Nemesis, Speaking, and Tauhi Vaha‘a: Interdisciplinarity and the Truth of “Mental Illness” in Vava‘u, Tonga

Date
2007
Authors
Poltorak, Michael
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
Publisher
University of Hawai'i Press
Center for Pacific Islands Studies
Abstract
The people of Vava‘u, Tonga, manage to deal with most incidences of “mental illness” without resorting to institutionalization or overt stigmatization. The terms used to describe unusual behavior, though pejorative in the eyes of psychiatrist Dr Mapa Puloka, are contestable and negotiable. Through the creative use of a multiplicity of explanations, people have influence over the potential stigma to suffering relatives. People’s sensitivity to attributions of “mental illness” is born of Vavauan use of language to tauhi vaha‘a (evoke and intensify relatedness). This socially constitutive use of language contrasts with the referential language in much of the social science and medical literature that informs mental health policy. Revealing its origin in the experience of vä (relatedness) is key to creating an interdisciplinary space to discuss the late presentation of Tongans to mental health services in Tonga and New Zealand. This paper answers the widely recognized need for more qualitative, epistemologically sensitive, and interdisciplinary work on Tongan experience of mental illness through focusing on the particular case of an eccentric in Vava‘u known as ‘Ahiohio. As this man shares remarkable similarities with Manu (Epeli Hau‘ofa’s subversive mouthpiece of anti-absolutism), the responses to and theories of ‘Ahiohio’s behavior enable discussion on the contrast and effects of Vavauan and, more broadly, medical and positivist ideas of truth.
Description
Keywords
mental illness, Tonga, indigenous psychiatry, language ideologies, Pacific epistemologies, relatedness, modernity
Citation
Poltorak, M. 2007. Nemesis, Speaking, and Tauhi Vaha‘a: Interdisciplinarity and the Truth of “Mental Illness” in Vava‘u, Tonga. The Contemporary Pacific 19 (1): 1-36.
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