Breaking a Tongan Taboo

The Ha’apai island group is a quiet place and perhaps one of the more traditional places in Tonga.   It’s a place where families are strong and the values are traditional.   On the main island, there is just one restaurant, one bank and a few shops.

Even during the middle of the “work week” you can walk down the main street and never see a car and only pass a few people.

That changes on most Saturdays.  Saturday morning is time for people to gather at the small market on the edge of town.   It’s not just a place for buying and selling but a place to hang out and be entertained with traditional Tongan songs and dances.


Like most places in Tonga, you won’t see men and women dancing together and even families tend to segregate themselves by sex as they browse the market and converse with each other. 


I’m guessing this way of life has existed for many years.   On a recent Saturday in late December, that all changed thanks to the appearance of six of my fellow Peace Corps volunteers at the market.

The volunteers are traveling around Tonga in an effort to educateTongans about AIDS.   Since talking about sex in mixed company is a big Tongan Taboo, just imagine how hard it must be to discuss something like AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases to a mixed group of mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, grandparents and infants. 


To educate the Tongans, the volunteers, who all live on the main island of Tongatapu, decided to write a skit and then lip-synch it in Tongan.   By US standards, this skit would be “G” rated.  Nothing it it would even be considered inappropriate for even he youngest Americans. 

But this isn’t America and as I watched and listened to the skit being performed, I was almost as interested in the reactions by the Tongans as I was to the the performance.

At first, you could see that Tongans were just being polite, paying attention to the volunteers who were putting on a skit for them.  But the crowd quickly turned quiet once the full impact of what was being discussed sunk in.  I’m not sure if it was because they were paying such close attention or because they were in shock.  I have to think his was probably the first time most of these people had ever heard a topic like AIDS discussed in public.

It was also interesting to notice that NO ONE moved during the performance.  Everyone just watched with poker faces.

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At the end, there was polite applause and the crowd quickly went back to normal.   The entire presentation was done in a very culturally sensitive way, but the topic itself was certainly not culturally appropriate for the crowd.  I think this is one of the challenges that Peace Corps volunteers can face, especially when talking about something like AIDS.  It’s important to be sensitive to the culture, but sometimes, you have to break down traditional taboos in order to get the message across.  I really commend Alexis, Andrew, Emily, Enrique, Bobby and Alicia for their efforts to increase AIDS awareness in Tonga.   They did a great job putting this together and hopefully their efforts will help.

There are a couple of side notes to this topic.  No one really knows how big of an issue AIDS is in Tonga.  There have been a handful of documented AIDS cases but testing doesn’t exist and when someone dies, the cause of death is usually just listed as “sick”. There really is no way to accurately know how many people have AIDS.

Another interesting note, when the “AIDS Road show” volunteers arrived in Ha’apai, they went to check out the supply at condoms at the local health office.  They were all old and expired. 

The volunteers have different versions of their skis, some geared to all female audiences and others to all male audiences.   While I didn’t see those, I’m guessing those are a little bit easier than the performance they gave at the market in Ha’apai.


Back in the USA

I’m vacationing at my home in Florida and will return to Tonga January 8th.  

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