Fusi Taaga is collecting donations following last month’s volcanic eruption, which dealt a setback to her business.
More than a week went by before Redwood City resident Fusi Taaga heard from any of her family in Tonga.
When the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted on Jan. 15, just 40 miles north of Tonga’s capital, Nuku’alofa, communication with the remote island nation went dark. The underwater eruption, believed to be the largest in decades, sent ripples as far as Japan; residents in the Bay Area woke up to a tsunami advisory.
While the rest of the world watched the news unfold, Taaga joined thousands of other Tongans in the Bay Area worrying about loved ones back home.
“You’re emotional, but you just pray that they’re alive, that they’re safe,” she said.
Born in Salt Lake City, Taaga was raised in Redwood City, where she’s now the owner of Tokemoana’s on Middlefield Road. Tokemoana’s, the only Polynesian restaurant on the Peninsula, is a tribute to her father, the original Tokemoana, whose farm in Tonga provides much of their fresh ingredients.
“He grows crops back at home. And he would just send containers out here, and we would just pass them out to family and to friends,” she said. “One day, I was thinking about all his hard work. I actually had a caregiving agency at the moment and decided to stop that and continue my dad’s dream. And that’s how Tokemoana came to birth.”
She started by selling her father’s imported cassava, taro, plantains, yams and other crops wholesale in Utah. Tokemoana’s eventually became a restaurant, serving traditional Tongan dishes like Lu Sipi (baked lamb with coconut milk), Kale Moa (a Polynesian style chicken curry) and a fruity drink called Mango Otai.
Two years ago, Taaga moved back to the Bay Area, where she has family and which is the region home to the largest Tongan population in California. (As of 2020, San Mateo County alone is home to over 5,000 people of Tongan origin.) She’s been operating Tokemoana’s in Redwood City ever since.
In October of last year, her father happened to fly to the U.S. for some doctor’s appointments, on what Taaga said would turn out to be the very last flight out of Tonga.
“It was actually a cargo flight,” she said. “They only take a certain amount of passengers, and so we were lucky because there’s only one flight a week.”
Not three months later, the volcano erupted.
More than a week after the disaster, Taaga finally got through to some of her relatives in Tonga.
“It was so emotional,” she said. “You have so much to say, but then when you hear their voice, you’re both crying on both ends because you’re just so happy to hear that they’re alive.”
But because the cellular networks were overloaded with people trying to reach their families, calls were brief and to the point.
“The conversation is really short. You’re only allowed to speak for like three minutes, and then the line disconnects,” she said. “The first question is, ‘Is everyone alive? Did anyone pass? Is anyone missing?’ And then second, ‘What do you need? What would you need us to send from here? How can we support you?'”
Over the course of many three-minute calls, Taaga has been able to piece together a picture of the situation in Tonga, which is grim. A thick layer of ash has settled over the island, making the already hot, tropical air even more difficult to breathe. Meanwhile, supplies of food, fresh water and medicine are running low.
She spoke with one relative, a pastor named Tungua who recently moved to Haʻapai, one of the areas that was hit hard by the eruption. He told her they had no gasoline, and the local stores had been nearly emptied of food.
“There’s a boat that goes from Haʻapai to Tongatapu,” a two-hour journey, she said. The problem, she said, is that “there’s so many people in Haʻapai that are trying to get to the mainland to get food, to get supplies. And the boat can only hold so many people.”
Another relative, whose family Taaga had been trying to reach, finally sent an update from the mainland last week.
“The food supply here, especially for the kids, is low,” they wrote over text. “We’re not able to work due to the air quality, and a lot of our material and supplies being ruined or washed away from the tsunami. We hope and pray that all is well, and we love you.”
Her mother, who’s currently in Fiji, wants to return to Tonga to see the condition of their family’s house and crop fields. But Taaga said she knows that they’ve been destroyed and that “we just have to start all over.”
Though it’s a hit to her business, which relied on regular shipments of fresh produce, Taaga said the crops are now serving her father’s original purpose: feeding his people. Typically, they would have workers patrolling the fields and monitoring the operations. But since the volcano, they’ve left the farm open for anyone to take what they need, to “peel it, cut it and freeze it,” she said.
These past couple of weeks have been a period of simultaneous relief and continued fear for Taaga and her family in the Bay Area. With some relatives still unaccounted for, they’re giving thanks for those they’ve located safely. And while they wait for more news, they’ve started putting their energy into gathering supplies to send overseas.
“You’re feeling so grateful, but at the same time, you feel so helpless,” she said. “All we can do is collect donations.”
Taaga is accepting drop-offs at Tokemoana’s for shipments sent out by S.F. Enterprises on Feb. 19 and another in March. Because it can take a couple of months for ships to arrive in the South Pacific islands, they’re trying to act fast. They are asking for donations of cooking basics like cornstarch, sugar, flour and rice, as well as Tylenol, vitamins, first aid kits, gloves, masks and, of course, water.
With their primary source of ingredients gone, Taaga is seeking temporary suppliers for her restaurant, including a local Fijian market and imports from Hawaii and Costa Rica. She expects it will take at least a few years to rebuild her father’s farm and restore their direct Tongan supply chain.
In the meantime, Taaga and her family are taking comfort in each other.
“Pacific Islanders, in our culture, we don’t really have, like, cousins,” she said. “We’re very intimate —everyone is either your brother or your sister … and that’s really how we operate as a family. Like, your neighbor is your neighbor, but also your family. If one hurts, we all hurt.”
Right now, she said, “the whole community is hurting for all of our families in Tonga.” But she believes their shared faith and strong relationships will help them get through.
On the Tongan national seal, she said, there’s a saying that reads “Ko e ʻOtua mo Tonga ko hoku Tofiʻa,” which translates to “God and Tonga are my inheritance.”
“And we really strongly believe in that,” she said. “Tonga will overcome this. We have to be strong, and we have to keep our faith. Our faith has to be bigger than our fears.”
This story was first published by the Redwood City Pulse, The Six Fifty’s sister publication.