26 Feb 2018

The lessons of Gita

1:25 pm on 26 February 2018

First Person - On the night of Monday 12 February, Cyclone Gita began its destructive path across Tonga, by the end of its sweep it left hundreds of homes destroyed, crops ruined and the historic parliament a pile of debris.

Visual Journalist Richard Tindiller and I were sent to cover the impact of the then category four storm, travelling via a New Zealand Air Force Hercules carrying over 12 tonnes of aid for affected communities.

I have been to Tonga multiple times, (including three times in 2017), and the contrast between now and then in the colour and condition of the landscape as we approached Fua'amotu Airport from the air was extreme.

Once lush and green plantations were stripped of leaves and fruit and now appeared brown.

We spent the next few days travelling around the main island of Tongatapu reporting on the severe damage that had been inflicted by Gita.

Images of the destruction were commonplace on traditional media and Facebook and Twitter were inundated with these sad depictions.

But being on the ground we were struck by the human impact of the storm.

Everywhere we went we met families, (often with at least three or four children), clearing their property of debris that usually came from their houses.

It wasn't unusual to see roofless buildings or even foundations where structures once stood.

However the damage, no matter how tragic, wasn't the enduring memory or impression from the trip.

Nor was it the struggle of negotiating life without electricity or water for days at a time.

It was the resilience of the people.

Without exception, wherever we went and whatever the condition of their living conditions, Tongans would greet us with a smile, a warm handshake and a thankful heart. Thankful for life.

One woman we met, who had lost all her possessions bar some wet clothes and the remains of an outhouse, she said she was grateful to be alive as on the night of the storm she wasn't so sure she would ever see her family again.

"I can regather and collect things, I can't regain breath," she remarked.

Another woman at one of the many church services locals attended en masse the first Sunday after the storm, said Tongans couldn't help but retain their humour.

"We must, what else should we do? Disasters happen everywhere, it was simply our turn. We must adapt and move forward."

Meleane from the 'Eua chapter of the Red Cross told us: "You can't take these smiles away, no matter what".

This kind of attitude really left a lasting impression on Richard and I.

"Personally, it will remain as my strongest memory of this mission and my trip to Tonga," Richard said.

"In the past I have covered natural disasters in Europe and Oceania, but I have never seen such strength and humility when disarray is all around," he said.

Richard pointed to the fact children kept dancing with no roof above their heads, women kept smiling with no wall around them.

Nowhere was this more evident than on 'Eua where we visited an evacuation centre.

The 60 odd people still living there a week after Cyclone Gita, had no power and very little food.

The night we visited a couple of women were preparing a stew with six cans of fish and were taking on the difficulty of trying to make the food stretch to feed all. Despite this task, jokes were shared, laughs were had and to top it off dozens of children gathered around and performed the sipi tau, (the pre-match challenge performed by Tonga's rugby and hugely popular rugby league team), to show their national pride wasn't dampened by the cyclone.

I struggled to maintain my emotions witnessing all this and there was more than just a little pang of guilt about the 'pampered' life I had become accustomed to where complaining about a weak Wi-Fi connection or the build-up of traffic flowed easily from the lips.

Without a guarantee of housing or even food, people in Tonga were still in remarkably high spirits.

As Tonga's Prime Minister 'Akilisi Pohiva said last week, "…people, they feel sorry for what had happened but they still enjoy life".

Mr Pohiva claimed Pacific people, especially Tongans, were very simple, not complicated and knew how to handle disasters.

I don't see the simplicity the PM referred to as negative but indeed an inherent ability to be happy in the face of trial. To not let circumstance steal joy.

Nearly two weeks on, there are still pockets of Tonga without power and water, food security remains a concern and the rebuild of structures throughout the kingdom will continue throughout the year and possibly beyond.

Aid is needed and will be very much appreciated.

But I know that there will still be songs of thanksgiving, cackles of laughter and suffocating hugs shared between people living there.

And I hope that one day I too will have the ability to 'not sweat the small things' even when those small things are mountainous.

Perspective is everything.

Until then I'll continue to root for the people of the kingdom referred to as the Friendly Islands but something tells me, they will be just fine.

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