In Tongan and most Polynesian languages, “tonga” means “south” which perfectly describes the island group’s location with regard to central Polynesia. It is believed that the first people who arrived in Tonga were from Fiji, back in 1500 BCE. Tongan is a Western Polynesian language, and is the main vernacular spoken in the islands. However, due to the country’s status as a British protectorate until the 1970’s, English quickly spread and is used as the medium of instruction in schools and in business transactions in the main islands.
The Kingdom of Tonga is comprised of 150 islands, with only less than 40 of which are inhabited. This group of islands can be divided into 4 main island groups: Vava’u, Tongatapu, Ha’apai, and Ni ua. Tongatapu is where the country’s capital, Nuku’alofa, is located and serves as the main entry point for foreign tourists through the Fua’amotu International Airport.
Tongan Culture: Yesterday and Today
Tongan culture has changed dramatically in the 19th century when Western traders started arriving in the islands. Prior to that, Tongan culture was highly influenced and molded by the neighboring countries of Fiji and Samoa, and traditional societal norms were strongly upheld. The contemporary Tongan typically has strong ties to other countries, with many locals now living New Zealand as migrant workers, or having lived or travelled to the US, Australia, and New Zealand.
Tongans today operate on 2 contexts, which the locals call “anga fakatonga” and “anga fakapalanga” – the former meaning the “traditional Tongan way” and the latter as the “Western way.” Most, if not all, of the Tongans you will encounter in the islands have learned to adapt and blend these 2 ways – learning the sets of rules for each and knowing when and where they are to be applied.
Livelihood, Religion, and Cuisine
The islands are blessed with coral beaches, lagoons of blue and emerald waters, and lush tropical vegetation. This is why fishing and farming have remained as the main source of livelihood for a majority of Tongan people. Squash, pumpkins, and vanilla are among the islands’ cash crops and largest agricultural exports.
Majority of the Tongan people, including the king and most of the royal family, belong to the Free Wesleyan or Methodist Church. According to a 2006 study, the next 3 religious groups with a strong presence in the country are the Roman Catholic Church, the Free church, and the Church of Latter-Day Saints.
Tonga has a high obesity rate, with most of the population overweight and many islanders facing a risk of diabetes, heart diseases and other obesity-related illnesses. This is partly attributed to the influx and popularity of processed food like corned beef, which remains a firm favourite. Western dietary influences like the consumption of soda and coffee, and white bread as compared to the traditional baked breadfruit, are also now almost considered staples in a typical Tongan diet.
Coconut milk, fish varieties, and common vegetables are frequently used in Tongan dishes. While wood fire ovens are still used in some of the islands, most now use gas or electric stoves especially in larger towns. However, traditional “Umu feasts” are still held on certain islands, where food is prepared and cooked in earth ovens and locals put on cultural presentations of Tongan songs and dances.