Natural Medicine Reigns in Tonga


Guest Post: Ruth Elayne Kongaika


After the birth of my first child in the United States, my husband and I moved to a third world country. I soon discovered what social medicine is like in a developing nation. When our children got sick, instead of making an appointment with a doctor, our only choice was to head for the hospital. There was only one hospital to serve several thousand people.

Back in 1974, we were lucky to only wait three or so hours for a doctor. There were no comfortable chairs to sit on. There were concrete slab that we could rest on. There were so many coughing, feverish and injured people waiting for help. We worried that if our child was not already seriously ill, she would be after we left the hospital.My two babies in Tonga circa 1975 Copyright Ruth Elayne Kongaika

Doctors had been trained in a third world country, usually Fiji. There was no state of the art equipment. Doctors are lower paid than teachers in Tonga. If we required a blood test, the closest laboratory was miles away, and the results would take two weeks or more.

If a prescription was given, we would head for the dispensary located in the hospital. We received medicine that had already expired, having been donated from a charitable organization in the United States or elsewhere.

Less than a year after we moved to the third world country, I had my second child. This was a very humbling experience for me. The hospital was full and I ended up having my baby out in the waiting area. Several people I had never met before gawked at me as I gave birth.

KavaThe hospital had neither disposable diapers nor a nursery. My baby had gastroenteritis and cried most of the time, and there was no doctor available to check on him. I went home from the hospital with a 103 degree fever and a sick baby. Family members are expected to take care of the patients at the hospital, and I had none of my own family living there. My husband’s parents were living in New Zealand at the time.

Thankfully, traditional knowledge has been passed down from generation to generation. It is crucial to the survival of the people of Tonga. Many have embraced a Western diet, and experience poor health as a result. Medicine made the "old way" utilize tropical plants, gifts of the sea, leaves from certain bushes and roots. Many families in Tonga treat their children with these natural resources. Most villages also have a “witch doctor” who is known for their success in healing through their own methods.

NoniMy two young babies got thrush, and were unable to eat anything for several days. They also had fevers, because of the infection in their mouths. I was so worried and took them to the doctors at the hospital. They gave me rinses and other medicine, which I used faithfully, but my babies were not getting better. After several days of this without improvement, the babies were taken to the local village healer.


The healer mixed several ingredients together including noni, kava and burnt coconut. She ground it up and poured it into the babies mouths. They cried and fussed, but I was so relieved that the gums started to show improvement almost immediately. I gained a healthy respect for Tongan medicine from that experience.

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



Leave Your Shoes at the Door

Guest Post: Ruth Elayne Kongaika

Growing up with four seasons, we almost always kept our shoes (and sometimes socks) on outside and inside the house. Only on the hottest of days during the summer, did we go barefooted. So when our little family relocated to the South Pacific, I was curious to learn that it is customary to leave your shoes on the porch before entering a home. It took me quite a while to remember this tradition, often finding myself as the only one in the group with my shoes still on in the house and then apologizing profusely.

Leave your shoes at the doorIn Hawaii, where we now live, home owners often put little signs at the doors to remind guests to remove their shoes. There may be a little wood or metal rack specifically for storing shoes just outside of the front door. Most locals are aware that tourists may not be educated in this practice, and so in an effort not to offend them, they say “no need”.

My dear Dad came to stay with us for a while in Hawaii. He is of Scottish descent and has lived all his life in a colder climate. You rarely see him with bare feet, even in the house. He has very tender feet and does not even like the feel of sand on them. I did not force him to alter his routine while he stayed with us. My own feet have toughed a bit while living in the islands. Actually, I prefer to go bare footed and can hardly wait to take my shoes off when I have been away.

Then there is my husband, who was raised in the islands before going to school in a cold climate. He still can’t make up his mind whether to leave his shoes on or off, and I discover his shoes in the oddest places throughout the house! He told me that the first time he saw snow he thought it looked fun to run in and attempted it shoeless! He quickly learned that doing so was quite painful.

In the Fiji Islands, where we have visited, there are certain tribes who get the coals in the fire burning, and then show their bravery by walking on them unprotected. I suppose their calloused feet make it much easier, having gone without shoes most of their lives.

Fire Walking Ceremony South PacificIn some other countries (Asia), shoes are removed so as not to tear the straw floor covering. In Japan the word for outside shoes is “dosoku” meaning “soiled feet”. It is perceived as dishonorable when someone enters the home with outdoor shoes on. They have specific indoor shoes available for guests to wear. In some parts of the world

Since we have so many different cultures here in Hawaii, it is good to consider the owner of the home as you enter their abode. A telltale sign would be if there is a pile of shoes or slippers at the front door. That is what I look for when I pay a visit to someone I do not know well. Often I find a pair of attractive shoes that may actually fit me and wonder what would happen if they would notice if I left mine and took theirs (Just kidding)!

Shoes Sign HawaiiIn scripture, it tells of prophets removing their shoes when they are on “holy ground”. The same is expected in some mosques or chapels today. A person’s home should be considered their inner sanctum.  Consideration of a person’s customs and traditions shows respect and honor. It is always good to learn whether you need to take your shoes off at the front door. Aloha!

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:


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