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  • Uncle Tavo

'Ekuasi: Matahau's Pioneer in Education

If there was one thing missing from Grandpa 'Ekuasi's funeral at Matahau on Thursday 12 December 1991, there was no eulogy. Do correct me on this one, but as far as I can remember, there was no eulogy, neither at the Funeral Mass nor at the burial at Loma Cemetery - not that grandpa would have minded at all I should add. But had there been any eulogy on that December day, this perhaps not-so-well-known aspect of Grandpa would and should have been part of it, I mean, the fact that he was actually a true pioneer (in every sense of the word) in education for our little village of Matahau. Teacher/Founder of Matahau's first school in 1936, shown here with his youngest brother Filimi

When talking to the elderly at Matahau, those who are now grandpas or even great grandpas, there is one thing they would keep bringing up in relation to Grandpa 'Ekuasi with great fondness, namely, Grandpa 'Ekuasi was not only their teacher but was in fact Matahau's first ever teacher and school founder! Grandpa 'Ekuasi finished his studies at 'Apifo'ou College in 1935 at the age of 19 (there used to be a photo of him with schoolmate Pita Pofaiva on their bicycles returning from 'Apifo'ou). It's probably fair to say that at the time, the ability to read and write (what we now take for granted) was a rare commodity in our village. And so, seeing that so many in the village had never been to school (Matahau had no school then), 'Ekuasi decided to set up a school in 1936 with him as teacher. I am told he built a fale tonga behind the Catholic church, made easier by the fact that his dad (Felise Tavo sr) was the village catechist. His students did not have to pay any school fees and among his first recruits were Samiuela Tatafu, Fanguna Tatafu, Maile Lutui, Saluni Uia, Unu Kongaika, Kosi Mafi, etc (not sure of the Manu brothers but many of these guys have passed on). It wasn't until ten years later in 1946 that the Tongan government finally set up its own school in Matahau at a spot opposite to where the LDS Church is now.

Matahau Catholic Primary School staff in 1969 with Uncle Toni Rea and the legendary Sitani Ta'ai

You would think that an initiative as such would have been supported by those who should have known better at the time (e.g. Parish Priest who might have been Patele Kale), but apparently that was not the case. Your Grandpa 'Ekuasi was summoned to Ma'ofanga to explain himself to Bishop Joseph Felix Blanc, known locally as 'Epikopo Tipanio. From hearsay, Tipanio was not in the least amused that your grandpa had set up a school on church property without permission but thankfully when 'Ekuasi explained in earnest that he was simply trying to do something worthwhile with what he has learnt from 'Apifo'ou, Tipanio relented and allowed him to continue. Following Grandpa 'Ekuasi as teachers at this school were his own sister Ane Tavo and brother Filimi Tavo. Even his own paternal uncle, the renowned 'Alusa Lomu, joined in as teacher although according to Maliana Lahi, 'Alusa was only brought in when they needed someone to keep students under control ('Alusa's smacking ability was legendary). At the end of course of a long line of teachers at this school was our very own Uncle Toni Rea in 1969 and the legendary Sitaniselao Ta'ai who was head teacher until the school was closed down in 1972 together with all other Catholic primary schools in Tonga. I still remember when in 1973, I, Hiko Lahi, 'Ekuasi Si'i and maybe 'Isa'ake as well had to switch from Matahau Catholic primary school (whose origin goes all the way back to Grandpa 'Ekuasi) to the Matahau government primary school (GPS), situated where it is now with Saia Hakaumotu from Masilamea as head teacher (nota bene: I would be revising this if and when I get better info). This is Saia Hakaumotu with wife Temaleti and son today. They now live in Aurora, Colorado, USA.

I never got the opportunity to see and/or be pampered by any of my grandparents on either side (so enjoy it while you can), but apparently Grandpa 'Ekuasi did not see eye-to-eye with his own dad and my own namesake, Felise Tavo sr, over at least one question: should daughters be educated? Felise Tavo sr was of the opinion that educating your daughters is a waste of both time and money as they are bound to end up with another family (their husband's). Please understand that while this may sound rather primitive to our modern ears, it was an accepted standpoint at the time in Tonga, and maybe even still. But Grandpa 'Ekuasi would have none of it and according to Grandma Fatai, it only made Grandpa 'Ekuasi even more determined to have all his daughters educated (all nine of them!) at least at high school level. We are of course always wiser in hindsight, and yet I think it's fair to say that 'Ekuasi's single-minded focus on education not only for his own daughters but also for the rest of the village is well worth highlighting and something we can all be reasonably proud of. 'Ekuasi's dad and my namesake, Felise Kaufono Tavo, at 'Apifo'ou in 1957. He died the year after.

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