Time Tales from Tonga

Presentation of Pigs to King of TongaGuest Post: Ruth Elayne Kongaika

Once upon a time, I naively thought that “time” meant the same thing to all people.  I discovered that the meaning of time varies greatly from one country to another when I traveled with my husband to his small island kingdom of Tonga. Having been raised in mainland America, time is usually equated with money.  We find our days planned and scheduled, measured in minutes with rarely a one wasted. We even schedule our leisure time! When we moved to Tonga, not only did I feel like I had traveled in a time machine, but I had a paradigm shift in the land where time begins (since they are right on the international date line). Tongan time was much different than what I had grown up with.

The pace of things in Tonga depends upon many different things: the King and proper protocol, the weather, national holidays and festivities, funerals, social and family obligations, amongst others. Even greetings are not hurried. A simple “hi” is not enough. On meeting someone you know, obligatory kisses on the cheek and phrases like “thanks that we are still living”, “thank you for coming”, or “thank you for traveling” are appropriate. Your greeting also depends on whether you are coming or going and how many people you are talking to. Besides the normal Tongan language used by commoners to speak to one another, there is an honorific language used when speaking to chiefs or nobles, and a regal language used to speak to the king and royal family or when praying. There is no hurrying or scheduling if you are in the presence of one of the royal family. Everyone waits on them, including bowing, providing food, and more waiting.

Tonga RoadWeather affects time in many instances, because the infrastructure of Tonga differs greatly from more developed nations. Rains can cause delays on the roads, as many of them are not paved. I was on a bus one rainy day that had to dodge big puddles on the muddy road. The tire could not handle the abuse and gave out. We had to get out of the bus and wait for another one to come. There was no AAA or tow truck services we could call to help us. Most bus drivers have become mechanics, out of sheer desperation. High temperatures also affect the ability to work since there are very few air conditioned facilities . It can get very hot and muggy in Tonga.

Ufi lei and talo (root crops in Tonga)There is no set time to eat in Tonga. Basically, a huge pot of “haka” (root crops) is boiled or cooked in an underground oven (‘umu), from which the family eat whenever they get hungry. They just prepare more when it runs out. We traveled with some guests from the mainland USA to a small island in the middle of Tonga. They served octopus, lobster and fish in the morning together with their roots crops and coconut juice. For Westerners, this can be quite an adjustment! For many of the little islands, there is no set time when the plane will arrive. It is influenced by too many variables. We waited practically all day for a plane ride back to the main island, which can be hard on the nerves, unless you are used to it.

Being on time in Tonga actually means you are early, and being late means you are on time. Punctuality is of no concern. Because of this, I learned much more patience and tolerance in Tonga than I had ever had before.


Ruth Elayne Kongaika was raised in the mainland, USA, and has been living in the South Pacific for the past forty years. She enjoys trying to capture the beauty of the Polynesian islands through her photography, painting and writing. She has a blog which shares some of her art and favorite subjects at:


email: kongaikr@byuh.edu

Time Tales from Tonga


Speak Your Mind


Plugin from the creators of iPhone :: More at Plulz Wordpress Plugins