Ofa Takeifanga’s Story
Ofa Takeifanga is a strong and spiritual woman who is passionate about keeping her traditional Tongan culture strong. She tells of her family story immigrating one by one to Australia in search for education and employment opportunities for themselves and their children.
Ofa’s brother To’a describes her as a woman of strong Christian faith, which is closely related to her deep, Tongan cultural values. She is generous with her family, extended family and her community congregation. Ofa along with sisters, Valeti and Tisiola, are the cornerstones of the family by keeping everyone connected. She has a strong belief in keeping the Tongan customs and culture alive in order for future generations to continue the traditional practices in some form.
During the exhibition their father Sione will celebrate his ninetieth birthday, the family’s four generations will gather for this and other significant cultural celebrations that will be documented throughout the exhibition. This new content will be added to this exhibition. All photographs and interview transcripts will contribute to State Library’s contemporary collection, reflecting Queensland’s cultural diversity, and preserving Queensland’s memory for generations to come.
Ofa is the sister-in-law of Curator Naomi Takeifanga, and they shared stories over a few cups of tea in May 2016, to reflect on their family story of what tradition means now and their hopes for their family’s future.
“Firstly is family living, family style living not just
with immediate family, but the extended family,
and that’s how we always live in Tonga.”
This is Ofa’s story about her Tradition Now.
Hello, Malo e lelei, my name is Ofa Takeifanga, I was born and raised in the Kingdom of Tonga with my three brothers and 2 sisters. Tonga is a small Polynesian nation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Our family comes from the northern most island Vava’u.
Reflecting back to when you were growing up, what did family and tradition mean to you?
Firstly is family living, family style living not just with immediate family, but the extended family, and that’s how we always live in Tonga. But then when we separated to live in our own little place with our immediate family we all want to live as a big family.
We love to go stay with our grandma and grandpa, and it’s not just two girls, it’s at least 6 girls and we stay together, live together, eat together and that’s how we look at it in our tradition in Tonga. How we all sit together and eat, all laugh together. Another thing is that church comes to us as a tradition how the grandparents pass it onto the parents and the parents pass it on to the children. And that’s a big part of us, and we don’t have a say to say we’re not going to church, we know that Sunday we go to church. We didn’t question it, it was part of our life, because we all go together, laugh together, and go to Sunday school and come back and we feel it’s not a forced thing, it’s a natural thing. It’s like a passion for us, to go to church you know, But sometimes we are lazy you don’t feel like going to church because its too early, but then we have no excuse.
What is your earliest memory of going to your grandparents?
They lived five minutes walk from our house all the girl cousins six of us would sit around and laugh together, tease each other. We loved our grandparents, they always cooked for us, always so much food for us, to feed us, and spoil us, would love to go there because their kitchen it’s always full. And that’s the same today - grandkids love to come over as grandma always cooks food for them.
Brisbane has become your family’s new home, was this move a difficult transition from life in Tonga to life in Australia? What circumstances led the family to move to Australia, who came first?
The reason for the move, the first reason is financial, my sister, Tisiola, came out first to work in 1982, then my sister, Valeti, in 1983, then my parents in 1984. I came in 1986, my daughter Cila, and then our youngest brother, To’a came out in 1987. It was difficult when I was still in Tonga, with most of the family relocated to Brisbane, I missed them very much, at the same time I was trying very hard to join them.
So the first reason was financial and then the second reason is education. Education is the main priority, in Tonga it’s hard to get a good education, it’s hard you struggle. There still is no university to this day in Tonga. We know we can come with our skills here. I applied to come to Australia in 1985 in Nuku’alofa to apply for-my entry visa here, and then when I got it, it was like going to heaven, when the Australian embassy rang me and said, you know everything is fine come and get your passport, it was one of the best days of my life, I was going to be reunited with my family.
Was gaining residency to Australia a difficult process?
Oh yes, because you need to sit for an interview, an English test and you have a skill to bring, and with that the skill, the people who sponsor you need to find you a job in that area. My brother To’a was fine to come and study, but for me it was hard.
I arrived here on the 16 May 1986, and went to work on the following Monday, then in December I applied to teach here, and they said no, but they approved for me to go and study, so I spent the next 3 years studying early childhood. I felt privileged to go and study, back in Tonga the way you are taught is no comparison to Australia, there is a big knowledge gap.
My daughter Cila was nine when we arrived, always a smart girl and she stayed in the same grade, and made great friends.
Did you find it a difficult transition?
The only difficulties here was not having my own home to live, you need to squeeze in with a lot of family members. Then from there we moved to a flat with To’a when he arrived. It was a difficult but rewarding transition. And I missed friends and relatives in Tonga that we left behind, but all my closest family were here in Brisbane.
How did you find Brisbane residents when you first arrived?
I never found it hard, I met and worked together with a friend, and that’s how I was exposed to many good people. It was very interesting, I never thought that I would fit in with these kinds of people, back home it was always teachers and family, but here I was exposed to a lot of different kind of people. She was the director of a childcare facility at West End. We connected very well as soon as I arrived, and with my nature of being very friendly, it was easy with her help to fit in well with her and her friends. And she really helped me a lot, and with my study too. I couldn’t believe how we connected.
How have you kept your traditions going in Brisbane, how have you kept your culture alive?
Initially it was through working with Youth Group, with church I was heavily involved with the youth activities, taking my daughter Cila there when she was young, and they did lots of traditional dancing. The church was already set up as a Tongan congregation in the same spot we are still today at South Brisbane. The youth leader set it up so the kids can learn the traditional aspects of Tongan culture, including traditional dress, food preparation, entertainment, all spoken in Tongan. It was run very similar to how it would have been run in Tonga.
Has religion played a role in this? If so can you talk about how celebrating your family spirituality and your community spirituality has kept your culture alive?
We always gathered on Fridays and Sundays at church, fundraising, performances, still practicing traditional Tongan dance and song. We always accept any opportunities to showcase the culture, if the group is invited to perform at any festival, they are always very happy to, multicultural festivals, and we also display our beautiful crafts.
Fa, my niece, is the first female Tongan Uniting Church Reverend in Queensland, it was a calling for her. The way she dresses also proudly shows that she is a Tongan with her traditional dress. She shares the Tongan culture with her congregation. She also brings Tongan music into the church, at Christmas time she invited the Tongan band and choir to perform traditional Tongan songs.
Looking to the future, are you confident that your Tongan heritage will still be celebrated here in Brisbane?
I’m not too sure, with our generation, the sisters and To’a feel that that will be it for the future and then our children and grandchildren will be more westernised. For example with weddings and funerals, see weddings now they try to ease up the Tongan way, and also the funeral, traditionally wedding celebrations go for a number of days, and funeral proceedings go for a week. We feel that when Grandpa and us are gone that the traditions will not be continued, we do believe that. It’s hard for my grandkids with different influences and the way they are brought up. And the emphasis put on the importance of their western culture. That’s how I look at it.
Language and culture: Language is a big barrier, only a few of the grandkids can speak Tongan fluently, my grandson asked me the other day if I think it’s important for him to learn Tongan, and I said, “Oh yes, you never know, its important to learn different languages, Grandpa can’t speak English,” so I said it’s important to learn the basics to start with so you can talk to Grandpa. I told him it’s important for his identity as a Tongan. Language is important for the connection to culture. I hope that the children are proud of being Tongan and they need to learn more about the Tongan culture, because it’s a very interesting and rich culture. And that’s my wish for my two grandsons. Tongans don’t have the materialistic things, money, etc but they are rich in their hearts. I’ve told them not to underestimate the Tongan people, they create things from the land, and survive of making things with their hands.
Are there any other stories you would like to tell that speak of your traditions now and into the future? Perhaps you can share a day growing up in paradise?
Back in those days we had paw paw trees around the house, father had to go to the bush and bring food and then we have our own little farm with chickens and pigs with no fences. Whoever is farming, like my Dad’s brother is a very strong man, grows banana plantation, when the ships come they would be shipped to New Zealand, but our kitchen was always full of bananas, full of sweet potato, from him. Then the rest of the family help. One of my grandfathers he was a fisherman he would always go fishing and bring back heaps and heaps of fish and share amongst the family, it was so amazing, I look back to those days when we shared everything. And because we didn’t have a fridge or freezer to put all those things in to keep longer, no, that’s why everything was shared as well, a beautiful way of living in those days.
But now its more westernised in Tonga, with fridges, so now family’s tend to stockpile more, but that’s how my memory was in those days.
My father was always the cook, mum was always making something in handicrafts, and washing and ironing. She was a dressmaker and made almost all of the clothes for the family, she also embroidered, in fact any handicraft you name she could do it. She wove beautiful fine mats, and she made quilts. She made everything, when we remember her, we were so lucky we had such a creative mother. Recently my grandson ripped his pants, and I tried to fix it like my mum would have, but I couldn’t do it. To’a learnt from mum, he watched her sewing everything, she was a very smart and creative woman. She used a needle like magic, creating very fine work.
Mum developed asthma when I was born, which was eventually what she passed away from, but she did everything for us. If I ever needed to pay for anything I couldn’t afford like school fees, mum would sell her beautiful handiwork to make the money. We adored her in so many ways, but not one of us can even make a dress! Maybe one day I will sit down and channel her and do it right. She would love to see all her grandkids now.
That’s how we get our food, fishing and the land, you go to the ocean you can find anything there, you go to the bush lots of farmland rich soil, and then all the produce we would get from our animals. The weaving and handicrafts makes good money, from the seeds of the trees, from the leaves, shells from the beach, they can go and collect anything, using their brains and hands together to gain money, handicrafts now in Tonga are more valuable. It’s a source of trading.
So that is a little part of my story, to add one last comment, I feel that family togetherness is the most important thing, the most important thing to feel we belong, and to feel part of a bigger community.