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Rejoice! Tongan culture is alive

Salt Lake City, Utah, USA

Dear Editor,

Before I jump in this discussion, I would like to apologize to Mele Payne Lynch. I’ve never met her, I don’t know her personally, and I really don’t know her exact contributions to Tonga’s economy, and my lack of judgement in using her as the example of a model tourist, when she is clearly more than that, has become fodder for others to mock her.

And thank you Sione Ake Mokofisi for proving me correct, as my peers and I predicted your meatless response with 100% accuracy. He cries foul because someone called him “emotional” yet he thinks he is immune to personally attacking others, especially by drumming up his own petty, unrelated personal issues with me.

Instead of engaging in a fruitless tit-for-tat battle of words and allowing it choke up this discussion, I will make a humongous side step around some of those letters masquerading as personal attacks and salvage this discussion by addressing some issues addressed respectfully by Mafi ‘o Amerika Samoa Lousiale Kava in a letter entitled “Tongan culture under attack.”

Mafi writes that I:

1. …offered no proof that the culture is the cause of the problems

2. …offered no solutions to the problems

3. …have done nothing new or extraordinary worth boasting about

Mafi is correct on all three counts.

I didn’t offer Mafi proof that culture is the cause of the problems because it was never implied. I said that culture is not static, which means it is organic, it is living and can be altered and I supported my statement with a direct quote from HRH Princess Pilolevu. I wrote to support Mele’s stance that some cultural traditions that deplete resources need evaluation and I am not alone in this. Tonga’s culture is alive and well and is no threat of extinction, but we have self appointed preservationists who like to drum up hysteria and have us believe that the sky is falling when someone raises a concern about the practicality of certain cultural practices.

Do we suppose that when the ancient custom of strangling widows was abolished, the relatives of the said widows or the widows themselves were upset because the honor of being buried beside their husbands was denied them? Did the cultural gatekeepers of that time run to their defense, demanding that the strangulations be carried out? Do we champion the right of the widows to be strangled, or do we accept that abolishing such acts as progress? We really don’t know but we can only conclude that this cultural tradition of strangulation was deemed by the rulers of that time to be rightfully impractical and of no use to the culture. Did the sky fall then? No.

We also go to great lengths to preserve the integrity of Tongan culture, but how can we do so without honestly assessing the impact of Christianity, the single most radical agent of change in Tongan culture? We know from history books that not every Tongan wanted to embrace King Siaosi Tupou I and his newfound Christianity, we read of

how he subjugated “heathen” villages and their chiefs with violence, and we read that this bore tremendous emotional impact on the King, who took no pleasure in such acts. However, he stayed the course because he saw the big picture, and look at where we are today. Christianity and Tongan are interchangeable. This is the legacy of Tonga’s first king in the modern age and every Tongan is grateful for his vision. As we can tell, the sky didn’t fall on the day he gave Tonga to God, and we may even argue that the skies over Tonga became even more majestic. King Siaosi Tupou I’s legacy completely supports what HRH Pilolevu stated, “culture can only survive as it caters to the needs of its people” and if a Princess of Tonga understands this,

why can’t we?

Mafi does raise an important point regarding the relationship of culture and behavior. Culture, as defined by German anthropologist Franz Boaz, is the “system of shared beliefs, values, customs, behaviors and artifacts that the members of society use to cope with their world and with one another, and that are transmitted from generation to generation through learning.”

With that said, let’s look at the one of the issues I raised, fakaveve. It is a phenomenon that is not just unique to Nuku’alofa, but extends to the overall Tongan diaspora. For example, in Utah, we Tongans run around all the time searching for halls because events involving Tongans have been banned from nearly every event hall for extensive fakaveve and property damage. The only event halls that accept us now do so with a hefty insurance premium and this happens regularly with other Tongan communities throughout the world.

So, after witnessing the nonchalant attitude towards garbage in Nuku’alofa, and thinking about how we are just as bad in the USA, it would have been easy for me to conclude that, yes, we as a Tongan people are prone to fakaveve. We do it everywhere we go. Did the King peg his subjects correctly, when he said that we have an “inherent squatter mentality?” You would think so.

However, I know this isn’t true because every village I visited in Tongatapu outside of Nuku’alofa was spankin’ clean, and I’ve been to several Tongan events that were clean. I also have to mention and applaud the recycling program launched by the Tongan National Youth Congress. Their recycling bins are visible in every village in Tonga, and the people in these villages are actually using them.

So, I never implied that culture is a cause of fakaveve because I don’t believe that, although, one can make a strong argument for it since human behavior is an intrinsical component of culture and we as Tongans have a global problem with fakaveve. That is a fact.

Mafi said I didn’t offer any solutions to the problem and Mafi is right again.

I didn’t offer any solutions because I didn’t come with any. My hope was that maybe through civil dialogue in the Matangi Tonga, we can all synthesize and share information and utilize our experiences to arrive at viable solutions. Solution finding is a process.

If our solution to fakaveve is “stop complaining and pick it up yourself” as suggested by several shortsighted readers, then how does that solve anything? Such mentality is dangerous and unproductive. Nuku’alofa, the capital of Tonga, should be pristine. As a hub for tourists and the tourism industry, it should look presentable. And we in the diaspora shouldn’t give the impression to our respective host countries that fakaveve is one of our cultural values.

Ultimately, there is a government in position with established Ministries who are responsible for such things as trash management. I know that they read the letters in the forum, so maybe, indirectly, this can lead to finding solutions. Tonga’s decision makers are a “who you know” tightly knit core group of people, and like any other government, it is governed with rules and protocols and bureaucratic red tape. I may be young, I may be “Americanized” in the eyes of some, but I’m smart enough to know that the camel could go in and out of the eye of the needle a thousand times before an appointment is granted to an overseas Tongan with an idea on how to clean up downtown.

That is why this and other forums are crucial. We live in an age of information sharing and healthy, balanced dialogue, even with differing opinions, is good for the progression of the community and if the powers-that-be read it, great! That’s half the battle. If this bears no fruit, oh well, but I would rather die knowing that at least I tried.

And if there are programs already established, shouldn’t we question its effectiveness? Accountability from those in charge? Just a thought.

Mafi said that I have done nothing new or extraordinary worth boasting about and Mafi is correct again.

I have nothing worth boasting about. I do have to thank all those who flatter me with such compliments as “educated” but really, I don’t have a degree. You see, I hate school. I hate the confines of a classroom. I hate lectures. I hate the price of tuition and books. I do have a thirst for knowledge, I do make efforts to be informed and this trip to Tonga has revived my desire to finish school and afterwards, I would love to return to Tonga for a longer period of time. But, for now, I have nothing to brag about, except maybe for my impressive kung-fu DVD collection.

I do have to take Mafi to task for one thing - does one need

credentials to share their concerns about Tonga? I suppose so, since we as a people worship such acronyms as B.A., B.S, M.A, PhD. as much as we do Jesus Christ.

In our Tongan society, if you are opinionated, yet you hold a degree, don’t think that your degree will support you because you will still be called by other Tongans a fie poto. If you don’t have a degree but you have valid points to make, you are fie ha. And if you have points to make, but you hold your tongue because you don’t want to disrupt the status quo and you only say the things that other people want to hear, you are anga’i fakapotopoto and people love you, which, in hindsight, is the route I should have taken, but I guess it’s too late. When it comes to education, you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

People will continue to misconstrue my raising of these issues as an act of ta’e ‘ofa for Tonga but the reality is, I, nor anyone esle can account for the many ways I love my culture and Tongan heritage because it is immeasurable.

So hopefully this clarified a few things and fa’afetai to you Mafi for your willingness to engage in this dialogue in respectable manner. Check with me in about three years and hopefully I will stay the course and have a little piece of paper to boast about and we’ll just keep that between us so that I won’t be publicly accused of being fie ha.

Respectfully,

Richard Tulifaukiave Wolfgramm

rwolfgramm [at] gmail [dot] com