Tonga is a largely homogenous, church- and family-oriented society. Although most Tongans are open and extremely hospitable, due to cultural nuances foreigners can often feel a bit at arm’s length.
One of the most distinctive features of Tongan culture are fakaleiti, a modern continuation of an ancient Polynesian tradition, known as fa’afafine in Samoa and mahu or rae rae in French Polynesia.
The term fakaleiti is made up of the prefix faka- (in the manner of) and -leiti from the English word lady. Traditionally, if a Tongan woman had too many sons and not enough daughters she would need one of the sons to assist with ‘women’s work’ such as cooking and housecleaning. This child would then be brought up as a daughter. These days, becoming a fakaleiti can also be a lifestyle choice. There is little stigma attached to fakaleiti, and they mix easily with the rest of society, often being admired for their style.
On Tongatapu, the Tonga Leitis’ Association (TLA) is an active group – members prefer to call themselves simply leiti (ladies). The association sponsors several popular, well-attended events, including the international Miss Galaxy competition in July. On Vava'u, check out the fakaleiti show every Wednesday night at the Bounty Bar.
Tongans are proud Polynesians with a unique culture, different from other South Pacific nations. Tongans make up the vast majority of the people – there are a few palangi (Westerners) and a small but significant population of Chinese immigrants.
Tonga’s total resident population is around 106,000. Tongatapu has more than 65% of the total population, with approximately 30% of the total living in and around Nuku’alofa (the island’s and the nation’s capital).
Estimates suggest there are as many Tongans living abroad as there are in the kingdom, mostly in New Zealand, Australia and the US. There are now many second- and third-generation Tongans living in these countries.
Tonga is, on the surface at least, a very religious country. Around 99% of the population identifies as being of Christian faith. The Free Wesleyan Church (the royal family’s church of choice) claims the largest number of adherents, followed by the (Methodist) Free Church of Tonga, the Church of England, the Roman Catholics, Seventh Day Adventists and the wealthy and increasingly prominent Mormons (look for their tidy cream-and-blue complexes around the country).
Churches are central to everyday life and, as they are seen as social and community organisations, Tongans donate a lot of money to them. Because of this, Tongans are very conservative and bring religion into all kinds of aspects of their daily lives. For example, public displays of affection between the sexes are a no-no. Many Tongans, especially women, may go to church two, three or even four times every Sunday.
Many Tongans still believe in the spirits, taboos, superstitions, medical charms and gods of pre-Christian Polynesia. One such belief is that if a family member is suffering a serious illness, it is because the bones of their ancestors have been disturbed. Many will return to old family burial sites, dig up remains and rebury relatives to remedy their own ill health.
Family is very important in Tongan life, with each member playing a role and elders commanding respect. A family unit often consists of sundry extras including adopted children, cousins and other relatives living alongside the parents, children and grandparents. Everything is communal, from food to sleeping arrangements, and everyone is looked after. The patriarch is usually the head of the family and jobs are distributed according to gender.
You’ll often see Tongans in conservative dress wearing distinctive pandanus mats called ta’ovala around their waists. In place of a ta’ovala, women often wear a kiekie, a decorative waistband of woven strips of pandanus. Men frequently wear a wraparound skirt known as a tupenu and women an ankle-length vala (skirt) and kofu (tunic).
Tongans highly value education. The literacy rate is 99%, reflecting the large investment that Tonga – and some highly visible religious groups – have made in the people. English is taught in schools throughout the islands. At tertiary level, the University of the South Pacific (USP) has a large campus outside Nuku'alofa.
Check out the colourful school uniforms worn by Tongan kids, standard throughout the country. Children at government primary schools wear red and white, government secondary school students wear maroon, blue is the colour for Wesleyan schoolkids, orange is for Church of Tonga schools, and Mormon school students wear green.