Where I found(-ed) a family in Tonga, and why a group called Seleka is so important to many -not just me

When you come to a new country where you know literally no-one, you need to make friends unless you are perfectly asocial or possibly a sociopath. Typically, friends and family are two different groups of people, but when you live 18,500 km from your actual relatives, some friends become family. “Brothers” and “sisters” are the most common additions to the family circle, even at “home”: we all have that kind of friend that’s a sibling from another mother, right?

Well, in Tonga I took things to another level. Or maybe things took me to another level. I now have 4 sons, 1 daughter, 1 grand-daughter and a mother. I also have an angel- not too sure where to fit “angel” in my family tree though-… and a Tongan French baby whom I didn’t make, but she’s French.

The first son happened sometime mid-2013, during a role play where this student and friend of mine had decided he’d be a small child. When another student asked him where were his parents as part of the game, he realised he hadn’t planned for that, and finally pointed at me. It was funny, and it stuck. When he married last year, I got a lovely daughter-in-law who is as committed to being part of the positive change in Tonga as he is.

The daughter happened shortly after. She was this beautiful, cheeky, sassy close young girl friend of mine, who started calling me mother when she saw I was caring and looking after her in all her naughty awesomeness. Not that she can’t look after herself, she does that very well on her own. But extra loving can’t be too much. Especially since she became the mother of a little girl, who of course is my grand-daughter and to whom she gives all she can, raising a member of the new generation of creative Tongans.

The Tongan French baby is my close friends’ daughter. She has been perfect since the day she was born, in October 2015. Her name is French, her first word when she was two months old was “oui”, and she used to love when I sang La Bohême to her when she was little, so in sum, she is obviously French. I found out recently that her mother’s aunty always asked her where I was when she sees her, referring to me as her “French mother”(I guess I’m a little part of the whole family…) I love Baby and how she’s so proud of having teeth. She’s incredibly fabulous.

Now that we know that I have friends outside of it, let me introduce Seleka so you can meet the rest of the family:

I met Tevita Ma’ameivai Latu in July 2013 at ‘Atenisi Institute. The No’o Fakataha Auckland based Tongan artists collective was in Tonga for one week, and that night they were showing samples of their work in a collective exhibition, followed by a faikava. My friend (and, according to my landlord’s daughter, “American brother”) Sally Richardson was there too, and had met some of the artists before, being an artist herself –and having more free time than I did. It was a very nice night, in great company, and I was happy I had a good story to share to the kava circle, namely that Napoléon Bonaparte was half Tongan, as per the taxi driver who had taken me there. It’s a great story, I’ll have to write it later. It brought me the immediate friendship of the amazing NZ based artist Filipe Tohi, with whom I exchanged a lot that night, and who subsequently became a fast friend –and a guide to many aspects of Tongan culture. I was too taken, exchanging with Filipe and some of the others from NZ to actually talk much to Tevita, or find out exactly who he was. I just remember he wore a red t-shirt with some silly text on it, and I was informed he was an artist who kept some boys around him in his village, which somehow was a notion that fit very well with the t-shirt.

With Sally Richardson, on my first visit to Seleka on 6 November 2013

Fortunately, Sally was not satisfied with the brief introduction, and having met the NZ based artists already, she was keen to engage with Tevita. He invited her to his kalapu, Seleka, where he drinks kava, makes his art and teaches those of the boys willing to learn in attendance, while listening to music on speakers. When she told me of her first visits to the fale by the lagoon, it sounded pretty wild (in a good way) to me, as I had been told that drinking kava was not supposed to happen like that, and also really important, because it seemed that some of the boys there greatly needed the attention that was given them. It took me months before I could go to Seleka myself, because of my heavy work load. By then I already knew most of the boys and their terrible tastes in music for having spent enough time with them around kava bowls at ‘Atenisi and since an exhibition opening of art by Tevita Latu and Taniela Petelo, I had my kalapu nickname based on Botticelli’s name, that is also a praise to my rear end (and Mexican food?).

It quickly became my other home in Tonga, where I spend an average of 2 to 3 nights per week, two suburban villages away from my house, in Haveluloto. I will not tell you how I sneakily improved the music played at the fale (they asked for it, in a way) or how I became the international spokesperson (being a palangi well integrated in the kingdom who thinks that Auckland is an extension of Tonga but with a bigger art scene helped), because I want to tell you how comes I have a mother, three sons, an angel and some of my closest, most important friends among these boys (and men, and girls).

It being a community that is accepting of all and non-judgemental, with art at its centre was, and is, factor N°1.

Who doesn’t need a community? (being an immigrant, I sure needed one at the least!)

Who wants to be judged? (neither me nor the number of school dropouts and even youth with –big- family problems who join in, and feel equally safe and accepted as anybody)

Who doesn’t like to see the youth learn something new and express themselves freely in a creative way? (I sure love that and the canalising effect it’s got, in a society where it’s hard to express an opinion as a youth and where so many get frustrated and go astray)

Who doesn’t want to support an initiative that is all that and more for its members and for the wider community? Well I, for one, sure do.

This is not an abandoned vehicle – this is all but an abandoned community

Drum rolls for my family members

My first two sons at Seleka I adopted one night early in 2014. My daughter had come to work on a dance item with the group, and when she departed, one of them made comments to me about how she is pretty and asked for her number –I played the protective mother but he didn’t get it, and he insisted. The only way I found to make him stop was to tell him she was his sister now, I was adopting him. The other boy laughed at him –I adopted him, too. Truth be told, I really liked these boys and hoped it would be a good move to bring them closer to me, as they seemed the type that needed extra attention.

Two and a half years later, one works full time in a creative and stimulating environment and has straightened out. He now focuses on his work, participating to helping kids who like him have experienced too much of life from a young age. His boss told me how happy he is with the quality of what he delivers and his dedication to it. He doesn’t have much time for Seleka anymore, but what he does for the youth elsewhere with his work is the best tribute to what Seleka brought him. I am extremely proud of him, and of having seen him climb the long path, every step of the way.

The other has also mostly disappeared from sight, along with his village idiot attitude and the stupid things he’d say and do all the time to amuse and annoy his captive audience. Once given enough attention, he started to show his sensitive and very intelligent self, and gradually opening up on his repressed issues, helping us help him. He eventually finished high school in spite of his bad history of getting excluded from schools for his behaviour, and eventually gave up street fighting. Instead, he made a bold move and took up to respecting a strict daily routine to train in boxing, which keeps him in bed at night and away from us. It’s well worth it: he’s got national and international medals already. I am extremely proud of him and of having been at his side along the hardcore hike up!

My third and last son, I adopted so I could have an easy maintenance kid, with no particular issue in his life. He was the most persistent of the boys who wanted me to adopt them, too. I always said “maybe” because it seemed I had enough sons to keep me busy for another life or two, but one day it slipped and I called him “son”. It was Christmas day in 2014, and the smile that broke on his face was even cuter than the usual, and he’s usually very cute. Even when he bangs his head to some awful plastic metal music. He was a prefect in his school when he was in Form 6, and is currently pursuing a tertiary education. He is on his way to become one of the finest hip-hop dancers and choreographers of Tonga, and I am extremely proud of him and of having seen him affirm his personality along the years.

My mother is as dark as I am fair, as short as I am tall, as fit as I am not, and he’s a much better painter than I’ll ever be. He was minus 12 years when I was born, and he’s a boy, but that doesn’t stop him from being my mum, and looking after me, making sure I don’t wear skimpy clothes especially. He was another persistent son wannabe, and got very creative when I rejected his application one too many times –“too naughty!”. His English was not quite perfect then, but of that I am grateful because he only got the “position” when he made me laugh with his poorly chosen translation for tamai (father). I am extremely proud of him because he’s come a freaking long way in his relationship to his family and has found a balance through the community commitments and in the arts, and recently a day job with fellow Selekarians. More than that, I’m proud that I was here to see him being proud of himself when he sold art work at the first Seleka show at Seleka in May, enabling him to support his parents for the first time since they’d reconnected.

My angel is very much work in progress. All I can say is that it makes him happy that I’m his angel, too. He’s a bit lost, but I don’t doubt he’ll find his way eventually, like so many of the troubled kids who have come through Seleka –the list is long enough for a whole essay. Each member come closer to resolving his issues has positive effects on the whole group, making Seleka a more mature group, in a virtuous circle kind of way.

Inside the Seleka fale

What sort of magic is at work?

None of the “success stories” noted here happened solely because I was smiling and listening to these boys, or kicking their butt when they needed it, or showing them art house movies and afrobeat music. Most of it rests on T Latu’s shoulders and his total dedication to looking after the community, feeding it with opportunities it never thought existed, giving it all he has –and more. Creating a space for the kids who wanted to embark on his journey, or who felt they had nowhere else to go and making them equally responsible for the wellness of the community, without giving any rules, was the best thing that could happen to them. Being open to all (boys, girls, fakaleitis, people with mental disabilities, palangi…), and therefore getting everyone exposed to all the sorts of issues that the youth faces in Tonga, in an environment of liberated expression and open ears, made it possible for all the members to surpass a variety of prejudices and negative attitudes that are too common in other circles. The members are very much aware of how special Seleka is in this regard, and many have made the decision to make positive changes in order to keep belonging, by adhering to collectively set yet unspoken values that constantly reach higher standards.

The ship is growing, but T Latu is not alone to stir it. Taniela Petelo for one has become a charismatic leader always ready to prompt his crew towards higher grounds, making it look easy to be creative about anything in life. He was one of the two friends who had joined T the night of 2008 when he founded what was to be called Seleka, on a bare concrete foundation by the lagoon, near his house. A very long way has been made since then, not only regarding what has been built on the original concrete foundation, but mostly with the boys (and girls) who have passed the threshold one night or another. Not all grabbed a crayon or a paintbrush to learn and become an artist (my sons are excellent examples of that), but all have gained in wisdom, if that’s the word.

Regarding the art education, things are going well: when preparing the second Seleka show at Seleka, T deemed 7 boys were producing work that was good enough for being exhibited alongside his own work and features by the internationally recognised Filipe Sopolemalama Tohi.

Although I had met them on the same night, it took me nearly two years to connect my two friends, each a teacher and an inspiring force in his own right. The respect is mutual, and I thank Filipe for putting words on what Seleka really is: good, and honest. These are the words that describe the group best, for anyone who knows it really. And the reason why I am so proud to be a member of it. And why I am so grateful for all these boys, girls and men have brought to my life.

At the second Seleka show “Toe Amusi” opening, 1st December 2016

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