Tonga’s Generous Culture

A lot of time seems to be spent watching people and life pass by on the dusty streets and back roads of the villages. We spent many afternoons walking through the countryside, taking pictures of the school children, plantation workers, and other local sights. Cemeteries were always a colorful display. Death is both joyously celebrated and deeply respected, with mourning periods lasting up to ten days. Graveyards are usually garnished with colorful plastic flowers, tapestries, statues, and other types of vibrant displays of remembrance. There are as many cemeteries sprawled about the island as there are churches and all are lovingly taken care of and decorated.

One of the best experiences was getting to know the people of Tonga on a personal level. Whether it was simply through hitching a ride with the island locals or actually living with the families during my three-week stay, I certainly met some amazing and intriguing individuals. When my friend Gwenda arrived in Ha’apai, we stayed at the Fonagava’inga guesthouse, a quaint little house behind a lot full of pigs and screaming children. Langilangi, the grandmother of the house, ran the guesthouse along with her five sweet grandchildren. From dawn to dusk, she was caring for the kids, feeding the babies, cooking for the extended family members who lived nearby, trekking back and forth to church, or tidying up the house. Gwen and I stayed for several days and helped with the kids, playing with the older ones long into the night or watching the babies so Langilangi could have some quite time.

The children around the house were wonderful and always seemed to be cheerful. Unlike kids at home, these little tykes were happy to play for hours with a simple piece of string or pen and paper. There is a strong sense of family embedded in everyone, especially the children, for they are often responsible for watching over their younger brothers and sisters. It is also common for grandparents to assist or completely take over in the raising of their grandchildren. More often than not, the parents are working overseas in order to send money back home or saving to send their children to good, English speaking schools. Community and church are also key ingredients in the Tongan lifestyle. Everybody is either a brother, sister, uncle or aunt, even if there is no actual blood relationship. Food is shared, money is loaned, kids are shuttled between households and everyone shares the special bond of religion with one another.

Like many South Pacific islands, the church plays a central role in all aspects of life. Tonga is no exception as the islanders are deeply religious people. There is a church on every block and on every corner as well. Sunday is a sacred day. Tongans are prohibited from working, traveling, swimming, drinking…basically anything fun! Planes don’t fly, boats cannot land, and every single store, café, and market stall is closed for the day. There is nothing to do but join the locals as they traipse back and forth to church in the morning, afternoon, and evening. Gwenda and I visited one of the local churches in Ha’apai and sat among the Tongans, each one dressed in their finest and clutching well worn bibles. Even the shiny cheeked children were well behaved for the duration of the three hour services. They looked beautiful too! Little girls dressed in flouncy dresses had perfect braids cascading down their backs and prim, delicate ribbons. The young boys sat tall and proud beside their parents, each one trying to imitate his father’s strong, graceful posture. I was simply awe-struck when we were motioned to rise and sing. Hymnals were pointless. Everyone knew all the words to every song and sang in perfect harmony and pitch with the rest of the congregation. Although we didn’t know the words, I could have listened for hours to the angelic gospels. After church, everyone sits in the shade to chatter and watch the kids run around, wasting their pent up energy. Some families have feasts and invite all neighboring houses and friends. If not, the rest of the day is spent lying around or walking through the silent, ghost town, hoping to catch some terrific photographs.

This is certainly a culture I could adapt to—nobody is in a hurry, long afternoons are spent sharing time together, and the latest Netflix episode is a distant thought.