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December Monthly Spotlight: Todd Henry

Todd Henry


Please meet our final monthly spotlight for 2022: Todd Henry! 


Todd has had an ongoing relationship with Tonga for over 20 years and has emerged as an advocate and ally for Pasifika peoples and a passionate purveyor of kava. Over the past decade, Todd has been involved in a number of projects, in Tonga, relating to photography, filmmaking, rural development, climate change, education, and deportation. Todd has a great passion for the Tongan language and culture and he most enjoys late-night discussions around the kumete with friends.


Originally from America, Todd grew up on a small farm, in Oxford, Pennsylvania. In 2003, he applied for a working holiday visa for New Zealand and was ultimately approved. He really enjoyed his time in NZ and ended up traveling back and forth for 4 years between the United States and New Zealand. In 2007, he traveled to Tonga for the first time and figured this would be a once in a lifetime trip. Little did he know that in the following year, he would meet his now wife, ‘Anau, who was born in Tonga and grew up in Auckland. They married in Tonga in 2010, and Todd has had an ongoing relationship with the Friendly Islands ever since!  At the time, ‘Anau worked for Air New Zealand, which allowed them to travel back and forth from New Zealand and Tonga relatively easily and cheaply. This frequent travel back to Tonga allowed Todd to be introduced to Tonga in a very authentic and personal way. Through ‘Anau’s family, he was first introduced to kava and the cultural complexities within Tongan culture and especially within the family nexus that is foreign to a western perspective. He has tried to learn and immerse himself in the language and culture as best he can, which has taken on even more urgency with the arrival of his children, who are ethnically Tongan. 


“I have spent years traveling to different places and having an outsider perspective…I have tried my best to learn as much as I can (I won’t say in its entirety) but to learn as much as you can about something completely different and challenge all of your ideals and lifestyle you were brought up with. Tongan culture is just about different as you can get from rural Pennsylvania or anywhere in the United States for that matter. I looked at it as an opportunity as something I always wanted…to have the chance to learn a new language and the way of life. It is a challenge, but it is an enjoyable challenge.”


He has taken that challenge to heart; every facet of his life has been bent to supporting and advocating for Tonga and her people. In 2019, he co-produced the wildly successful documentary Gangsters in Paradise - The Deportees of Tonga, which sheds light on the challenges deportees face when they are deported back to Tonga. At the time of writing this profile, the documentary has over 12 million views on Youtube alone. 


Moreover, Todd and ‘Anau founded and currently operate Four Shells Kava Lounge, a successful business in Auckland. They use this space to serve kava and use it as a place to advocate for Pasifika communities and to encourage grass-roots investment in Tonga and other Pasifika groups. To date, they have spearheaded a successful international letter-writing campaign to halt a proposal on constraining the consumption of kava, created a nationally recognized space for Tongan community leaders to meet, and have hosted fundraisers for disaster relief. Todd has used his unique position to be an ally to the culture he married into and to dispel many of the controversies and misunderstandings surrounding kava and its consumption.  


Todd LOVES kava and kava culture and he is on a mission to share it far and wide. He explains, “Any kava space, across the Pacific, if you come with respect and humility, you will be welcomed with open arms. It is just a different way of viewing hospitality and welcoming outsiders into a space, which is not common around the world. I learned that every kava space is founded on respect between people. I was fascinated by this concept, which is so different from where I grew up. So I started thinking, what if we took this original thing that my wife’s father had done for years and we applied it in a different context. What if we take kava and bring it to Auckland, in a space that is visible and accessible for anybody who happens to be curious about kava and wants to learn about it. That is what we ultimately did with Four Shells Kava Lounge.”  The rest is history. 


Todd is currently earning his Ph.D., which–you guessed it–focuses on Tonga. His Ph.D. looks at human displacement and migration in Tonga that is a result of climate change. He explores this from the perspective of those who have been displaced or in danger of being displaced, which is largely missing from the overall academic literature. He hopes that his research will inform future investment and initiatives from international organizations and promote more collaboration with the people actually being impacted by the existential crisis of climate change. 


On top of his time being a father to 4 children and running a successful kava lounge, he also had time to serve on the Friends of Tonga board as our Communications Coordinator for two years before stepping down. Four Shells Kava Lounge is the unofficial headquarters for Friends of Tonga, in New Zealand, and Todd still makes time to serve as our current Newsletter editor. Todd’s leadership with both Friends of Tonga and Four Shells Kava Lounge resulted in a fundraiser that raised over $6,000 that was wired to MORDI Tonga Trust a week after the Hunga-Tonga Hunga-Ha’apai volcanic eruption. According to our partners in Tonga, Friends of Tonga was the first nonprofit to provide funding for disaster relief after the volcanic eruption. The ability to achieve this feat is directly attributed to the community cultivated at Four Shells Kava and the generosity of Todd and ‘Anau Henry.