Tonga faces a long road to recovery, with almost 85% of the country’s population affected by the violent eruption and tsunami last weekend, and many areas still scrambling to restore basic necessities. Sela Jane Hopgood shares her experience of helping her family pack supplies to send to relatives in Tonga.
On the Wednesday following the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano eruption and tsunami in Tonga, my dad’s family started a group chat that included all the first cousins and their partners. It was called “‘Aholelei tsunami help”. We rallied together to fill up two drums, or “talamu”, full of food, hygiene necessities and toiletries for our uncle, aunties and first cousins in Kolomotu’a.
We agreed to send our supplies via the initiative created by the Aotearoa Tonga Relief Committee. Auckland mayor Phil Goff had approved for containers to be stationed at Mt Smart stadium this past weekend, to be filled with drums and supplies from people wishing to send aid to their families in Tonga. The cost of shipping was waived thanks to the generosity of Sir Michael Jones and Matson Shipping. The first ship is planned to depart Auckland on January 25 and is expected to take one week to arrive in Tonga.
On Thursday night I went to my local Pak’n Save to buy canned food, brown rice, mi goreng instant noodles, toilet paper, body wash, vegetable oil, Weetbix, biscuits, crackers, milkshake lollies and more. When I reached the checkout, the worker was curious as to why my two trolleys were packed with Mt Taranaki-like piles of items. “My family was struggling with food in Tonga post-tsunami, so this is for them,” I said. I learnt from our conversation that I was one of many Tongans to come through that day doing exactly the same thing. I did notice there were quite a number of items out of stock when I went through the aisles.
That same night one of my cousins here in Auckland, Poliana Mahe, sent us updates on how the family was doing in Tonga. She managed to get in touch with family there and they sent her videos of the ashes covering their front yard and the family coming together in my aunty’s house for prayers. We couldn’t help but feel emotional seeing them there, all alive and giving thanks to God for surviving such an intense natural disaster. Mahe also shared that a lot of neighbouring houses that were damaged by the tsunami had taken refuge at my family’s home, which was thankfully still standing. My cousins in Tonga told Mahe that they were down to their last pot of food as they were feeding close to 60 people in their house. This is why our donations of food and water matter: by supporting our own family, they’ll be able to support those most vulnerable in their village.
My family planned to meet at Mt Smart on Friday late afternoon to pack the drums on site. However, live updates on the Aotearoa Tonga Relief Committee Facebook page informed us that the queue at the stadium was so big that the waiting time was three to four hours to get into the loading zone. The advice from Labour MPs Jenny Salesa and ‘Anahila Kanongata’a-Suisuiki was to come on Saturday instead.
My Saturday started at 5.50am. One of my uncles lives minutes away from Mt Smart and so we all agreed to meet at his house and then drive together to the venue. We got to the gates at eight o’clock and waited close to two hours in the queue. When we drove in to find a spot to unload, my sister-in-law said to me that the environment reminded her of Tonga with the dusty gravel roads and large families gathering together to help one another.
We packed the first 200 litre drum in minutes, putting all the canned food and other heavy items on the bottom of the barrel and then the lighter items such as packets of two-minute noodles on top, filling the drum up to the brim. We had one more drum to fill, yet a lot of items were left in the boots of our cars, so we decided to utilise the offer from Sir Michael Jones, who had donated a truckload of empty boxes. We manage to fit all our shopping from three sets of ‘Aholelei families in Auckland into two barrels and six boxes worth, once packed, over $1000. We made the most of every gap we could find inside the drums and boxes, opening up boxes of muesli bars and fitting each bar into any gap we could see. We made sure all the essential items such as flour, rice and toilet paper had a spot in the drum. The volunteers walking around helped us tape up the boxes securely and ensured all the paperwork was completed, which had to include the family in Tonga’s address and phone number and the contents inside the drum or box.
While packing, we shared stories of what our families in Tonga have been going through. We talked about how volcanic ash on the ground is being blown by the wind, causing families to close all their windows and doors to stop it coming inside. People are living inside swelteringly hot houses with no ventilation and limited water until supplies from Aotearoa arrive; they’re spending most days resting until it it’s safe to go outside to clean. Tonga faces a long road to recovery, with most of the population affected by the violent eruption and tsunami that followed, and many areas still scrambling to restore basic necessities. The Tongan government released a statement saying that almost 85% of the country’s population of about 105,000 people has been affected by last weekend’s disaster.
Once our drums and boxes were sealed and had their form attached to them, we wrote the recipients’ names on the outside of each drum and box. I was filled with love and gratitude that I was in a position to support my family in Tonga and, more importantly, that they’re alive to receive the goods. We began cleaning up, and a forklift came by to pick up our drums and boxes to take inside the container.
The volunteers on the ground were efficient, friendly and approachable, which made the whole process seamless. Everywhere around us you could hear families saying to the volunteers “mālō e ngaue”, which translates to thank you for your hard work. It was a beautiful experience to see families come and go, getting their work done and then leaving in a timely manner to ensure other families waiting at the gates had a chance to come through. The families present were both Tongan to non-Tongan, which was heartwarming to see. I drove away from Mt Smart with my cup full, knowing that my family in Tonga will be able to eat and serve other families who have sought shelter in their homes.
This is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.