What Rests On My Tongue (Lea Fakafonua) by Sisifa Lui

Your mother tongue  

Do you know what it’s like to have your lea fakafonua foreign to you?

My lea fakafonua is my mother’s first breath. The space between her inhales and exhale. A gift that was given to me but not received. My lea fakafonua is what remains of the old ways. A passage from ‘Eitumatupu’a given to his sons to remind them that when they speak, they mustn’t forget that they are Kings. The knowledge that survived the exodus from old Tonga to Christianity Tonga. My lea fakafonua is a prayer that binds me to my tupu’anga. A haven found painted between the pages of my tohitapu. It is a prayer where God is present, but I am absent. If only my jaw were not concussed by fear. If only they would plant heilalas in my throat so that when I speak, my words will grow with me too.

I was taught in school that my mouth is my fale. However, why was it that my fale lacked a home? Before the age of being able to walk, my first words were whitewashed and sanitized with English syllables. My saliva became accustomed to someone else’s lea fakafonua. I swallowed with regret and shame. Coupled with the ideals that speaking English came with ‘privilege’. So with privilege came opportunities. I felt like a tourist in my island. Learning the ABC’s instead of A E I…and by the age of seven, I realized my alphabet was as white as the paper I had written them on.

Mother-tongue. I wish I knew the embrace of my mother’s lea fakafonua. The feelings of loneliness and isolation to know that your tongue has orphaned you. A tongue that has twisted in blisters from trying and struggling even to say ‘Mālō e lelei’. Lea Fakatonga would sometimes taste like a sour faikakai being forced down my throat to avoid hiding for my lack of appreciation. As if I am not fed up with being told that I was not fed enough Tongan for my body to digest. While I had Tongan for snacks, English was my main course meal. A meal that has colonized all corners of my pearly whites.

I am a daughter of the Pacific, born and bred in Tongatapu. A child of the diaspora where our loss of lea fakafonua displaces us from our own home. I envied my classmates who could quickly answer the multiple-choice of Tongan proverbs. Meanwhile, I would internalize my own multiple choice; the criteria on what it takes to be a Tongan. Teased and troubled by my peers, I was reminded that if I couldn’t speak Tongan, then I was barely Tongan at all. To be disowned by your people. I am afraid that my education has subjugated my mind to believe that lea fakatonga is inferior. Like my ancestors, when they were subjected to think that their values were narrow and needed to be transformed. They were missionized and taught white from wrong. Every old custom and every old belief was dubbed “heathen” and sown into their minds as a lively sense of shame.

Sometimes it is a choice. Most times it is forced.

To attain those aspirations and dreams of my parents, my tongue had to immigrate with those hopes. The Tongan within me began to feel accustomed to staying mute. It is these pressures of our conservative society which need to be advocated, addressed and actioned. I wish they knew how much my lips wanted to make love to every lea’s elegance. With every taste of its vibrancy, my words wish to dance. Like the folding of my oily palms, pressing in a tau’olunga. Beautiful yet brief. Dripping in melanin. Unapologetic in its pattern. Flawless in its flow. Timeless in its measure.

Did they forget it is the nature of our culture to be confused and inconsistent and yet still powerful? Did they forget that there is beauty in not understanding? The meaning behind the lea fakafonua is beyond the rhythm of its sound.

However, the sound of my attempts alone makes my skin shed. My flesh builds a grave for me to die in. I understand my lea fakafonua is dying within my mouth. However, if only they could bury it in my roots. Drown deep within the depths of my chambers. Scan my mana and see that it is soulful – not just full of inconsistency.

If silence is the language of God, then let me speak once more. Where death is present, so is birth. When it is reborn on the third day, I hope my fale will rejoice in its blessings. It has long been awaited. At least now and not never. May my lea fakafonua rest on my tongue forever.

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