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Wednesday, October 24, 2012


Every culture honors its dead in unique ways.  Tonga is no exception.  

Tonga is an island formed by coral pushed up from the seabed.  So when you dig, you don't have far to dig before you hit solid coral.  As a result, most graves are created by creating frames for raised mounds.

Whether by forming a concrete frame or by laying blocks, graves are clearly defined by borders.  And the grave markers you see are not what most people are used to:  Here, where natural stone is incredibly expensive, families use fabric and wood.

The marker of choice is a quilt.  It's far too warm, most of the year, to consider using a quilt on a bed, but somehow quilts have become quite popular as beautiful grave markers.  This quilt takes the names of a husband and wife and frames them with depictions of the heilala flower, a tiny flower unique to Tonga.  We have also seen graves lit at night by solar-powered lights, and even Christmas-style lights defining the border of a grave.

With no law to limit the location of graves, little cemeteries populate each village and indeed, many private homes, such as this one.  This family couldn't afford a concrete or block frame for the grave, so they built a natural fence around it.  The bushes provide color and some protection from the wind, and the posts and chicken wire keep out the animals.

Almost all graves are topped with sand.  And what happens when the wind blows it away?  We go get more.  The Tongan government is beginning to get concerned about illegal "sand mining", the theft of sand by the truckload (!) from coastal beaches.  This little island cannot afford to see its beaches eroded - we have few enough of them here to begin with.

 Families who can afford it can bury their relatives in style - here is a concrete frame topped with ceramic tiling, blackstone rock, and permanently placed pots for silk flowers. This is one of the few polished granite markers I have seen on the island.  But all graves are decorated with flowers, some with lace tablecloths, and some with hand-knitted afghans.  The dead are protected in a place of beauty.  There are a few LDS missionaries buried here, two who died in the Spanish flu outbreak in 1919 (the flu took two years to make it to Tonga, but it got here), and two others who died of other illnesses in the 1930s.  Their graves are tended, too.

And again, if the family can afford it, the grave is protected from the elements by a pavilion roof.  This will help the sand from being washed away in a sudden rain or a severe storm, and it will also keep the silk flowers from fading quickly in the hot sun. 

And it provides shelter for mourners.  When Tonga's king died last March, we got an extended view of the mourning traditions here in Tonga.  Students tended small fires surrounding the palace  all night long, the night before his body was brought to the royal tombs and the king's body was laid in its final resting place.  So, too, is the tradition with all deaths. A round-the-clock vigil is kept at the gravesite for anywhere between 3 and 10 days, (noblemen sat under a pavilion roof all day and all night 100 days for the king)and gifts are offered to the family of the deceased, although in a totally different perspective, the family of the deceased feeds visiting relatives for many days after receiving the gifts.

Even while tending a vigil fire, teens can be counted on to be cool!

The love and respect shown for one's elders here does not end at death.  Families are quite often seen cleaning up the cemetery, placing faded quilts with bright, new ones (out of respect for the dead, the old quilts are destroyed), and replacing and rearranging flowers.  Life may be a little more subsistence-oriented here, but the bonds of love stretch beyond death.  Tongans have that lesson to teach us all.  

Monday, October 15, 2012


The entrance to Liahona High School, dedicated by LeGrand Richards in 1953.
Pretty impressive by any standards.
Because of the wet climate, concrete sidewalks
 are everywhere.
Liahona High School in Tonga is an interesting mix of approaches and cultures, both in the way the organization is structured and in the way that people relate to each other.  One of the most British features is that it functions as a boarding school for about 80 of its students, who live in dormitories during the school year.  But imagine for a moment going to a boarding school, when the only thing you know that is bigger than your house is the ocean.  You come from a remote island, with very little exposure to even the still-developing standard of living here on the “big” island of Tongatapu.  
Major walkways are shelters from the hot sun and torrential rains,
regular features in the tropics.
So the shock of seeing concrete buildings, paved roads and sidewalks is dizzying, much less the shock of changing from family surroundings to a school of 1000 students.  Thankfully, the shared culture of the LDS Church helps students have an anchor here, and somehow they endure challenges that would have overwhelmed me at their age.

All students in Tonga wear school uniforms.
Liahona's colors are green and white, and
the two stripes represent the phrase
"by study and by faith,"the school motto.
Take Selu (SAY-loo) for example.  She comes from one of the other islands, a small island called Ha’apai (Hah-ah-PIE).  Her parents struggle to provide her with money for tuition, and since the kitchen provides two meals a day, breakfast and supper, Selu often goes without lunch, to save money.  But so do most of her friends, unless they buy some Ramen noodles or share a loaf of bread, two of the cheapest options for lunch at the store across the street from campus.

Selu spends the whole school year here, because her parents can only afford to bring her home on the ferry at the end of the school year.  So during the week-long breaks after each quarter and semester, she stays with relatives here on Tongatapu.  She misses her parents, especially her mother, but accepts the reality of spending ten months a year away from them. 

Selu has “dorm parents” who try to support her, but she is one of 40 girls in the dorm, so she has to create her own system of support.  Fortunately, the families here at Liahona spend a great deal of time with the dorm students.  Because of this support, and because of the way some of her teachers have extended themselves to her, Selu has found ways to succeed in school and be happy here.

Boys all over the Pacific islands wear a type of
wrap-around skirt. In Tongan it is called a tupeno.
Much cooler than trousers.
Sila (SEE-lah), one of the boys in the boys’ dorm, has had to work harder to find success.  He struggles with his English, since no one in his family speaks English at home, but he is expected to function in English during his classes.  He wants to do well, but is often frustrated with his lack of skills with the English language.

Sila’s dorm parents know that he is not the only boy who struggles.  So they have established a new system for the boys, assigning them in multi-age groups in rooms.  That way, 14-year old Sila has some older brothers in the dorm room with him.  These  older brothers have been trained to be guides and role models for Sila, and they take their responsibilities seriously.  Some of them serve as district leaders, a term borrowed from Mormon missions. District leaders are given the responsibility to make sure several room groups are functioning properly – that boys are where they ought to be, that problems are solved, that needs are addressed.  Sila’s  older roommates help him with his homework, teaching him the English words he needs to succeed.  They help him read his assignments, but they also spend ten minutes every morning and ten minutes every evening reading scriptures together.  They pray together, in their small groups, and all the boys in the dorm meet at 7 am every morning for a hymn, a prayer, and to share a spiritual thought. 

Saturday morning is not an opportunity to sleep in, either.  These dorm students are kept busy all week long.  Twice a month, before sunrise,  Sila and all the dorm students  go together to the LDS temple to serve by performing vicarious baptisms for dead relatives, to offer their deceased ancestors the choice of accepting the fullness of the gospel in the spirit world, while they await resurrection. The feelings and experiences they share about the chance to serve their ancestors are deep and frankly, too sacred to share here.  Just know that they come back from the temple happy.   

On the other Saturday mornings, Sila and the other  dorm boys go out to the Church farm and work “on the plantation”.  They usually spend about 4 hours there, then they are granted the afternoon off.  And at church on Sunday, Sila is surrounded by older brothers, who make sure he understands the lessons and feels the spirit of the messages he hears.  

I am amazed as I watch the dorm parents and their dorm students, that a couple, with children of their own, would be willing to take on an extra 40 children for ten months.  I smile as I watch the bonds of love that develop between these students and their dorm parents, their teachers, and the families who connect with them at church.  One of the “golden principles” of Tongan culture is love, and I see love in action every day here.  Life is challenging wherever you go, but because of their shared values, these teachers and students, these leaders and young men and women, are taking on the challenges together. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012


I have a friend I will call Ted (not his real name).  Ted has been in my prayers many times over the past few years.  Ted lost his job more than five years ago, and tried living very carefully on his savings and investments, but with the economic turndown, soon was out of money.  At age 55, he knew that getting a traditional job would be next to impossible, but he tried.  After many job interviews and not one job offer, he decided to invent his own job.  He tried running an internet business, but that didn’t work.  He wrote a book, but couldn’t get it published.  He worked with a partner to start a business, and the partner disappeared with the investment funds.  Finally Ted sold his own possessions, one by one, even the precious silver passed down to him by his grandmother, and heartbreakingly, the mahogany grand piano on which his own mother taught him to play – he was a piano prodigy, performing in public by age 5.  

Ted was informed that the bank was going to take over the house where he had lived for 15 years, since he hadn’t made payments on the house for a year.  He got a break when the bank couldn’t find the mortgage papers, so he was able to stay in his home for another year.  But finally a few months ago the papers were found.  Ted was told to move out of his house, and let the bank take it over.  He talked to lots of people – lawyers, bankers, realtors – and found that if the bank could sell the house, he might get a few dollars out of the sale, based upon the terms of his mortgage.  He retained a realtor, and the bank agreed to sell the house in what is called a “short sale.”

Based upon the information his realtor and the bankers gave him, Ted figured he would have $3000 to his name when he walked away from his home   After many weeks, a buyer was found, but closing came and went without the papers being signed – the buyer didn’t show.  Ted had already turned off the electricity to his home, since he could no longer pay the electricity bill.  He took his laptop computer to the library, where he could get on the internet and stay in touch with friends and relatives who worried about him, but who weren’t in a position to help.  He was living with cold water, candlelight, and cooking on his outdoor grill.  His few remaining belongings were packed up in boxes, and one friend stood at the ready to load those boxes into a van and drive him to his own home, to stay until Ted could find a way to support himself.  Ted had used the time available to him to choose a new enterprise: he would be a street vendor on a nearby island (a tourist favorite), and he would sell homemade fruit drinks.  He priced a three-wheeled vendor’s cycle, and a machine that would mix and chill enough drinks to make it worth staying outside for the day.  If the buyer would just come through, Ted would have enough money to buy the needed equipment and three weeks’ worth of ingredients.  But the money from the sale of the piano and silver was slipping though Ted’s fingers quickly, just being spent on groceries and gasoline for his lawnmower.  And then more bad news came.

The buyer wanted to delay the purchase one month.  One month doesn’t seem to make a lot of difference to most people, but when you are living on candles and sandwiches, a month can make a very big difference - an awful, dreadful, stressful difference.  On October 4, Ted entered his status on Facebook:  “I’ve just gotten word that closing will be November 5.  November 5?  How am I going to make it through a whole month?  I feel like hitting something.  Very hard.”  None of us blamed Ted for his feelings of frustration.  It seemed like every time he tried to do the right thing, all he got in return was a slap in the face.

I had done this before, but that Thursday night, the night of October 4,  I felt prompted to put Ted’s name on the prayer rolls in the LDS temple here in Tonga.  His was not the only name I wrote down, but I know by the next morning his name was in a package of papers being presented to humble, faith-filled, prayerful people.  And less than 24 hours after that, Ted entered his status on Facebook:  “AT CLOSING!”  The closing had been rescheduled.  Then a little while later, “I’m officially homeless!  I’m so happy!”  Ted had gotten the $3000 and was making plans to move out of his house and into his friend's home on the nearby island.  In the few days since, Ted has expressed only optimism as he moves on to this next chapter in his life.  

I bow my head in gratitude.  Thank you, Heavenly Father, for answering prayers, and for always being mindful of each one of your children.   Thank you, dedicated Tongan Saints, for your prayers and faith in behalf of my longsuffering friend.  Thank you, Ted, for your shining example of integrity, determination, persistence and problem-solving in the face of adversity.  And thanks all around for letting me learn this lesson once more: the Lord answers prayers.  

Saturday, October 6, 2012


Serve, opposing disinterest and disobedience.
Serve, for your sake, and theirs.

Serve. Pray.
Pray for understanding and effectiveness.
Pray to rescue one, then one more.

Serve.  Pray.  Study.
Study your message and your people.
Study, so you can coach them to success.

Serve.  Pray.  Study.  Ponder.
Ponder your blessings and your readiness.
Ponder their challenges and impact.

Serve.  Pray.  Study.  Ponder.  Listen.
Listen to your experienced fellows.
Listen to the experts, and The Expert.

Then go serve.