The Kingdom of Tonga: Missions and Gifts
Apr 1, 2010
David Rich 1200 Words
$1 Tongan= US 53 Cents
The Kingdom of Tonga: Missions & Gifts
The Tongans parboiled and ate their last missionary in 1806, 17 years after Fletcher Christian set Captain Bligh adrift in a leaky rowboat at Ha’apai in Tonga. Bligh famously sailed 3700 nautical miles in 42 days, unerringly to Timor, perhaps glad to leave the possibility of missionary and other Christian fisticuffs behind.
Tonga’s 176 atolls and volcanic uplifts (36 inhabited), aptly named the Friendly Islands by Captain Cook, remain relatively unchanged. The locals are as friendly as ever though constantly beset by tugs-of-war among religions and nations such as China and Taiwan, crunched, grated and mashed by the machinations of their beloved Kings.
The old-time Kings have drastically evolved. An ancient British ex-pat I met had been lured to settle on Tonga by a UK Reader’s Digest story entitled The King Who Rode a Bicycle. Now the King travels in a motorcade of light-flashing cop cars, driving a London taxi with white leather upholstery in lieu of a bicycle, tearing along the streets of the capital at the top speed limit of 25 Miles Per Hour (40 KPH). The current King, G5 (George the Fifth) to his friends, once described his people, 36% of whom are unemployed, as squatters who would pee in elevators if there were nothing to stop them. The lack of elevators likely suffices.
Actually the Tongans are responsible people. The family of any Tongan involved in an auto accident immediately fixes all property damage though the car has been totaled and the driver annihilated; better than pissing down elevators. But of course the King attended Oxford and Sandhurst and can’t help being a bit of a snoot.
G5’s princesses, hangers-on and extended family form the diplomatic corps servicing the other far-flung kingdoms of the world, siphoning foreign aid from China (newly paved roads for abandoning the Taiwanese Embassy), Japan (water pipes and fire engines traded for whales) and various others diplomatic compromises. One benefactor erected the Kingdom’s largest billboard:
You gotta love this guy, who has devolved power to a parliament (still to be elected), perhaps to avoid the riots that erupted on the death of his heavyweight (620 pound/280 kilo) father in 2006. His father was famous for selling $30 million dollars of Tongan passports to panicked Hong Kongans, every cent neatly stolen by the King’s American Court Jester. Perhaps after the new parliament is elected G5 will return to a bicycle, of course with ermine seat and elevators.
Notwithstanding petty politics and missionaries competing for local souls, Tonga is a charmer. Vava’u, Ha’apai, and Eua offer the South Pacific’s best Humpback whale-watching from June to October. Beaches and tiny island paradises are unending and mostly deserted; though occasionally stuffed with beach resorts offering a surplus of amenities ranging from dance shows with shimmying Wa’hines and fire-eaters as young as ten-years old to scrumptious Tongan feasts instrumental in assuring the famous Tongan girth. As one chap told me,You only eat until you’re full; we eat until we can’t move. I assured him that we in the West are doing all we can to catch up with the hefty Tongans.
Mouth-numbing kava parties abound at all guest houses, resorts and hotels. Guests sat around a huge kava bowl and pass around cups from half coconuts, ordered bottoms up before the sediment settles. Come to find out kava is nature’s most fabulous dietary supplement, a low calorie high fiber appetite suppressant that beats the heck out of Miller time, at least what I now remember. Naturally it’s illegal in Europe, North America and any place where there are elevators.
Tonga’s snorkeling and diving are among the world’s best while the south coast of the largest island, Tongatapu, offers spectacular blow holes stretching for miles. Neon blue waves break under the fringing reef, erupting through its labyrinth of coral pores, creating plumes and fountains putting Versailles to shame.
The locals are used to tourists, greeting the odd one with a hearty Bye, knowing the average visitor is in way too much of a hurry to say Hi to. The big tourist attraction on Sundays is church of whatever flavor, not only because nothing else is open but because it’s an exuberant spectacle of joyous hosannas.
Every Tongan vies to outdo his neighbor’s vocals and the neighboring other churches, one on every block ranging from Weslyan/Tongan and Assembly of God to Roman Catholic, Mormon and the 7th Day Adventists that hold services on Sunday as otherwise no Tongan would attend. Officially for 7th Day Adventists Tonga moves a few hundred meters east, on the other side of the international dateline, for a mere two house each Sunday morning and presto it’s really Saturday.
Naturally the tourists flock to the King’s Church, hoping to spot the Icon to the Globe and World History, or at least peak inside his London Taxi. I was impressed by the men in jackets, ties and skirts, braving the heat and humidity by baring hairy calves. The King’s church sported a formidable and fabulous choir of magnificent songsters dressed in white, rumbling the walls, and an orchestra in black tuxes led by an exuberant conductor. All were overshadowed by a brimstone preacher beseeching the audience, the choir, the orchestra and the heavens to do what I extrapolated from the Tongan as open their wallets.
Tongans are used to opening their wallets for Me’a’ofa, the cultural requirement that a gift be laid on anyone of higher rank, which puts the King’s entourage in pretty good shape. A Tongan explained to me that it was a great privilege to shower one’s earthly goods on one of higher rank, which for most Tongans is a whole slew of lay-abouts.
The average Tongan spends a third of his income on Me’a’ofa, which means times are tough for the lower classes. Non-Tongan merchants, principally Chinese with purchased passports, are not culturally subject to this onerous gift tax and thus enjoy a hefty economic advantage, now gradually taking over the business community.
The best means for Tongans to escape their economic predicament of widespread unemployment and Me’a’ofa is to immigrate after obtaining the best available education, which is available only at Mormon schools. The Mormons provide the best free schools and qualified teachers, and they have thus become the largest religion in Tonga, soon able to declare Tonga the world’s first Mormon nation. My Tongan hostess on Eua Island had been a Mormon missionary to the heathens in Missouri, tempting me to jump in a leaky rowboat and sail to Timor before she started on a pagan from Arizona. My motto is enjoy the gifts but escape the missions.
When You Go: For an arresting article on King G5 see http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/top-stories/2008/07/30/the-madness-of-king-george-tupou-v-tonga-monarch-plays-the-english-country-gent-115875-20676560/. For the Mormon story go to the source: http://lds.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/contact-us/tonga and http://www.lds.org/ldsorg/v/index.jsp?vgnextoid=2354fccf2b7db010VgnVCM1000004d82620aRCRD&locale=0&sourceId=74f6b850e318b010VgnVCM1000004d82620a____&hideNav=1.
The best guesthouse on the big island of Tongatapu is Toni’s, hosted by a curmudgeon Brit ex-pat offering the usual all-you-can drink kava party for $5 (US $2.72) and single private rooms from $40 (US $21) See http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g294142-d456779-Reviews-Toni_s_Guest_House-Nuku_alofa_Tongatapu.html On Eua stay at Taina’s Place for similar prices: http://www.tainasplace-eua.com/, hostessing complemented by former Mormon missionary, Taina Jr. All guesthouses offer inexpensive excursions, tours and copious free information.