If this book were to be summed up in one sentence, it would be: “‘Development’ comes to a small Pacific island”. Tales of the Tikongs is a collection of vignettes of what happens when foreign development experts try to impose development on a happy-go-lucky people. And “impose” is the word—the so-called experts have very little idea of what the people actually need. They have a one-size-fits-all formula, which is supposed to work no matter what the reality on the ground is. It is, to quote Ogden Nash’s famous line, “the irresistible force meeting the immovable object”. No prizes for guessing who wins!
Told in a fairly simplistic style, the stories poke fun both at the people of Tiko (a fictional Pacific island) and the experts. At times it made me laugh out loud—and as someone who knows the “development” world, a lot of it felt was familiar.
“Those who believe that truth, like beauty, is straight and narrow, should not visit our country since they will be led up the garden path or sold down the river (so to speak, as we have no rivers). Truth is flexible and can be bent this way so and that way so; it can be stood on its head, hidden in a box, and be sat upon.” Moving Tiko towards development is often a losing battle for the experts, who tend to eventually give up and go home. (Except one, but he learns the ways of the Tikongs.)
There are some great stories, such as the misadventures of Pulu, lover of small animals, who is offered a bull and three cows by the government of New Zealand to could build a herd. One by one he loses all the cows. The Resident New Zealand Livestock Advisor suggests Pulu try to build his herd by taking his bull to service his neighbours’ cows with hilarious results.
And there is Ole Pasifikiwei, who collects oral traditions. He is approached by the nattily dressed Harold Minte, speaking “in the slightly condescending, though friendly tone, of a born diplomat”. Mr. Minte runs a programme for the preservation of culture projects in the Pacific and offers Ole financial assistance. Naturally, Ole has to jump through the hoops to get it. But he’s a fast learner, and before long is playing the system for everything he can get.
Tales of the Tikong is a quick read and an enjoyable one, and could be subtitled How not to develop a country. I read it as part of the reading challenge—Epeli Hau’ofa is Tongan-Fijian. Another writer I discovered in this virtual journey through the world!