3 Mar 2017

Tonga remembers matriarch with a heart for the people

12:37 pm on 3 March 2017

With the Tongan Queen Mother now laid to rest, the nation will continue to pay tribute in an official 10-day mourning period which ends on Saturday next week.

The late Queen Mother of Tonga, Halaevalu Mata'aho, died in Auckland in February. She was 90.

The late Queen Mother of Tonga, Halaevalu Mata'aho, died in Auckland in February. She was 90. Photo: Kingdom of Tonga

From the moment her cortege landed at the Fua'amotu airport after being flown from New Zealand on Wednesday morning, Tongans demonstrated their adoration and respect for the late Queen Mother.

Thousands of children lined the roadsides of the 20km stretch leading from the airport to the royal palace. In Tongan tradition commoners are forbidden to be upstanding near or around the presence of Royal family members, so the children sat on the ground with their heads bowed in respect as the cortege passed by.

While national flags have been flown at half mast during the mourning period, properties all across Tonga also draped their boundaries in Purple and Black material in a traditional sign of mourning.

"It's a sign of respect and a sign of sharing the grief and the sorrow that the royal family is going through," explained Tagata Pasifika Reporter John Pulu who was in Tonga attending the funeral.

"Everyone in Tonga, even foreigners, were dressed in black yesterday and wearing our traditional ta'ovala (woven mats). It was a sign of unity.

"Keeping tradition and respecting the Royals is something many Tongans are honoured to do and perhaps something that only Tongans would appreciate," he said.

As per the late Queen Mother's wishes, her casket was wrapped in a Tongan ngatu (mat) made from the Tutu (mulberry tree) originally planted in 2010 as a future wedding present for her late son King George V's fiancé.

A Samoan kie was wrapped around the ngatu of her casket.

'She served the people of this nation'

Many remember her legacy as the nation's matriarch who had a heart for the people.

In a recent media interview, her only daughter Princess Salote Mafile'o Pilolevu Tuita shared how her mother had once door-knocked on about 80 homes in Tonga, encouraging those with mental health issues to receive support from the Alonga Centre. She was a champion for the centre whose work in supporting the elderly and people living with disabilities was close to her heart.

Mr Pulu said the Queen Mother's legacy for helping others was widely praised during her funeral service.

"One thing I took away from the service was that the Queen Mother was very passionate about helping those in need. One person described her as being humble, another person described her as someone who was a very hard worker, always giving to those who needed help."

Alongside the Alonga Centre, she was also a strong supporter of Tonga's Red Cross Society.

Japanese Crown Prince Naruhito (L) talks with Tonga's Queen Halaevalu Mata'aho at the funeral of her husband, the late King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, in  2006.

Queen Mother Halaevalu Mata'aho talks to Japan's Crown Prince Naruhito during the funeral of her husband King Tupou IV in 2006 Photo: AFP

"When Cyclone Ian hit Ha'apai, the Queen Mother travelled with a group to the Ha'apai Islands and gave out supplies to the families who needed help. She was a true leader and she served the people of this nation" Mr Pulu said.

For 41 years she held the title of Her Majesty Queen of Tonga. She then was bestowed with the title Queen Mother in 2006 following the death of her husband, King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, and the crowning of her son King George Tupou V.

By the age of 90, Queen Halaevalu Mata'aho had outlived two kings and witnessed the crowning of a third, her youngest son King Tupou VI. By then she had also buried her two eldest sons.

Her second eldest son Māʻatu, an ex-prince who had his titles stripped by the King after he fled the kingdom and married a commoner, passed away in 2004. While his first marriage was annulled by the King, he returned to Tonga years later as a widow and was bestowed with the hereditary title of Māʻatu. He later married the granddaughter of Samoa's High Chief Malietoa strengthening ties between both countries.

The late King George V was betrothed and set to marry Malia Tapa Tapai So Kihe Hau in December 2012 but died in March that year.

Tonga prepares for arrival of the Queen Mother

Tonga prepares for arrival of the Queen Mother Photo: Matangi Tonga/ Peter Poulsen

Shortly after her husband's death, the Tongan government declared a State of emergency after democracy advocates destroyed around 60 percent of the capital's central business district in protest. In her lifetime she observed the reign of different leaders with different leadership styles and of course the nation's slow and unstoppable progress towards partial democracy. She lived to see Tonga's first democratically elected Prime Minister who is himself a commoner, 'Akilisi Pohiva.

During all the changes of Tonga's journey as a Kingdom over the years, she has been heralded by her daughter Princess Pilolevu Tuita as being the backbone of the Royal family throughout and the glue that held the family together.

The Chair of of New Zealand's Tongan Advisory Council, Melino Maka agreed.

"We want to celebrate her life...she had a long fruitful life and I think that the way the Royal family are actually functioning now, that should contribute to her legacy as the woman from behind the scenes."

The official mourning period is normally longer than 10 days but Mr Pulu said the decision to shorten the mourning period was made by the Royal family.

During the mourning period, the people of Tonga will continue to wear black with most businesses to stay closed over this time. Mr Pulu believes the shorter mourning period is a sign of changing times in the kingdom.

"Tonga's going through a lot of economic changes and a lot of pressure and Princess Pilolevu told us that this is something her mother would've wanted, a shorter mourning period. In the past, it used to be 100 days and now it's being shortened. There's a lot of economic pressure on Tonga and businesses would be affected."

A procession carrying the body of Tonga's late Queen Mother Halaevalu Mata'aho, marches through the capital, Nuku'alofa.

A procession carrying the body of Tonga's late Queen Mother Halaevalu Mata'aho, marches through the capital, Nuku'alofa. Photo: Supplied / Matangi Tonga

The Royal family will continue 100 nights of mourning after participating the national 10-day mourning period.

During the mourning period there will be continuous church services every day and evening, continuous presentations of gifts to the Royal family as a way of the people expressing their grief and mourning with the Royal family.

On Saturday, leaders will come together for a kava ceremony honouring the late Queen Mother and next weekend will feature the traditional laying of the black pebble stones on the Queen's tomb.

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs