Eric Shumway and friends hope to raise awareness of diabetes in Tonga

Written by: 
Antoniette Yee

“‘Oku ‘I Ho ‘Aofinima Ho’o Mo’ui Lelei” is a video series headed by former BYU-Hawaii President Eric Shumway meant to change the eating behavior of Tongans and help them understand what they can do to avoid diabetes.

Shumway, who is also the executive producer and writer, said the documentary is formatted to be used as a teacher’s aid. “It’s in Tongan language and for the general population of Tonga. There will be six chapters and about 95 minutes worth of film.”

The title translated is ‘Your good health is in the palm of your hand.’ Shumway explained, “This suggests we are responsible for our own good health in what we eat, how much we eat, how much we exercise, and how we avoid harmful substances.”

Shumway said doing the project was made possible with the assistance of  a group of doctors in Utah who go to Tonga every year to help train doctors and nurses. They also do seminars on diabetes for Tongan civilians. He said faith and religious press, namely the Church of Tonga, the Wesleyan Church, the Catholic Church, and the LDS Church also helped with the project.

“My friends, Dick and Mimi Peery funded the project as well as the Moana Nui Utah Organization. The only thing they didn’t have was a media presentation. When I became involved, they asked me if I would do that and so I did. I am donating all my time,” Shumway continued.

According to Shumway, they have been working on the project for over a year now. “We went to Tonga last February and did a lot of filming and interviewing. In July, we went back to Tonga and showed what we had done in the ministry of health and now we’re back to complete the project.”

Shumway said they we’re able to use all kinds of elements to create an emotional effect as well as give information that includes humor, Tongan proverbs, and quotes from scriptures. He added, “The strength of the invitation is the number of people in Tonga who are willing to participate to speak in behalf of the people.”

“Chinese loves to eat, but Tongans really love to eat,” emphasized Shumway. He said Tongan eating habits are one of the things they’re hoping to change in people’s behavior. “How much food, what kind, the need to drink more water, and exercise are some of the things we know we should do to remain healthy. We want to emphasize that this is a crisis in Tonga. People need to change.

“The crisis is like a tsunami. It comes in but you don’t know when it’s coming until it’s here. It’s like diabetes type 2. You don’t know you’re sick until it weakens your organs and it’s too late.”

Shumway said while Tonga is a small country, 35 percent of the population has diabetes. “The percentage is so high. It’s a big problem and we want to get it right.”

Shumway said they used a little bit of fear in the film because Tongan people need to understand diabetes is serious. “We showed a lot of diabetic wounds that are very powerful and shocking.”

He mentioned the different perspectives of the project like religious, professional, and medical. “There were a number of patients who were able to control their diabetes. We have testimonials of people who are succeeding to how much and what they eat. We got the whole society to participate in the project.”

Mele Taumoepeau, a cancer survivor, BYUH alumna, and the assistant executive producer and writer of the film, said she counts it as a blessing to be part of the project because it has already impacted her whole life. “I’m a diabetic. I have been diagnosed since 1999 and I lost about 55 percent of the functionality of my kidney. I think it is very timely for me to be introduced on this project. I needed it.”

Taumoepeau said even after she started to overcome diabetes, she didn’t think anything of it. She took her case lightly and just continued to eat like she’d always eaten. “When I started on this project, I finally became responsible for my own health. It’s really serious. I bring a bag of fruits and water everyday.”

Last year, Taumoepeau had the opportunity to go back to school in New Zealand and she was offered a scholarship for her doctorate. “I couldn’t go because they won’t give me a visa based on my health. That really awakened me, and suddenly I realized I’d better do something about my health or else I won’t only lose opportunities, but also my life.”

While Taumoepeau was sharing her thoughts, she suddenly stopped and said, “The project is a personal journey for me first and foremost. I feel that I have been blessed. For me, it’s been divine intervention that led me to this and had the chance to meet Shumway.”

Taumoepeau shared a famous saying by their first king of the dynasty ruling in Tonga right now, “My people are destroyed because of ignorance.”

She said, “Many are simply unaware of the consequences of their old eating habits and lifestyle. I have come to realize how true that is of the epidemic of diabetes raging through our country. We value our food so much to the point that it destroys us.”

Food in Tonga is one of the most valuable things, according to Taumoepeau. “It’s not just food. It’s a token that we use to show our respect and honor to our leaders, guests and through food we express our love - so we indulge in it a lot.”

Taumoepeau explained, “Tongans feast a lot because we don’t have much else. We just have the food. We become blind to how food can also be our destruction.”

Shumway explained, “This is a combination project where BYUH is providing equipment, space, and student interns to assist. We have people who donated money for travel and other expenses.”

In doing the project, Shumway said they felt the Lord’s hand, opportunities came into their lap, met people who supported them, and were able to do the things they needed to do.

Shumway said, “I don’t say ‘I’ anymore. I say the Lord has helped us. You don’t want to take credit for everything. You just thank the Lord for everything: for giving me the language ability to contribute and for keeping Mele alive because she was supposed to die six years ago. We all thought she was on her deathbed.”

Gary Smith, a BYUH alumnus and editor and director of the film, said he is honored to be part of the project. “I feel that it’s extremely worthwhile and this project is something that can assist people over a course of time.”

According to Shumway, Taumoepeau will be the project’s custodian in Tonga. “She will take 300 DVD copies to Tonga and distribute them free of charge to schools and villages. She will help people use the film in a teaching situation both in large and small groups.”

Taumoepeau expressed her excitement to launch the project in Tonga. She said she hopes it will impact at least one individual per family to be converted, which can cause hundreds of people to be converted overtime.

“I can imagine people in Tonga benefit like me and I don’t see a reason why this film won’t impress people, because I myself experienced an impact. I don’t know if it will be an instant success, but I’m sure that if we can convert one like I have been converted, we can have a real impact to others,” explained Taumoepeau. 

Date Published: 
Monday, October 9, 2017
Last Edited: 
Monday, October 9, 2017

NOTE: This story's online publication was delayed because it was featured in the Oct. 2017 print issue.