Pray, Eat, Sleep – It’s Sunday!

In Tonga Sundays are holy by law. The three main activities are lotu (church), kai (eat) and mohe (sleep). Although I have a strong bias against the Christian church (thank you fanatic Inner Mission preacher from my childhood), I found that there was little else to do on my first Sunday in Tonga, so I decided to give it a go.

The choices were so many that it made me dizzy, but in the end I went with my French room-mate Thibaut’s idea of going to the official state church – the Free Church of Tonga – where the King was supposed to be.

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A main road in the capital on a Sunday afternoon… F… all happening here.

Where Is The King And Who Paid What?

Like a true Tongan, though, the King doesn’t always do what is culturally expected from him. With that many cultural rules you really can’t blame them. Instead, the King mostly frequents the Methodist church which is conveniently located near the Royal Palace. But the Prime Minister was there and I know that, because he picked up Thibaut as he hitch-hiked into town after the service!

And what a service it was; the singing was incredible. Not only was there a super professional large choir and brass-band, the whole congregation sang with full voices in perfect pitch. As I found out later, this church is the most conservative in all of Tonga and this was reflected in the fact that every single person was wearing black.

Thankfully I always travel with a dark suit (you’d be surprised how handy that is when you’re boarding a flight with a guitar that was supposed to have been checked in) and so I managed to blend in somewhat. Thibaut and myself were the only whites there, but as Thibaut had donned a shiningly white shirt I felt like he got most of the looks, so I felt safe enough to sneak an audio-recording of the fantastic harmonies into my little recorder. More

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Tonga & The Tropical Trouble

If I say ‘tropical island kingdom in the Pacific’, would you think of political riots, racial tension, corrupt authorities, roadside pollution, feudal rule, poverty, alcoholism and natural disasters? I’m guessing no.

Nonetheless, this is also part of the otherwise picture-perfect postcard that you get here in Tonga. It would be easy to write yet another envy-inducing traveller’s blog about how cute all the traditional costumes are, how friendly the people are, how white the sandy beaches are and how fresh the cheap coconuts taste.

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Even though the World Cup is on these days, local rugby matches draw more attention than any soccer game will ever do.

 

Of course, all of that is true and the weather is great too, but you know me; I can’t help but digging up the dirt and the quirk. So here we are – welcome to an alternative peak into the Kingdom of Tonga.

A Cash-Conscious Church

Tonga is the only Polynesian island nation that has never lost its sovereignty to a foreign power. In other words; they were never colonized. For that reason, it is probably also the best living example of uninterrupted Polynesian culture with all the feudalism and taboo that this entails.

That is not to say that new ideas and cultural traits haven’t been introduced. Take Christianity for instance. In the 1800’s Tonga started receiving missionaries of all sorts of Christian denominations; Mormons, 7th Day Adventists, Catholics, Wesleyans, Lutherans, you name it. In modern day Tonga this translates into a 99% Christian population.

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Even the smurfs have their own church in Tonga!

 

Yet, the Tongans didn’t so much get converted as they converted the church practices into a distinctively Tongan version. One example of that is the widespread practice of drinking the anaesthetic juice made from the roots of the Kava plant. In the Free Church of Tonga, the preacher and the congregation thus get moderately stoned together right before and immediately after church services.

Another uniquely Tongan church practice is the in-your-face money collection, which happens during service and ends with a public counting of the loot and a subsequent public reading from a list of givers and their contributions. Talk about peer-pressure.

 

Traditional Pressures

Where Westerners often feel pressure and expectation in their work-environments, Tongans feel their societal obligations most strongly within their families and churches. Tongans will apparently often take out expensive loans just to afford an ‘appropriate’ donation to the church and when a family member dies, the family absolutely must perform certain rites that are often cripplingly expensive.

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