The legendary sea captain Captain Cook first visited Tonga in 1773. When he returned in 1777 he stayed for over 2 months, in what he named the ‘friendly isles’. He found fertile islands of impressive plantations living under a benevolent system of monarchy and chiefdoms. In Cook’s day the women were “obliging” and “welcoming” and reading between the lines it wasn’t hard to understand why his men were more than happy to stay and play among the coconut palms. The arrival of Western Missionaries twenty years later apparently put paid to such behaviour to the point where today Tonga is one of the most highly-christianised countries on earth. Tonga is the only South Pacific nation to have never been colonised, but the missionary influence since the 18th century has made a huge impact on their ‘pre-contact’ culture.In a village the size of Hunga with a population of about 200, there is one school, no clinic (it was built but does not have staff or supplies), no shop, but at least 7 churches. The influence of missionaries is everywhere, everyone is bought up Christian and the church plays a huge part in everyone’s lives. It is hard to separate pre-christian Tongan culture from what is now called ‘traditional’ Tongan life. Schools belong to different churches and denominations and all families are affiliated to a church and will give a large proportion of their income to it. It is illegal to operate any businesses on Sundays, no can go fishing or do work of any kind. (Of course it was once like this in Europe too, and many would say it was a good thing…)
In Tonga Sundays are for church, family, and feasting. During the week many Tongans live quite simply on a bland diet of yams, cassava or taro, but on a Sunday they eat vast quantities of meat and fish and vegetables cooked in the ‘umu’, the traditional earth oven, and may go to church 3 or 4 times.Our neighbours Elki and Werner invited us to join them to go to church one sunny Sunday morning. I am not Christian but thought it would be an interesting experience, and as I was bought up in a Christian family I have a deep rooted respect for these places despite my logic wanting to shake it off. We were told we’d need to dress up for church – everyone wears Sunday best here – and women must cover arms and legs, so feeling unusually smart we head over to Elkie and Werners to catch our boat lift…
Werner strides out in his tiny blue speedos and instructs Kian to remove his trousers..such a funny sight seeing them pushing the boat down the slip, Kian’s white skinny legs skidding along. As expected, Elkie was sharp, loud, and bossy and barked orders to her long suffering half death (conveniently) husband. When the waters got tricky and we had to negotiate crossing the reef she stood bodicea like in the boat firmly directing the way, which sometimes Werner chose firmly to ignore. I have grown to be very fond of them both and their amusing Germanic ways.
Kian and Werner
On arriving in Hunga we walked up the steep hill to the Methodist church, a simple white washed wooden hall, where a huge rusty old bell was ringing. The service lasted about an hour, and of course we couldn’t understand a word. I let it all drift over me and enjoyed watching the distracted children wandering in their Sunday best, the woven ‘skirts’ – ta’ovala or kiekie -wrapped around them, the beautiful older ladies with neat little buns and spotty shawls and fresh flower necklaces – ‘lei’, and the younger pretty girls dolled up in suffocatingly hot nylon shirts and shiney frills.
It was the singing that took me by surprise and really moved me. Very few of the hymns involved books, most were known by heart and sung with such gusto and passion but could quieten to a gentle voice and then rise again to shrill and loud Polynesian harmony. Most songs were in 2 or 3 parts and remarkably everyone seemed to know what they were doing. One man would start in response to the preacher and the rest would burst into voice and fill the church. It was a rare moment listening and looking around me that I felt I was here; here in this specific Polynesian place, not just any tropical island. I loved watching the palm trees sway out the window in the bright light and as our preacher spoke singing would drift in from other churches across the village.
typical Hungan home
Christmas is massive for Tongans and they have a big reunion time with family coming in from all over the world. Church is the focus on Christmas day and they hold huge village feasts to celebrate the reunions around the season. This year Hunga celebrated together on Boxing day and 28th December. We joined them for the latter having had a really nice quiet Christmas time in Fofoa.
Tressle tables and canopies were set up in the central village field and busy people were bringing full ice boxes from their homes. Young men played volley ball, small kids kicked balls, dogs slept, and the tables grew more laden. They were spread with an odd, and very Tongan, mix of old and new ‘traditional’ food. Plastic wrapping was everywhere, and whilst baby pigs ran around freely their bigger siblings were presented roasted, golden and whole on the tables. There were baskets of fruit, coconuts to drink and all sorts of pre-plated and cellophaned foods, and to the kids delight lots of crisps and biscuits. There was not a lot of choice for veggies but we did have potato & egg salad, some strange fake crab thing, and Ota Ikha, a traditional raw fish salad, delicious with fresh coconut milk – See recipe link below.
We were politely informed to make a donation to the town councillor and then the loud music came on. I enjoyed having a dance with a beautiful sparkling 83 year old woman, mother of the councillor. After various announcements the feasting began and then long long speeches through a crackling pa from all the notable people and the elderly (the oldest members of the community were being honoured that day and sat at the top table), interspersed with dancing shows. Young girls in traditional costumes danced with beautiful slow graceful movements set to untraditional blasting music.
Maisie follows the tradition of tucking money into the dancers dresses
The kids got tired of all the speeches so headed down to the jetty to swim, and we too edged away when it didn’t seem rude. It was a lovely day and great to experience something not for tourists and truly Tongan – as Tonga is now.
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