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Online broadcast supports Tongan community

Tonga has been the epitome of living inside a bubble while watching the outside world deal with the pandemic.

Just the one single case recorded that was contracted on a flight home from New Zealand and after not a life has been taken, the danger of the virus has not even registered a blip on a radar.

But not to Tongans frequently stuck wearing masks in Australia.

The search for a better life has forced most expatriates, and especially those locked up for months on end in Melbourne, to discover that the ramifications of Covid-19 are in fact very real.

That aftermath has prompted one woman to give something back to the community.

Mele Makelesi Facci was so taken back that most of the Tongans diaspora were unable to visit their extended family that she took to the airwaves.

“I just think it is most important to get real people to talk about real problems and real issues at this time,” she says.

The Letio Tonga ‘o Melipoane program was established via a Facebook page of the same name, to share stories, educate and create engagement about local communities and life back in her homeland.

While providing a foreign standard news service in the Tongan language serves a purpose, the one-time SBS Australia employee did not know what she entirely stumbled across until it seemed that everyone wanted to lean on the shoulder of the trusting confidante during a time of need.

tongan-radio-mele-makelesi-facci
Tongan public radio announcer Mele Makelesi Facci shows off her cultural pride. Picture: Facebook

Mele recalls the day when a sick friend of an acquaintance was brave enough to share a touching story all the while battling the virus that left her mortality in the balance.

Things got so desperate that the interview was delayed once the woman started struggling to breath properly before approaching the microphone.

“My purpose of that interview on my radio show was so she can speak to our people that Covid-19 is real,” Mele says.

“That people get it in all sets of ways and especially those who have underlying problems in health.

“She told me that herself, her daughter and her mother, which her daughter was put into ICU, that the doctor said if you were all not double vaxxed, we would be preparing for a funeral.”

That was a fine example how local but still reserved Tongans were all ears, judging by feedback, to a life lesson that made for compulsory listening.

The popularity of her broadcast reached its precipice one Saturday afternoon when many in their tightknit community, often living in the same suburbs or towns in Australia, were all falling for the same financial scams.

The latest offer was doubling, even tripling, their money, but instead some people lost much of their life savings.

It left plenty of shame amid a culture full of pride.

But nobody wanted to talk publicly about their foolish investments.

That was no barrier for Mele after encouraging one victim to come forward to warn others.

That interview brought in a record of more than 10,000 online views.

So popular it was that messages came flooding in from family residing in the US that Mele’s sincere conversational piece had made the news there.

“You interviewed someone who came out and started sharing about the scams that is risky involving the federal police that nobody was game enough to come up and say anything,” she says.

It scored a further 4,000 American views.

But nothing got so real than the day Mele took a breath and spoke about pregnancy miscarriages.

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The taboo topic was very personal after losing a child many years earlier.

“I just remember sitting there and pouring my story, straight from the heart, and I saw all comments coming in,” she says.

“You are taken in the moment, and I remember my brother rang me after he finished work, got home and put my program on, and said that he never heard me tell him this story.

“But miscarriage is not the story that you like to tell – it gets swept up under the carpet.

“You should know that especially in our culture not everyone wants to talk about it.”

The messages soon flowed just as quickly as the tears.

Grief-stricken women opened up to Mele about their lost pregnancies.

Some lost one baby, another lost two.

The power of communication right then was “amazing”, according to Mele.

“I said to one of the women, we really need to start something.”

None of this cathartic exercise would have happened on two fronts without the Tongan language service being scrapped on Australia’s multicultural network of TV and radio.

The gap in the market was there afterwards.

More than 10,000 Tongan-born residents live in their adopted home.

Nearly as many claim Tongan ancestry as first or second-generation Australians.

“Because of SBS budget cuts, unfortunately a lot of Pacific islands programming went, and Tonga was one of them,” she says.

At the beginning of national lockdown throughout all parts of Australia, a number of expatriates of the kingdom were posting and sharing videos around the family home.

It gave Mele the idea after working four years in the media industry to start an online program from scratch.

First it was only a video for 2020 Mother’s Day and then another for Father’s Day during that period of painful separation.

“I was trying to figure out how we to do it and I thought I really needed to plan and do it properly so when I do, it will be not only educating our people but passing and sharing important information,”

“I just didn’t want to be one of those little live pop-ups you see on Facebook.”

The news, the sport, and the weather from Tonga evolved after scanning websites for breaking Tongan stories.

Nothing is off limits.

So much so that Mele has fundraised $A2000 ($US1500) towards building a library back in Tonga while many of her supporters have donated hundreds of books.

But there has been a small price to pay for giving herself to others.

“I did have to increase my internet data,” she says.

Connecting with the community is more important than higher bills.

So is making people feel at home, whether listening or talking on the show.

That is the last word she wants to make clear.

“It is a Tongan language program, but I do tell them to feel free to speak in the language that you’re most comfortable with,” she says.

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