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UAA student helps Tonga gain a library

  • Author: Debra McKinney
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published January 31, 2010

For Kato Ha'unga, too many books is not enough. The woman's a little obsessed.

She has books piled in a bin outside her cubicle at work. She has books stacked in boxes under her desk. She has heaps of books in her apartment and bundles of books in her car. She has boxes and boxes and more boxes of books stacked in a corner of a friend's office. Children's books, history books, computer books, science books, memoirs, biographies, fiction, non-fiction. From math to romance.

Ha'unga can't say no to a book.

But then these are books with a purpose. If she can make it happen -- and she's confident she can -- these are books bound for Tonga. A tsunami of books inspired by a tsunami.

Ha'unga, a 26-year-old economics student at the University of Alaska Anchorage, has amassed more than 3,000 book so far with hopes of building a library in her ancestral homeland. The Northern Lights Library project, as she calls it, comes in the wake of last fall's deadly tsunami.

On Sept. 29, a magnitude 8.0 earthquake beneath the South Pacific triggered a series of tsunamis that hit the Samoan and Tongan islands. Scientists in New Zealand calculated the highest at 46 feet. The monster waves swept away villages, killed more than 200 people and left thousands homeless.

"When I heard about the tsunami I cried here in my office, and I asked myself a question: 'What can I do to help my country?'" Ha'unga said.

She wanted to do something lasting rather than fleeting. Books came to mind. Because with books comes knowledge, and knowledge can change lives, and the world. So she's building a library, one book at a time, on the Tongan island of Ha'apai, where she says there are school libraries, but no public ones. An English library has its place in her country, she says. Tonga has a 98 percent literacy rate, and Tongan and English are the country's official languages.

Ha'unga started with a few children's books, and the idea took off from there.

"This is the beginning of how I wanted to reach out to Tonga, these four kids right here," she said, nodding toward a photo of her four young cousins, dressed partially in black. The kids have been in mourning since losing their mother last spring.

"They always ask for books," she said. "Every time I go to Tonga, I take books with me."

She went from collecting books for these four kids to collecting books for all kids and adults on Ha'apai, the hub for 51 smaller, outlying islands.

Tonga, an archipelago between New Zealand and Hawaii, is comprised of 169 islands, 36 of which are uninhabited. The population of the entire nation is just 120,000, less than half the size of Anchorage. It's governed by a king. The economy is largely agricultural; one in four citizens lives under the poverty level, according to U.S. government statistics.

Ha'unga's uncle, now raising his four children on his own, is working the Tonga end of the project, and has secured a place for her books until a permanent location can be found. In the meantime, nearly 6,000 miles to the north, she's been doing presentations all around Anchorage asking for book donations and raising money to cover shipping costs.

The people of Ha'apai really appreciate what she's doing, her uncle, Latiume Kaufusi, writes via e-mail from Tonga.

"I feel proud of her. She stands up ... for this country."


Ha'unga was born in Anchorage, but was raised by her grandmother in Tonga after her parents divorced. She returned for a year, attending Clark Middle School, then went back to Tonga, where she graduated from high school.

Her uncle encouraged her to return to Alaska to continue her studies.

"He tells me, 'Go, go. Because you're the future.'"

She's been going ever since. In addition to being a student, she works a full-time job on campus with TRIO/Upward Bound, support services for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. She fills what downtime she has mentoring others, serving on an anti-gang task force, volunteering for this and that, most recently as a Tongan interpreter at the free legal clinic on Martin Luther King Day. With the library project on top of everything else she has going, you have to wonder, when does she sleep?

Clare Stockert, development director for Anchorage Public Libraries, is among the many who support what Ha'unga is doing.

"I'm so excited about this project," she said. "Unlike so many of the world problems that are so hard to solve, this is a problem we have the capability to solve -- getting books to a library in Tonga.

"She's fabulous. She has so much energy and she's so much fun to work with. It's really an honor to help her out and be part of her team."

Lately, Ha'unga has been so busy running around collecting books and videos donated for her library that sometimes there's no time for lunch. The books keep on coming, armfuls and box-loads at a time. Books, books and more books.

The thing is, the more you get her talking about this project of hers, the more you realize that every single one of those books helps deaden the pain.

It's about her father. He lives in Fiji, but was in Samoa when the tsunami struck. She hasn't heard from him since.

"We always e-mail every day," she says. "And he always calls my phone. After the tsunami I never heard from him. I kept e-mailing every day. 'Daddy, where are you?'

"I don't want to think he's dead. I feel like maybe he's on one of the islands that has no phone.

"I want to do this library project so I don't have to think about where my father is. I stay busy every day not to think about him.

"I miss him dearly."

MORE INFORMATION: Kato Ha'unga can be reached at