Paynesville Press - January 25, 2006

Community Perspective

Tongans enjoy twice-a-day church feasts

By Dan Starken

The latest from Tonga...

The past couple weeks have been busy around the village, especially last week. Most villages in Tonga have what's called 'Uike Lotu (church week) the first week of January. During this time, at least in my village, there was church in the morning and evening every day, usually 5 a.m. and 5 p.m., with a feast after every church service.

Basically anyone who goes to church goes to the feast. I should clarify; it's the Free Wesleyan church that puts on the church week business. My village is probably 90-plus percent Free Wesleyan with a small Mormon population, but during church week, even the Mormons go to church with the Wesleyans. Quite obviously because they wanted to go to the feasts, but nobody seems to care.

It's great for the people who go the feasts at least, but the families who put on the feasts have an endless amount of work to do, not to mention the incredible expenses involved. Like many things in Tonga, it seems excessive to have two feasts a day for a whole week when many of the people putting on the feasts can ill afford it.

Some people take out loans to pay for these feasts. Most of them just ask for money from their relatives overseas. It's compounded by the fact that Tongans are the biggest people on the planet (according to body mass index) and not surprisingly eat more than normal people.

The normal Tongan feast starts with everyone sitting down at long lines of tables, which are stacked with food of all different kinds. Food is stacked on top of other food routinely to a height of about a foot off the table. There is rarely a feast table set that has any free space on its entirety.

There will usually also be a head table which seats the preacher, the town officer, any other visiting church or government official, and the elders of the village. The "best" food is always placed here at the head table.

When everyone is seated, usually the preacher will stand and say the blessing, which usually goes for about five minutes. After this, everyone starts plowing food into their face as fast as they can. After a minute or so, someone will stand up and start speaking while everyone is eating. They speak for as long as they want and then someone else will stand up after the previous speaker is done. It's almost always the same people who stand up and speak at every feast.

I don't understand or pay attention to some of the speeches, but from what I gather they start out by thanking the Lord for all the food and for everyone at the feast and they apologize for not having sufficient words to express their gratitude. Then they move on to telling everyone they are going to burn in hell if they don't do this or that and the other thing. Piety is a central theme here among the Wesleyans. It's not uncommon for them to wildly gesticulate and yell and scream as well as fake cry (crocodile tears) during their speeches.

Interestingly enough, almost nobody pays attention to the speaker and just keeps on eating and carrying on quiet conversations amongst themselves. There will usually be an older gentleman or gentlewoman or two who will give affirmations after things the speaker says. For instance, if the speaker says, "Jesus gave us this food!" the affirmator will say loudly "Yes!" or "Thank you, Jesus!"

It's a lot like the Southern Baptists.

It usually takes me about 30 minutes of eating to fill up, at which point many of the kids have already abandoned their tables and are off playing, but all the adults and teenagers are still expected to sit at their seats until all the speakers are done. This usually doesn't happen for two hours, so basically you have to sit there crammed in among behemoth Tongans sweating and eating for two hours, and they eat the whole two hours, though it seems physically impossible that people could eat that much.

Then when the final speech is done, another prayer is said, and it's over. So then everyone starts grabbing for the food left on the tables, and they stuff it in their purses, plastic bags, or anything else they can carry it in to take it with them. You never know they might get hungry on the walk or ride home!

I don't think it's excessive at all to estimate that the average 50-year-old Tongan woman weighs somewhere in the neighborhood of 250 pounds. The men are less rotund and are actually in pretty good shape even into old age, almost certainly because they continue to farm by hand as long as they're able, which seems to be into their 70s for the most part.

So anyway, that's about what a Tongan feast is like, and we did that twice a day all last week and again yesterday, though there was only one feast yesterday (Sunday).

Starken is a 1996 PAHS graduate who joined the Peace Corps in July and went to Tonga in the South Pacific.

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