Thursday, October 21, 2010

Pigs and Party Favors: A Tongan Funeral

A few weeks ago, a woman who lived in Tongatapu died. Since, somewhere along her family line, someone lived in Ha’ano, she was to be buried in Ha’ano. And so began the story of my first Tongan funeral.

Had the woman, Sela, died in Ha’ano, she would have been buried within 48 hours. Without constant refrigeration, there is no way to preserve the body, so in Ha’ano, they hurry up and get people in the ground. Yet Sela was from Tongatapu, the “mainland,” so the family froze the body, and waited until a good time for the funeral. The secondary school entrance exam was that week, and there wasn’t enough time for proper mourning, so they postponed the funeral until the desired date: October 13.

(A short detour on the refrigeration of the body: A fellow PCV led a lesson on good food preservation practices for her elementary school class. She asked the class, “What do we put in the refrigerator?” She got common answers like fish, butter, ice cream, and then one girl raised her hand. “Grandma,” she suggested.)

Sela’s family and friends escorted the body from Tongatapu to Ha’apai on the Pulupaki, one of the two inter-island ferries in Tonga. The Pulupaki can hold probably 150 passengers and cargo, and it makes its stops in the main town of each island groups.

Except for the morning of October 13. At about 8:30 am, I stood out on my porch looking at the sea. “My, the Pulupaki looks like it’s getting close. That’s weird,” I thought. Turns out, they were bringing Sela’s body and entourage straight to Ha’ano.

Four boats from Ha’ano headed out to meet the Pulupaki just past the reef. The door opened from the Pulupaki, and people jumped from the big boat to the small boat. Eventually they transferred the body too. (I couldn’t see the jumping, but this is standard Pulupaki disembarking practice in the Ha’afeva Group in Ha’apai.)

The boats brought back perhaps 75 mourners and quite a lot of their stuff. The dock was an anthill. Half the people seemed to be preparing the bed of the pickup truck to carry the body from the dock, and the other half of the people seemed to be undoing whatever the first half had done. Eventually the truck was decorated with woven mats, fake flowers, lace, and a large picture of the deceased.

Slowly, the mourners made their way from the dock to the home of the family of the deceased. For the next few hours, I was in school, but I could hear their singing from my house.

School ended at lunchtime for the funeral, and I prepared to go myself. I don’t own a ta’ovala, the woven mats worn for special occasions such as funeral, and there weren’t any spares at my neighbor’s house, so I just wore all black, and headed over to the funeral. There were people everywhere: on the porch at the family’s house, under a tent outside the house, under the mango tree, under the fekika tree, under the food tent, and scattered along the road. I sat with some youth girls, waiting to see what would happen next.

The group of people under the tent at the house was singing songs the whole time. Apparently, sometimes, the funeral lasts all night, and this group keeps a vigil for over 12 hours.

There was a group packed around tables under another tent. This was the eating tent. In a Tongan funeral, the hosts are expected to feed everyone who attends. At this funeral, there were perhaps 150 adults and another 50+ kids, and about 50 of those people were crammed under that eating tent. They looked ravenous, and when the family started bringing out the food, they gobbled it up as if they’ve never eaten before.

The first wave of people ate, then they vacated their seats and a new group swooped in. I was crushed between the town officer and a friend, and the hosts passed out plastic baggies with manioke (cassava), hot dogs, chicken, and a hard-boiled egg. Soon they came around with a sugary-water drink. And after about 10 minutes, we all left, and the seats filled again.

It was time to process to the church. The body was carried out from the house and reloaded into the back of the truck. A long woven mat stretched from the truck out the back, and mourners followed, carrying the mat.

The church was fuller than I’ve ever seen. The bench I was sitting on actually broke from the number of people, but it didn’t break so much that we couldn’t still sit there. There was the usual singing, standing, sitting, praying, weeping as regular church, but this time there was a body in front of us.

After the service, the truck and followers processed to the cemetery. The Tongan cemetery is a small clearing with body-sized lumps of rocks often decorated with fake flowers and blankets. There were tapa cloths and woven mats decorating today’s gravesite. After more crying, singing, and praying, the pallbearers prepared to lower the body into the ground. They took off all the mats and lace from the box, and at this unveiling of the casket, I heard one woman say, “Oh, look, they have a coffin!” A friend told me that often they just put the body in the ground. Then, the pallbearers lowered the body into a shallow hole, all the men picked up shovels or wood, and they covered the box.

The group left the cemetery, climbing over the brambles and rocks to get back to the road. Then they all turned back to the area where we had eaten, sat down, and waited. Pauline said we were waiting to see what they were going to give. Give? To whom? The church? Oh, well, just go with the flow, Pele, and sit there with the Tongans.

After waiting about an hour, men started dragging out large coconut fronds and arranging them in a large circle on the grassy area. Soon, three men carried out an enormous pig on one of these coconut fronds. (These fronds are pretty impressive; the men were holding up a 150+ lbs pig with just the plant!) They arranged it neatly in the center of the circle.

Then they brought out the kumete – the kava bowl. All the most important men in the community – ministers, the town and district officers, and the noble – arranged themselves in the circle. The tou’a and her two assistants sat down opposite the noble. The husband of the deceased called out the actions. First, he called out thanks to people who gave the pig, and those seated around the circle responded. He called the son of the deceased (who is his own son), and the youth came and touched the pig and kava root sitting at the center of the circle.

Then the son sat down in the middle of the circle, and two men joined him. The two new men proceeded to butcher the pig to pass it out to those at the kava circle. With the first swift slice of the pig, I heard several people in the audience say, “My, that’s a sharp machete!” The continued hacking it up, then the son distributed the pieces. First, the huge torso piece to the noble. Then, the head to the husband. Then smaller chunks for everyone else. After everyone in the circle had received their pig bit, there were some more thank yous, and a member of the families came to remove the pieces of pork before drinking kava.

Since this is far more formal kava than I usually go to (I’ve only seen this kava once before, but it was a mock ceremony; the Peace Corps put it on for us the first day we arrived in Tonga), most of this was new to me. The tou’a used pieces of what looks like raffia to “strain” the kava into a coconut-shell cup. Then, one of her assistants carried the cup to the noble who drank, and the assistant carried the cup back to the tou’a to be refilled and continued around the circle.

After the kava ceremony, the time came for what all the guests were waiting for. They clustered around the back of the truck that was carrying gifts for all the attendees: a bag of frozen chicken and $10 pa’anga. It was the first funeral I’ve been to with party favors.

I asked a couple of Tongan friends why the family passed out cash. Apparently it’s a new practice done by families that feel like they didn’t give enough during the funeral. Maybe this family thought they needed to give more to the guests since they didn’t kill a horse or cow.

Here was yet another example of Tongans keeping up with the Joneses to the point of debt: there were about 200 people at the ceremony. Each got $10 pa’anga and a bag of chicken worth about $4. For those guests, the non-ministers, the family spent about $2800 pa’anga just on the gifts. For the 20 ministers, they each got $20 pa’anga, so that’s another $400 pa’anga. And that’s not considering how much the family spent on the food, transportation from Tonga, casket, and so on. And next Misinale, the church donating event, the family of a deceased is expected to donate several thousand extra pa’anga.

The funeral finally finished after the bedlam of distributing gifts. It was about 6:00 pm. The funeral lasted about 8 hours, soon after the arrival of the body on the boat. Some funerals last all through the night, with singers singing at the house in shifts. For me, the 6 hours I spent in mourning were quite sufficient. I had things to do that day besides wait around for the next phase of mourning. These funerals seem to take up so much of everyone’s time. With all this work that goes into dying, how does anyone have time to live?

Finding My Way Home

Leaving my island is easy. Coming back is the hard part.

Boats leave almost every weekday to go into town, and usually I can just hop on one of those, ride the boat for about an hour to get to a village where someone has coordinated a truck to pick us up, and arrive in town.

The way back is less straightforward. Recently I had a typical adventure in finding a ride back to Ha’ano.

Monday morning, I woke up at the PCV’s house where I stay in Pangai. By that afternoon, I hoped to be in my own home.

7:30 am: I call a friend in Ha’ano and find that, indeed, a boat has left Ha’ano. I even get the names of people to look for. Mission: Find 2 ministers from Ha’ano or the boat driver.

8:50 am: While riding a bike around town looking for these people who don’t have cell phones, I see the boat driver. He tells me to go to the Church of Tonga’s building so I can ask the ministers what time we’ll leave. His directions and my lacking Tongan leave me clueless as to where the building is, so, after riding around a while looking for it…

9:05 am: I ask for directions. With a semi-clear idea of where the ministers might be, I go to the church. Empty. I go to the nearby building. Empty. I eventually find someone who tells me they are in that nearby building I had just searched.

9:15 am: I find someone who is better informed, and he tells me they are in the church building around the corner.

9:30 am: As I sit outside the church waiting for the meeting to end, a different minister than those I am looking for asks me who I need, and he goes inside to tell the Ha’ano minister to come talk to me.

9:45 am: One of the Ha’ano ministers tells me we’ll be leaving when their meeting ends, maybe 10:00 am. He tells me to take my things to the place where everyone waits for the truck to go to Ha’ano. I hurry back to get everything in order, lest I get left as has happened before.

10:05 am: As I heave my bags down the road, I run into a third minister from Ha’ano carrying a handful of tobacco leaves. We go to a different place than I was told to go to catch the ride. (Had I not seen him, I would have been up a creek, waiting at the wrong place.)

10:10 am: I realize that no one is coordinated and we aren’t nearly about to leave, so I go buy a gas canister.

10:45 am: Now with my gas canister, carried by the boat driver, I return to the group. And we continue to wait.

11:15 am: Eventually a vehicle is arranged to take us the 30 minute ride to the dock.

11:45 am: We leave the dock.

12:40 am: We arrive in Ha’ano.

An English Quiz

Here’s a quick quiz, with questions from real tests, to see where you can go to high school in Tonga.

1. Which is the opposite of drama?
a. Play
b. Game
c. Song
d. Trick

2. The woman bought ______ flour from the store.
a. many
b. a
c. much
d. one

3. The dog _________ under the table.
a. lied down
b. lay down
c. laid down
d. layed down

Even if you can figure an answer from those questions (and others like it), remember that these Tongan students are taking what is basically a fluency test after only three years of English. Though, obviously, the fluency is fluency according to the Tongans who wrote the test.

Sometimes You Want to Go Where Nobody Knows Your Name

Here on my island of 350 Tongans, there isn’t much anonymity for a palangi like me. Correction: there isn’t any anonymity. Back in December, after being on the island only two weeks, fellow-PCV John was in Ha’ano and we took a walk down to the end of the island. Kids who lived on the other end of my island, where I hadn’t been yet, called out to me, “Hi, Pele!” I turned to John and said, “I’m surprised they don’t already know your name too.” Pause. Pause. Then we heard, “Hi, John!”

I don’t think word of my every move travels as fast as back then when I was still a novelty, but people still know far more than I tell them. “You went to the Wesleyan church today?” “What were you doing at Mehi’s house?”

A few weeks ago I went to the little shop in my village. I had used up all my oil, and I wanted to have another bottle on hand, in case I got the urge to do something that required oil. I returned home, oil in hand. About an hour later, a neighbor came over. “Did you buy oil? Can we use some to fry some fish that we (all of us) will eat?” As quickly as it had come, the oil was gone.

In a country the size of Tonga, with only about 110,000 people, there’s hardly anyplace that doesn’t know what everyone else is doing. And they’re especially interested in what the foreigners are doing. A PCV friend who lives in Vava’u on an outer island similar to mine told me how, for about a week, every time he cooked, his neighbors knew. They would smell the food and quickly come over with hopes of being offered some exciting and different palangi food.

My activities are not only well-known on my own island, but also on the main islands in Ha’apai, Lifuka and Foa. People there know less about my day-to-day habits, but they all still know who I am and where I live. The people who work at the bank, the principals and teachers at the high schools, many kids, and people I swear I’d never seen before in my life will ask me how am I, how’s Ha’ano, and am I eating a lot of fish?

The Peace Corps says that one thing that PCVs deal with when they return to America is not being the center of attention all the time. Back in America, who knows if you bought toilet paper today? Who wants to talk about what you ate for all your meals last week? Maybe it will be difficult adjusting to that when the time comes, but sometimes, right now, I’d kind of like to go where nobody knows my name.