44 Gallon Drum

A 44 gallon drum at Tuingapapai Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga in Mangere. Photograph: Teena Brown.


In theory, Tonga’s Legislative Assembly of 26 representatives elected from the people and the nobles sat on the week of Monday 5 March to discuss Cyclone Gita’s recovery plan.  In reality, the useful detail that emerged was the country’s estimated damage.

The National Emergency Management Office (NEMO) claimed the category 4 cyclone, which struck Tongatapu and ‘Eua on 12 February, caused structural damage to homes, roads, crops, and public infrastructure projected at TOP $48 million pa’anga.

It was a moderate estimate, and one that’s contested by families sleeping in tents, if they can get them, or under tarpaulins and makeshift shelter.  Many Tongans weren’t eligible for cyclone recovery assistance from Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva’s government because they didn’t meet NEMO’s damage criteria.

Go figure.  How damaged, psychologically and in terms of physical abode, does a household unit have to be before they’re entitled for state help?  Did any critical discussion on government conditions for assistance and resource allocation come up in parliament’s debate chamber?  No.  Next question.

Let’s be honest: our nation at home and overseas has virtually given up on the political zoo of Pohiva’s second attempt at government.  We’re in a state of emergency that’s been extended to lock down Nuku’alofa until 9 April.  This is our country’s central business district (CBD).  The commercial hub of Tonga is affected by state restrictions on the movement of people and goods.  But the puzzling thing is, the Democratic Party government hasn’t given a clear rationale as to why it’s needed.

To the detriment of public information local newscasts haven’t centred on the people’s wellbeing after the cyclone, both mental and physical.  Put bluntly, this is Pohiva’s chaos politics at work in controlling the media to make the cyclone aftermath disappear in the news.  So what’s replaced it?

Tonga’s Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva. Photograph: Fale ‘Alea o Tonga.



Media is preoccupied with speculating whether Prime Minister Pohiva and his son-in-law, Police and Customs Minister Mateni Tapueluelu, manoeuvred Lord Tu’ivakano and Internal Affairs Minister ‘Akosita Lavulavu into court.

The fact Police Commissioner Stephen Caldwell, a white male New Zealander, in cooperation with Attorney General ‘Aminiasi Kefu orchestrated the arrests and criminal charges adds doubt to a highly political and messy operation.

Question: did Police Commissioner Caldwell corroborate with Police Minister Tapueluelu and Prime Minister Pohiva on the arrests of two politicians? Context: Lord Tu’ivakano is a high-ranking Noble MP and former Prime Minister whom Akilisi Pohiva had it in for because he advised King Tupou VI to dissolve the last parliament, effectively removing Pohiva’s first government.  Answer: ulterior motive may crawl out of the compost in court.

Another backroom brawl reporters are engrossed with is Prime Minister Pohiva soliciting Lord Ma’afu’s resignation as Lands and Defence Minister.  Ma’afu strongly objected to the Democratic Party’s will to strip the King of his executive power and abolish the nobles’ parliamentary seats.  To cover up the party’s agenda, Pohiva’s son-in-law announced to the pro-government website Kaniva Tonga that the Prime Minister was lining up one of King Tupou VI’s children to take over Ma’afu’s job.

Stay woke, King of Tonga.  Better still, stay out of treacherous politics striking at the foundations of the Kingdom.  In the public’s eyes, Pohiva’s tactics are turning the royal household into pawns on a chessboard to make moves for the King.

If ever there was an opportune time to execute dissolution number two of the zoo, it might be now before it’s too late to save a small island state from absolute mayhem.  The softer, preferred option is that the Head of State brings about a second parliamentary ballot for a new Prime Minister and government by being firm with the Head of Government that in the best interests of stabilizing Tonga’s leadership and direction, he must resign from office.

Na’a Malu on the forklift loading a container at Tuingapapai Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga in Mangere. Photograph: Teena Brown.


Conscientious New Zealand Tongans who’ve maintained real connections by holding on to homes, properties, citizenship, and village ties in Tonga have no time for ‘Akilisi Pohiva’s shenanigans.  We are working hard to fill containers with 44 gallon drums of mostly food and water to ship home and save ordinary Tongans from disaster politics.  People have been made vulnerable to a political cyclone and it’s our social responsibility to care for them when government and parliament are consumed by internal warfare.

To fill a 44 gallon drum costs NZD $500.  The price of the drum itself is NZD $30.  We’re talking basic food items for post-Cyclone Gita survival in Tonga without power, running water, and money to buy provisions in short supply in local shops – flour, sugar, rice, noodles, cabin bread, tinned fish, corned beef, and bottled water.

60 x 44 gallon drums is the standard way to pack a 20 foot container.  But for Tongan migrants in Auckland whose families in Tonga have told them of the situation in their village and of people’s suffering, they’ll use every inch of space in a 20 footer.  That’s 70 drums plus plastic bins, wooden boxes, and bags.

Tongans will stack a container to the ceiling just so the precious cargo gets home to feed desperate families.  It’s the thought of hungry children and the elderly who may not have family there to care for them which tugs on the heartstrings.

Each container we sent from Auckland Tongans is priced at $50,000 NZD.  Our three shipments are valued at NZD $400,000.  And if you sat at Nuku’alofa wharf counting containers offloaded fortnightly from Auckland, you’re looking at millions of dollars of love for a small island Kingdom pouring into Tongan villages.

44 gallon drums of food and water for Ma’ufanga village on the Estate of Lord Fakafanua. Photograph: Teena Brown.

The Pohiva government understood the remittance system.  Struggling to pay the country’s mounting debts, the current regime knew that Tongans overseas donated one-third of national GDP.  The biggest donors are the New Zealand Tongans who number at 60,000 strong and are the Kingdom’s most frequent visitors on a two-hour 50 minute flight from Auckland.  A short-term bandage to wrap around a broke economy, remittances work as an informal economy.

Cyclone Gita prompted the Tongan state to open the border with a 6-month tax and duty exemption on food, water, building materials, and clothes.  The instant result is that bureaucrats at the Ministry of Revenue can count the constant flow of relief containers and grateful families on the receiving end.

Question: is this system of short-term relief sustainable?  Yes and no.  It all depends on whether the New Zealand government as well as international not-for-profit organisations like New Zealand Red Cross take their own policy advice and engage with communities such as Auckland Tongans delivering humanitarian aid.

See for our community relief project of sending 8 x 20 foot containers in three shipments on the 3rd, 14th, and 22nd of March organised by Melino Maka, Teena Brown, and Teena’s father Semi Pulu, the outside support we got was from the private sector.  Sir Michael Jones of Reef Shipping at Matson Group donated the containers and the shipping from Auckland to Nuku’alofa wharf, free of charge.

Everything else we did ourselves with our Auckland Tongan people.  The organising committee picked up the costs incurred for road transport of the containers to the wharf, purchasing locks for the containers, and transporting an extra forklift to the container site to load.  Tuingapapai Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga in Mangere provided a loading site, a forklift, and manpower along with a key community member Na’a Malu.

The community were mostly from the Nuku’alofa District and Hahake District.  They supplied the drums of food and water for families and villages.  On the Tonga end of the operation we had two MPs, Siaosi Sovaleni for Tongatapu 3 and Lord Nuku of Kolonga.  They gave their time and resources to organise deliveries at no cost to senders or recipients.

And that’s what makes Tonga a great little Kingdom to come from: the power of a people who share the collective belief that when disaster strikes, we pool our resources to help our people in need.

Auckland Tongans packing 44 gallon drums at Tuingapapai Free Wesleyan Church in Mangere. Photograph: Teena Brown.

There’s two points that need to be noted with the New Zealand government and New Zealand Red Cross.  First, New Zealand profited from our community relief project not Tonga.  NZD $400,000 was the cost to Auckland Tongans for filling 8 x 20 foot containers with food and water.  All of that money was paid to the New Zealand government for goods and services tax (GST) and private businesses for the items purchased.

Second, it’s ironic that New Zealand Red Cross states in its International Strategy 2015 – 2018 that “we will not be able to build upon our history of successful international contribution without new ways of working and new relationships.”  Our community relief project fits the criteria for “new ways of working” to deliver our “own responses to humanitarian challenges” Tonga faces.


As a Pacific nation, already experiencing the negative impacts of climate change, we need to build long-term, significant partnerships in our region.  These include relationships with Pasifika communities in New Zealand and working with the Pacific Red Cross National Societies as they set their own responses to humanitarian challenges their countries face.

New Zealand Red Cross


Because here’s the thing: New Zealand Red Cross and the New Zealand Government don’t really support our community humanitarian aid.  They want Tongans in New Zealand to donate money to Red Cross and Oxfam.  Why would we do that when we can give our money straight to our families, our blood, our villages, not to an organisation where our kinfolk don’t get the food and water they need.  It makes no cultural sense to us.

Ma’ufanga village in Auckland trucked their 44 gallon drums for loading into containers at Tuingapapai Free Wesleyan Church in Mangere. Photograph: Teena Brown.

One Tongan politician remarked that Tongan New Zealanders are the de facto NZ Aid.  True that.  Our people in Tonga are not self-reliant.  Cyclone recovery means they depend on their overseas kinfolk to provide for their basic needs of food, water, shelter.

They can drain us too, financially and emotionally.  Because it’s migrants who were born and raised in Tonga, not the NZ-born Tongans, who send money and goods home.  The Kingdom of Tonga will always be home for migrant Tongans.  But as a collective in New Zealand, they’re working class not middle class or wealthy.

In Tonga, ordinary people know foreign aid donors and their own government aren’t going to save them on small, poor, politically unstable, environmentally damaged islands.  They’ve stopped praying for Pohiva’s government to find redemption from nepotism, corruption, and chaos.

In these despairing times, what they’re thinking is call 0-800-Family-In-NZ.  Because they know, we will do everything we can to provide for their needs.  We will never abandon our families and villages, nor forget where we come from.

To both governments, New Zealand and Tonga, you should reset your attitude and respect Tongans in New Zealand a bit more.  For the simple reason that we provide an effective disaster management service based on a direct line of communication with grassroots villages and their immediate needs.  They need food and water first and foremost.  Why was this basic humanitarian right not delivered by an army of government and non-government donors?

Reef Shipping of Matson Group donated the containers and the shipping free of charge. Photograph: Teena Brown.

Our final word is in photographs.  These shots by Melino Maka are of his home area in Hahake District, which comprises of 23 villages.  Melino was the Tongan community delegate on the New Zealand Prime Minister’s visit to four Pacific states, Tonga being one of them.

He took time out of the official tour to go home to Hahake and see for himself the cyclone damage and how it’s affected his people’s lives and livelihoods.  Why wouldn’t he?  As the community representative for Tongans in New Zealand it’s his responsibility to engage with real people on the ground.

When you claim to be a community leader you must have trusting and sustainable relationships with villages and communities to produce work that benefits their development.  You can’t just talk about Tongans in speeches, policy, parliament, and on paper.  Talk means nothing without action.

7 March, Women's leadership breakfast, Tanoa International Dateline Hotel, Nuku'alofa. Photo: Melino Maka

Director NEMO, Leveni 'Aho at NEMO Warehouse. Photo: Melino Maka

PM meets the Northpower Tongan lines mechanics rebuilding the electricity network. Photo: Melino Maka

National Cultural Centre with local youth groups. Photo: Melino Maka

Holonga village GPS. Photo: Melino Maka

Captain Cook's Landing Site, 'Alakifonua. Photo: Melino Maka

Tatakamotonga FWC. Photo: Melino Maka

Lapaha. Photo: Melino Maka

Paepae 'o Tele'a. Photo: Melino Maka

Talafo'ou FWC. Photo: Melino Maka

Nukuleka GPS. Photo: Melino Maka.


Dr Teena Brown is an anthropologist and senior lecturer in the Faculty of Maori and Indigenous Development at Auckland University of Technology.

Melino Maka, chairs the Tongan Advisory Council in Auckland, New Zealand and publishes the news and current affairs website, tonganz.net.

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