M. S. Princess Ashika

A new (to Tonga) passenger/cargo ship brought in as an alternative to the Pulupaki to travel from Tongatapu to Vava’u stopping in Ha’afeva and Lifuka Ha’apai. The hope was to have this nicer boat with tooms inside and even snacks available so people would feel less likie the cargo they were traveling amongst. There were some questions posed about Ashikas seaworthiness in open water, but unfortunately these were raised by the owner of the Pulupaki. This was seen by some as his way to cut out the competition by starting bad rumors about their boat.
The MS Princess Ashika sank on August 6, 2009 in the middle of the night. The Pulupaki was the first rescue boat to arrive, followed by others from Tonga, Australia and New Zealand throughout the day. Within hours 54 people were rescued from the water. After the initial search no one else was found alive. 3 bodies were found, but 72 people are still missing.
There was much confusion in the first few days following the event as many people didn’t know if their loved ones would be found. Should they wear funeral clothes? Was it time to hold hopes of rescue, or start mourning? Many family members wore black clothes, but didn’t wear the funeral ta’ovala which shows they are in mourning. After two weeks we had enough boats, equipment and clear days to get some answers. The New Zealand Navy who were working on the search efforts found and positively identified the boat. It was on the ocean floor 100 meters below the surface. This is 40 meters beyond what is possible to recover with divers. Bringing up the bodies and goods on the boat would have to be done with machinery which is very expensive. Too expensive in fact so the area was declared a maritime grave. All the missing persons are now presumed dead and the funerals begin. We are fortunate in Nakolo, we did not loose anyone from our village.
Most were not so lucky. There are two peace corps volunteers on Ha’afeva, the next stop the boat was to make. 20 people from their village lost their lives. The only feasible solutioin was to have one massive funeral for all lost and the entire village would attend.
There was also a Japanese volunteer who lost his life. As all international volunteers are called ‘pisikoa’ in Tongan, many link us together, but I did not know the man personally. There were also four WWOOF volunteers headed to work in Vava’u. because these are the foreigners, these are the stories I have told and relate closest to.
Most of my neighbors lost family members. Some are close and some are distant relatives, but everyone has their story and connections. It reminds me of 9, 11 in that everyone knows where they were when they heard and how they were connected to the national tragedy. Since there are just over 100,000 people in Tonga, 72 presumed dead is a large number.
I witnessed several different grieving processes throughout this process. As PCVs or Americans we discussed avoiding the topic of boats and the sea in our classrooms for a while so the students had time to mourn and adjust to the change in their own way. Maybe singing ‘Mary had a little lamb’ would be better than ‘Row, row, row your boat’ for a few weeks. This seemed like a proper precaution from an American standpoint, but Tongans are different. The most requested song in the beginning was ‘My heart will go on” the song from the movie Titanic.
Then a song was written and recorded about the Ashika specifically and that became the most requested song. There was a memorial stone carved with all the names of the missing. Many foreigners supported this until they found out the Tongans planned to throw it into the sea at the maritime grave site. =20 Different cultures different ways and if this helps the Tongan people who have lost loved ones, I say do it. Many family members have gone out to the grave site to pay their respects.
Many brought funeral mats, wreaths and tapa which were thrown into the sea at the site. The family of the Japanese volunteer also made the journey to the maritime gravesite. They had some different reactions too because there is no ‘presumed dead’ in Japanese culture. Without a body the person is just missing.
Of course all of these beliefs and reactions are just what I have heard. In my encounters I have only talked to others who, like myself, didn’t lose anyone close to them. Most of the conversations were along the line of “Did you year about the boat that sank? Very sad huh?” and that is it. So now life goes on of course, but there are still effects being felt from this tragedy. Sometimes it is fuller planes because those that can afford it now choose to fly. I have a friend who goes out on a fishing crew for 2 weeks at a time. He is basically out of a job until the owner buys a new boat next year. Not that he is complaining, he, the owner and the other crew members are all scared to go out on the little old fishing boat. They are not the only ones and the effects become obvious when we go to the fish market and there are 0Ano fish. So even on a small island in the South Pacific, sometimes there are no fish. This has been a recurring theme over the past month and no one knows when there will be fish or not. Who can blame them? Surely not I.