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Epeli Hau'ofa : Muse, mediator and mentor

Joni Madraiwiwi
Monday, January 19, 2009

IN reminiscing about Epeli Hau'ofa following his death last week, a friend described him as "this finest Pacific Islander of our times". Those who knew him would agree.

Epeli's characteristic modesty would have questioned not only the superlative, but the term 'Pacific Islander'. He would have preferred 'Oceanian'. For Epeli recognised the vast expanse of sea that envelops us was a pathway rather than a boundary. It shaped our perspectives and defined us as island peoples: a factor we have yet to fully appreciate, acknowledge or understand.

In a very real sense, no one was better equiped to develop that outlook than Epeli. Born in Papua of Tongan missionary parents, he was more fluent in the pidgin of the area than his mother tongue. Epeli was to become conversant with several Pacific languages subsequently. He completed his secondary schooling in Tonga and Fiji, before venturing for further studies in Australia and Canada in anthropology.

The better part of his working life was spent at the University of the South Pacific (USP), where he became professor of sociology. If Papua New Guinea was his birthplace, Tonga where he originated, Suva was his home. Indulgent, he would forgive the poetic licence as he actually lived in the wilds of Wainadoi.

The mix of people and cultures in Suva captivated him. He was at ease here because he spoke fluent Fijian and had gone to school at Lelean. Epeli once confided that he was not particularly concerned about the xenophobia of the Taukei Movement or the fervour of the Sabbatarians, because he felt Suva had become too diverse to succumb to any form of extremism. That was vintage Epeli, ever the optimist.

But as an 'outsider' in Papua New Guinea, Tonga and Fiji, he valued inclusiveness and lived it as well. Epeli also spent a few years in the late 1970s as deputy secretary to Taufa'ahau Tupou IV. A nephew relates his fondness for wearing colourful ankle length sulus with shirt and gafigafi around his waist. The mutual affection he had with the late King is reflected in the latter's indulgence of Epeli's dress in a protocol conscious court, and Epeli's poignant eulogy to Tupou IV. But Epeli was only Tongan in name, he belonged to all of us.

Epeli was a larger than life figure. His beard and genial visage was reinforced by an everpresent twinkle in his eye. He had a boundless capacity for humour, as well as an understated tongue in cheek manner. Epeli never took himself seriously. His satirical novels 'Tales of the Tikong' and 'Kisses in the Nederends' poke gentle fun at us and our dealings with the world. They also convey Epeli's character in a more personal manner than his academic writings.

It is a matter of regret that his minimalist (and on occasion, slothful) inclinations prevailed, and there was no further satire. This was compounded by a casual attitude that was, at times, infuriating. Epeli was like Tu'imalila, the Galapagos turtle given Tu'i Tonga by Captain Cook, and moved at his own pace.

Epeli's most concrete memorial is the Oceania Centre for Arts and Culture at USP. A whole new generation of artists, performers and musicians flourished under his benign, yet enabling pastoral care. Tradition was not the arid, formulaic routine of what had gone before. For Epeli, it was a living, breathing organism of the present day. It drew from the past, yet was neither bound nor limited by it.

But it is in the conceptualisation of our place in Oceania, both within and beyond, that made Epeli such a towering figure. He inspired us to rethink and broaden our notions of identity in the context of the ocean that links us all. Not to jettison our heritage, but to enrich it by exploring common points of reference with others.

In this journey, Barbara his wife and companion of four decades travelled with him. It was the affirmation, support and love between them that enabled Epeli, 'this finest Pacific Islander of our times', to give so fulsomely of himself to us. There is no more fitting tribute one may give than to continue Epeli's quest.

* Joni Madraiwiwi is the former Vice President of the Republic of Fiji Islands and a friend of Epeli Hau'ofa. The views expressed are his own.

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