Tonga Red Cross Society: Counting shadows

Published: 30 March 2006 0:00 CET

Catherine Lengyel

It is the smile of a mother – deeply caring, all-enveloping and unconditional. Ospeti moves his head, albeit with great difficulty, and smiles in response. It is as if a ray of sunshine has entered the dark cramped quarters of this simple home on the outskirts of Nuku’alofa, the capital of the Kingdom of Tonga.

Ospeti is severely disabled and has been since birth. He is now twenty-two years old. Most of his days are spent lying helplessly in a bed that is brightened only by the vivid red quilt that adorns it. The family is relatively lucky: there is a hoist, which enables them to lift Ospeti from the bed and place him into a wheelchair – amenities not often found amongst the disabled of Tonga. As a result, Ospeti gets to go outside, perhaps as ‘often’ as once a month. This depends largely on the availability of his brother because, try as she might, his mother is too old and limited in her own mobility to attempt such a task. Any assistance that Ospeti may require depends solely on the family. And Ospeti is lucky because he is not shunned.

In Tonga, there are few formal mechanisms in place for caring for the disabled. The Tonga Red Cross Society (TRCS) is the only organization to provide whatever minimal services are available. This includes the ‘Ofa Tui ‘Amanaki Centre for Special Education, as well as the Hearing and Speech Impaired Unit, both of which are situated on crown land alongside the Red Cross headquarters and have been folded into the TRCS’s operations since 2003.

There is also a Residential Centre for adults with disabilities – the Alonga Centre – which can accommodate twenty-five residents. All of these facilities are located in Nuku’alofa. People living in outlying areas and on the remote outer islands of Tonga simply have to make do on their own.

For many families, this is a heavy burden to bear - financially, emotionally and often, socially. Severe disability, whether physical or mental and especially in children, is ‘tapu1’. Children attending the ‘Ofa Tui ‘Amanaki School are referred to derisorily as ‘OTAs’, and are mocked by their peers.

But at least they get out twice a week and receive some education. This is not the case for most. Many of the country’s disabled are hidden away, mere shadows cowering behind the walls of a deeply-ingrained sense of shame.

It is shadows such as these that Fine and Lisiate are chasing today, as part of a Disability Identification Survey being carried out by the Tonga Red Cross Society, thanks to funding from Inclusion International with the support of New Zealand’s International Aid & Development Agency (NZAID).

Fine is the Head Teacher at the ‘Ofa Tui ‘Amanaki School, who first got involved with the disabled as a Red Cross youth volunteer some thirty years ago. Lisiate is eighteen years old and a newly-recruited volunteer.

The two are a study in contrasts but make an effective team, as they traipse through back gardens and across makeshift fences from one home to the next, sending mottled tan-and-black piglets scurrying underfoot, scrambling for cover amongst mounds of discarded coconut shells.

Fine’s voice rises and falls in cadence with a rhythmical ‘tap-tapping’ resonating from all sides, as villagers hammer out the locally-made Tapa cloth. She deftly raises all of the questions covered by the survey – some of which are quite personal in nature. Sitting cross-legged on the mat to one side, Lisiate neatly ticks the appropriate boxes before obtaining the respondent’s signature of consent. Most people seem happy – one might even say relieved – to talk.

Immediate needs are noted and Fine promises to follow-up immediately where she can, with the provision of some newly-donated wheelchairs for instance.

They are one of seven such pairs of Red Cross volunteers carrying out the survey today. They have fifteen families to visit, pre-identified by village heads and local associations, as well as based on information gleaned from other families within the community.

The situations and levels of disability being identified vary greatly. The preliminary results of a pilot survey carried out in March 2005 on the island of ‘Eua, indicate that diabetes and heart disease are major contributors to the rate of disability in Tonga. This is corroborated informally by some of the people visited by Fine and Lisiate – a number of whom are amputees as a result of complications arising from diabetes. Poor diet and what has been termed ‘cola-nisation’ are said to be amongst the causes of the alarmingly high rate of diabetes in Tonga and the neighboring Pacific island nations.

Other situations are more mundane and the needs fairly basic – if not so simple to meet. Early trends indicate that visual impairment is prominent amongst people of over forty, who would require assessment and eyeglasses. Another of the main causes of disability in Tonga is simply the aging process itself. However, due to the lack of such basics as transportation, wheelchairs and ramp access, many old people find themselves locked amongst the shadows inside their homes.

Ninety-four year-old Lupe does not seem particularly fussed, as she expertly cuts away loose strands of bamboo from a fan that she is making.

Her daughter lives with her and they also get help from children living overseas. Lupe’s shriveled legs are tucked neatly under her patterned housecoat and her eyes twinkle at the novelty of the Red Cross visit. The same however cannot be said of Kuinini, who at 80 years of age, is left to lie listlessly wasting away on a couch in a stuffy ill-lit room with no-one to talk to.

Awareness of basic needs and community acceptance are therefore some of the issues that the Red Cross is also trying to address under guise of the survey. Fine takes this opportunity to provide information on caring for the elderly. One of Kuinini’s young grandsons listens carefully, whilst the other remains fully absorbed in his video game. Her son, the main care-giver, is at work.

Although the primary aim of the survey is to identify the numbers and needs of people with disability, the Tonga Red Cross is also hoping that the process will lead to greater community awareness, as well as lay the groundwork for the development of a comprehensive government policy and appropriate legislation for people with disability.

The recently formed Disability Self Advocacy Group (Naunau 'o e Alamaite Tonga Association - NATA) is vital to this process and aims to mobilise individuals and families to speak out in order to improve the lives of people living with disabilities.

As the afternoon wears on, the Red Cross teams rush between houses, intent on concluding their allotted lists. There has been no time for lunch.

Lisiate tears hungrily at a loaf of fresh bread in the Red Cross van, which comes to pick us up at the end of the day. Fine slumps tiredly at the back, pensive. For her, there is more of an emotional commitment. She has spent so many years working for the disabled of Tonga and well knows all of the needs which remain unmet throughout the country. “I sometimes have the feeling of being accused”, she says, eyes brimming over. “We say we work for them, but I don’t know how much we feel for them”.

What is clear, however, is that these are no mere shadows to Fine.