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.
Tongan handicrafts are handmade from local materials and each piece is unique, not mass produced. A lot of time and effort has gone into making all those bone-carved necklaces, wooden carvings, woven baskets, mother-of-pearl earrings and tapa mats that you're ogling in the markets and handicraft shops.
Women’s groups often work together making handicrafts and especially tapa and woven mats, which are treasured possessions in every household and used for important occasions like weddings and funerals.
Tapa is made from beaten bark of the mulberry tree, and as women usually work together in a mat-making group to produce a large piece, it is often divided up later. Woven mats are made from pandanus leaves and used for floor coverings or as ta’ovalas, to be worn around the waist.
Visitors should avoid buying handicrafts made from turtleshell or whalebone while in Tonga – certainly non-sustainable materials.
Music & Dance
Tongans love to sing, and conjure up some seriously sweet South Seas harmonies. They enthusiastically launch into song in church, at festivals, in cafes and bars, at dances, and with guitars and ukeleles around the kava bowl. They also love brass marching bands and every high school has one. Young Tongans, however, increasingly listen to imported Western music: hip hop is de rigeur and appropriately badass (but inexplicably, Elton John seems to emanate from every cafe, bar, car and construction site).
The most frequently performed traditional dance in Tonga is called the lakalaka. The tau’olunga, a female solo dance, is the most beautiful and graceful of all Tongan dances, while the most popular male dance is the intimidating kailao – the war dance (something akin to the famous Maori haka, but more kinetic).
At traditional feasts that visitors may attend, female dancers are often lathered in coconut oil and, as they dance, members of the audience approach and plaster paper money to their sticky bods. Far from an erotic prelude, this is good form and ‘tips’ given in this manner will be greatly appreciated.
The Kingdom of Tonga comprises 177 islands, scattered across 700,000 sq km of the South Pacific Ocean. Geographically Tonga is composed of four major island groups, which are, from south to north: Tongatapu and ‘Eua, Ha’apai, Vava’u and the Niuas.
Tonga sits on the eastern edge of the Indo-Australian plate, which has the Pacific tectonic plate sliding under it from the east, creating the Tonga Trench. This 2000km-long oceanic valley that stretches from Tonga to New Zealand is one of the deepest in the world – if Mt Everest was placed in the deepest part of the Tonga Trench, there would still be more than 2km of water on top of it. Tonga is moving southeast at 20mm a year (geologically speaking, that's really truckin'!), meaning that the region is a particularly volatile area for volcanic and earthquake activity.
Tonga’s national flower is the heilala, a small, pudgy pink-red bloom. The heilala, plus colourful and sweet-smelling hibiscus, frangipani and bird of paradise blooms, create dazzling roadside colours. There are coconut groves and banana plantations amid fields of taro, cassava and yams. Papaya are everywhere. Huge rain trees (kasia), mango trees and banyans dot the landscape, while mangroves smother the mudflats.
Dolphins and migrating humpback whales swim in the waters around Tonga. The humpbacks come from June to October and can often be seen offshore from the major islands.
The only land mammal native to Tonga is the flying fox (fruit bat; peka). Interesting birdlife includes the henga (blue-crowned lorikeet); the koki (red shining parrot) of ’Eua; and the malau (megapode or incubator bird), originally found only on the island of Niuafo’ou, but introduced in recent years to uninhabited Late Island west of Vava’u in an effort to save it from extinction. Butterflies are a constant delight, right across the country.
Tonga is an important breeding ground for humpback whales, which migrate to its warm waters between June and October. They can be seen raising young in the calm reef-protected waters and engaging in elaborate mating rituals. Humpbacks are dubbed ‘singing whales’ because the males sing during courtship routines. The low notes of their ‘songs’ can reach 185 decibels and carry 100km through the open ocean.
Humpback populations around the world have declined rapidly over the past 200 years, from 150,000 in the early 1800s to an estimated 12,000 today. The same predictable migration habits that once made the giants easy prey for whalers nowadays make them easy targets for whale watchers.
As Tonga’s whale-watching industry has grown, so has concern over its impact. At the centre of the debate is the practice of swimming with whales. While it's undoubtedly one of the more unusual experiences you can have on the planet, some suggest that human interaction with whales – especially mothers and calves when they are at their most vulnerable – has a disruptive effect on behaviours and breeding patterns. Taking a longer view, others say that given humanity's historic propensity for slaughtering humpbacks by the tens of thousands, it's time we gave them a little peace and quiet.
In response to these concerns, in 2013 the Tongan government enacted a strict code of conduct for whale-watch operators and noncommercial yachts in the nation's waters, prohibiting unlicenced vessels within 300m of any whale, and banning swimming, diving, kayaking or jet-skiing near whales for anyone other than licenced operators.
If whale watching is a bucket-list essential for you, there are whale-watch and whale-swim operators in all of Tonga’s island groups. Vava'u has most of the operators, but Ha'apai is probably a safer bet: there are only five operators here, which equates to less pressure on the whales. Make sure you go with a licensed operator (ask at the Nuku'alofa or Neiafu visitor information centres) and give yourself a few days to do it so that there is no pressure on the operator to ‘chase’ whales in order to keep you happy. If you feel your whale-swim operator has breached the boundaries and ‘hassled’ the whales in any way, make sure you report this to the info centres.
A number of murky conservation issues cloud the waters of Tonga. These are mainly based around the environment being compromised for economic gain and include the following:
- Swimming with dophins and whales There are arguments that swimming with whales alters their behaviour and habitat, and has a detrimental affect on both mothers and babies.
- Green turtle conservation Tongans eat green turtles, often as part of religious ceremonies, and use turtle shell for jewellery, but turtle numbers are dwindling.
- Sea cucumbers Asian culinary tastes mean that big dollars can be earned by exporting sea cucumbers to Asia. There is a fear that they are being overfished.
- Aquarium fish It has been suggested that exporting brightly coloured aquarium fish to the USA is to the detriment of populations around Tongan reefs.
- Litter Everywhere you go in Tonga you'll see piles of rubbish and non-boidegradable junk strewn along the roadsides. What a mess!
Tonga has eight officially protected areas, including six national marine parks and reserves, Ha’atafu Beach Reserve on Tongatapu, and two national parks – the 449-hectare ‘Eua National Park and Mt Talau National Park in Vava’u.
The Republic of Minerva
The Minerva Reefs, Tonga’s southernmost extremity, 350km southwest of Tongatapu, has long served as a rest point for yachts travelling between Tonga and New Zealand. Awash most of the time, it contains a safe anchorage in an almost perfect circle of reef, and has a colourful history. Tonga first claimed the unpopulated reef in 1972 after the Phoenix Foundation, founded by Las Vegas property developer Michael Oliver, tried to create the tax-free Republic of Minerva there, barging in tonnes of sand from Australia. Currency was even pressed, before the Tongan king himself sailed south to tear down the republic’s flag.
More recently, yachties have been warned to keep away from Minerva after a fracas between neighbours Fiji and Tonga. In 2005 Fiji stated that it did not recognise Tonga's maritime water claims to the reefs, and filed a complaint with the International Seabed Authority. Tonga counter-filed in opposition. Then in 2010 and again in 2011, the Fijian Navy took potshots at navigation lights on the reefs, before their boats were chased away by Tongan patrol boats. The UN was called in to calm everybody down.
In a bid to resolve the dispute, in 2014 Tonga reportedly offered the Minerva Reefs to Fiji in exchange for the Lau Islands, with which many Tongans have an affinity. But at the time of writing the future of Minerva was as cloudy as ever: watch this space!