January 14-15, 2022. The southern Pacific Ocean. An uninhabited volcanic island and a submarine volcano erupt. The explosion is estimated to be 500 times the power of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima near the end of World War II.
The ensuing tsunami spreads far and wide, killer waves up to 15 meters high. Fiji, Samoa, Vanuatu, as well as New Zealand, Japan, Russia, the west coast of North and South America feel the impact.
Still, nowhere is harder hit than Tonga, a Polynesian kingdom of some 170 tiny islands, home to white beaches, coral reefs, lagoons, limestone cliffs and covered with tropical rainforests.
Tongatapu, Mango and Fonoi bear the brunt of the eruption. Thick volcanic dust and ash blanket the area, while the tsunami claims several lives. The extensive damage forces thousands of others to flee low lying neighbourhoods. Phone and internet blackouts contribute to the chaos, with shelter, food, clean drinking water and medical supplies urgently needed.
Still, amidst the chaos, there is some uplifting news. Despite widespread flooding, many recovery facilities remain operational as the clean up begins.
Significantly, even allowing for international aid to the Tongan government, the response effort is very much a home grown enterprise. Ultra strict Covid-19 policies, to hopefully keep the country free of the virus, look to ensure the borders remain closed to outside personnel.
Images of a sooty, ash covered Nuku’alofa, the capital city, take me back to my own visit to Tonga some twenty years ago. I arrive in early July 2000, set to officiate a rugby union match between the hosts and visiting USA. Little do I know that extreme weather, along with the willing nature and “can do” attitude of the native population, will feature prominently.
The plane lands at Fua’amotu Airport. It is mid day, but already gloomy given the dirty grey clouds overhead. The rain absolutely pounds down, and will not abate, not for a single second, over the next four days.
Nonetheless, the locals are unfailingly helpful, upbeat and friendly. They show me around the deep-draft harbour, fishing boats choc-a-bloc, packed with tuna and snapper. Likewise, huge ships, containers full of copra, bananas, squash, vanilla and various handicrafts, wait patiently for departure.
Also on tap is a visit to local landmarks, in this case the Royal Palace and the Royal Tombs.
Game day finally arrives. Tonga rarely hosts full international matches, and so there is considerable public interest in the fortunes of the national team. The beloved Ikale Tahi, the “Sea Eagles”, will be expected to perform. Rain or shine!
Alas, as the deluge continues, rain remains the operative word. Indeed, the playing surface at the somewhat ramshackle Tenefaira Stadium more closely resembles a rice paddy. Several inches of water cover the field and I have definite reservations as to whether the game can even take place.
However, for the 7,000 in attendance, cancellation is simply not an option. Working together furiously in a time of need, many assist in attempting to drain the playing surface. A chain gang shifts bucket loads of muddy brown water to the in goal areas, while various mops, heavy brooms and home made sweepers make an appearance.
The kickoff nears, as members of the ruling family settle in the royal box. An ambitious brass band and its waterlogged instruments produce strangled renditions of old favourites such as “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Around the Old Oak Tree”. Then come the national anthems, before the Tongan team lays down a challenge through an intimidating war dance, the Sipi Tau.
The game begins. Amazingly, making light of the horrendous conditions, both teams throw the ball around with reckless abandon. In reply, the tackling is ferocious. Nonetheless, the hosts’ first score is simply spectacular, as the fullback rounds his opposite number near halfway and heads up field. Using the ball as a type of boogie board, some ten meters out he treats himself to a splendid dive, hydroplaning first across the goal line and then all the way over the dead ball line for good measure.
In the end, Tonga wins 29-6. Along with the players, I get through the 80 minutes. I am absolutely drenched, jersey sodden, boots ruined. My ACME "Thunderer" whistle gives up the ghost just after half time and needs to be replaced. I blow up rucks and mauls quickly, keen to avoid a drowning. Move scrums where possible to “drier” areas. I give far from a perfect performance, yet, post game, the appointed assessor seems pleased enough. He overlooks some of the inevitable problem areas in search of any pluses on offer.
Indeed, the assessor’s attitude sums up quite neatly all the residents I come across. Smiling and cheerful. Looking to chip in, to find the positives, even in difficult situations, through support, resilience and togetherness.
So it does not surprise me that Tongans rally to the cause, connect and look to help, in the wake of the recent volcanic eruption and tsunami. I see exactly the same qualities, even if just a tiny snapshot, during my visit to the country two decades earlier.
In this regard, the other day I come across a quote. It suggests that when certain people are presented a bed of roses, they see only thorns. In contrast, others, though facing a tangle of weeds, see only wildflowers.
Perception therefore becomes a key to gratitude, and, by extension, gratitude becomes the key to joy.
May the people of Tonga, though full recovery will likely be a marathon, not a sprint, go well.
Wildflowers all, stay safe, healthy and happy.