A Real Tongan Feast

Notice the coral behind the boatWhen we left Neiafu Harbor last Saturday we planned to attend a Tongan Feast at Barnacle Beach.  There are two feasts for the tourists every Saturday night and we, along with our friends John & Nicole on Gannet chose to attend the less crowded one that reportedly had better food. The other one is in a very popular anchorage where the yachties hang out here in Vava’u. We arrived Saturday afternoon and could not raise the folks at Barnacle Bill’s on VHF, so John dinghied over to the beach, only to find out that they didn’t have a feast planned for that night. OK, well there’s always next week we all thought.

In the meantime, our friends Marcy & David on Nine of Cups had sailed to a nice remote anchorage on the island of Nuapapu and stopped in at the village of Matamaka. For the past week in Matamaka four young children from two other cruising boats had been attending school with the Tongans. Marcy was introduced to a local family and spent the day touring around the village, while David used his electrical engineering skills to repair a solar panel in the house of one of the schoolteachers who had been without power for a month. During their visit they learned that on Tuesday the sixth graders would begin a series of exams that would determine if they were allowed to continue with their publicly funded education into middle school. Six children in Matamaka were taking the exams this year, including Roxanne, the oldest daughter of Fa’aki, the woman Marcy had met. If she did not pass her exams the government funding was over, and Fa’aki could not possibly afford to send her to private school.

For the Tongan people, this is a very important event, worthy of a true Tongan Feast. Lucky for us, Fa’aki invited Marcy & David to return on Tuesday and join them, along with a few friends if they wish. One of the fundamental beliefs of the Tongan culture is the notion that you should share your blessings and wealth, and by inviting some of the visitors to their celebration they got to do just that. We were absolutely thrilled when Marcy called us on the VHF on Sunday and told us to extend the invitation to Gannet and join them at Matamaka on Tuesday morning.

A particularly nasty weather front arrived late Monday night, and we woke Tuesday to wind and rain. We initially considered skipping the feast, but the pouring rain subsided and we quickly up-anchored and headed the six miles over to Matamaka. Marcy had told us that we should bring some baked goods to contribute to the feast, as baked sweets are a rare treat for the Tongans in this small village. We each also found some small gifts aboard for Roxanne, including some jewelry and hair accessories. At 1:30 we headed ashore, where we were greeted by Fa’aki and several of her six children.

A real Tongan feastThe men were invited to participate in the Kava circle, and Rob will write about that. The women were busy preparing the food for the feast and setting up the eating area in the community center. Marcy, Nicole and I watched and played with the children and took lots of photos. When the six children were done with their exams we were invited to sit together at the table near the school principal/teacher, the government official who was there to proctor the exam, and one of the four pastors from Matamaka. The men came in from the porch and joined us and the six children at the feasting area. An extensive blessing was given by the preacher sitting near us and we began to open the bowls and containers of food and truly feasted.

Throughout the feast individuals stood and spoke, each presenting a passionate and emotional oration. Occasionally the speaker would conclude with a snippet in English for their guests to help us understand the gist of the tale. Fa’aki spoke at length about the need for the Tongan people to understand that their children were their future and they needed to ensure that they were as well educated as possible. The school teacher spoke of the Tongan culture and explained to us a bit about how respect is one of their primary beliefs. We just chowed, and chowed some more. There were heaps and heaps of food – some recognizable and some completely a guess. Rob & I tried to sample a little of everything, and found nothing that we wish we hadn’t tasted.

At the conclusion of the speeches and feasting, the men and students left the seating area and the seats were quickly taken by the mothers and children who had been standing by while we ate first. Trust me, there was plenty of food left over, including three entire small pigs that hadn’t been cut into at all. Absolutely no one left that room hungry, that’s for sure.

Today the guys went ashore early with tool bags in hand to help out with some more electrical and mechanical repairs. Between David’s electrical training, John’s mechanical experience after a career with Caterpillar and Rob’s electrical experience as a marine electrician, we can happily say they were 5 for 5 on repairs. Tomorrow they’ll return and finish up some projects and mount some solar panels and extend some wiring. The village has no electricity whatsoever, so they wire solar panels directly to batteries in the house for lights at night. Marcy, Nicole and I got out the photo printer and printed up many gorgeous pictures and took them ashore to share with Fa’aki and the villagers.

I think I’ve written before about how often the yachties seek out the “local experience”, and not getting very far off the well beaten path this year has made that challenging for us. When we first arrived at Neiafu we found the Tongans to be much more reserved than the other Polynesians and we did not expect such a warm welcome. We certainly never expected to be sitting around a real Tongan feast listening to the marvelous people of Tonga speak. What they said was in Tongan, but what we heard was a universal voice filled with hope for their children and pride for their people.

Yohelah is here at Matamaka