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At the centre: The pioneering Tongan leader who's inspired by netball

Sisifa Fili
Eua Motua District Officer Sisifa Fili.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

Sisifa Fili has just made history by becoming the first woman to be elected District Officer in the Kingdom of Tonga, using principles learned on the netball court to create a winning campaign.

Sisifa Fili has always loved being at the centre of the action. On the netball court, she would grab the bib with the big ‘C’ and place herself in the centre circle, ready to make a play.

Years later, she was at the centre of the movement to create a Council of Women on the Tongan island of ‘Eua.

Eua Motua's new District Officer wants to create new opportunities for young Tongans.
Eua Motua's new District Officer wants to create new opportunities for young Tongans.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

Now, she is at the centre of a successful campaign to become the first woman in Tongan political history to be elected District Officer. It's a position that is similar to Mayor or Premier in other countries. And despite her demanding new role, Sisifa can still be found on a netball court, playing with her constituents as part of Kau Mai Tonga, a community exercise program supported by Australian Aid.

“We are women who have reached the 'golden age’,” she laughs.

“When they throw us the ball we can’t bend down. Our bodies are old but our minds, oh!

“I was the first one in our village to stand up for our team because the idea is to help us women exercise. Exercising takes away the pressure on our mind from other things (and when playing netball) we didn’t know we were exercising. We need a little more motivation and it is very helpful.”

Sisifa believes that culture, as well as inertia, has to be overcome for Tongan women who want to stay healthy.

Ironically, a love of her home, and a deep pride in it, set Sisifa on the political pathway, although she didn’t recognise it at the time. She was behind a simple movement to clean up vacant lots and cut long grass on her home island of ‘Eua.

Sisifa's political career grew from a community cleanup campaign.
Sisifa's political career grew from a community cleanup campaign.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

“Just doing those things is a part of your contribution for your island or your country. That was the spirit I started with. The most important thing for me was the spirit of women working together and knowing each other. Everything women touch glows.”

Despite being criticised by some men, and occasionally shunned by women, Sisifa has earned a reputation as someone who gets things done. Next on her agenda is creating a healthier Tonga, especially for women, and netball remains at the centre of her plans.

Melenaite Sisifa Fili has just been elected Tonga's first female District Officer
Melenaite Sisifa Fili has just been elected Tonga's first female District Officer.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

“Sharing ideas, we cry together, we eat together, we laugh together and I really, really love that. When people stay together, they love each other.”

As Sisifa stands smiling courtside at a Tongan national under 21 team training session, she knows she can now make a bigger contribution off the court.

You don’t need to be wearing the 'centre’s' bib to make a winning move, it seems, but the lessons learned on the court can be lessons for life.

This story was produced by ABC International Development as part of the Pacific Sports Partnerships funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

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