First Impressions of Tonga

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been here for such a short time. Each day, even every hour, seems to bring a new experience as we continue our introduction to the Tonga culture. So far, the experience has exceeded any expectations I may have had about what to expect. From the beautiful harmony of men singing while sitting around a kava circle to the friendly hellos you get everywhere you go, Tonga has certainly extended its welcome mat to our group of 33 people.

During our training, we’ve heard several times that it is important not to compare what we see in Tonga to our own culture. The idea is that it is important to learn and accept the culture for the way it is without putting our own cultural views on everything. I agree with the philosophy, but for the purposes of my family and friends in the United States, I’m going to break that important rule to help you understand better what I’m experiencing.

We are staying in a small village on the main island of Tongatapu. I’m living with a host family and a fellow Peace Corps Trainee. Everywhere we go, we run into other members of our host family or family connections. And family has a very broad meaning in Tonga. It goes back generations and includes every aunt, uncle, cousin, you can imagine. Adoption also seems to be very common. One of our hosts was adopted into her family of nine children. In some cases the biological family even becomes part of the family of the adopted son or daughter. I’ve yet to meet a Tongan who lives alone and most houses have many generations of family under the same roof or living very close. One Tongan woman, who now lives in the United States, explained to me that reunions are critical in Tonga because if you don’t know who you are related to, you might end up dating them. She said two people living in New Zealand might not know they are related if they don’t show up for the reunion.

There is a hierarchical rank in every family, but it is very difficult to figure out. A rank can even be passed down from one generation to another. Where you sit during a meal or how decisions are made have a lot to do with the rank within each family. As guests, we have been put at the head of the table and have been even been asked to move once we are already seated. This has been explained to us as a sign of respect.

Our host family is truly wonderful. I like them all very much and they have welcomed us much as you would welcome your own family members. While there are just four family members living in the house, there are often many other relatives and friends here, making it hard to keep track of everyone sometimes.

I had read before arriving about how strongly gender roles are defined in Tonga. And while I have seen quite a bit of that, it would be unfair to think that the typical “A woman’s place is in the home” stereotype is always accurate in Tonga. There are women who are the only breadwinners in their families, women who are in high positions in government and who own their own local businesses. My experience has been very limited so far, but it appears that a Tongan woman has more opportunities than what I might have expected.

Having said that, there are places where women are just not welcome. One is Kava or a Kava circle. This is strictly a man’s affair and the only women allowed are those who serve the kava to the men. Saturday night, our host took us to a Kava Circle across from our home. There were about 40 or 50 men being served Kava by two single women. The women who serve Kava are always single and they are not allowed to drink it, only serve it to the men. In our circle of about 15 men, one was playing the Ukulele, another the guitar and two others were singing along with them. Their voices were beautiful and while I couldn’t understand the words, it was great to listen and watch them, as they stopped only to take another cup of Kava. Each person who wants more Kava passes his cup to the woman serving who pours the Kava and hands it back. As Palangi (Foreigners) we were given smaller servings, which I was later told was a sign of respect. In addition to the music, the men sit around and talk, tell jokes and generally enjoy each other’s company. This particular Kava circle collects 5 P’aanga which is equal to about US $2.50 from each participant every Saturday night. One of the participants told me they use the money to provide scholarships to the University with the money they collect. A fact that was later confirmed to me by someone else.

The one place where they did not collect money where I had expected it was at Church on Sunday. I attended the Free Wesleyan Church, which is the Methodist Church in the United States. I was there with about 20 fellow Peace Corps trainees. The first thing that struck me was the music. Unlike churches in the United States, the Tongans sing with an unbelievable passion. Here’s where I’ll make a comparison. Think of the finale of a Broadway Musical and you will begin to get an idea of the sound of the congregation. There is no choir at the front of the church but there is a music director who directs the congregation in each song. There are times it is so loud, you almost want to lower the volume a bit. There were no pianos or organs, just a keyboard player who played softly in the background. In fact, there were many times I thought the congregation was singing a’capello as you could not even hear the keyboard.
Each song was started by the town officer, who was sitting on a pew near the rear of the church. It is not because of this job as town officer that he does that, but something he has apparently been doing for years. As is tradition in the Methodist Church, the first Sunday of the month is communion. In Tonga, they simply extend the service on the first Sunday instead of cutting something out like happens in the United States. The only thing missing on Communion Sunday is the offering, which they do not collect since they are offering Communion. Communion is offered by age with the oldest people in the church going first down to the youngest. The congregation sings songs from memory the entire time the congregation is taking Communion. And in true Tonga tradition, everyone goes in bare feet to the front of the church. (Everyone wears Sandals or flip-flops everywhere, including Church so it’s not difficult to take them off to take Communion.)

While I did not understand most of the service, we were greeted in English by three separate people during the service who thanked us for coming to help their country. Another part of the service is the announcements. Instead of just church announcements, the announcements included community news as the church is the centerpiece of the Tongan community. These included calling up to the front of the church anyone who was celebrating a birthday this week and the entire congregation sang Happy Birthday to them.

Food is everywhere and very plentiful. Almost everything is grown in the village where we are staying. There are pigs, chickens and dogs running everywhere and there are no fences. (No they don’t eat the dogs but one of our group did get bitten by a dog. He’s okay). The big meal of the week is the after church feast on Sunday. We ate outdoors at a table covered in banana leaves and our food was prepared in an emu or underground oven. Our hosts had two types of liu, which is meat, onion and coconut milk wrapped in taro leaves and then wrapped in banana leaves to cook in the oven. We had canned meat in one liu and mutton (lamb) in the other. It was really delicious. It reminded me a lot of the Kailua pig I used to eat in Hawaii. Also on the table, we ate sweet potatoes, breadfruit and cassava with our fingers. As a drink, we had fresh watermelon mixed with coconut milk which was really delicious as well. Coconuts are plentiful and used daily in cooking. I’ve become addicted to the local bananas. They have two types and both are really sweet and delicious, picked right off the tree in the back-yard or served to us at our group events. They make a great snack and I get I’m eating five or six a day.

I’ve been most impressed with the Peace Corps training process so far and the staff here is terrific. You know they want you to succeed and they are all working to help us not only learn the language but to better understand the culture and the country. The days are long. We are in class from 8:30am until 5pm. We take a two hour break for dinner with our host families and then are back again at 7pm. However, they keep it moving. The toughest part at least for me is trying to retain all the information they provide. I feel like I’m struggling a bit with the language but every day I learn more and it is great to be able to come home and understand simple phrases. We are taught in groups of five or six people so we get a lot of attention. My instructor is great. We’ll soon be put in new groups based on our abilities which I think will help by having people of similar abilities together.

I’ve uploaded some photographs I’ve taken. I’ve reduced the size of the images since the Internet connections here are a bit slow. For those of you reading this via e-mail or RSS you will need to go to the web page to see the link to the images.

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  1. Steve, I am loving your blog. This is just like Key West from the 1960s when I was a boy---especially, the time thing! I kept thinking of my native island when I read this!! :) miss you bud :) Kirkster