Indira Stewart, RNZ

Thousands of books have been donated by more than 50 Auckland Council libraries among the hundreds of other items given by generous New Zealanders including bikes, laptops and more.

It’s the brainchild of South Auckland couple Kahoa and Brendan Corbett, who for the past year have been packing up donated goods almost every month to be shipped to Kolovai, the village where the library is located.

“That’s the non-fiction, fiction, there’s biographies there,” Mrs Corbett said, pointing to a stack of boxes at the Onehunga-based CFR Line shipping company inside which hundreds of books have been categorised and are about to be shipped to Tonga. 

It’s a dream come true for the couple, who visited Kolovai eighteen months ago after it had suffered some of the worst impacts of Cyclone Gita.

Children with books in Tonga

Children with books in Tonga Photo: RNZ

“I looked at the schools. It was just nothing left … I said ‘Well, we have to do something about this’ because there were no books.”

The couple helped in the clean up and restoration of the cyclone-ravaged village and over time, Mrs Corbett noticed an abandoned community fale, which sparked an idea. 

“The fence was totally ripped, the pigs were everywhere. So I just went straight to the town officer and I asked him ‘Hey, what are you doing with that house? Would I be able to start up a library in there?’.”

Now that idea is about to become a reality. 

While it may be a surprise for some that Tonga has never had a proper public library before, the little South Pacific kingdom is full of avid readers and has a 99 percent literacy rate. 

There have been other community venues open to the public with resources and various donated books but the Kolovai library is said to be the first to operate with a catalogued library system, allowing books to be issued and loaned out to members of the public – a system set up with the help of Auckland libraries in New Zealand.
 
The Corbetts explained that apart from what the kids learned in school, much of the island was limited to reading only the bible, with very little access to any other literature.

“The first thing I did was I called and I wanted to speak to the manager of the Auckland libraries because I said that I needed some books. I said I really want to start up a library. All of a sudden the emails, the phone calls arrived and it was just amazing. ‘Kahoa we’ve got books here, Kahoa we’ve got books there’. It came from everywhere.”

Fifty-two council libraries around Auckland have donated thousands of books since that call – but that’s not all that came through.

SkyTV donated 30 laptops, New Zealand bike company ONZO donated dozens of bikes, Bunnings Warehouse gave paint for the renovations and even Mr Corbett’s students pitched in to help.

“The books were pouring in but we had no shelves. So I was the Tech teacher at Southern Cross just up the road here and we needed a project for these kids so I said “Well, we’ll fund it. We’ll buy all the materials and we’ll get the kids to build all these shelves’,” he said.

“We built shelf after shelf after shelf and packed them all down and then loaded them into a container that was going up.”

To top off all the free donations, CFR Line Shipping company offered to send everything to Tonga at no cost.

When the containers arrived at the port in Nuku’alofa, Tonga’s capital, all the locals pitched in to help.

“We had the kids trained up with a laptop and a scanner trying to load everything in. They were loving it,” Mr Corbett said.

Local children shelving books in Tonga's first public library

Local children shelving books in Tonga’s first public library Photo: Kahoa Corbett

“When we got there the fence was all fixed up,” Mrs Corbett said.

“And they did the peitō, toileti and the ‘atō.” 

Those are the Tongan words for the kitchen, toilet and the roof. Mr Corbett is European but the couple shared much of their story in the Tongan language.

The couple have been back to the kingdom multiple times to help set up the library and they said every time they arrived, village locals always turned up to help.

“They all came, they all helped. They were like hammering away and the kids from the village helped. Brendan instructed them, he got the paintbrushes,” Mrs Corbett said.

“As soon as they saw all the power tools they just flocked in. It was like bees to a honey pot,” Mr Corbett said.

“It only took a couple of minutes for me to just show them. If I got one finished and they’d be like ” ‘Io, ‘ilo au Peni, ‘ilo au. Ō mai me’a ngauē!” (I know Peni, I know. Hand me the tools!) And they just went to town and built about seven of these things – all the same. And they just knocked them all together.

Children in Tonga put together shelves for Tonga's first public library

Children in Tonga put together shelves for Tonga’s first public library Photo: Kahoa Corbett

“They were like a bunch of contractors, they were so fantastic. Screwing all these shelves together and then they wanted to paint them. The shelves all got built and painted and they’re all perfect. It was hilarious.”

“Once we opened up all the boxes and started shelving the kids were gasping and pointing ‘Dinosaurs! dinosaurs! dinosaurs!”, Mrs Corbett said.

“They got very distracted, they started to read and they were always gasping in amazement. And they just keep coming and coming and I think the parents were looking for them but they were still at the library. It was amazing.”

The couple said some village adults were suspicious about the library at first because they didn’t understand what it was and didn’t see any point in it.

But over time, even they began taking an interest in the books too.

“There’s a women’s group – a mother’s group and they turn up with their little kids and you know, it’s a bit scary – the kids just wander around and the mothers get all absorbed in these books. So they’re pulling out books here and there.”

Others even made a detour to the library on their way to church choir practice.

“They stopping by, they were like looking at the library,” Ms Corbett said.

“The cooking books are everywhere and they’re like – ‘Oh I like this!’ And there’s a couple of them just standing there flicking the pages.”

Local Tongan woman looking at books in library

Local Tongan woman looking at books in library Photo: Kahoa Corbett

Some of the elders, who had moved back to Tonga to retire after living overseas for many years, were rapt to see a library in the kingdom for the first time.

“One of the old uncles would come in everyday, Siola’a, and he goes ‘Peni, you got any John Grisham crime books?’ And so we start hunting through because it wasn’t quite catalogued then. So every time I came across a John Grisham while we were unloading books, I put it aside for Siola’a,” Mr Corbett said.

“The next day he comes back – ‘You got anymore? I finish that one’, he says, ‘I was here the other day and I saw something called mixing cocktails. I want to have a go at mixing some cocktails’.

“This is in the middle of a village in the most remote end of Tonga, you know. It’s awesome.”

As the library prepares for its official opening on October 11th, Mrs Corbett has been putting up framed pictures on the walls inside the library – they’re photos of successful Tongans around the world including many who have graduated with doctorates.

On the stands are biography books of Tongan legends such as Jonah Lomu and Valerie Adams.

Mrs Corbett said she hoped the library inspired the village locals, and especially the kids, to dream big.

“I feel really happy to see the reaction from the community, understanding why it’s important to have books. It’s opened them up to another world,” she said.

“It’s been a tough road and it’s been hard work but now we’re nearly there and I’m happy that we’ve done something for the community.”

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