One evening a couple of weeks ago, a humble family taught me a lesson. Because of their willingess to teach about ten Palangi missionaries, I will never look at the coconut in the same way.
Before coming to Tonga, when someone mentioned the word “coconut”, my mind quickly connected to German chocolate cake and Mounds and Almond Joy candy bars. Fine. But there’s a lot more, as Fipi and her family taught us.
In this picture, one of the other senior missionaries stands beside Fipi as she explains to us. Like most native cultures, Tongans find a use for every part of the coconut. She took some of the dry fibers that cover the shell of a coconut, and showed us one tiny part of the process used to make coconut fibers into ropes. This is what Tongans used to use to make their fishing nets, to make their ropes to tie up plants and animals. Rope from coconut fiber – the first revelation of the night!
Coconuts will float on water almost indefinitely. Scientists think that is one way that most of the islands of the South Pacific have coconut palms. A coconut can ride the ocean current from Tonga to Hawaii and still be able to sprout, thrust roots down into the sand and begin to grow towards the sky. Pretty impressive.
Next, we got to try to crack open coconuts. One of the younger missionaries who came with us (still wearing his Tongan “ta’ovala” and “tupeno” – the traditional mat and men’s wraparound skirt) is shown here using what has become standard equipment in modern Tonga – a welded piece of equipment that basically uses a tire rim and an angled steel tube. You’re supposed to just push the coconut down the tube, and it will pop the coconut open. This is one of three ways to open a coconut. You can also use the time-honored hammer approach, or if the coconut is still green and all you want is the milk, you just nail a hammer into one of the “eyes” of a coconut, and stick in a straw. Poof, drink and cup all in one.
Once the older, non-milky coconut is cracked open, it’s time to shave the white meat out. In this picture you can see one of our sister missionaries sitting on a narrow bench, straddling a large bowl. But what you can’t see is that she holds the coconut over a wide serrated blade that is welded to the frame of the bench. As she pulls the coconut back and forth over the blade, the meat is shaved off and falls into the bowl. Even Fipi’s kids could do this very easily – the rest of us worked up a sweat in no time!
Did you know that if a coconut is allowed to sprout, it changes the quality of the meat inside? I remember learning about how beans grow, that the “meat” of the bean is actually food for the sprout as it grows. Well, a coconut is a giant version of that bean. Some families allow their coconuts to sprout, and then crack them open, for a spongy, crumbly coconut meat that has a totally different taste. The Tongans call it “coconut brain” – I like the taste, but the name sounds like a middle schooler’s nightmare!
Well, after trying the green coconut milk, and the coconut brain, it was time to actually eat some solid coconut meat. Fipi took out a knife (one that Crocodile Dundee would have been proud of) and sliced the meat while still inside the shell, and then simply popped the meat out of the shell to serve us several pieces. Delicious. But I stayed clear of the knife, even though Fipi’s eight-year old son later performed some of his own coconut tricks with a bush knife (Tongan for machete!).
Oh, and the coconut husk? Either it’s used for fuel for fires at the frequent family outdoor feasts, or it is turned into souvenirs for tourists. I haven’t seen a coconut bra in Tonga – people here are far too modest for that, most people swim in street clothing – but my husband and I have our own coconut souvenirs – holders for large name cards from a workshop we attended in March.
Okay, okay, since the story involves a coconut, I have to tell the first story every Palangi missionary hears in Tonga. First frame of the comic strip: a missionary comes to visit a very isolated home. Second frame: as he walks into the home, he doesn’t duck down far enough to get through the door, and he bumped his forehead. “Too low,” says the missionary quietly. The family is impressed, because in Tongan, “tulo” is a very polite way to say “pardon me.” Third frame: the missionary visits for a while, and then the family offers to get him a green coconut to drink. Fourth frame: the missionary accompanies the father outside, and the father promptly climbs up the very mature coconut tree. The missionary watches, and it’s his turn to be impressed. The father keeps climbing, nearly a hundred feet in the air. “Oh, too high,” calls out the missionary. BONK. Final frame: the missionary is flat on the ground, having been hit in the head with a coconut, because “tu-ai” is Tongan for “idiot.” Haha. So next time you’re under a coconut tree, watch your commentary very carefully!