push, he tipped over their canoe!

The surprised Euans fell into the ocean, flailing in the dark water. One by one, Tai Fonoifua drowned the enemies and clubbed them to death with his po vai.

Tali ki Tahi. I will await you at sea.

Tali ki tahi. Waiting for the ocean.

The backstory for this lea will be different, depending on which Fonoi person you ask.

However, the Tali ki Tahi in this bloodthirsty tale meant don't be afraid of your enemies. If you know yourself and your strengths well enough, you have nothing to fear. You will always be able to turn the tables and win when you are confident in your abilities.

In the story, Tai never doubted his prowess and mastery of the ocean. Despite being outnumbered by the enemies, he knew his strengths. He was a man of the sea. No one will win against him in the water. "I will await you at sea". Tali ki Tahi.

The other Tali ki tahi I mentioned at the start, "Waiting for the ocean" denotes dependence on the sea or external factors for survival. While it's used as a figure of speech for humility and reliance on a higher authority, I personally feel it doesn't encourage you to take the initiative and it feels like you're always waiting for something or someone to help. That's just me though. "Waiting for the ocean". Tali ki tahi. Just waiting.

For me, I will always choose to await you at sea. Tali ki tahi. Which would you choose?

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