A poet and a teacher from Tonga

One of the longest serving staff of the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, Konai Helu Thaman is currently Professor of Pacific Education and Culture and was the UNESCO Chair in Teacher Education and Culture from 1998-2016.

Ms Thaman was born and raised in Tonga where she received her primary and secondary education. She studied at the University of Auckland (BA in Geography), Auckland Secondary Teachers’ College (Teaching Diploma), the University of California at Santa Barbara (MA in International Education), and the University of the South Pacific (PhD in Education).

She taught in high schools in Tonga and has been on the staff at the USP since 1974. She has researched and published widely in the areas of curriculum, teacher education, indigenous education, women and university management, and more recently Pacific research frameworks and education for sustainable development. She has held a number of management positions at the USP including the Director of the Institute of Education, Head of the School of Humanities, and Pro Vice Chancellor.

Ms Thaman is currently a member of the Joint ILO/UNESCO Committee on the Recommendation on the Status of Teachers (CEART) and Fellow of the Asia Pacific Centre for Educational Innovations in Development (APEID). She was a member of the UNESCO Asia Pacific Scientific Committee on Research in Higher Education and the UNESCO Global Monitoring Committee for the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD).

Konai is also a widely published poet whose work is studied by school children throughout the Pacific region and beyond; many of her poems have been translated into several languages including Chinese, French, and German. Five Collections of her poetry have been published: You the Choice of My Parents (1974); Langakali (1981); Hingano (1987); Kakala (1993) and Songs of Love (1999).

Here is one of her most famous poem, about the feelings of a woman confronted to an arranged marriage:

You the choice of my parents (Konai Helu Thaman)

You come clad in your fine mats and tapa cloth
Your brown skin bursting with fresh perfumed oil
Your eyes shining like stars in a clear night
YOU, the choice of my parents.
You will bring them wealth and fame
With your western-type education
And second-hand car.
But you do not know me, my prince
Save that I am first born and have known no other man;
I fit your plans and schemes for the future.
But you cannot see the real me
My face is masked with pretence and obedience
And my smiles tell you that I care
I have no other choice

The priest has left the altar now
And the dancing has begun;
I see myself dying slowly
To family and traditions;
Stripped of its will and carefree spirit,
Naked on the cold and lonely waters
Of a strange family shoreline
Alienated from belonging truly.

I love as a mere act of duty
My soul is far away
Clinging to that familiar ironwood tree
That heralds strangers
To the land of my ancestors
I will bear you a son
To prolong your family tree
And fill the gaps in your genealogy.
But when my duties are fulfilled
My spirit will return to the land of my birth
Where you will find me no more
Except for the weeping willows along the shore.


This portrait of Konai Helu Thaman was first published by the Pacific Community for the 70 Inspiring Women campaign, it is reproduced here (with some modifications of our own) with their permission.

The 70 Inspiring Pacific Women campaign has been produced by the Pacific Community (SPC) in partnership with Australian Aid and Pacific Women. The campaign marks the 70th anniversary of SPC, and leads up to the 13th Triennial Conference of Pacific Women and 6th Meeting of Ministers for Women in Suva (Fiji) from 2nd to 5th October 2017.


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