Sunday, June 12, 2016

Impressions of Tonga

We have now been here for a month, enjoying ourselves mostly, and also trying to make sense of this unusual country. It is beautiful; it has a lovely climate (at this time of year), the water is pristine, and the people are lovely, friendly, and welcoming. We have felt safe.

There are also some significant 'buts'.

A helpful book is 'Making sense of Tonga: a visitors guide to the Kingdom's rich Polynesian culture'. Written by a Peace Corps guide, it is serious, unlike one Peace Corps guide to the Amazon. I have also read 'Tupaia: Captain Cook's Polynesian Navigator', and highly recommend it.

The 'but' side of Tonga includes the facts that it is a feudal society, priest-ridden, and over-run with pigs.

'Feudal' is seriously uncool. The society is highly stratified, with the King and God in the top rank, nobles in the middle rank, and commoners and animals in the bottom rank. There are three vocabularies, relating to the three levels. An example in the 'Making sense' book is:

Noble to commoner: 'Nice to see you. How are your children?'
Commoner to noble: 'My litter is doing well. Thanks for asking'.

One weird effect of rank is that a gift to someone has to be re-gifted immediately to someone of higher rank. It is therefore better to do a transaction with a Tongan when there is no-one else present.

It is thus the case that it has all the features of a communal society; possessions are not really privately owned by an individual, but with an added malign twist, that possessions are not shared with ones peers, but rather percolate up the rank system.

The royal family and nobles sound significantly dodgy. King Tupou VI, his family, powerful nobles and a growing non-royal elite caste live in much wealth, with the rest of the country living in relative poverty. Demands for democratic reform have been met with minimalism and delays. Critical newspapers have been restricted. Tonga was named the sixth most corrupt country in the world by Forbes magazine in 2008.

Priest-ridden is seriously uncool. The churches have done very well out of the 'give upwards' system. Anyone who doesn't donate generously is shamed. Donation means giving to your 'betters' what they want. Churches have established themselves near the top of the pecking order, and exploit the people ruthlessly.

About 90% of the population is aligned with one church or another. Many activities are illegal on Sundays, including fishing, work at home, etc.

According to Wikipedia, the main churches are:
  • Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga (36%)
  • Mormons (18%)
  • Roman Catholics (15%)
  • Free Church of Tonga (12%)
Especially on the poorer islands and villages, there is an excessive diversion of capital into competitive church-building.

On Nomuka, in Ha'apai, we came across this working bee. These women were gutting fish.

Nearby, men were cutting them ready to be dried.

Here is the Mormon minister who is running the show.

He is hanging the fish from tree branches to dry to send back to his church in Australia.

This is to raise money for more church-building. This is one of several churches in a dirt-poor village on the island of Nomuka. I should have thought a better use of the money would be for some process to freeze fish and send it to market, rather than hanging it from trees for flies and seabirds.

Or better housing than these examples.

Christopher Hitchens would have found a few examples to illustrate his views on religion.

Pigs. I have never seen so many pigs in my life. They have a special place in Pacific Island cultures.

Pigs range free, converting most villages into open pig-sties. Some houses erect fences to keep them out of their 'gardens'. Only these gardens can grow anything in the way of flowers or vegetables. Pigs root everything else up. 

Cemeteries are at risk, if graves are not fenced.

And cemeteries are a big feature.

Here is a blog entry from another yachtie: Christianity, the King, and Culture.

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