It’s Church Conference time!!! [What? Is that not what you expected?] The past few weeks here have been filled with murmurings around town on the subject of this alleged ‘conference.’ I was a bit confused as to what all the fuss was about. I pictured some church ‘paipa piko’ [that’s essentially bigwigs in Tongan :)] would fly in, make a few speeches, and head back to the big island. As usual I turned out to be quite wrong.
Last week, guests began arriving in droves to our small island. The big island ferry even rearranged its schedule and added an extra trip to Vava’u to accommodate the big crowd! [The ferry is a delightful 18 hour trip I have yet to experience. I’ll be sure to blog about that adventure once I work up the courage to hop on the ferry.] Representatives from congregations all over Tonga traveled to Vava’u, as well as church members who live abroad in Australia or New Zealand.
I myself did not have the pleasure of attending any church conference activities, but I do have some sources on the inside that filled me in on the schedule. It appears that the days consist of a breakfast ‘fakaafe’ [feast!], malolo time [essentially, naptime], a lunch ‘fakaafe,’ malolo time, and finally a dinner ‘fakaafe.’ Now, I realize that this description is probably not actually accurate. I’m sure there are plenty of legitimate church activities squeezed in between feasting. In fact, during my nosy questioning of some Tongan folks I discovered that the church systems here in Tonga supposedly operate almost as democracies. I learned that some of the many gatherings during church conference week are the meetings where the church’s big decisions are made for the year.
My previous description is based on pretty random and possibly poorly translated conversations, so we might never really know what goes down at church conferences. I did, however, witness my own community’s involvement. For weeks leading up the conference, I’d hear a church bell ring nearly every night. After the tolling of said bell, people began to wander down the street towards the church hall for ‘ako hiva’ [choir practice]. For an hour or so I got to relax in the recently cool breezes of our Tongan Winter while listening to some beautiful singing! [I think 2 blocks away is the prime distance for listening to Tongan hymns… inside the church the volume is pretty much glass-shattering.] These practices were in preparation for a big ‘pohiva’ [which literally means night sing]. Congregations from many villages dressed in snazzy all white outfits, rode into town on their village buses, and sang their hearts out. I really wish I could have witnessed the sheer decibel power of that gathering.
Each village was also responsible for preparing food for one of the ‘fakaafe’ Conference feasts. My village was responsible for a preparing a breakfast feast. In my silly ‘palangi’ [foreigner] naiveté, I assumed breakfast meant a lighter fare. Maybe we’d be preparing bread, cakes, eggs, tea, and fruit juices? Ohhhhhhh no! Apparently a Tongan breakfast feast is in no way ‘light.’ I got a taste of the leftovers and they included fish, octopus, beef, sausage, horse, chicken, and a variety of other really intense breakfast foods! Oiaue! So this was no simple meal. It consumed families’ lives for a few days. Kids missed school, there were special trips to town to buy supplies, and families made significant monetary sacrifices in order to provide for the fantastic feast.
Part of me watches all the events here that involve expensive feasts and the use of miles [literally] of plastic wrap with a bit of cynicism/sadness/something. These events sometimes seem to me like a waste of families’ meager monetary resources. Another day, another feast! It is also slightly frustrating that money for things like my school’s electricity is often hard to come by, but thousands of pa’anga are spent on feast food. That being said, I had a good talk with my principal about all the feasting and he told me about the Tongan value of fatongia. Fatongia essentially means duty; duty first to God [and thus the church] and then to family. It is a value that is central to the Tongan way of life and is taken pretty seriously. An event like this church conference, a funeral, or even a family reunion will be undertaken with zest and unfortunately, often stretch many families beyond their means. While I don’t know that I’ll ever fully understand fatongia and the Tongan tendency for ridiculous feasting, I absolutely respect the zeal and dedication with which the people of my community approach everything they do. Tea and cakes for the breakfast feast? Of course not! Someone start roasting the pigs!!!!