Tongan identity has been forged through migration cycles. Travelling across the Pacific to countries like Australia, New Zealand, and the USA, Tongans have benefited from new opportunities and expanded their nation. At the same time, they’ve retained strong intergenerational links, with wisdom passed from homeland to diaspora and back again. This circular migration of people and ideas is a crucial component of Tongan life and one that has been the focus of research by Dr Ruth Faleolo, a New Zealand-born Tongan and postdoctoral fellow at Australia’s La Trobe University. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has undoubtedly upset the balance of these migratory patterns. In her paper, Tongan Collective Mobilities, Dr Faleolo explores the concept of intergenerational connections before, during, and after the pandemic.
There have been numerous studies on Tongan collective mobilities, and the ongoing connections formed between separated famili Tonga – Tongan families. However, as Tongan traditions have been upended by restrictions created in response to the spread of COVID-19, Dr Faleolo believes now is the right time to study these concepts again.
It is estimated that Tonga, a collection of Pacific Islands, has fewer people living in the country than living abroad. Since the 1950s, locals have left their homeland in favour of a diaspora, where they can seek new career and life opportunities. Heading to nearby countries like New Zealand and Australia was, of course, relatively simple. Younger generations tend to head to urban areas in Australia and New Zealand but there are also significant numbers of Tongans in the USA. This migration has given Tongans access to new resources and ways of thinking, but it has also led to the separation of generations, so mobility between homeland and diaspora has been essential for maintaining these connections.
Tongan collectives’ mobilities are circular and ongoing movements between at least two locations, but often more. These patterns of movement between family members in different parts of the Pacific Ocean are important not just for the families themselves but for the entire nation of Tonga. They are a way for culture, ideas, and knowledge to spread around famili Tonga. This transfer of information from the homeland to the diaspora and back again accumulates to forge an identity among Tongan citizens. Like most other Oceanic nations, movement is the foundation of the Tongan sense of belonging.
Tongans may travel alone but they rarely live in isolation. They remain strongly connected to the rest of famili Tonga. They might move from city to city, country to country, but Tongans rarely forget their roots, making regular trips to the homeland to share what they’ve learned on their travels overseas.
In many cases, one Tongan would offer support to family members following in their footsteps, with support networks operating reciprocally between the generations. The first one to leave Tonga would provide accommodation and advice for anyone following, who would then pass these resources and accumulated wisdom onto the next person. Before the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, travel was relatively easy; there have always been border controls, but Tongans were free to travel abroad in search of employment opportunities. The strength of these intergenerational connections is dependent on the free flow of people and when borders were shut the cycle was broken. Collective mobilities ground to a halt and Tongans had to find a way to deal with these new circumstances.
Staying connected with e-talanoa
To fully analyse the impact of COVID-19 on intergenerational connections and collective mobilities, Dr Faleolo used talanoa and e-talanoa. This is a concept used across several Pacific nations and refers to open, transparent, and inclusive communication. Traditionally, this has been used to help Tongans settle any disputes and raise overall wisdom in their communities. It is usually performed in a dedicated physical space, where participants can sit and talk openly together, but in the modern world, the same process can happen online in the form of e-talanoa. Dr Faleolo studied digital posts that revealed the lived experience of Tongans who had left the homeland and become stranded due to COVID-19 restrictions.
These extracts are anonymous but share crucial insight into the experiences of famili Tonga during this time. The sender of one text expresses concerns about cases in Sydney and is relieved that their loved one is in Brisbane, which is ‘a little bit safer’. The writer goes on to accept that travel is out of the question for at least a year. Another expresses regret for returning to the locked-down USA; they wish they’d stayed in Tonga, where people were free to live as they always had. The consensus is that life is now better in Tonga than in Australia or the USA – a reversal of pre-pandemic attitudes.
Maintaining famili Tonga support
Tongans thrive because they’re able to travel abroad and benefit from life and experiences in new countries and economies while keeping in touch with contacts in the famili Tonga. These contacts provide emotional and financial support and can be anything from packages of home comforts, love letters, or simple words of encouragement. For anyone struggling with the difficulties of becoming a documented migrant and adapting to new cultures, this can make all the difference.
When COVID-19 made it difficult to offer these traditional methods of support, Tongans were quick to use technology to continue these traditions, if only online. This has led to the creation of virtual famili who connect through Facebook and e-talanoa. Dr Faleolo collected photos of Tongans posted on Facebook to illustrate their continuation of collective traditions despite the pandemic. She also highlights her own experience of explaining to her children how contact with grandparents would have to be by Zoom and private messaging for the time being. She believes that Tongans have adopted technology in a somewhat surprising and certainly unprecedented way: even senior citizens and religious leaders have turned to new platforms to ensure they maintain essential intergenerational connections.
This time of change was particularly personal for Dr Faleolo, whose own famili had to deal with the loss of two dearly loved relatives in 2020: her uncle Saia Akauola in New Zealand, and later her son Nehemiah Thomas Faleolo, in Australia.
These family events happened during a series of snap lockdowns across Australia and New Zealand which included state and national travel bans. Her uncle’s Australian-based children struggled to reach New Zealand and the trans-Tasman rigmarole of movements between state borders and across country quarantine measures was played out on Facebook. The members of Dr Faleolo’s collective used this virtual space successfully, particularly the younger members who also used it to draw attention to misgivings about government regulations that required uncle Saia’s COVID-free sons to do two weeks’ quarantine on their arrival in New Zealand. These quarantine rules would have seriously disrupted the family’s traditional bereavement processes. Dr Faleolo supported her own famili from her physically isolated location in Australia, joining their online rally to get family across the Tasman.
Using change.org and Facebook, the famili set up a petition that succeeded in changing New Zealand’s quarantine requirements on compassionate grounds, and the boys were able to see their father before the burial. Although Australia’s restrictions still prevented many extended family members from being physically present, they were able to stay connected online.
In many ways, the plight of Tongans is something that we can all relate to. Vast numbers of people around the world have been unable to see loved ones and have been forced to strengthen connections virtually. Dr Faleolo outlines the ways in which the Tongan experience is unique. For many decades, Tongans have been able to explore the world while maintaining strong ties to their social and familial networks. During the first wave of the pandemic, this delicate balance was thrown into chaos. However, Tongans have adapted quickly and created their own ‘new normal’, using technology to maintain many of the same intergenerational connections through the second wave, and beyond.
Dr Faleolo’s paper is dedicated to her son, Nehemiah Thomas Faleolo. ‘His humility and strength will continue to inspire us in our journeys. Alofa tele atu. ‘Ofa lahi atu. Until we see you again.’
- Faleolo, R, (2020). Tongan Collective Mobilities: Familial Intergenerational Connections Before, During & Post COVID-19. Oceania, 90 (1), 128–138.
Understanding the impact of COVID-19 on Tongan collectives’ mobilities.
Australian Research Council and La Trobe University.
Dr Ruth (Lute) Faleolo is a New Zealand-born Tongan, Australian-based researcher of Pacific peoples’ migration histories, mobilities, collective agencies, and multi-sited e-cultivation of cultural heritages. She is a postdoctoral fellow at La Trobe University, collaborating with a multi-sited team in the study of ‘Indigenous mobilities to and through Australia.’