‘Pass the ta’e please’

When I worked at the ‘Atenisi Institute, a small and poor university on the outskirts of Nuku’alofa, the capital and indeed only city of the Kingdom of Tonga, most of my Friday evenings began the same way. I would come home from my last class of the week, shower and change into a fresh tupenu (Tongan skirt) and then walk out to buy a bag of drugs with my employer’s money.

Halfway down Tupoulahi Road, on the eastern side of Nuku’alofa, I would knock on the door of a fibrolite cottage with cardboard in its windows. A small boy would open the door and wordlessly exchange ‘Atenisi’s ten pa’anga note for a bag of brown powder.

Across the road from my drug house was a yard in which dozens of concrete pillars, foundations of an invisible house, rose a few feet through weeds, and pigs gnawed watermelon scalps. Forty years ago, the yard had been the site of one of the first Fofo’anga clubs.

Fofo’anga is the Tongan word for pumice stones – light, porous, pink-white things – that wash up on the beaches of the kingdom’s 170 islands. Futa Helu, Tonga’s most important modern intellectual, thought of Fofo’anga when he set up a network of clubs where people could, in return for a small donation, sit, talk and consume kava, a drink made with cold water and the ground roots of the piper methysticum plant.

For hundreds of years, and possibly much longer, kava had been consumed by Tongan men at carefully organised ceremonies. Almost every important public event in Tonga, whether it is a wedding or a funeral or a coronation, still involves ritualised kava drinking, where highly ranked men – royals, nobles, local chiefs – are seated close to the bowl, and long, decorous speeches are made.

Helu’s Fofo’anga clubs popularised a new way of enjoying kava.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, Helu had studied at the University of Sydney, where he befriended the classicist, philosopher and political provocateur John Anderson, and became part of the circle of bohemians known as the Sydney Push.

Inspired by the boozy and disputatious gatherings of the Push and by the symposia of ancient Greece, Helu set up a new sort of kava circle after returning to Tonga in 1963. He asked his friends to sit wherever they liked around his kava bowl, and encouraged them to discuss both the political and economic problems of Tonga, as well as the philosophical conundrums he had encountered in Sydney.

Helu’s kava circle became both notorious and very popular, and by the end of the 1960s he and his followers decided that Tonga needed a set of kava clubs where thought and discussion could move as freely as the fofo’anga that float between the kingdom’s islands.

Today every suburb of Nuku’alofa and every village outside the city has at least one Fofo’anga-style club, and many have two or three. Lots of the clubs stay open all night. They also raise hundreds of thousands of pa’anga every year for charities, and no politician can hope to be elected without touring them. The Fofo’anga club that made its base on Tupoulahi Road has moved to salubrious new premises beside the sea.

After buying my bag of kava, I would carry it across Nuku’alofa. By the end of any weekday, the city’s cars and dogs and pigs had stirred clouds of dust off its coral streets. On a Friday evening, coral dust mixed with smoke from hundreds of backyard fires, as pigs turned on spits and potatoes roasted in pits in preparation for weekend feasts.

On this particular night I walked through the smoggy dusk past shack shops selling bootleg DVDs, currency exchange bureaus set up in the front rooms of old villas, and lots of buildings burnt black by the riot that destroyed a third of central Nuku’alofa in 2006. Beside the city’s main street, statues of Tonga’s kings and queens stood surrounded by razor wire. A series of steeples outreached the highest coconut palms, monuments to the fundraising skills of the kingdom’s competing Christian sects.

On the western side of Nuku’alofa’s main drag I turned down a long straight lane that ran beside a series of ponds where pigs sloshed about lethargically. The lane ended outside the two-storey Lolo Masi building, which was the least dilapidated of the dozen or so structures still standing on the campus of the ‘Atenisi Institute.

Like the Fofo’anga movement, ‘Atenisi grew from the kava circle Futa Helu established fifty years ago. Helu had studied subjects as different as philosophy, classics, English literature, opera and mathematics during his time in Sydney, and he was often asked to share his knowledge around the kava bowl. Eventually his students offered to help him build a school. ‘Atenisi is Tongan for Athens, and Helu encouraged every student he enrolled to study the Greek language and Greek philosophy, as well as Tongan song and dance.

By the middle of the 1970s, ‘Atenisi had more than a thousand students; by the end of the 1980s, it had become the base for Tonga’s pro-democracy movement. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, though, its buildings were crumbling and enrolments were falling. Paul Janman’s feature-length documentary, Tongan Ark, which was shot in the years before Helu’s death in 2010, shows lecturers addressing classes of two or three students, and pigs laying siege to a library.

‘Atenisi has not prospered in the years since Helu’s death. But like a desert stream, it sometimes comes unexpectedly and spectacularly to life. Because of its association with Helu and its reputation as a refuge for free thought and free speech, the institution is able to host events – seminars by visiting scholars, exhibitions by international artists, debates between politicians or religious leaders – that draw crowds and media coverage.


On the evening I am remembering, cars were parked outside the Lolo Masi building and bikes were leant below open windows. Inside, some of ‘Atenisi’s students had dragged a long table and plastic chairs across the concrete floor to the centre of the room, and had placed a big kava bowl and a pile of wooden cups on the table.

I emptied my kava into a filter bag held up by Tuiahai Helu, a grandson of ‘Atenisi’s founder. Helu looked like a young Will Smith, and played guitar for One in Blood, one of Nuku’alofa’s noisiest bands. Tevita Manu’atu, a nineteen-year-old with a huge Afro and a thorough knowledge of Nietzsche, poured water through the bag and the bowl began to fill with the mud-coloured national drink of Tonga.

Visitors took places around the table. A few ‘Atenisi graduates had come along to sing with current students and talk about the school’s heyday. A handful of members of the Baha’i faith had stopped in on their way to their own school’s kava circle. A dozen or so expatriate palangi – teachers, aid workers, resort managers, surfers, beachcombers – were swapping anecdotes about mosquitoes. A lanky young man in the tropical blue uniform of Sia’atoutai, the theological college run by Tonga’s establishment Free Wesleyan Church, stepped through the door and grinned, ready for another evening of arguments about the nature of the Trinity and the errors of papists and atheists.

I heard ‘Opeti Taliai and Michael Horowitz creak down the stairs from their offices. Taliai was an ‘Atenisi graduate who returned as dean after getting his PhD in New Zealand; Horowitz was a former student of Herbert Marcuse and activist in America’s New Left, who settled in Tonga in the 1990s and quickly became a friend and employee of Futa Helu.

At traditional kava ceremonies, the drug is dispensed by girls or virginal women; at ‘Atenisi, whoever sits closest to the bowl does the job. Tuiahai Helu dipped, filled and passed cup after cup; drinkers downed the kava in one gulp, as though they were taking shots of liquor, then reached for the lollies that had been scattered across the table. I bit into a jelly baby, and the bitter taste of the drink disappeared.

‘I hope I don’t have to carry you out of here, Sikoti,’ Tuiahai joked. My tongue and lips were already numb; after a few more cups my limbs would become light, and the walls of the Lolo Masi building would seem to soften and retreat.

Half a dozen of the students had begun to sing. Whenever I heard their complicated yet elegant harmonies I felt rebuked for my ignorance of the Tongan language.

‘Opeti leaned towards me and whispered an explication: ‘This is a poem by Queen Salote, about the flowers that grow in the village of Lapaha. But it’s not really about flowers. Every image has another meaning. It’s heliaki.’

To heliaki is to say one thing and mean another, quite different, thing. The technique is as common around Tongan kava bowls as it is in Tongan poetry. A kava drinker who shouts condemnations of the pro-democracy movement and praises absolute monarchical rule as a gift from God might be sincere. On the other hand, he might be using heliaki to express his admiration for democracy and his opposition to the arbitrary rule of kings and queens. A palangi could never guess the difference.


Elizabeth Bott worked as an anthropologist in Tonga, but it was only after training as a psychologist that she wrote and published a long essay called ‘Psychoanalysis and Ceremony’, in which she argued that a formal kava circle had ‘much in common with a dream’ because it protected the ‘social order’ in the same way that a ‘dream protects sleep’.

Bott claimed that, when they sat down and drank kava, Tongans were at once reminded of their unity (as members of the same culture) and of the differences that rank gave to them. All humans share feelings of simultaneously belonging and being different, Bott argued, but the contemporary West had lost the rituals that once allowed such feelings to be expressed. Tonga’s kava circles were portals into the primordial culture of all humanity. Bott insisted that kava was an extremely weak drug, and that the inebriation reported by drinkers had a psychological rather than physical explanation: the artfully fused sense of unity and difference created reverie and euphoria. Other scholars have disagreed with Bott on this point and have produced complicated diagrams to show that kava is a narcotic drug.

Bott was writing about kava in the 1960s, when Futa Helu was preparing his cultural revolution. What would she think about the chaotic egalitarianism of an ‘Atenisi kava party?

‘The rind has changed but the fruit is the same,’ ‘Opeti said. ‘Bott would be able to recognise that the modern kava party is essentially the same as the old ceremony. Both stabilise society. At a Fofo’anga club you can drink too much, call anybody anything you like, make lewd jokes, and you are protected. It is a free space, a space of escape.’

‘‘Opeti is confirming that the movement has lost its way,’ Horowitz added. ‘When this school was peaking, I’d walk into kava circles and find students talking about ideas, about Kierkegaard or Marx or Futa, or else plotting political campaigns. They wanted change, not stability.’

Manu’atu disagreed with Horowitz: ‘Kava circles are democracy in action, whatever gets discussed there. You can go to any village, talk to anyone you like at a club. What’d happen if you went into a bar in America, sat down at a table and tried talking to the strangers there?’

‘But not everyone can drink kava, can they?’ Horowitz replied. ‘In most villages, women can’t drink. Clubs follow tradition rather than challenging it. When they opened a Fofo’anga club on the lagoon recently they made a royal the guest of honour! How’s that democratic?’

‘Opeti smiled. ‘Heliaki, Michael.’

I drank another cup of kava, bit another jelly baby, and thought about a conversation I’d had with an Australian economist in Escape Café, that bubble of cool air in downtown Nuku’alofa. My interlocutor had called Tongans incorrigibly lazy. ‘Kava is the worst thing,’ he told me. ‘They drink all night, then sleep all day. What other country makes a narcotic its official drink?’

Some Tongans have joined in the criticisms of kava clubs. Eric Shumway, an elder of the Mormon community, used a radio interview to urge his countrymen to shun kava clubs and the immorality and idleness they supposedly foster.

Condemnations of kava are one aspect of an ongoing conflict, in Tonga and in many other Pacific societies, between an imported capitalism and older ways of life.

Tonga is a nation of small farmers who often rely on their extended family for labour, and who are obliged to share their harvests with family. Tongans who start businesses or snare jobs in the city are expected to distribute their profits and salaries through family networks, and to take time off to help with harvests and to drink kava with relations. Any Tongan who ignores calls to the kava bowl because of what EP Thompson called ‘capitalist work-discipline’ risks disgrace.

The riot that destroyed so much of Nuku’alofa in 2006 could be considered an episode in the conflict between capitalism and Tongan culture. Exasperated by the failure of foreign businesses to share their wealth in the Tongan way, locals took the goods they believed they deserved from shop after shop.

For every palangi who sneers at kava clubs, another celebrates them. At the end of the table I saw Kik Velt, a mathematician and occasional lecturer at ‘Atenisi, draining a cup. Velt came to Tonga a quarter of a century ago, and eventually renounced his Dutch citizenship in return for a Tongan passport. In an interview for Tongan Ark, Velt contrasted a languid and generous Tonga with the venal West. Another of the palangi drinkers was Nadia, a young Australian aid worker who had come to Tonga on a year-long contract and dreaded having to leave. ‘Tonga has solved most of the problems of human society,’ she had told me at another kava party. ‘People say the Tongans are lazy, but Tongans simply subordinate work to family, community, faith, kava – things that really matter.’

A few of the students began another song, but before they could get far the voice of Lorde surged into the room. Lorde sang from the stereo of a lurching truck, and as the vehicle got closer I recognised the graffiti on its fenders, bonnet and body.

The words ‘Tou’a Fekai’ had been painted in blue next to a drawing of what looked like a pig’s skull. A tou’a is a work party that prepares kava; the word fekai means savage or cannibal. The front of the truck carried the more reassuring phrase ‘Skool Bus’.

Shadows clung to either side of the slowing truck, then leapt towards us and turned into grinning teenage boys. One of the boys carried a chessboard; the other waved a fistful of crayons. Somebody near me laughed; somebody else swore. The members of Seleka, Tonga’s most controversial kava club, were visiting ‘Atenisi.

Many of the Seleka Club’s members are high school dropouts. The club has also become a place of refuge for outpatients of the psychiatric ward of Nuku’alofa’s hospital, and for members of the city’s fakaleiti (transgender) community. The headquarters of the Selekarians, as they call themselves, is a one-room hut beside a polluted stretch of lagoon on the edge of Nuku’alofa. A toilet bowl filled with brown liquid sits on a table in the middle of the clubhouse. When they want someone to pass them a cup of kava from the bowl, Selekarians ring an office bell and say ‘Pass the ta’e’. Ta’e is the Tongan word for excrement, and Seleka is an anagram for kasele – to excrete. Paintbrushes, crayons, and piles of tapa cloth and paper lie around the toilet bowl, and half-finished artworks are pinned to the clubhouse walls, alongside Picasso prints. A mirror ball hangs from the ceiling, and a stereo plays death metal, local hip-hop and Lorde.

The Selekarians will often stay up all night, drinking and drawing, then sleep through the morning. They then drive their truck around Nuku’alofa and its surrounding villages, offering their art to tourists and locals alike. Their shows at Langafonua, Nuku’alofa’s only art gallery, are as scandalous and well-attended as any provocation the Dadaists organised.

Tevita Latu, the founder of the Seleka Club, climbed down from the cab of the truck. His long beard was flecked with ash and paint; his bald head had a deep, lozenge-shaped scar. He was followed into the Lolo Masi building by a teenage boy solemnly carrying the club’s toilet bowl.

Latu exhibited his first paintings in 2005, the year when a strike by state employees shut Tonga down for five weeks, and 15,000 people – nearly a sixth of the country’s population – marched through Nuku’alofa demanding greater powers for parliament and fewer powers for the king. Signing himself Ezekiel, Latu covered the walls of Tonga’s capital with slogans like ‘Democracy not Hypocrisy’ and ‘One Solution Revolution’.

For conservative Tongans, Latu’s aesthetics were as shocking as his politics. After studying art in Sydney, he began to make pictures that eschewed the harmony and clarity beloved of traditional Tongan arts in favour of fragmented Cubist perspectives. He also began to juxtapose imagery from many cultures, putting Melanesian sailors in Tonga vaka, showing American cars crossing the Pacific Ocean as if it were a freeway, and giving Polynesian women an eerie, halo-like headdress borrowed from the Gwion Gwion style of Aboriginal painting.

On the day after the riot that gutted Tonga’s capital, Latu was thrown into a police cell and charged with treason. For nine days, teams of Tongan, Australian and New Zealand cops interrogated him. The Aussies and Kiwis took a coffee break whenever their Tongan colleagues decided to complement the questions with punches and kicks. The charges against Latu were eventually dropped, but he took months to recover from his injuries.

I rose to welcome Latu and the Selekarians, but noticed Horowitz gesturing from a corner of the room and went to join him in an argument with the student from Sia’atoutai. The young theologian was angry at the toilet full of kava lying on ‘Atenisi’s table, at the miniskirt-wearing fakaleiti giggling and flirting with an ‘Atenisi graduate, and at Lorde’s song about drug-taking on a tennis court. I tried to explain that the symbols and stunts of the Selekarians were acts of self-defence. When Latu announced he was setting up a kava club where he could mentor young people interested in art, his neighbours denounced his plans, and promised to nickname his establishment Kalapu Ta’e, or the Excrement Club. After being called ‘fekai’ in one of the villages they visited, the Selekarians proudly painted the word on their truck.

‘These people are reclaiming the abuse they get, just like we did in the 1960s,’ Horowitz said. ‘When Abbie Hoffman got called anti-American, he made a costume out of the flag. When the Yippies got called anti-capitalist, they dressed up in business suits and burnt dollar bills on Wall Street.’

The young man was unmoved by these rather esoteric references. ‘Setani,’ he countered, pointing at Latu, who had taken a seat near the centre of the long table, and was watching a couple of his protégés play chess. I noticed that Latu was wearing a T-shirt with a hand-painted slogan: GOD’S NOT IN. WANT TO TALK TO SATAN?

A few minutes and a cup of kava later, I decided to walk to the shop at the other end of the lane to replenish the supply of jelly babies. As I stepped out the door, a hand touched my shoulder. The theology student and an ‘Atenisi old boy were standing together in the darkness. ‘Sikoti, how can you meet with those people?’ the old boy asked me. ‘They disgrace Futa Helu. They disgrace Tonga. They can do this toilet stuff in Nuku’alofa, but in the villages they better watch out. Latu will get another beating.’

It was not only kava that made my legs shake as I walked to the store. How, I wondered, could admirers of a man like Helu wish violence on Latu? Weren’t the Selekerians simply continuing the tradition Helu had begun, when he founded his kava club fifty years earlier?


When she studied Tonga’s kava circles, Bott seemed to assume they were part of a pre-modern culture that had not changed fundamentally since James Cook came visiting. But the Kingdom of Tonga is in many ways a very modern society, in the sense that it was remade in the nineteenth century in response to pressures from technological and social change.

After unifying the country in the 1830s, King Taufa’ahau, the founder of the royal dynasty that still rules Tonga, set about breaking up feudal estates, emancipating peasants, turning chiefs into civil servants, designing a flag and a constitution, fostering foreign trade and nationalising land. Taufa’ahau gave his country a distinctive and surprisingly robust form of modernity, which is only now coming under pressure from late capitalism.

When Helu began to blend Tongan tradition with exotic palangi ideas and practices, he was following Taufa’ahau’s example. Both men were at once traditionalists and revolutionaries.

But dichotomies are appealing, and the contrast between a changeless Tonga and an impatient and wholly foreign modern world has affected not only scholars like Bott but many inhabitants of the Friendly Islands. In their different ways, the economist in Escape Café and the kava drinkers arguing at ‘Atenisi had all invested in Bott’s dichotomy. Some, like the economist and Horowitz, were aggressively critical of kava culture and of ‘traditional’ Tongan culture in general, and believed that the kingdom needed a strong dose of modernity. Others, like Taliai and Nadia, regarded kava circles as strongholds of a timeless and matchless culture that had to be defended against the outside world.

It seemed to me then, and still seems to me now, that the angry ‘Atenisi graduate and the angry young theologian had succumbed to the dichotomy between a timeless Tonga and an alien modern world. They revered the name Helu, but had forgotten the man. Like Latu today, Helu was an innovator and a syncretist. Like Latu, Helu had courted and coveted the disapproval of conservative Tongans. Now, however, the spirit of Helu seemed unwelcome at the school he had founded. ‘Atenisi suddenly reminded me of the outsized and unloved statues of revolutionary heroes – Lenin, or Bolivar, or Guevara – raised and polished by governments that had inherited and betrayed revolutions.

On my way back from the shop I noticed that Lorde had finished her performance, and that the ‘Atenisi students were harmonising again. A bell rang and someone called out ‘Pass the ta’e, please.’



Scott Hamilton

Scott Hamilton has a PhD in sociology and has published books of poetry and prose about EP Thompson, Kendrick Smithyman and himself. He blogs at readingthemaps.blogspot.com and is currently writing a book about New Zealand’s role in the nineteenth-century slave trade.

More by Scott Hamilton ›

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