Tonga Flag

Tonga Travel Guide

Laundry Day
laundry day on Vava'u Island

The People

For visitors, Tonga is its culture and people. The Tongans are exceptionally relaxed, impassive toward delays, etc., and with the world's lowest death rate, it seems Tongans even pass away slowly. The happy lifestyle is summed up in expressions like mo'ui fiemalie (a contented life), mo'ui nonga (a peaceful life), nofo fiefia (living happily), and nofo fakalata (making others feel at home). It's also said that if a Tongan loses his identity, he will slowly become cold and die.

Tonga is typical of developing countries, with its large families and young population. Most Tongans reside in small villages near their bush gardens, and except in the Europeanized areas, isolated houses along the roads are rare. Most Tongans live in tin-roofed wooden or cement block houses with electricity and running water, and very few still live in traditional thatched fale.

With 150 people per square km, Tonga is one of the most densely populated countries in the Pacific (twice as dense as the Cooks, three times as dense as Fiji). Yet despite a high birth rate, emigration has kept population figures stable at around 100,000 since the 1970s. Around 2,000 Tongans a year leave the country, many for good, and some 60,000 now live in the United States, 41,000 in New Zealand, and 35,000 in Australia.

In Tonga, women have traditionally enjoyed a higher social status than in some other parts of Polynesia, due to the fahu system, which gives Tongan women certain authority over male family members. The eldest sister is the family matriarch, exercising considerable control over younger brothers, nephews, and nieces. Public life in Tonga, however, is almost completely dominated by men, due to sexist succession and land ownership laws, as well as cultural norms.

The missionaries increased the importance of the family unit. Each family member has a role, with the older persons commanding the most respect. Children may reside with an aunt or uncle just as easily as with their parents and are taught obedience from an early age, which is why they are so much better behaved than Samoan children. The most important occasions in Tongan life are first and twenty-first birthdays, marriages, and funerals. Tonga has one of the highest levels of school enrollment in the South Pacific, and 99.6 percent of Tongans are literate.

Acculturation is proceeding fast in Nuku'alofa, where most families now have a VCR, and the dozens of video rental outlets do roaring business. There are few controls on videos, and Tongans can see everything from horror to soft pornography on their screens. The videos have effectively done away with faka'apa'apa, or respect between brother and sister, an old taboo that would never have allowed them to sit in the same room and watch a sex scene. (This also explains some of the physical attention lone foreign women receive from Tongan men at discos.)

To a Tongan, great physical size is the measure of beauty—Tongan women begin increasing prodigiously in beauty from age 15 onward.

Traditional History

Tongans have a long traditional history, and many can name up to 39 generations by heart. There is little social mobility: A commoner can never become a noble, though a noble or a member of the royal family can be stripped of his title. Commoners may be elevated to the rank of matapule (talking chief), a spokesperson for the king or a noble. The nobles are fairly easy to spot. They're the overweight men in traditional costume who seem to command authority but do nothing. Ordinary Tongans must use a special dialect quite different from everyday Tongan when speaking to a noble or member of the royal family. An equivalent English example for "eating heartily" might go as follows: commoners gorge, the nobles feed, and the king dines.

Continue to   People: Traditional Dress   »