Living for a year on a dot in the Pacific Ocean has its ups downs and even a few shakes! We have slipped into the quiet pace of Tongan life very easily and even took the 7.6 May earthquake in our stride … it is so flat here anyway that if a tsunami did hit there is nowhere to run.
I think the biggest challenge is access to technology, which we tend to take for granted in Australia unless one lives in the outback or a mobile shadow.
I suspect we take much for granted in the West and this experience is reminding me to take the time to reflect and be more grateful.
The dynamic principal, Sister Kieoma, is an inspirational Tongan born Marist missionary sister who works tirelessly to get the best outcomes for her students regardless of their financial or social background. It is a refreshingly inclusive environment where difference is accepted and nurtured.
My husband Gordon (‘Kotoni’ in Tongan) is under an AusAid funded project to boost the capacity of catering teachers. This role has extended to evening cooking classes for locals which has been lots of fun and successful in getting them to have a more healthy approach to meals.
At ‘Ahopanilolo Technical Institute’ students study fashion, design, art, hospitality and cookery, with very basic facilities but with five star results.
Onsite bi-monthly Pot Luck training restaurant dinners are an opportunity for students to build their English proficiency, confidence and skills in a ‘real life’ setting, enjoy a delicious gourmet three course meal and be entertained by students with an array of cultural dances and musical items.
Life for women here is changing slowly although I get the impression their role is still tied very much to home duties.
Family is a priority for most Tongans with married women moving to live with their husband’s family until they can build their own home … usually right next door to the in-laws … which certainly helps with childcare, which is nonexistent. They also adopt their husband’s religion and church.
Men are granted land from the government and also through a somewhat complex family inheritance arrangement which does have bonuses as no one really has a mortgage or has to pay rent. Family living overseas often finance building materials and a skilled relative oversees construction with everyone pitching in.
Funerals are huge events involving a number of days of mourning, praying and communal singing before the actual burial. Visitors come to pay respects to the body at the family home before sitting down to long tables where they are served endless amounts of food and leave with takeaways. It can be a very expensive affair.
Gifts of money, woven mats, quilts, bark tapa cloth or floral arrangements and garlands are presented to the grieving family and redistributed through another complex family/community obligatory system.
The eldest sister, or aunty, is held in the highest esteem at all functions and always takes a major role in formalities. At funerals it is also her job to cut the hair of certain female relatives as a sign of respect to the departed.
Food is the centre of Tongan life and even in the workplace meals are shared and regularly a focal point for gathering together. I don’t think there is a word in Tongan for ‘leftovers’ as there never seems to be any … and guests usually leave carrying a ‘doggy bag’ of goodies.
Sundays are sacrosanct for most Tongans and most businesses are closed. A typical Sunday starts with donning traditional tupenus (‘skirts’) accessorised with a woven ‘ta’ovala’ mat which is secured around the waist with twine.
Churches are ubiquitous and the choirs can be quite awesome ,although the very early morning bell-tolling takes a little getting used to. We actually have a church right outside our bedroom window so can attend without even leaving the house! After prayers it is home for umu, sleeping, movie-watching and maybe a second or even third trip to church later in the day for the really devout Christians.
The weekly ‘umu’ feast comprises of taro leaves filled with a range of fillings and coconut milk teamed with boiled root vegetables such as taro, cassava, breadfruit and yam freshly harvested from the plantation and cooked on hot coals. This is usually served with ‘ota ika’, a raw marinated fish salad.
We have seen the King a few times at his church and again for the opening of parliament, which was a grand spectacle of parading bands, marching school students and dignitaries.
Knowing that winter clouds are draping and drenching the Australian continent a mere four and half hours’ flight away as we discard the woolies and enjoy sun-filled days makes our year without a jumper seem even more surreal and sun-filled but we are coping!