Where the most trying moment for my conscience comes every Sunday in Tonga

The inner trials of life abroad: when your adopted culture couldn’t care less about what the first article of your nation’s Constitution reads. And it’s your business to accept it and adapt. No one else’s.

Pictured above, the Royal Tombs – and this sign: “forbidden to eat curry”. In my very first days in Tonga, it taught me two essential words: ‘tapu’ as ‘forbidden’ and ‘kale’ as ‘curry’. For those who wonder: I knew ‘kai’ already. It is the same word across the Polynesian world. Isn’t it beautiful? (hint: check this BBC article). It took me a few more days to discover what the Tongans refer to as “curry”. Definitely not something resembling a South Asian dish. Kale moa (chicken curry) is the cheapest dish available in the kingdom, making it a favourite take away order at nearby 24/6 budget restaurant Talahiva.

One thing leading to another, this sign has always given me the awkward feeling that the poorer eaters were directly targeted by the very particular restriction of this order. This misled feeling likely has everything to do with the excessively specific wording of the prohibition. Needless to say no food at all is permitted on the highly tapu (‘taboo/ sacred’) Royal Tombs ground. Actually, nothing and no one apart from the very few designated caretakers of the tombs is allowed there. A matter of respect to the revered passed kings and queen resting there.

This is but one tiny sample of what is tapu in Tonga. A lot of things are tapu, but let’s stick to what has immediate effects on my experience of what could otherwise be a nice, peaceful Sunday evening in the centre of Nuku’alofa: it is a noisy, boisterous evening. Because as much as doing mostly ANYTHING is tapu by law or practice on Sunday (working, swimming, fishing, exercising, sweeping, doing the washing, playing games, playing non-godly music…), churches seem unaffected by the Sunday ban on loudness.

This is entirely fine by me when it means beautiful hymns sung in unison that can be heard across a whole neighbourhood. Churchgoing is the thing to do –which is to be expected in a Christian at the core country- and the Tongans have wonderful voices. My problem right now as I am getting my caffeine fix from the only non-Asian restaurant open on a Sunday has nothing to do with a church building, but the main public square across the road being turned into an extremely loud place of public worship.

I have lived many years outside of France but I have never felt such friction with my upbringing, in a country where secularism, strict separation of religion and the Republic, is established in the first article of the Constitution. Sure, France has an issue or two to resolve with its definition of laïcité (or “secularism”) but I can never imagine a church leader preach in the middle of the street and not get in deep trouble for that. In Tonga not only does that happen every Sunday in at least one central spot of town, but also every Friday night right where people walking to the bars can’t avoid hearing a priest call them sinners in a microphone. And on what could otherwise be a calm, relaxing Sunday, you can’t go through town without having to deal with a loud brouhaha of preaching and singing. You can’t get coffee and actually relax (but maybe I should be grateful for the one coffee shop that is open?).

Nothing against Church or worshippers. But in my French eye there is a place for collective prayer, and it is called “church”. In the same spirit, school is for education, not churching, not dancing, not sweeping. But that’s probably me “not understanding Tongan culture” – as one of my co-workers at the Ministry of Education and Training once informed me, when I had said that the problem that needed to be addressed first in order to raise the level of quality in education here was classroom time vs time spent on school precinct.

Back to the title of this article: my rant against loud churching in the middle of town on Sunday afternoons and evenings has an awful lot to do with me being French and therefore easily getting uneasy in front of public displays of faith. By no means do I think I am right and the priest and his followers on Digisquare are wrong! I am no one to judge the situation. This is however a very good example of the many things that can make choosing to live abroad trying at times: having to respect and adapt to elements of local culture that go against all what your native culture holds as acceptable behaviour. And fully taking it on as part of your new home reality.

My choice, my coping with all its direct and indirect consequences.
Just sharing the awkward experience, as a reminder that cultures can clash on certain aspects and that choosing life abroad exposes you to that kind of awkwardness (and to cyclones!)

Yet still no regrets about the choices I’ve made!



12 thoughts on “Where the most trying moment for my conscience comes every Sunday in Tonga

      1. I plan on visiting quite a bit starting in December through the end of 2017 and weighing out my options. I have a vision for a documentary, I’d like to teach performing arts, my Dad’s land in Tongatapu is vacant and I want to start gardening. Ugh. I guess we shall see. I’ll be following many blogs like this for inspiration and education! Looking forward to it 😊


      2. Say hi when you come – I’m the secretary of the Nuku’alofa Film Festival and spokesperson of the art group/ community Seleka 😉
        It’s never easy to plan things, but it’s good that you have the opportunity to test waters before commuting to a “new life”!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I’m learning that, too. Lol Communicating with people via technology just isn’t working as efficiently as I imagined. I’ve also gotten feedback from Tongans here in the states that say trying to conduct business or make connections any other way but in person isn’t reliable. What are your thoughts?
        I most definitely will have to connect with ya! Sounds like ideal work you’ve got on your hands!
        How is the arts community doing out there? I feel like the NFF is going to be bigger than big, sooner than we know it. I heard great things about it. Keep it up!!
        Don’t mind me and my million questions😅
        Be well xx


      4. Haha, thanks!
        We’ve been working hard, and hopefully it will be a very successful venture and event next year, with more grassroots productions (as we aim at promoting local film-making)
        I do agree that you need to be here for anything to be reliable, and also to know that what seems reliable may not be so… and double check all is ok. Everything takes more time that way, but at least it works.

        The arts are booming, in a Tongan way. Seleka is becoming quite well known overseas, especially in NZ, and a few more visual artists are also going international. That’s a great sing 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      5. ‘The arts are booming in a Tongan way’ lol I gotta dive into that. I can’t wait to explore that. I have such high hopes for the arts on the Motherland. Seems like it’s on its way.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Lolo,
      Thanks for your comment.
      I don’t think you need to renounce your faith because of the annoyance! That’s a bit extreme… But as you are part of the community, maybe you can express your discomfort to others?
      I understand the priest on Friday nights has been there for decades, but the Digisquare gathering is about 2,5 years old. From memory, it started in November 2013. I will never forget the blasting noise, as I was sitting outside iCoffee (it was astoundingly loud and fortunately the volume was adjusted in the following weeks. Church or not, it was physically painful). That was the day quiet coffee at the end of a peaceful day came to an end…


  1. I am sorry mate,your culture is not our culture.Do you see people fight with those preachers?No,its call co existence in a harmonious way.Please don’t come and try to change us to be French,you have already done it to the Tahitians and Wallis and Futuna by force,but let us be who we are.


    1. Hi Tamamotu.
      Thanks for your feedback but, as I wrote in the introduction of the article, Tonga doesn’t have to even feel like adjusting to me: it’s up to me and no one else to accept Tongan culture and adapt to it!
      By no way do I mean to say anything must change just to make me happy. I’m simply presenting one of the many challenges that people who like me decide to live overseas have to face.
      If I thought Tonga needs to change, and I don’t, it would no be a challenge to me. And it would be plain wrong and stupid.
      And I agree with you that what the Europeans did in the 19th century was wrong. Unfortunately, I can do nothing to change that.


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