Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Casualties of the Tidal Wave

Epeli Hau'ofa's Tales of the Tikongs gives readers a glimpse of life on the tiny South Pacific island of Tiko.  The book's format is atypical.  With each chapter, Hau'ofa provides a short but thorough look at one character or inhabitant of Tiko.  Readers learn the brief background and history of each citizen, who he is related to, how he makes of doesn't make his living, and ultimately his reaction to the incoming "tidal wave of D-E-V-E-L-O-P-M-E-N-T."  The use of this format allows Hau'ofa to provide a wide range of perspectives on the influence of development.  The format is reminiscent of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, and therefore might have yet another purpose.  Calvino presented concise descriptions of many different cities in order to finally illustrate that it did not matter which individual city was being described, they were all fundamentally the same.  Similarly, Hau'ofa creates vivid portraits of many different characters, but there are commonalities shared between all of them.  Each character either exhibits an aversion to development or sacrifices his "original sense of self-respect" and culture as a result of development (Hau'ofa 93).  The character of Ole Pasifikwei acts as a good summary for much of Hau'ofa's message.  Through these humorous portraits, Hau'ofa is able to show the costs of development and provide serious a warning for the future.
The book's final chapter, "The Glorious Pacific Way," shows most directly the effects of development on a native person.  Hau'ofa effectively uses humor and general absurdity in his descriptions of the interactions bewteen Ole Pasifikwei and Mr. Harold Minte.  Ole is clearly intended to represent the "old Pacific way" as cleverly illustrated by his name.  Ole, who collects oral traditions, is singled out by Minte to receive financial assistance for his project which aims to "preserve the Pacific way".  In their absurd first encounter, Minte tells Ole the foolishly complicated process he must go about in order to receive funding for his project:  "Things are never quite that simple, you know.  We have money to distribute, but we can't give it away just like that.  We want you to ask us first".  After this encounter, Ole is "disturbed" and "feel(s) reduced" (84).  He cannot quite grasp why he must go through such a prescribed process to obtain the money that Mr. Minte has already promised to him.  Minte and the MERCY organization have imported this overly complicated process, which is foreign to the Tikong way of getting things done.  In a later episode, Ole asks for a typewriter that he would presumably use to document the oral traditions of Tiko.  This is, to Minte, a ridiculous request, because a typewriter is not "directly relevant" to Ole's needs.  Hau'ofa's portrait of Minte creates a very unflattering picture of civilization and development.  Minte's actions are humorous because they completely illogical and silly.  Yet Ole must do things Minte's way, if he wants to receive his funding and thus be developed.
Ole seeks the help of a friend, Emi Bagarap, to find out how to properly work with Minte.  Self-respect is what is preventing Ole and Mr.Minte from understanding each other's needs, because Ole is reluctant to abandon the Tikong way of life.  Through Bagarap's adive to Ole, Hau'ofa provides funny but alarming insight into what Ole must do to receive proper aid and funding:  "Self-respect is a luxury we can't afford; we have no choice but to shelve it for a while.  When we're developed, then we will do something about dignity and self-respect..." (86).  With this advice in mind, Ole is able to effectively navigate Mr. Minte's "international games" (87).  Once his self-respect is "shelved," Ole has a "permanent role as a first-rate, expert beggar" (93).  While this seems funny, it is in reality quite alarming.  Hau'ofa portrays aid organizations in a negative light.  They are mostly concerned with getting rid of any native culture, even an individual's self-respect, so that money can be pumped into a country that needs development. 
Ole's story acts as an effective finale to Tales of the Tikongs.  It brings to the forefront one of the main issues in the novel.  If or when a Tikong gives in to the tidal wave of D-E-V-E-L-O-P-M-E-N-T, he is inevitably giving up some of his self-respect and identity.  The perks of development do not seem worth the cost.  Ole, once well known and successful, is reduced to nothing more than a beggar. Hau'ofa, through his brief portraits of the Tikongs, warns natives to retain their dignity and culture no matter what schemes or advancements face them.

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