Tonga - People & Culture
Tonga’s people are Polynesian, with a total population of about 101,134. Tonga is very much about its people and culture. Tongans are welcoming, relaxed and generally happy and easygoing. Tongans are perhaps most renowned for their girth, their musical talent and the nation’s inimitable sense of hospitality. Tongans enjoy the beach, collecting from the sea, singing and dancing. Any occasion, big or small, can become a good reason for getting together to celebrate
with friends and family.
The family is the central unit of Tongan life. Each family member plays a role, with older persons commanding the most respect. A typical family unit may consist of adopted children, cousins and other distant relatives, alongside the usual smattering of siblings and grandparents. Everything is communal, from food to sleeping arrangements, although brothers and sisters always sleep under separate roofs in accordance with the Tonga culture of sibling separation and respect.
Chores are distributed according to gender: men tend the ’umu (underground oven), grow and harvest food, collect and husk coconuts and perform all manual labour. The women clean, wash clothes, prepare and cook food, and take on the lion’s share of child-minding responsibilities. The patriarch is generally the head of the family, and land passes down from a father to his eldest son.
Women, however, possess high (even superior) status in other facets of family
life. For example, a fahu (father’s oldest sister) will be accorded the highest levels of respect at all formal and informal occasions from funerals to weddings and births. She acts as the family matriarch and oversees her siblings, nieces, and nephews.
Funerals are of enormous cultural significance in Tonga. In contrast with the taboos regarding death and dying in Western society, death in Tonga is met with matter-of-fact acceptance and a highly ritualised grieving process. Mourners can be easily spotted, with custom requiring that Tongans dress in black and wear a ta’ovala (a mat wrapped around the waist and tied with rope), some of which almost reach the neck and face. These signify the death of an immediate family member, and are also worn in the case of a royal funeral. Certain female relatives also cut off their hair, while men grow their beards.
Religion closely follows the family in importance, and almost all Tongans are churchgoers. No visitor to Tonga should miss the cultural experience of attending church. Besides, on a Sunday, that’s where all the action is. Outside of the churches, the streets are empty, all businesses, except those for visitors, are closed, sports are prohibited, and even planes don’t fly!
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