The same heart-twisting message flashes up each time: call failed. Malakai Fekitoa tries calling two different contacts — his mother and one of his six brothers — but there is not even a dial tone.
No answers. No assurances that his family, who live thousands of miles away in a small Tongan village, are safe and well. Just the sound of silence that sends a chill down the spine.
Tucked away in the Pacific Ocean, the small cluster of islands have been cut off from the outside world since last weekend. An undersea volcano triggered the biggest tsunami for decades and the impact on families is difficult to fathom. The telecommunications cable that runs beneath the ocean bed was destroyed and Fekitoa has not heard from his family since.
Malakai Fekitoa is still waiting to hear from his family following the recent tsunami in Tonga
An undersea volcano triggered the biggest tsunami for decades with Tonga now in crisis
‘The last time I spoke to my mum was the Monday before the volcano erupted,’ he says. ‘She was with my brother and my nephews, making Ta’ovala mats (traditional dress) for them to take into school. She was in a hurry because the school said you can’t buy them from the shops any more, so they had to make them the traditional way.
‘Two or three days later, I called to give the fees for the kids’ school but there was no answer. That’s normal on my island. Sometimes you don’t have credit and the calls just don’t connect. I didn’t think anything of it, but then I saw the news of the volcano last Saturday.
‘There was no warning. I was shocked. All of the communications were down. On Thursday, one of the phone companies managed to get a network for some overseas calls but I’ve tried and had no luck with my mum and brothers. Most of my family are on one of the smaller islands, Ha’apai, so it’s going to take longer to get the network back there.
‘I’ve read the news and I think they’re OK because there hasn’t been any mention of my village being hit. I’m sure they’re all good. The time difference makes things more difficult. Every time I get the chance, I try to call them. After breakfast, after meetings, before training, after training, just before you arrived here. Nothing.
Fekitoa has heard from his sister, but is still waiting to speak to his mother and brothers
‘Every day I’ve been trying to reach out. I managed to get through to my sister on the main island on Friday night. She is OK so that was a big relief, but she has not heard from our mum or brothers either.
‘She spoke about the massive shock and described how a lot of houses around the edge of the island have gone. I asked about the situation with the aid and she said it is slow because they are going to the other islands first.
‘It was just good to hear her voice. Happiness. Not knowing was the hardest part. Everyone around the world this week is praying for Tonga.’
Fekitoa has been scrolling through news articles from around the world in search of answers. The images filtering through are deeply disturbing. Islands have been wiped out, villages have been left covered in ash and warnings issued about toxic sulphur. There has been some reassurance of late, with foreign aid arriving and survivors sharing their stories, but Fekitoa can only sit and wait.
‘The worst will be a month from now. This week there are a lot of supplies coming. A big, big ship from Australia. Money from Japan, New Zealand. I’ve lived there during a cyclone and it took a couple of years for things to get back up. Those times are tough.
Fekitoa has raised £45,000 so far and plans to use the money to provide food provisions
‘My brother was one of the main contractors for rebuilding the island and it took almost a year. In Tonga, everyone works together to get back to their feet. If one home is hit harder than another, everyone gets together. Over the next few months, the community will get together, help out with buying some timber or whatever. That’s how they live. Myself and my brothers are in a position where we can help our family but others are not so lucky.’
Back at his apartment in Leamington Spa, more than 10,000 miles from Ha’apai, there are memories of Tonga all over the living room walls. The country’s shield is mounted on the wall, alongside a traditional dress and photographs of him collecting coconuts with some of his 14 siblings. They paint a picture of a heavenly oasis, a stark contrast to the current realities.
‘Our island is beautiful, calm, peaceful, friendly. One road, a few cars… you see maybe one or two an hour. There’s no stress in Tonga. Two or three police officers, a couple of doctors, a few people with shops and that’s it. My mum grows flowers and set up the only convenience store in the village. My sister set up the only ice cream shop in the island.
‘People catch fish, grow vegetables. They live off the land and the sea. The islands are all surrounded by coral so the big dangerous fish can’t come through. No sharks. It’s safe. All the islands have this dark water and then the thin blue. I would follow the older guys in with a spear to catch the fish.
‘We used to climb the palm trees to collect coconuts. Paradise. It always returns.’
Fekitoa, who plays for Wasps and has represented New Zealand, is trying to remain positive
Fekitoa has found a sense of purpose by launching his own fundraising page. That is why he has agreed to share his story. So far he has raised £45,000 and plans to use the money to provide food provisions.
‘When it comes to rugby, I switch. If I’m playing rugby, I am providing for my family. It’s my purpose. I go to training to work. I don’t go there to daydream. Straight after training, it hits you again. Back on the phone trying to find answers. Sleepless nights.
‘I don’t want to just sit and wait. What I can do is use my platform to raise awareness of what is going on and raise funds to send over supplies. The number of people who have reached out has been unreal. My agents will help call businesses to get a good price for food supplies. The better price we get, the more we can send. You want things that last, flour, rice. One massive bag of rice can last a family for months and if we buy it in bulk then it’s cheaper. With the first £40,000 we raise we can fill five shipping containers.’
Fekitoa believes the rugby world can play a significant role. For years, international teams have pilfered talent from the Pacific Islands and now is the time to give back with more than just token gestures. Changes in eligibility rules means players such as Fekitoa, who previously represented the All Blacks, can switch allegiance to represent Tonga. They can become a big-ticket item with a world of commercial opportunities to help reboot the nation’s economy.
‘Rugby players are Tonga’s biggest export. New Zealand have nine or 10 Tongan boys in the All Blacks team. Half of the Japan team are Tongans. Everyone back home wants to play rugby.
‘What’s happened will make more guys want to go and play for Tonga.
‘How can the rugby world help? Play more games in Tonga. Give more opportunities to the guys, generate commercial opportunities. It would be huge if one of the big-tier one nations played some games there. It would inspire the kids. Rugby can play a big part in the country’s recovery.’
Donate to Fekitoa’s fundraising campaign HERE