Professor Epeli Hau’ofa: An Appreciation of a Visionary Intellectual, a Artist Extraordinaire, and A Liberal and Inclusive Humanist
Professor Rajesh Chandra
University of the South Pacific
Wednesday 15 January 2009
1. Greetings and Condolences
The Deputy Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Tonga, Honourable Dr. Villiami Tangi; the Principal of the Pacific Theological College, Reverend Dr. Tevita Havea; Mrs. Barbara Hau’ofa; Epeli Hau’ofa Junior and members of the Hau’ofa family; Deputy Chair of USP Council, Mr. Ikbal Jannif; Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Dr. Esther Williams and members of the Senior Management Team of the University; representatives of the Australian National University and the University of Hawaii; staff of the Oceania Centre; and friends of the late Professor Epeli Hau'ofa.
Professor Epeli Hau’ofa’s untimely passing away came as a big shock to all of us—and to the members of the family, friends, and scholars in many countries. For us, where Epeli spent most of his working life, and for so many of us who counted Epeli as one of our closest friends, his passing away is doubly sad. We will miss him greatly. On behalf of the University and all his colleagues and friends, I wish to convey our deepest condolences to you, Barbara and Epeli Junior. We pray that God Almighty will give you strength and wisdom to deal with your extraordinary loss. You can count on our support for you and the family during this difficult period, and together we shall honor the many virtues and values that Epeli stood for.
The Honourable Deputy Prime Minister of Tonga has presented a moving account of Professor Hau’ofa from the side of the family, and on behalf of the Kingdom of Tonga.
I wish to speak from the perspective of the University and on behalf of so many of us who regard Epeli as one of our closest friends. While we mourn his untimely passing away, today we celebrate his life and achievements. We look at what Epeli has been able to do in his life and, most importantly, learn from his life and achievements; to practise many of the admirable values that he stood for; and to honour his legacy by carrying on with the passion he had for Oceanic Art and Culture; the Vision he had for Oceania; the intellect he represented; and his unstinting belief in inclusiveness, fairness, and for understanding the points of view of the other side which is so important yet rare among us.
2. Life and Cosmopolitan Education
Epeli Hau’ofa was a most interesting and brilliant Oceanian. Born in Papua New Guinea to his missionary parents, he obtained his primary and secondary education in Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Fiji and Australia. His first degree was from the University of New England where he found his life partner in Barbara. Unlike most other Pacific Islanders, he ventured afar to McGill University in Montreal Canada to do his Masters degree, undertaking his fieldwork in Trinidad and Tobago. Epeli then tutored at the University of Papua New Guinea for two years between 1968-1969. He then obtained his PhD from the Australian National University, working on Mekeo in Papua New Guinea. I have no doubt that this early pattern of working with different cultures was to have a profound influence on Epeli’s later work and his life.
Professor Hau’ofa joined the University in 1975 as a Fellow in the Centre for Applied Studies in Development. After working briefly as the Deputy Private Secretary to the late King of Tonga, Epeli rejoined the University as the Director of the Centre for Rural Development. He came to the Laucala Campus soon afterward and became the Head of the Department of Sociology, in time also taking on the position of the Head of the School of Social and Economic Development. He became the Founding Director of the Oceania Centre for Arts and Culture (OCAC) in 1997 and it is true to say that since then Epeli Hau’ofa and the Oceania Centre have been inseparable.
3. Pre-Eminent Scholar and Visionary
There is wide agreement that Professor Epeli Hau’ofa was the pre-eminent Oceanic scholar. His book based on his PhD, Mekeo: Inequality and Ambivalence in a Village Society (1981) was very well regarded. Even before this, he had published Our Crowded Islands (1977) that called early attention to the challenge of rapid growth of population. In 1979, he published his monograph on Corned Beef and Tapioca: A Report on Food Distribution in Tonga (1979). In 1983, he published his hilarious but insightful stories of development in a fictional country entitled Tales of Tikongs (1983). He published his novel, Kisses in the Nederends in 1987 through Penguin, which had also published his Tales of Tikongs.
Professor Hau’ofa then concentrated on his most recent project—that of Oceania. His ideas were debated in an important book published by the University of the South Pacific in 1993—A New Oceania: Rediscovering our Sea of Islands.
Professor Hau’ofa’s most recent book, We Are the Ocean was published last year by the University of Hawaii Press.
Professor Hau’ofa was a man of original ideas and great insights. His Tales of Tikongs represented many insights about why development was not occurring in the Pacific Islands despite much aid. In his Foreword to Epeli’s latest book, Geoffrey White says, and I quote: “Tales of Tikongs, a gem of a book, may be the most insightful thing ever written about the culture of “development” in the Pacific” (Hau’ofa, 2008: xiii). In Mekeo, he pursued the ideas of inequality in village societies. But the idea for which he would be best remembered I think would be his vision of Oceania. In his Chapter on We are the Ocean in his latest book, Hau’ofa says:
The issue of what or who is a Pacific Islander would not arise if we considered Oceania as comprising people—as human beings with a common heritage and commitment—rather than as members of diverse nationalities and races. Oceania refers to a world of people connected to each other… As far as I am concerned, anyone who has lived in our region and is committed to Oceania is an Oceanian. This view opens up the possibility of expanding Oceania progressively to cover larger areas and more peoples than is possible under the term Pacific Islands Region… We have to search for appropriate names and common identities that are more accommodating, inclusive, and flexible than what we have today (Hau’ofa, 2008: 51).
USP is the think tank of Oceania and we need people like Epeli, with impeccable education and research credentials, who are thinking deeply about the challenges facing our countries and region; who are prepared to be unencumbered by our history; who are ready to think outside the box; and who are prepared to challenge traditions and customs to ensure that we survive and prosper in the new world that the twenty first century represents.
In a very practical sense, Epeli put his ideas into practice during his work at USP. I want to especially mention that in the 1980s the University went through a very difficult time with many divisions between people of diverse backgrounds, nationalities and ethnic groups. I witnessed this first hand. Epeli stood as a pillar of strength trying to unite the various groups to ensure that the founding universal values of the University equality and inclusion prevailed. Some of the achievements of USP that we celebrate in our first forty years would not have been possible without people like Epeli Hau’ofa.
4. Inspiring a Generation of Young Intellectuals and Artists
Among the many reactions we received from people in many universities, Epeli’s role as an inspiration for young intellectuals and artists stands out. Very few people have taken so much interest in developing other intellectuals and artists. As one of the contributors said, it will be a long time before there is another like him.
5. Founding Director of Oceania Centre for Arts and Culture
Perhaps the most lasting contribution that Professor Hau’ofa has made is as the Founding Director of OCAC. The University had been discussing the establishment of a Centre for Arts and Culture since 1992. It was Epeli who galvanized people to establish the Centre in 1997.
As the Founding Director, he shaped the Centre very much in the image of his ideas of Oceania, the importance of our heritage, and the need to be inclusive and flexible in dealing with the challenges of the twenty-first century.
Professor Hau’ofa has reflected himself on the establishment and early development of OCAC. “After I read Earl’s account [Sylvia Earle wrote in the Time magazine in October 1996], it became clear that the ocean, and our historical relationship with it, would be the core theme of the centre” (Hau’ofa, 2008: 52). He went on to write: “The ocean is not merely our omnipresent, empirical reality; equally important, it is our most wonderful metaphor for just about anything we can think of. Contemplation of its vastness and majesty, its allurement and fickleness, its regularities and unpredictability, its shoals and depths, its isolating and linking roles in our societies—all this excites the imagination and kindles a sense of wonder, curiosity, and hope that could set us on journeys to explore new regions of creative enterprise that we have not dreamt of before” (Hau’ofa, 2008:55).
A pamphlet issued by OCAC gives us further insight into what OCAC stood for: “Since its establishment, the Oceania Centre has set out deliberately to cultivate and nourish a special spirit of originality that would lead to the flourishing of contemporary visual and performing arts firmly rooted in our histories, traditions and our unending adaptations to the changing international environment that is affecting every facet of our existence… the development of new art forms that are truly Oceanic, transcendent of our national and cultural diversity, is very important in that it allows our creative minds to draw on far larger pools of cultural traits than those of our individual national lagoons. It makes us less insular without being buried in the amorphousness of the globalized cultural meting pot…”.
Although the University established OCAC, it did not provide adequate resources for it to realize its objectives immediately, providing only the salaries for the Director and some staff, with little provision for activities. Through some aid allocation, and mostly through Epeli’s own efforts, which ignited the imagination of donors and others, the Oceania Centre has now developed into a renowned place for original and creative works of art and culture. It is one of the proud organic creations of the USP. The Oceania Dance Group performed at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002. It has developed close links with similar centres of arts and culture. Last year, it performed at the First Asia Pacific Youth Arts Festival in Shenzhen China where in the words of Mr. Ken Clark of Fiji TV, they “stole the show with their lively and vibrant performers”.
The main point I am trying to make is that under Epeli’s visionary leadership, and his ability to excite, enthuse and get the best out of the people he worked with, OCAC has now developed an excellent reputation not only in our region, but far beyond.
Epeli was excited about the plans we have for giving more support to OCAC, and to make it the umbrella under which Pacific studies and the expressive arts programmes would find greater direction and synergy. I am so saddened that Epeli would not be with us to guide OCAC on its journey of further development and expansion within the vision he had powerfully shaped and promoted.
6. Epeli is a Friend and Human Being
There are many people who count Epeli among their closest of friends. I was privileged to get to first know Epeli in 1976 when I was a research assistant in the project that he was co-director. Over the years, we built a special, trusting friendship. He offered wise counsel that I always knew was given with my interest at his heart. He was frank when needed, but he was always trustworthy. I owe a great deal to Epeli for the few things that I have been able to achieve. I am very saddened that I and others will not have his guiding hand as we reshape this university for a more relevant, sustainable, and I hope a more exciting and imaginative future.
We are so grateful that Barbara shared Epeli with us generously. Sometimes of course this meant that the family got to see less of him than a family is entitled to do. Thank you Barbara for your generosity.
The most poignant tribute we can pay Epeli is our commitment to continue with his vision of an inclusive, adapting and evolving Oceania; and to practice his virtues of inclusion, fairness, compassion, and his concern for the disadvantaged and the poor.
7. Good Bye
Ni sa moce Epeli, outstanding and inspiring Oceanian and my good friend. You will be greatly missed. But you will always live with us through your original ideas, your students, your friends and well wishers. Long live Epeli.