Recognising creative talent in the Pacific Island diaspora

Profiles October 30, 2009

Kalo Foleti: Photographer, Filmmaker

The King of Tonga

I remember the day clearly when i first heard news that the King of Tonga, King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, had passed away.  It was a Monday, my mother texted me as she had just heard the breaking news on Australian radio. I was at uni, and i raced to the nearest computer to check the news headlines to confirm the news.  The King was dead.  My heart and my head raced, i needed to be there, i desperately wanted and needed to be in Tonga at this time.

I had been in Tonga only two months earlier for His Majesty’s annual birthday celebrations and Heilala week.  I was fortunate enough to be invited along with a good friend of mine and her husbands family to visit the frail King during this trip.  Having grown up in Australia I was a little unsure of the protocol that was expected when in the King’s company, so I tip toed behind the men, took my shoes off, lowered camera, and kneeled just outside the doorway of the seaside Palace that sits in the heart of Tonga’s capital, Nuku’alofa.  The Kings minders pulled back the wooden doors, and there he lay, the King, once a powerful ruler of the Island Kindom, frail, and only a shadow of his former self.  His illness emphasised by his lucid ramblings and shaky voice calling out for his minders to bring ‘Siosi’ to him, not realising that he was standing at his bedside.  The mood was sombre, yet the elders maintained a light humour with the Monarch, even sharing moments of laughter.

The meeting was short, the doors were closed, we quietly put our shoes back on and walked outside the guarded gates of the Palace grounds and into the bustling streets of the city centre.  A strange thing happened to me then.  I was overcome by my brief visit in the company of the King, and as hard as i tried to hold them back, the tears streamed down my face without really knowing why.  I had never really had a great interest in the King or been a devoted Royalist, but something about being in the presence of the King that day triggered something inside me, something more intrinsic than just empathy, more like an emotional connection to the land, to the culture, and to my heritage as a Tongan.

It was this experience that saw me negotiate a deal that had me on a flight two days later to the Kingdom of Tonga, working with the Kalonikali newspaper,  and being part of a Royal funeral of the most magnificent kind.  These are my photos.


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