I’m at a Wasps game in Coventry when I read the news on my phone: A volcano has erupted near my native Tonga. Most of my family still lives there.
I call my mum, but she doesn’t answer.
I just hope it’s nothing serious.
This is Saturday, 15 January. I’ll always remember the date, because when I turn on the news that evening, I realise that this really is serious. An underwater volcano has erupted 65 kilometres north of Tonga and caused a tsunami. The waves have damaged many of the buildings. Boats have washed up on land. On some of the smaller islands, whole villages have been wiped out. Many people have lost their homes and there is a chance, too, that some have lost their lives.
So I freak out. Most of my family still lives in my home village, Faleloa, on a chain of small islands called Ha’apai. I have close to 20 nieces and nephews there, and my childhood friends as well. Almost everyone I love lives on these islands in the Pacific Ocean.
And now they’ve been hit by the worst volcanic eruption the world has seen in 30 years.
So yes, the panic is real. I’m fearing the worst. Together with my partner, Claudia, I start calling all my relatives in Tonga.
I try one number after another. I’m begging to hear a voice, any voice, down the line.
But nobody answers. There’s not even a dial tone.
I’m devastated. Honestly, it’s so hard to describe the feeling when your family is in danger, and you’re literally 10,000 miles away — and you can’t do anything. We’re not used to being out of touch like this. We talk and text all the time, you know? They ask me about my rugby, and I’ll hear about how well my nieces are doing or whatever. A few days earlier I actually tried to get hold of my mum, because she’d been about to send my nephews and my little brother to school. She didn’t pick up, but I could simply call her later … right?
I try her number one more time. The line is completely dead.
Back on the news, they’re saying that the underwater cable that provides communication to the islands has been destroyed. Tonga is basically cut off from the rest of the world.
As we go to bed, we still know nothing.
The next two weeks will be the most emotional of my life.
Sunday, 16 January
Claudia and I sit in front of the TV all afternoon. We see videos of people fleeing the coast as the waves come in. The sky is dark with ash, and bits of volcanic rock have been raining down. The ash has polluted the drinking water, so it’s really bad.
We still haven’t heard anything about my island. Nobody answers the phone.
At some point Claudia and I decide that we have to do something.
There are two things you have to understand about me. The first is that Tongans are very close. There are only about 100,000 living on the islands, so we are used to taking care of each other. In the villages, even people who are living in poverty share their food and their clothes. Obviously, I left Tonga a long time ago, but that mentality is still in me.
The second is that I have a deep gratitude toward my country and my family. I feel so fortunate to be where I am — and who I am. Back in the day I was just a naughty, skinny boy with a bad haircut. I never thought about playing rugby for a living. I was playing running-straight rugby with my brothers, or making up silly rules. Mate, we were using a coconut as a ball down by the beach. That was the level.
But my parents, they always told me to strive for something bigger. I also had a cousin, Tupou Palu, who had been playing rugby in France and New Zealand, and when I was 15 we began hanging out a lot. One day I went to watch him train with Tonga Sevens, and they needed an extra player. I did the old bronco test and the coach was like, “Wait, who is this kid?” Suddenly I was training with the team.
A few weeks later the coach asked if I had a passport. I didn’t, so they fixed me one.
Soon I was flying out to play a World Cup qualifier in Samoa.
I had never even been on a plane before.
Since then I have traveled the world, met some amazing people and made a living from the game I love. Everything I have, I owe to Tonga and to my family.
So as I’m watching news reports about the disaster, I act on instinct. I know that the villages will take time to rebuild. Many Tongans live off the land, which is covered in ash — the crops will need time to grow back, too. So Claudia and I set up a fundraiser page. We’re going to help these people.
But then the doubt hits me: Will this even work? How many people care about these islands in the middle of the ocean? Are people really going to give up their hard-earned cash for this cause? Also, it’s not like I have 10 million followers on social media, so will people even see the page?
The answer to all this is: I don’t know. I really don’t. But as I go to bed, I keep telling myself the same thing.
Let’s just do what we can.
Friday, 21 January
Wasps announce that they’ll donate 20% of the ticket revenue from our home match against Saracens to Tonga. Incredible.
A lot of people are coming to the game to show their support — not just for Wasps, but for Tonga. Many of my friends are going, too. I’m overwhelmed. So proud, so grateful. How can I possibly thank all these people?
Unfortunately, I’m not supposed to play the game. I’m recovering from a dislocated shoulder that has held me out for nearly four months, and my return is set for our away game at Exeter Chiefs on 5 February. But then it hits me.
You can show these people how grateful you are … by playing.
It’s risky. I’m not supposed to rush back after such a serious injury. My shoulder has already needed two operations, and the last thing I want to do is go back to square one. But I want to repay these people somehow. So I tell my physio, Ali, that I want to come back a week early. He sounds skeptical — and rightly so.
“We’ll see, mate. We’ll see….”
The game is in nine days.
Saturday, 22 January
The ash floating over Tonga has cleared enough for satellite communication to be partly restored. Finally, I manage to speak to my sisters.
What a relief.
They still haven’t heard anything from my mum, though. There is still no connection to Ha’apai, where the rest of my family lives.
At least three people have died in Tonga.
Monday, 24 January
I’m pushing myself to the limit. But while my body is here in England, trying to help the team, my mind is in Tonga. It’s been 10 days with no word from my village. All day I either train or make unanswered calls.
I don’t know if I’ll make this game, but I cannot let my people down.
Which reminds me … I have been here before.
When I was 14, my dad passed away. He never told me what was wrong with him, because he was one of those old-school guys who never wanted to show any weakness, you know? He had been running a construction company that was doing maintenance on a lot of the buildings on Ha’apai, so he was doing well enough to put us in good schools and good rugby teams. So yeah, we were really lucky. But when he left us, the family lost its main provider.
So we all came together to help out, young and old. And for me, that changed something. I had been a kid fooling around in the sand, but his death made me want to achieve something. It gave me a hunger to provide for my family.
Even though he was no longer with us, I still wanted to make him proud.
When I was 16, I went with Tonga to play in the Wellington Sevens in New Zealand. Word about me spread, and I got a scholarship there, at Wesley College, one of the best secondary schools in the country.
That was a real step towards a pro career. But it was so hard, mate. I was living in a hostel and I didn’t speak English. I would see families visiting their sons, while I was all alone. I got really homesick. It was the toughest period of my life.
The only reason I stayed, I think, was because I refused to let down my family. I simply could not go back to Tonga with nothing.
After those three years in Auckland, I was eligible to play for New Zealand.
And then, in 2014, I was called up for the All Blacks.
Mate … I cried. I really did. I was only 22, still a kid from Tonga, and now I would play for the world’s most legendary team. I called my mum. The whole family came over. When I was named on the bench for the test series against England — and I swear, I thought that was a mistake at first — I called her back up. “Mum, I’m playing! Get on the plane!!”
The debut was scary. So many people, cameras everywhere. The silence in the dressing room was frightening. I was playing with living legends, and I didn’t want to let them down, you know? I had learned the national anthem. I had even studied the haka on YouTube. I thought I had it down, but once we began doing it I was too scared to think straight. I missed a few beats. Lucky that I was at the back!
When they chucked me on … I still get really emotional thinking about it. It was one of the proudest moments of my life. Honestly … just the memory makes me cry.
Tuesday, 25 January
I’m about to go to sleep when I get a call from a random number.
I don’t recognise it, but I’ve got nothing to lose, so I answer.
Immediately, I recognise the voice.
She’s speaking via satellite phone, and she’s O.K. They all are: Friends, relatives, everyone. I’m so, so relieved. It’s the best news I can ever remember hearing. This giant weight comes off my shoulders.
We speak for five minutes before she has to give up the phone.
Finally I can relax a little bit.
Saturday 29 January
There is one day left before we meet Saracens. I’ve only had two days of training, but Ali has given me the green light.
I’m ready, I think. I hope.
Before I go to bed, I think about why I’ve been putting myself through all this. And, well, it’s the same reason that I left New Zealand to play for Tonga again. Obviously, I feel proud to have represented New Zealand. I have spent such a big part of my life there, and a lot of my mindset comes from there. When I go back, it is home.
But my family is in Tonga. And last year I was thinking about how much experience I had gained with New Zealand — I had won the World Cup, I had played against the Lions, I had worked with so many legendary players and mentors. So what was I going to do with it? Just retire? No chance.
Tonga had given me everything. I wanted to give something back.
Going back was an amazing feeling. I believe I have a lot of knowledge to pass on. I have so many relatives and friends looking up to me — I want to show them the way, too. The tsunami disaster has made that decision even clearer for me. It’s hard to explain, but I feel more that I’m playing for the people now. I’m playing for the farmer who has lost his crops, and the mother and her children who have lost their home.
And now, against Saracens, I’m also about to play for my people — the ones who are coming to support me and Tonga. I can’t promise that we’ll win.
But I can promise that I’ll be there.
Sunday 30 January
When I run out on the field, it is one of the most emotional moments of my career. It’s been four months of lonely recovery work, and I’m finally back out there with the boys. I’m doing what I love. The support from the crowd is massive.
What a feeling.
We win the game, but the real victory takes place outside the stadium. People are going around with buckets to collect aid for Tonga. Together with the ticket sales, Wasps raise nearly 17,000 pounds. That is a lot of food for Tonga.
To be honest with you, I never thought we would get this much support. The way the whole rugby community has come together has been incredible. I have received so many messages, so many donations, that, well … I’m lost for words. Many Tongans who live here have helped out, too. They’ve come over with spreads, fish and food from the market. Even people I have never met, who have never been to Tonga, have given up their money.
When Claudia and I started the fundraiser, we set a goal of 50,000 pounds.
We have received more than 65,000 pounds.
The situation in Tonga is still difficult — as if the tsunami wasn’t bad enough, there’s been a COVID-19 outbreak as well. But help has been coming — from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Britain, China — and I’m so proud to be playing a small part in that. Every night for these last few weeks, I’ve sat back and thought about all these people who have never met me, but who are willing to donate. It still makes me very emotional.
The list of names is far too long to mention here. So to everyone who has supported this cause, and to anyone who might still do so, I will simply say this:
Thank you. I’m forever grateful.
And I love you all.
To contribute to Malakai’s fundraiser, visit: https://www.gofundme.com/f/all-with-tonga-help-tonga