Women ‘ignite a fire’ to keep cultural traditions alive

This RNZ.co.nz story is republished with permission

A Tongan community group in New Zealand hope their efforts to make koloa, or cultural treasures, inspires other Pasifika community groups to explore and preserve their own cultures.

A majestic example Tongan ngatu dedicated by one of the matriarchs of the Akomai Heritage Group to her sons' love of Kava drinking.
A majestic example Tongan ngatu dedicated by one of the matriarchs of the Akomai Heritage Group to her sons’ love of Kava drinking. Photo: Artwork by Akomai Heritage/ Photograph RNZ Pacific/Koroi Hawkins

Akomai Heritage have recently completed a week-long interactive exhibition of the inner workings of a koka’anga (ngatu-making work party) with sprawling exhibits of beautiful finished pieces of Tongan ngatu or bark cloth and other koloa at the Te Papa museum in Wellington.

One of the founders of the group, Kaufo’ou Katoa-Taulata, said it stemmed from a desire to strengthen connections to their Tongan culture.

“Ngatu is embedded in every fibre of our culture and our heritage,” Katoa-Taulata said.

“We are born into ngatu and we are buried with ngatu. We celebrate with ngatu and we also mourn with ngatu,” she said.

Pounding the hiapo (mulberry tree) bark one of the first stages of making ngatu.
Pounding the hiapo (mulberry tree) bark one of the first stages of making ngatu. Photo: RNZ Pacific/ Koroi Hawkins

Kaufo’ou Katoa-Taulata said their journey of rediscovery began in 2017.

“This started three-and-a-half years ago when we, the women’s fellowship of the St John’s Uniting Church, came together and we started doing little displays and little workshops and little heritage jobs.”

Katoa-Taulata said they started out learning how to make ceremonial baskets and blankets.

“Then we started thinking, ‘let’s go bigger; we have seen these smaller things being made overseas but we haven’t seen a ngatu being made outside of Tonga’, the real authentic ngatu.”

To help realise this vision Katoa-Taulata said they reached out to the elders in their own families.

“We have the resources and the knowledge of our mothers who are gold and so we decided, ‘let’s use our mothers to the fullest and to the best of their capacity’ while they are still alive and strong enough to impart that knowledge to us.”

Katoa-Taulata said that is how the name Akomai Heritage was chosen. “Literally it is the cry to say ‘mothers teach us. Teach us to know and teach us to teach others’.”

Melesiu Katoa of Tatakamotonga village in the Niua Islands says she is happy to be passing on a lifetime of ngatu making experience to younger generations of Tongans.
Melesiu Katoa of Tatakamotonga village in the Niua Islands says she is happy to be passing on a lifetime of ngatu making experience to younger generations of Tongans. Photo: RNZ Pacific/ Koroi Hawkins

And there are many others, of all ages, involved in Akomai.

The group’s entire ngatu making process from the pounding of the hiapo (mulberry tree bark) to the rubbing, joining and dyeing of the feta’aki (bark paper) on the papa (convex table) covered with kupesi (pattern boards) to the final painting of the ngatu involved three generations of Tongan families.

One of the teenage contributors, Daphnie Katoa, said at first she did not understand the significance of what she was being taught.

“When we first started, I was like ‘what is this for? I don’t need to be here. I don’t know how to do it’ but then as we went on I realised that the reason for our weekly gatherings for this koka’anga was to teach us so that we can carry it on and teach other people.”

Now Katoa said she feels blessed to have taken part.

Daphnie Taulata (Left) performs a Tongan cultural dance at the Te Papa Museum in a costume made of ngatu or bark cloth. Wellington February 2021
Daphnie Taulata (Left) performs a Tongan cultural dance at the Te Papa Museum in a costume made of ngatu or bark cloth. Wellington February 2021 Photo: RNZ Pacific/ Koroi Hawkins

The largest ngatu on display at the Te Papa exihibition was the church launima almost 23 metres in length and four metres in width.

It was so long it that it was only stretched out to its full length for the opening of the exhibition.

Most of the designs and geometric patterns on the ngatu displayed were distinctly Tongan such as the floral motif called the koesei, the kingdom’s coat of arms and the kanoa.

Fusion of two cultures

But there was one ngatu, a 12-metre piece, that had a unique blend of Tongan and Māori symbolism.

The artist behind this creation, Mele Tonga-Grant, said she made it for her children who are of both Tongan and Māori descent.

“This piece is in dedication to my children and their whakapapa where they come from. So a lot of the Māori motifs that I have used are from the iwi that their dad comes from,” Tonga-Grant explained.

“So I have got the niho taniwha that speaks to Te Aro Kairangi and the story of Whātaitai Ngake. So those stories but then also like we have come in from Tonga.”

Tonga-Grant said she felt it was important for her children to embrace both cultures.

“Because a lot of people like ask my kids, ‘are you Tongan or are you Māori?,” she said.

“It’s like why can’t you be both? And why can’t you embrace both and show both in the way that we do things and in our art as well?”

Mele Tonga-Grant created a ngatu with both Tongan and Maori motifs as a tribute to her children who are of both Maori and Tongan descent.
Mele Tonga-Grant created a ngatu with both Tongan and Maori motifs as a tribute to her children who are of both Maori and Tongan descent. Photo: RNZ Pacific/ Koroi Hawkins

Tonga-Grant said she hopes to be able to pass on the knowledge of koka’anga and the ngatu making process to her children just as her mother has passed it on to her.

“It is so important to instill in them those connections, those deep-rooted values that we have culturally in both areas and I don’t ever want to lose any of that,” Tonga-Grant said.

“Because that helps to shape the way that we think; the way that we do things and the way that we move as well as Pacific people.”

The knowledge being passed down through the Akomai Heritage is coming from the Masila sisters from Nuia Fouo and Tatakamotonga in Tonga.

Seventy-year-old Melesiu Katoa is one of the sisters. She said she has been making ngatu for as long as she can remember and that her mother was her teacher.

“I started learning when I was three years old beating with the tutu and learnt how to do the koka’anga at home.”

She said passing on the knowledge meant a lot to her.

“I am very happy. Even when I pass away I have already passed on my knowledge to my Akomai group and they can pass it on to all my children and all my mokopuna and anybody who wants to learn how to make the tapa.”

Steady hands in the final stages of Tongan ngatu making, adorning the ngatu with intricate Tongan symbols and designs.
Steady hands in the final stages of Tongan ngatu making, adorning the ngatu with intricate Tongan symbols and designs. Photo: RNZ Pacific/ Koroi Hawkins

Curators of the Akomai exhibition at Te Papa said thousands of people visited and interacted with the Tongan community throughout the week of the exhibition earlier this month.

Kaufo’ou Katoa-Taulata said it was an honour to be able to share Tongan culture with people from all different nationalities and cultural backgrounds.

She said many who came through were very hands on, taking part in demonstrations of the different stages of making ngatu and she hopes they left inspired.

“I think Akomai hopes that we will ignite some kind of fire in other Pacific and other Tongans to carry on this project or this vision wherever you are in the world.

“As long as you have the passion and the drive we can maintain and practise our cultural heritage.”

Mele Kaufo'ou Katoa-Taulata one of the founding members of the Akomai Heritage group.
Mele Kaufo’ou Katoa-Taulata one of the founding members of the Akomai Heritage group. Photo: RNZ Pacific/ Koroi Hawkins

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