And so I went to teach

Kirin Gupta - Ecuador

July 28, 2011

An artist who bridged the distance from Nuku’alofa, Tonga to Washington, D.C.

Having begun with Global Citizen Year, a new sort of awareness prompts me to take second glances in places where I would not customarily look carefully. It is something to be grateful for, I am sure, for beyond that understanding, once it can develop, stretch endless possibilities. If we can hold on to a desire to know, and a desire to make change, then we can learn to see the way Mele, an inspiring visitor from Tonga, has taught me, today. And that is the kind of sight any global citizen strives for.

Mele Vaikeli, who spent the past few weeks at Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival demonstrating Tonga’s traditional craft of weaving, is a teacher who is a lesson unto herself. And I talked to her, today, for too long to not want to tell her story in some small way. Some people have the power to inspire without so much as a second thought.

She began teaching during her first year of university, she said. A man who was in charge of several teachers around where she had studied in Tonga approached her during her first year and asked if she would be willing to teach at a middle school desperately in need of teachers. She said she couldn’t, she was sorry, and that she wanted to finish her education.

Then, she said, “I began to think, this is a decision I must make not for me – not for me, just me, alone – but something that affects many, many people. And so I went to teach.”

It was 1986. The middle school had a class of a little over 1,000 kids. She taught, for four years, to a group of children who she knew needed her. Then she took a year to return to her home. She returned to take lessons and materials to a pre-school she knew, and was shocked to find, when she asked around about it, “that it was dead.”

It would be impossible, though, to let that stand – considering the way she spoke, I do not think it even crossed her mind to leave the situation alone. Mele told them she needed a kindergarten, so she made that happen. The kindergarten came up and she taught there. She went on, without completing a formal education of her own, to teach for years, until 2002, when she “retired” to begin a new project.

“I finally learned to weave,” Mele said, in English that has surely become more polished in the past nine years. And it was a passion of a new kind. She learned the traditional weaving styles, she says, indicating the mesh rugs hung on display. The number of such rugs that one can lay around the house, or at a funeral, or at the traditionally extravagant 21st birthday of a girl is an indication of wealth in Tonga.

Mele has invented new, culturally significant and artistically adapted styles of weaving that have sold many items in the Langafonua Gallery and Handicraft Centre, a market for female artisans who wish to make a livelihood from their traditional craft. “I am on the Women’s Council, now,” Mele told me, with a touch of well-deserved pride. She is also renowned for her stylistic adventurousness in Tonga, and has been working with the Peace Corps for the past few years to expand the business opportunities of women who wish to turn a profit from their handicrafts that can help support their families.

A new kind of venture in her work with weaving has begun recently – since she arrived in Washington, D.C., for the Folklife Festival in Smithsonian Square. She was lucky, she said, to meet an Oxford scholar, “a woman named Adrienne,” who wrote the book – literally – on such traditional art in the Pacific. Adrienne directed her to choice museum exhibits – fascinating displays of woven work from Tonga and other Pacific countries and islands that dated back thousands of years. “This is product we don’t have even in my country. This is a style long forgotten; that women don’t know how to do anymore,” Mele explained, her excitement about this discovery clear in her wide smile.
So she has taken it upon herself to bring it back to Tonga. She has been transcribing this ancient art by “making a basket of [her] own, after six hours of studying the weave.” This is how she will take back to her country an art form that has been lost for centuries, and that she managed to find in a country born only 235 years ago.

“I will show you how to weave,” she promised those who visited her station at the outdoor festival. “Well, today, okay. Any day other than a Sunday. For all this work, we must have rest on Sunday; at least one day. You should tell your government to let you try that.” Even the group of DC-tourists, standing behind us in a brief respite from running from one stall to another at this festival, had to smile at this.

“I am the one from the Pacific that is here for the Peace Corps. All these other countries, near Tonga and Fiji, and it is Tonga that gets to represent them all! Imagine!” Mele’s enthusiasm is infectious, of course, and is what has caused her to continue working to this day, despite a supposed “retirement” from her first career years ago. Tonga, all 169 islands, is certainly easy enough to find on a map, to point out amongst the Pacific islands, but most of us would have a difficult time putting a human face on the archipelago. Mele, for me, was this face. Mele, who, despite all her work with weaving, still introduced herself as a teacher. I have to say, that seems far more appropriate.

Kirin Gupta