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Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Along with some of the senior missionary sisters, I  had a very special experience recently.  We got to take part in the making of tapa, a traditional ceremonial cloth.  The longer I stay here, the more amazed I am at what becomes a resource on this tiny island.

Tapa is the main tourist-oriented product here, and there are many tapa artists who create their own versions of traditional designs.  The designs can be representations of animals, or just geometric patterns. But the cloth and the ink both come from plants.  Tongi (TOHNG-ee) is an accomplished tapa artist who agreed to spend a few hours with some Palangi missionaries, and her daughter Lia (LEE-ah) was a wonderful help as well. 

The first step is to strip the bark off a particular kind of plant.  While we watched, Tongi, a woman of about 60, took a large “bush knife” (similar to a machete) and chopped down a paper mulberry sapling.  After stripping the branches, she slit the bark open along the bottom of the 5-foot long stick (which was probably no more than 4 inches around), and peeled the bark off the stick.  She set the stick aside, and sat down on the ground with the bark. (Sorry, I was too fascinated to take a picture!)

She laid the bark across a narrow, flattened log.  This log was about 5 feet long, with stabilizers underneath each end to hold it up off the ground. She took a squared, wooden hammer, and began pounding the bark, flattening and widening the bark.  The hammer reminded me of the meat hammer I have in my American kitchen, only this one had four different surfaces, rather than the two I’ve used to pound cuts of chicken or beef. 

One of Tongi's large tapa cloths - about 12 feet by 20.  
She hammered away on the bark for a little while, and then passed the hammer around to the rest of us.  Each of us pounded for  about 10 minutes under her expert supervision,  and what had been a 5-foot long strip of bark four inches or less wide was now about 8 feet long and almost a foot across.  Want it wider?  Pound  out another one, then patch them together!  Want it longer? Patch more together.  Some of these tapa can reach  half a mile long, when all the women in the village decide to put one together. 

Tapa drying 

 Of course, now the tapa is supposed to dry out for a few days.  So we set aside the new piece, and we were each handed a small sheet of tapa, dried, cut and ready for painting.  

But now to choose a design. Hmmm… What to do, what to do? And how do we paint it anyway?

Oh, we’ll need some ink.  Ink?  Like real ink?  Wait, from  primitive, pre-tech times?  Yup.  Back to the plants.  A different plant, called a koka tree here in Tonga, is the source of the ink.  You collect the sap from the branches, then you (a) use it fresh, (b) heat it somewhat, or (c) boil it vigorously for 15 minutes, depending on the color you want.  The fresh sap results in a reddish color (usually used for the dry rubbings), the heated sap gives a lovely golden-brown hue, and if you boil the sap, it comes out black.  All from the same plant.  Pretty impressive.

And to give us some ideas on traditional designs, Tongi brought out some of her wooden rubbing boards.  Those of you who are familiar with German and Dutch cookie boards might think twice when you look at these pictures.  These wooden boards are hand-cut designs that reminded me right away of the cookie presses I loved in Europe, but they’re just a tad larger (!), reaching about 18-22 inches in length and usually about a foot across.  (That would make one BIG cookie!)  I also thought about woodblock painting, but the process here in Tonga is a little different from that, too.  Instead of inking the woodblock and printing on the paper, you take the tapa, lay it on top of the board, then make a rubbing with some dry ink.  The dry rubbing is only a preliminary guide for your painting, but it gives you a general idea of what you want to create.

So, we’ve done some of the rubbings, and Tongi gives us cups of the brown and black inks.  You use sharpened sticks to paint with, like the stick Lia is sharpening in this picture.  And whether you use a lot of ink or a little determines the intensity of your colors.  Go to it, girls.  Here’s where my pre-kindergarten skill in art shows up – that’s why you won’t see MY artwork in these pictures (plus I was nursing a very sore right wrist this weekend, so I was trying to do most of it with my left hand – ha!).  But the main thing was, we got to appreciate the effort that goes into making the tapa.

Most of us tried geometric patterns.

One sister, more artistic than the rest of us, did a sea turtle,
a cherished symbol of the South Pacific.

Our mission nurse works on a royal design.

  Tapa is used as a cover cloth, and in some traditional dancing, the women wear dresses made of tapa.  You can make any decoration you wish for art work, but for dresses and robes, only royalty can wear the above pattern. 

We all felt good about our first efforts at making tapa, but we were still in awe of Tongi’s designs.  She is one of the few tapa artists who uses a deep red ink, by painting with the fresh ink over and over again.  She is also one of the few who sprays a fixative on her finished product, so the ink will not rub off.  This gives her work a glossy coat, and everyone knows shiny is better!  The next time you see a tapa, just remember, even a small one represents a whole lot of love and effort.  

An Eagle Scout in Tonga

This happened a few weeks ago, but I haven’t had a chance to write it!  We had a wonderful visit from Taylor, a Boy Scout who made Tonga his Eagle Project.  His grandfather accompanied him, and we had a week together, showing off Tonga and marveling at the scope of the Eagle Project of this remarkable Scout.
Taylor and his grandfather Van, in the craft section of the city's indoor market.
But first let me tell you about Taylor’s grandfather, Van Johnson (yeah, like the actor – he didn’t have trouble getting restaurant reservations, back in the day!).   Van has had connections with Tonga for years.  He is one of two Palangi (pah-lang-ee) that I know of who have been given a Tongan name.  Several years back, he arranged for half a million dollars’ worth of medical supplies to be sent to Tonga.  He came here and spent a week, and at the end of the week was notified that a ceremony was to be held in his honor.  He went and enjoyed the dinner, but then was pulled into a circle of village chiefs and informed that henceforth, he would be known as “Shooting Star”, because his presence was short but his influence would be longlasting.  And it has.  

So when Taylor asked his grandfather for ideas about an eagle project, Van thought of the “outer islands” where even fewer medical supplies exist.  He and Taylor got together with some medical supply companies, and some charitable foundations, and gathered a quarter million dollars’ worth of supplies.  Taylor’s fellow Boy Scouts, and the Young Women (teenaged girls) of his ward/congregation spent a day packing all the supplies in a warehouse, and filled a Conex container to be shipped to Tonga.  

When the arrival date was close, Van and Taylor flew to Tonga.  They stayed here on the Liahona campus, and of course the senior missionaries found them.  We took them to the beach and went snorkeling with them.  We took them for a picnic lunch.  Then we started showing off the little island.

This one is actually on every tourist map of Tonga.  Every coconut palm I have ever seen has had a single “head”, but this one has two (and as we all know, two heads are better than one!) – so we made sure we all got pictures of it.  You can’t tell from this picture, but the tree actually has a third head, a small one.  So who knows what the future will bring?  In 20 years, this may be the “octopus coconut palm tree!”  

Then we took them to see the flying foxes,the ones I wrote about in my “Wild Kingdom” entry.  We watched them launch from their trees and return for about an hour, but we got a bonus.  We saw about a dozen ekiaki (eh-kee-ah-kee), white terns, known in Hawaii as fairy terns.  These are fishing birds that do not build nests.  They simply lay an egg in the crook of a tree branch, or even on the ground, and when the chick hatches, its overgrown feet enable it to grab hold of a branch and stay safe, even when it sleeps, for the first two months of its life, until it is ready to fly.  Because these birds have all-white feathers, they edges of their wings look translucent when they fly, and because they can hover, they have a reputation for being magical.  Whatever – they’re gorgeous.  
Can't take credit for this one - thank you Google images.  But you see what a wonderful fantasy-like creature the white tern is - no wonder people think they're magical!

Taylor and Van traveled all over the island on their own, too, and gave me a couple of pictures.  Not far from Liahona is a church farm, where cattle are raised.  Frequently, the bulls are tied up across the street from the cows, and the day that Taylor and Van drove the road, sure enough, here was a bull tied to a tree.  So Taylor, teenager that he is, had to get out of the car and tease the bull, removing his own red shirt and playing toreador.  Star Trek fans will fear for Taylor’s life, seeing him in a red shirt, but he survived.  

Taylor is the most open-minded American teenager I know.  He readily accepted the native custom of wearing a tupeno (too-peh-noh) and a ta’avalo (tah-ah-vah-loh).  Not only did he wear his scout shirt with the native skirt (far cooler in this heat than slacks) and mat, he didn’t let it slow him down when he decided to try to climb a coconut palm himself!

Well, on to the official ceremony.  Taylor and his grandfather brought gifts for the officials at the Ministry of Health, as they celebrated the arrival of the Conex shipping container.  They met with Ministers, hospital administrators, and Parliament members as they talked about the design of Taylor’s Eagle project, and how it would benefit the hospitals on the outer islands.  Most Tongans recognize the Mormon Church as Christian, but the little beautiful statues of Jesus Christ presented by Taylor(hard to see in this picture, but it's there)  will remind them of the Christian service that this young man provided to many, many Tongans.

After the meeting, a reporter from Tongan Television interviewed Taylor, who explained his project and acquitted himself well on the news that night, teaching the Boy Scout Law and Oath, and explaining his personal beliefs.  In this culture of “respect your elders,” it was wonderful to see a young man gain the respect of so many of his elders, including me!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


There are lot of things I love about this place. Just like any new place, there are things that are a little frustrating,  but there are a lot of things that warm my heart, make me laugh, or make me scratch my head.  But all of them make me enjoy my time here, and make me grateful to know I am not the only one still learning.

First rule in Tonga:  practicality wins out over style.  I have not gotten a proper picture, but I have seen this three or four times – a pickup truck with four or five young men riding in the back, in the hot sun.  Most of the time they just throw a tee-shirt over their heads as they ride, but I love it when I see someone with a piece of Styrofoam or cardboard, with a hole punched in the center, that he’s using as a sun visor!  Whatever works!

Now, sometimes the practicality backfires.  The other day, we were behind a van driving along the road with the tailgate partly open (as happens quite often here – at least you get a breeze through the van if the tailgate is open).  But he hit a pothole, and out bounced his chainsaw.  Oops!  Jim laid on the horn immediately, and the driver looked in his mirror and saw the problem.  I hope he shut the tailgate for the rest of the drive that morning. 

Second rule: I’ll give anything a try.  I watched a little girl (maybe 8 years old) trying to rollerblade the other day.  She pulled herself along the railings around campus – wearing inline skates that probably would have fit her father!  I had visions of myself at about age 4 when I used to stomp around the house in my dad’s workboots – but those never had wheels attached! 

Another illustration of this rule was at the church dance, celebrating the 170th anniversary of the Mormon Relief Society, the oldest continuously-operating women’s organization in the world.  There was a man of about 60 there, and his dance partners could not wear him out. He’d dance to any tune: Pacific pop, big band, rock, you name it – and he moved exactly the same way to every kind of music.  Go for it, brother – don’t worry about which dance fits what kind of music, just move the way you want!

Third rule: What’s yours is mine.  Jim made an avocado pie and had given the last piece to Fehi (FEH-hee), a friend visiting us in our office, when another friend, Mary, came in.  Mary saw the pie, and I told Fehi to give her a bite.  He offered her a bite, but she took the whole pie pan! Fehi did not let go, but Mary took off holding the pan, with Fehi’s arm still attached, and proceeded to eat most of the rest of the pie!  Fehi made only a small protest, but he still got some more of the pie along the way.  I laughed until I cried – it was like watching a couple of four-year olds! 

Another example was told to me by Maopa, a friend who should have been my sister.  She walked into the school office building with a piece of warm breadfruit (think of a basketball-sized potato that grows on trees), and her cousin, who is one of the administrators, literally took the breadfruit out of her hands, asked someone else to go get a can of corned beef from the little shop across the street, and that the meeting could begin because now they had lunch!  If that had been me, I’d have been shouting, “Wait a minute – that was MY lunch!”  But everyone here just smiles and shares.

Fourth rule: Don’t fix it if it’s working.   Liahona campus has its own sets of generators, because the electricity in Tonga is pretty unreliable.  So instead of being out of power for hours twice a week, we have backup generators that take over within 90 seconds.  Usually.  Last Saturday, the power went out, and the backup generator on our side of campus didn’t kick in.  So we found out finally what happened.  The generator was out of diesel.  The guy who was supposed to refill the tank had not done it because “Well, the electricity was working!”  Fortunately, the power came back on after about an hour, and we got two truckloads of diesel the following Monday. 

Fifth rule: Look pitiful and a Palangi missionary will feel sorry for you.  Five of us took a picnic lunch to the beach a few Saturdays ago, and a little boy about 9 showed up, hanging onto a tree, just as we started lunch.  We had some extra apples, so I tossed him one.  I don’t think he had ever seen one before, but after sniffing it and feeling it for a few minutes, he bit into it, and ended up eating the whole thing.  Then he went back to looking sad.  I gave him a few oatmeal cookies.  Those didn’t last long!  We didn’t have extra tuna salad, but we had a couple of extra rolls, so I tossed him the last two in a bag.  He sniffed the bag about twenty times, but when we didn’t offer anything else, he ate those, too.  And about halfway through putting away lunch, I noticed he had given up and left.  Well, he got lunch that day, anyway – I know that some people on that end of the island are lucky to get one meal a day – even our missionaries only eat once a day there, where they eat twice a day on the rest of the island.  But that little boy would have gotten food a lot faster by acting happy with me – might even have gotten more!

It’s not just food, either.  For a while, our office had books to loan out to children, but most of the kids thought they were gifts, so the books are now gone.  Hopefully the children are reading them.  The other day a couple of little girls came in, looked around in surprise to see the books were gone and when they said “Books?”  I simply said, “No more!”  They hung their heads in disappointment, then brightened and asked, “Stickers?”  I laughed – I had given out stickers to those who actually returned the books.  I gave them each a few stickers, and sent them on their way.  Not two minutes later they were back, looking pitiful again.  “Stickers?” they asked.  A teacher translated – they said they had lost their stickers, but more than likely they had given them to friends.  I gave them the rest of my stickers.  Now the stickers are “finished” as well. 

Sixth rule: Don’t hurt a Palangi’s feelings.  Another senior couple got in a car accident a few months ago, and found out that it was their fault.  The one-way street they were crossing had the right of way, and they didn’t know that.  So okay, pay the fine and you’re done, right?  No, the police wanted to have a meeting.  So they went to the meeting.  They spent two hours together with the police (not the other driver) and the police kept telling them that Tonga is called the Friendly Islands, so it was okay to talk about this accident.  If they felt they were in the right, they should write a letter to Parliament and get the laws changed.  How did they feel about the accident?  How did they feel about the law?  How did they feel about the other driver?  Well, that was all last December, but this past week the police came to Liahona to talk with them again.  Where are they? asked the police.  Well, I hope we didn’t hurt the policeman’s feelings when we told him that the senior couple in question had completed their assignment, so they had left Tonga and returned to the US! 

Seventh rule:   Move slowly.  I’ve been amazed at how all life – human or not – moves slowly here.  Drivers, pedestrians, even the few on bicycles – we are definitely on island time (except that Church starts on time no matter what, and announcements begin at ten before the hour, so if you want to know what’s happening, you’d better get there on time!).  Dogs never move faster than at a trot, although if you frighten a cat, it will run a short distance.  Birds, bats, even the wasps here move slowly, as if they’re dancing, not just flying.  I know, intellectually, that in this climate (we’re usually in the high 80s with humidity over 90%), you move slowly so you can last the day, but I also understand why no one loses weight – unless you exercise before 6 a.m. or after 10 p.m., you don’t last long!  But in Tonga, everyone is beautiful, no matter their shape, speed, height or skin tone – I love it here.  It’s Tonga.  And it makes me smile.

Monday, April 2, 2012


We have been participants in history.
Yes, everyone can say that on a daily basis, but it’s not often we realize it while it's happening.  This week, a Tongan king was laid to rest, and we were privileged to be both witnesses and participants in the rituals surrounding his being laid to rest.
The King's villa, draped in black for mourning, and purple for nobility or royalty.  
King George Tupou V, age 63, had a kidney transplant a year ago, and never really recovered.  He still appeared at ceremonies and important political events, but he no longer toured his island in his converted London taxi, or entertained guests with Agatha Christie-style murder mystery parties.  He passed away in a hospital in Hong Kong, and last Monday, March 26th, his body was returned to Tonga in a Chinese jet.  Mourners from his family and the noble class of Tonga greeted his body in a ceremony at the airport, then his casket began the 10-mile-per-hour long ride to the royal palace. 
A little one walks down the road with a fan in her hand.  You can see the villagers who have laid tapa on the road in the background.  They are sitting on it simply to keep the wind from blowing it out of place.  
In his short five-year reign, this king had endeared himself to his subjects through his common touch.  In the videos I have seen of him (and there have been many over the last couple of weeks), I notice that he never seemed quite comfortable with the idea of being singular.  When he would stand in front of a crowd, his eyes would dart back and forth as though he was looking for someone else who deserved the attention more.  His expression varied from slight discomfort to evident embarrassment, which is a direct expression of the Tongan culture; no one here wants to be singled out in front of others as a commendable example.  All of the Tongans I have spoken with have reported that he had an air of accessibility, that for all his eccentricities (he enjoyed riding a motorcycle, and was known to wear a pith helmet), he communicated a concern for every citizen. 

Well, Jim has been asked if he's Tongan, but I'm just Sister Tomato, turning
red every time I sit out in the sun (forgot the sunscreen!).
All along the road from the airport to the palace, Tongans (and a few of us non-Tongans) waited to pay respect to their fallen king.  We didn’t know exactly what time the Chinese jet would land, but the entire student body of Liahona High School and Liahona Middle School (1300 students), plus faculty, staff and administrators, waited out on the road for his body to pass.  Every other school in Tonga had their students gathered on the road as well – children from age 6 to 19 were all in their school uniforms, while adults wore the traditional black clothing with a straw mat and dried-grass skirt.  Most of us were on the roadways by 11, and the police, in their white dress uniforms, were diverting traffic by 12.

It was a quiet social time, until about 3:00, when we finally had a police car go by with headlights and roof lights flashing.  That was our signal to go sit down on the edge of the road and be silent.  After a few more minutes of waiting, we saw the big elevated-flatbed truck coming down the road, with a ceremonial canopy that probably was 30 feet in the air. The royal flag was draped over the coffin, and as it passed by, every head bowed low in respect.  As far as the eye could see, the road was lined with silent people, as the truck, then a procession of cars with dignitaries and Tongan nobles passed by.  A few of us Palangi (non-Tongans) lifted our heads long enough to get pictures, but I didn’t see a single Tongan head lift until every car had passed. 

Then the sociability returned – people smiled, laughed, and helped each other into cars and buses to return home.  We were still dressed as mourners, but we were determined to be happy, for that is what King George Tupou V would have wanted.

This is St. Andrew's Church, with the most beautiful bunting in the nation right now.

On Monday night, tiny vigil fires were built all around the palace fencing, and students from many schools tended the fires all night long, while church groups from all over Tonga participated in prayer services on the palace green. The LDS Church was well represented, with more than 200 people seated under a tent to sing hymns and offer testimony and prayer during their assigned hour. 
The funeral casket, bier and canopy begin their journey from the palace to the royal tombs.   

The funeral was held Tuesday.  150 pallbearers carried the king’s coffin on a huge bier – a frame that was at least 50 feet long and 20 feet across.  There were extras who walked right next to the pallbearers, so that when one was exhausted by the weight, someone was ready to take his place.  

They followed elite military units -  Army, then Navy, then the royal military band – in a hesitation-step march from the Palace to the royal burial ground and tombs – about a 30-minute procession.  As on Monday, special handpainted cloth made from pounded bark called “tapa” (TAH-pah) served as carpeting for the military and pallbearers to walk upon for much of the procession.  Each large tapa you see in some of the pictures I’m posting today represent about 2000 hours of work.

The Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga conducted the funeral, but there were representatives from all churches present, along with international dignitaries (the crown Prince of Japan and his wife both attended, along with the Prime Minister of New Zealand and too many others to list). 
Then Wednesday was a day to breathe.  School was in session, but I imagine not a lot was accomplished.  Too many students were thinking about what their offerings would be on Thursday.  I know my teachers were not in learning mode for their class after school - only half of them even attended.  

The bush is a plant called kava, part of a ceremonial drink,
and the big long root vegetables are called ufi (ooo-feee).
And yes, those are live pigs in the cages.
Thursday:  Ha’amo Day. This was the day that the poorest of the poor bring their best gifts to the royals, as evidence of their grief.  So about 700 pigs ready for slaughter (the big ones, not the little piglets that families often barbecue), miles upon miles of tapa, root vegetables and bananas by the bearing-basketful, and any kind of treat families can come up with – leis of candy, cookies, cakes – all donated by people whose average income is probably about $100 a month.  The new king seems set to change this tradition, but he may not be able to do it in time for this round of ha’amo (hah-AH-moh).  As comfort to the Queen Mother, every family with students at Liahona was asked to prepare a cake or sweetbread for her.  That’s about 650 cakes.  What? We’re going to run out of flour!  This is an island, remember?  Panic is setting in on my little Palangi brain…

These baskets are about three feet long each, and are carried
 in by two people. And you can see the cakes!

Ah, we'll manage, say my Tongan friends.  It won't be the first time we've done without.  She's the Queen Mother, and she has lost her son.  We'll show her our sympathy and devotion to her with our gifts, and then later we'll figure out how to cook for our own families.  These humble, faith-filled people are used to sacrifice.  Looks like it's my turn to be taught.