Friday, August 19, 2011

Tānaki Tu’unga

As usual with school events thus far, I never really know what’s going on.  I tend to need a little time to digest and ask a few questions.  Today proved to be another somewhat confusing, but certainly entertaining cultural experience.

Oh boy! The class 6 girls are anxiously waiting to find out
their class rank!
This morning, we were scheduled to have the annual Tānaki Tu’unga at school.  It is an event that marks the end of our 2nd Term of school, essentially the middle of the school year here in Tonga.  Translated literally, tānaki tu’unga means ‘to gather the ladder.’  In reality, it is the announcement of class rank.  I like the symbolism, though.  I envision all the kids in their cute little red uniforms arranging themselves on a giant ladder [with plenty of pushing and shoving, of course].  [note: I’m being a stellar PC volunteer and writing blog posts while sitting around with my teachers.  I just giggled aloud while writing that bit about the ladder.  One of my counterparts asked me what I was laughing about, but I couldn’t tell her for fear that at the next tānaki tu’unga someone might actually bring a giant ladder. People take me way too seriously here…or I am just not so ‘poto’ [smart/good] at making jokes Tongan style.]

Now, on with the story!  I arrived at school just in time for the 8:30 bell [read: bell = old propane tank] to find 3 kids milling around and no teachers to be seen.  My teachers told me that the program would start at 10.  My ‘palangi’ [foreigner] brain assumed that we’d continue school as usual, but everyone else understood that they were to sleep in on this momentous day.  ‘Sai pē ia’ [It’s ok].  I am pretty much incapable of sleeping in here anyway.  There are far too many roosters and barking dogs to make for a late morning.

Hence, I wandered around school for a while until families began to arrive.  Eventually, the parents and kids began filling every shady space available at school.  It certainly pays to arrive early…no one wants to be stuck sitting in the sun!  I thought that this might turn out to be my first Tongan event that did not involve food in any way. I was wrong, of course.  As the Class One kids sidled out in front of the crowd to perform, I noticed that along with makeshift instruments, they [well their moms, to be more precise] were carrying all sorts of produce.  There were giant bunches of bananas and every variety of Tongan root crop.  The class then commenced singing ‘Come and Buy,’ and tried to entice the crowd [again, their moms :) ] to come purchase food to benefit the PTA. 

These future class one musicians are starting small with
corned beef can instruments!
The class’s makeshift instruments were quite impressive.  A few budding musicians played guitars made of giant ‘kapa pulu’ [corned beef] cans.  Another popular choice was a giant rum bottle [‘osi inu a.k.a. already imbibed] filled with rocks! I am not entirely sure what musical instrument this was meant to be, the cucaracha perhaps? Regardless, the kids performed wonderfully…for the most part.  A few shy youngsters were simultaneously ‘tā kītā’ [playing the guitar] and crying.  Sidenote: Tongans REALLY love to laugh.  While these few little kids were singing and crying, the crowd was ‘kata lahi’ [laughing a LOT].  At first I wanted to cry for the kids.  I felt so bad that they were frightened and uncomfortable and that all their mothers were laughing at them rather than comforting them.  However, that’s just life here.  Kids definitely grow up with tough love…..and in Tonga, we laugh at pretty much everything!  Eventually, the little boys came around and started giggling too.  It’s certainly infectious.

Here class 3 ladies perform a traditional Ta'olunga dance!
The performances continued with every class singing a song and then lining up in rank order in front of all of their parents.  At first, I will admit I was slightly mortified at just how public and straightforward the whole process was.  My heart breaks a little for the kids at the end of the line.  But, there are no secrets in Tonga and it’s not shameful to be the kid at the end of the line.  Conversely, kids seem to be teased a bit when they are really intelligent or work very hard at school.  It’s almost taboo [which ironically, is maybe the one word Tongan contributed to the English language] to be ‘fiepoto’ [essentially to want to be smart].  That is certainly something that is changing in Tonga, though.  Education is becoming more and more important to many families.  The current generation of Tongan kids is beginning to have access to the internet; and they certainly ‘sio vitio’ [aka watch movies].  Through technology they are seeing the opportunities available to them through education, and soon the scramble to the top of the ‘tānaki tu’unga’ ladder will be quite the energetic race! 

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