Mata-poto pea loto-poto: A leadership tool of Tongan cognitive and spiritual intelligence

Discourse on Nation Building (Part 5)

By Sione Tu’itahi

(Educator, writer and Executive Director of the Health Promotion Forum of New Zealand)

As Tongan kāinga (extended families) and communities around the world move to take greater control of the challenges that influence their material prosperity and spiritual wellbeing, the need for good governance and leadership naturally increases. Certain concepts in indigenous Tongan governance and leadership can contribute to enriching their leadership experience and their strive for excellence in all things.

Two such concepts are matapoto and lotopoto. This column briefly explores the concepts.

On one level, matapoto means being witty and shrewd while lotopoto means wise. On a deeper plane, matapoto means being astute and highly intelligent whereas lotopoto means being judicious and wise with a high ethical and spiritual consciousness.

When used conjointly, they refer to a state of high, multi-dimensional intelligence, wisdom and consciousness.

Unpacking these two concepts and examining their coherent connectedness can contribute to the advancement of Tongan leadership in all spheres and levels.

Three morphemes, mata, loto and poto, make up the compound terms of matapoto and lotopoto. Knowing their basic meanings is one starting point for analysing and understanding their significance and utility.

Mata has a number of meanings that include eyes, face, representative, surface, point, green and unripe. Loto means the mind, the centre, depth, and spirit. Poto means wise, discerning, intelligent, and clever.

At the social level, mata not only means the eyes or face of human beings but it also refers to the point of interface between two formations such as matatau/the vanguard of an army or matāpule, the representative and orator for a high chief.

In terms of human relationship, mata stands as a symbol for the character of the individual. A person who loves and cares, for instance, is referred to as tokotaha mata’ofa/loving face, while an uncaring person is regarded as mata’ita’e’ofa/unloving face. A person who cares for the wellbeing of her extended family and community is known as matakainga/extended-family caring face. In the field of strategic leadership, a visionary and forward thinking leader is known as matalōloa/long distance vision.

Referring to human character, loto means heart and inner being. For instance, a person who is courageous is called lotolahi or lototo’a/brave heart, while a coward is called lotosi’i/fainthearted or lotofo’i/vanquished heart. A loving person is referred to as loto’ofa whereas a heart full of envy is called lotokovi.

On an abstract level, the concept of loto means interior such as lotofale/interior of a house. When reduplicated, it means depth as in moana loloto/deep ocean.

Exploring connections between mata and loto can reveal the systemic coherence among these Tongan concepts on a number of levels and dimensions. At the abstract level mata means outside, exterior or surface whereas loto is interior/depth. In human and education terms, mata symbolises the mind while loto stands for the heart. Additionally, from a spiritual dimension, mata symbolises the material whereas loto refers to the spiritual.

Furthermore, from a Tongan educational perspective, the on-going interaction between mata/mind and loto/heart is central to the learning and development of a person. Whereas mata refers to cognition and knowing, loto is the seat of emotion and has a central role in a person’s decision-making.

For instance, to agree to is to ‘loto ki ai.’ This strongly suggests that decision-making is both a mind and heart process. To motivate a Tongan person to learn or act, the loto/heart or spirit is the key. This is best illustrated by the old Tongan maxim of “Tonga mo’unga ki he loto”/the mountain of Tonga is the heart.

When the Tongan’s heart is motivated and moved, it will demonstrate qualities such as mafana/warmth, and that person is self-driven to achieve goals at high standards.

In practice, a person who is matapoto is one who is intelligent and discerning of trends and situations, and capitalises on them. In sports, for instance, a boxer who is matapoto is the one who outsmarts his opponent and ultimately wins.

Likewise, a student who pro-actively seeks help from teachers and others, and therefore, become academically successful is said to be matapoto. Similarly, in a socio-political and economic context, a matapoto leader is the one who strategises, takes risks, and, therefore, pro-actively explores possibilities and creates opportunities

Lotopoto literally means wise heart. It refers not only to being intelligent and knowledgeable, but, more importantly, to using intelligence and knowledge under all conditions for the right purpose. Also, it points to a depth of wisdom that has intellectual and spiritual dimensions. Further, it indicates that a person who is lotopoto is one that acts wisely for the collective wellbeing rather for his personal gain and individual advancement only.

As shown above, there is a complementary relationship between matapoto, the knowledge of the mind, and lotopoto, the wisdom of the heart. While the mind can be knowledgeable and shrewd, the heart weighs options and decides what may be right and, therefore, what may be done.

Through the lenses of matapoto and lotopoto, it can be suggested that the use of ‘ilo/knowledge for the benefit of society – a hallmark of a being poto – is largely an outcome of educating the loto/heart rather than the mind only. In other words, central to the notion of Tongan education is a clear and dynamic coherence between teaching the mind, and educating the heart.

In today’s globalised society, Tongans generally want to live as Tongans and also be able to contribute to greater society. And while they strive to achieve material prosperity, they also hope to maintain the balance by retaining their spiritual prosperity.

Tongan Indigenous tools such as matapoto and lotopoto can certainly help them to attain such goals and to augment the knowledge and wisdom gained from other sources such as those of the East and West, science and religious traditions.

©Sione Tu’itahi 2018

Email: [email protected]

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