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:



How Tonga Celebrates the New Year

Guest Post: Ruth Elayne Kongaika

One tradition I learned about when we lived in Tonga was their unique celebration of the New Year. The people of Tonga take New Year’s very seriously. When we lived in Tonga, precisely at 12:01 on New Year’s Eve locals start walking. They are hoping to be the first to greet their relatives and show their gratitude and love for them.

Tonga, until recently was the first country in the world to greet the New Year. That is because it lies very close to the 180th parallel (12 hours ahead of Greenwich). It sits directly on the International Dateline. These friendly islanders often send messages or food if they are unable to walk the long distances.

Free Wesleyan Church in TongaTongans also value their relationship with God. The whole first week of the New Year is called Uike Lotu (prayer week). Church congregations meet and pray both morning and evening, always feasting in between, during the first week of the New Year. Traditionally, bands from all over the island take their musical instruments, which include homemade banjos, bass and guitars, singing their way from home to home and hoping for some provisions in exchange for their music.

After midnight of the old year, you see people walking all over the paths and roads looking for their kin. When they meet, which may be halfway between their homes, they embrace and uma (kiss). Then they may sit down and have some cookies and Milo (chocolate drink) before leaving to find other relatives. The older people talk and reminisce about the old times and express their gratitude for being able to make it to the New Year. They reflect on people who have died and babies that were born. They also share their hopes for the future.

The young boys of Tonga construct fana pitu (bamboo cannons) and you can hear them all over the islands as their kerosene contents are lit. The boys will try hard to outdo each other in this cannon marathon. It sounds like a war is going on in the villages with all the cannons going off.

After greeting all the relatives, and a long nap, most everyone heads for the beach. January 1st is during the hottest time of the year in Tonga, unlike the white snowy Christmases some other countries are used to. The whole family will go to the beach and have a swim. Food for the New Year is usually baked in an umu (underground oven), and may include lu pulu (beef, onion and coconut milk wrapped in taro leaves), root crops like taro, kumala (sweet potato) manioke (tapioca), and seafood. Mostly, the men fix the umu, but everyone enjoys it. Women make desserts like faikakai (caramel dumplings), Tongan pudeni (pudding) with custard, trifle (adopted from England) and other sweets.New Year Feast Tonga

The Tongan royalty also have their own way of celebrating the New Year. On January 1, 2009 members of the royal family as well as cabinet ministers and distinguished guests received an audience with his Majesty King George Tupou V shortly after midnight. The monarch tries to strengthen his relationships during the New Year’s celebration.Bamboo Cannon, New Year Celebration, Tonga

Truly, the people of Tonga are proud that they are one of the first countries to greet the New Year. Their monarch, Taufa’ahau Tupou IV fought for them to have this distinction so they would be the first in the world to offer up their prayers in Thanksgiving. They even have a hotel called the International Dateline Hotel.

More recently, it has become popular in Tonga to be married the first week of the New Year.

Ruth Elayne Kongaika was raised in the mainland, USA, but 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:



Pomp, Pageantry and Position, A Tonga Wedding

Guest Post: Ruth Elayne Kongaika

My first experience attending a royal wedding was when we moved to the island of Tonga. We received an invitation for the Imperial nuptial. I did not know what to expect, but was informed that I must wear gloves and a hat. Tongans must wear traditional clothing, but since I was a foreigner, I wore a long blue empire waist dress with a matching hat and gloves. Princess Salote Pilolevu, daughter of the reigning monarch was to marry Tuita, a cousin. Tongan Royals must marry in the family to retain the strong royal bloodline in order to continue the true line of succession to the throne. That was taboo in the society I grew up in, so it took me a while to get my brain around it.

Traditional Tongan wedding attireI recollect the young beautiful Princess Pilolevu in her wedding attire, and what a contrast it was to bridal gowns I was used to seeing. Extravagant feasting, mostly provided by the commoners, was indulged in by all. There were polas (large wooden trays lined with banana leaves) piled high with whole pigs, lobsters, fish, beef and oodles of local root crops and luscious fruits. The finest the Kingdom had to offer was displayed for the grand occasion.  It was a far cry from the quaint receptions of my friends and family with bowls of mints and nuts as refreshments.

Etiquette and decorum were uppermost in the minds of all involved. There was quite a bit of bowing, curtsying, and even crawling on the ground by commoners around the imperial family members. I remember how “star struck” I was when it was my turn to greet Princess Pilolevu. She was very refined in her mannerisms. I had practiced my curtsy well ahead, but it still felt awkward.

Lakalaka, TongaOf course, the activities of the whole island kingdom were put on hold in celebration for the wedding. There was dancing, including whole villages which donned skirts of leaves, feathers and mats all handmade from what the land provided. Months of practice had gone into preparation for a lakalaka, the Tongan National dance. One lakalaka could last as long as thirty minutes, and sometimes seemed it would never end. The song writer and choreographer would usually base the dance on a legend or history of the islands.

 Salote Pilolevu Tuita’s wedding cake, TongaAnother notable difference between typical Western and Tongan weddings is the cake ceremony. The wedding cake is usually more than ten layers. After the couple has share a piece with each other, each layer of the cake is presented to a person who has played an important role in the wedding. It is their way of honoring those who have helped them.

In 2012, there was another royal Tongan wedding. Again, close cousins were united in matrimony. The son of King Tupou VI, the Crown Prince Tupouto’a Ulukalala and Sinaitakala Fakafanua (26th in line for the throne), were united amidst controversy regarding the wisdom of carrying on this age-old practice of arranged marriages.

Interestingly, modern day weddings in Tonga are usually a mixture of British style weddings and traditional Tongan. Family obligations are very important in Tonga, and many sacrifices are made by close and distant kin, which becomes a competition in many instances. It is not unheard of today for the line to include ten or more bridesmaids. Gifts of tapa cloth, quilts, fine woven mats and great deals of money are often lavished on the couple. Hopefully you can experience a lavish Royal Tongan Wedding during your lifetime.

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:



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:


Time Tales from Tonga


Tonga’s Amazing Juggling Women

Guest Post: Ruth Elayne Kongaika

When I was a young girl, we played hopscotch, jump rope and jacks. In Tonga, primary school girls learn to juggle (hiko). Many of them continue juggling for fun and later on for competitions. These jugglers develop great hand-eye coordination and keen concentration skills. The art of juggling is not taught to the young boys of Tonga, although there are some who do it secretly, but it is mostly considered a woman’s talent in Tonga.

Tongan women performing hiko (juggling) in Vava’u, Tonga (circa 1793)If you asked the average Tongan, they may not be able to tell you the origin of juggling in the islands. However, a common myth is told about a blind woman named Hikuleo, who was the head goddess of the underworld. She would stay in her own house, because if she were to leave her home, there would be an earthquake. She would steal the eyeballs of anyone who attempted to approach her in the underworld unannounced or without permission and keep them in a wooden bowl. She would call to her girls in the underworld to come and juggle with the eyeballs. Because of this story, superstitious Tongan girls will never juggle at night, since they are afraid that their eyeballs may be stolen.

Tonga women juggling fruitIn Tonga, juggling is not usually done with balls, but with small fruit like tangerines, limes or tui tui nuts. When we lived in Tonga, what amazed me was the number of objects they could juggle all at once. I have seen as many as ten fruit being juggled at a time. Five was a common number to start with. Often they would have a bowl of extra fruit nearby so they could grab and add one more to the circle.

Young Tongan lady jugglingI think because the girls start so young, it seems very easy to them. Most Tongan children do not have a barrage of toys, like some children in wealthier countries do, so they have to create their own fun. This is an inexpensive talent to develop. Besides the coordination and concentration skills learned from juggling, I believe it is a good preparation for motherhood, when women learn to juggle babies, housekeeping, cooking, being a spouse and other familial responsibilities.

To help in keeping the rhythm going during their juggling, the Tongans sing a little song. It puts them into a trance which helps their concentration. Once someone in a village starts juggling, the others want to join in. Before you know it, there are several young girls standing, kneeling or sitting, all the while laughing as some drop their fruit. The last person to drop all of their fruit is viewed with admiration. Juggling is considered a game for amusement sake. They do not do it for entertainment, like in a circus, but more of a fun little diversion to their chores and schoolwork.

Clowns in a circus usually juggle with a simple figure-of-eight pattern, which involves throwing the ball up through the middle and over the sides. The girl and women jugglers do it in a circle and it can get very high, depending on how many items are being used. It really is amazing to watch, and hopefully it will not become a lost art.

In 1978, The Los Angeles Times wrote that Nuku’alofa, the capital of Tonga had more jugglers per square mile than any country in the world. It could still be, but it is now more commonly found in the villages than in the capital. If you are fortunate enough to capture women juggling in Tonga, consider yourself blessed.

Ruth Elayne Kongaika was raised in the mainland, USA, but 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:





Religion and Superstition in Tonga

Guest Post: Ruth Elayne Kongaika

Your visit to the Kingdom will be enriched by learning a little of the Tongan beliefs and history. After living in Tonga a short while, I observed that the beautiful people of the islands have strong spiritual inclinations as well as superstitious beliefs.

Since the eighteenth century, Tonga has been a Christian nation. Worship is a central characteristic of most Tongan people. Even today, the beating of drums in the villages signal the time for prayer or choir practice. Tongans love to sing to prepare for song festivals and as part of their daily worship.

Outside Tonga ChurchReligion is such a part of daily life that Tongan statute includes it. It is unlawful to open a store or shop on Sunday. Tonga is very peaceful and quiet on Sunday. The monarchy, nobles, as well as the commoners are encouraged to attend church. Families dress up in their best clothes to attend church. Some of them wear European style hats and elaborate fabrics that shine or sparkle to their services. Sunday is also the day that the best food is prepared and shared with neighbors so no one goes hungry.

Inside Tonga ChurchChristian denominations in Tonga include the Free Wesleyan, Roman Catholic, and Seventh Day Adventist Churches, as well as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). There are many church schools throughout Tonga.

There are specific times of the year which are religiously significant for Tongans:

Uike Lotu – the first week of every year. Some Christians gather morning and evening each day of this week for prayer, worship and feasting.

Toetu’u – Easter camps are held in many churches. It starts on Friday, and they feast, worship, play sports and sing.

Katoanga Misinale – Mission Giving or Stewardship Sunday is held the last part of the year. This tradition includes making a financial offering to their church. They donate thousands of dollars to build churches for the benefit of their fellow saints.

Po Le’o – The last day of the year (New Year’s Eve) is a special day of celebration and worship. They give thanksgiving for making it to the end of the year. At midnight, they try to be the first one to greet their relatives in the new year.

Tongan traditions are intertwined with religion. Several superstitions are woven into the fabric of Tongan daily life. My first experience with this occurred when we passed a graveyard while riding our bikes. I was whistling, and my wide-eyed friend told me to stop it. I was surprised when he told me that the whistling will wake the spirits of the dead in the graveyard, and that they would follow me.

Tonga Cemetery with visiting pigAnother time, while we were cleaning a grave, I noticed some black rocks that seemed to distract from the beauty of the place. I went about removing them until my husband informed me they were very special volcanic rocks (from another island), and that I was not to remove them, or something dreadful might happen to me. Also, they have a strong belief that evil spirits can, and do, enter your body. They call it puke tevolo (devil sickness). They crush certain herbs and plants and smear them all over their body, including their hair, to get rid of the demons.

Another superstition is that you should not touch your father’s head, and especially do not eat your father’s left overs. There are many more superstitions, but suffice it to say, they have not totally moved away from their ancient Tongan beliefs, even though they adopted Christianity.

Ruth Elayne Kongaika was raised in the mainland, USA, but has been living in the South Pacific for the past forty years. She enjoys trying 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:



I Nearly Died at a Tongan Funeral

Light years ago (it seems) I attended my first Tongan funeral. My husband had secured a teaching position at an educational institution on the main island in the Kingdom of Tonga. As a mixed couple (Tongan/American) I was trying very hard to fit in to this new culture.

In Western culture, funerals are a solemn occasion where we try to control our emotions, and comfort the survivor with comments like, “he/she is in a better place,” “at least he/she didn’t suffer,” and “let me know if you need anything.”

My first putu (funeral) in the Tongan culture was poles apart from the run of the mill funerals I was used to. We were at a dance where my husband was chaperoning. It was announced that a good friend of his had passed away unexpectedly. The man was also a student at the school where we lived.

I was thrown deep into a traditional quandary. My husband informed me to change into black clothes. We walked to see the spouse and children of the deceased. The widow was unconsolable, which was understandable given the untimeliness of her husband’s death, as well as the number of children she was now solely responsible for. She was wailing, loudly, and pounding her head and breasts.

I was hoping someone would slip her something to calm her down a bit. No matter what people did or said, the wailing continued….all that night and into the wee hours of the morning, and still did not stop when the body was in the grave. There was no mortuary, no embalming fluid, nor casket for the body. After hours of the incessant lamenting, I thought she would wear down and rest for a moment, but there was no relief. Her small children clung to her skirts, all wailing as well.

Showing Respect to the Dead, TongaFamily and friends arrived in black, most wearing large frayed mats around their waists, some covering their backs and up over their heads. It appeared to me that some had picked up the floor mat from their home and wrapped it around them. The women dusted ashes from the outdoor kitchen in their hair which was let loose. It reminded me of the stories I had read in the bible of ancient times.


The crowd sat cross legged on the ground singing hymns. A big pot of topai (Tongan round cakes) boiled to feed the mourners. Many pigs, horses, dogs and chickens also lost their lives that night, since it is customary to feed all that come for several days. I admired how everyone worked together to take care of business, leaving the wife time to grieve however she wished.

Carrying the Body to the Grave, TongaThen the biggest challenge afforded itself. Before the burial, each person took their turn kissing the deceased. I was taken aback when I realized my turn was coming up. Could I really kiss a cold corpse, especially with everyone looking to see if this little palangi (foreigner) was up to the task? I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck prickle. I wanted to show them that I had it in me, so I bent down, partially closed my eyes and kissed the remains of my husband’s friend. When I stood up, I could feel the world spinning, and felt as if I was going to pass out. I could also feel my stomach churning, and hoped I could get away before I upchucked all that I had eaten that day. I had so much more to learn!


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



My Favorite Sites to Visit in Tongatapu Tonga

Guest Post by Ruth Elayne Kongaika

When we lived in Tonga, visitors often asked us where to find the best sights on our island. Tongatapu undoubtedly has many fine sandy beaches where you can relax and cool off. Plus, depending on what you like to do, here are a few of my favorite suggestions that may whet your appetite.

The Royal Palace: Tonga is the last remaining kingdom in the South Pacific. Only members of the Royal Family live in The Palace, but you can peer through the fence, or see it from the waterfront.  Originally built in 1864, in comparison to other royal homes throughout the world, the Wood Victorian Palace in Tonga is quite humble. It has been the residence of Kings and Queens, and has also been the meeting place for many ambassadors and heads of state. You would really miss a big part of the past and present of the islands if you did not view The Palace. It recently underwent some renovations.The Royal Palace of Tonga Located in Nuku’alofa, the capital of Tonga

The Ha’amonga: On the northern end of Tongatapu, near Niutoua, you can find the Ha’amonga. It is a trilithon made of coral limestone slabs. It was manually constructed in the 13th century, and is believed to be an entryway into the royal compound of the ruler of that time who was called Tu’itatui. When you walk through the gate and venture a few yards more, you will find a large stone, which is believed to be the monarch's throne. It is curious how the ancients built the Ha’amonga, because of the large size of the stones (about 20 tons each). Of course, there is a legend attached to the structure, as well a real or imagined astronomical connection.Ha’amonga a Maui, Niutoua, Tonga

The Blowholes: I have never seen any thing to rival the amazing blowholes in Tonga. We lived not too far away from the village of Houma where they are best seen. When the rolling waves advance, you can hear a whistling as the water is pushed up through air vents in the rocks. The water shoots skyward, and depending on the tide, can be very spectacular. The spray from the blowholes can be observed along the rocky coastline for four miles on a clear day, and the propelled water can reach heights of 30 meters. There are little tide pools that you can carefully venture into, but stay far away from the edge.The Blowholes of Tonga

The Flying Foxes: My husband’s aunt and several cousins lived in the village of Kolovai, which is known for the bats which are hanging in the ironwood pine trees. Once I understood that these bats, otherwise known as flying foxes, eat only fruit I felt much more at ease. They sleep upside down during the day, and venture out to look for fruit at dusk. I recall one little Tongan boy came up to us calmly holding the tips of the wings of one flying fox so we could see the wingspan. It was quite impressive, since some of them measure three feet across.  In Tonga, flying foxes are considered sacred, and thus they are protected.Flying Foxes of Tonga - Kolovai

Anahulu Cave: One of my favorite places to go in Tonga is the ‘Anahulu Cave. It is very close to Mu’a in the village of Haveluliku. There is a freshwater swimming hole in the underground stalactite cave. When we visited the cave, a local family invited us in, and put on a Tongan show for us. You will want to have a strong flashlight and sturdy shoes. Be careful as the rocks can be slippery, and look after your valuables. You can also swim at the beach with the same name as the cave.

Hufangalupe: If you want to see an unforgettable sight, travel to the south coast of Tongatapu to Hufangalupe. It is otherwise known as the “Pigeon’s Doorway”. There are towering cliffs, a natural bridge and a sandy cove. It is near the village of Vaini. Be very careful that you do not go near the edge of the cliff.Hufangalupe (Pigeon’s Doorway), Tonga


Ruth Elayne Kongaika was raised in the mainland, USA, but has been living in the South Pacific for the past forty years. She enjoys trying 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:



Welcome Feast in Tonga

Guest Post by Ruth Elayne Kongaika

My husband accepted a teaching position, and our new home was at Liahona High School in Tonga. The roads were paved, and there were even sidewalks (unlike neighboring villages). The school was in the middle, with the faculty houses flanking it on both sides. At the rear of the school, there was a large farm where they raised cows and pigs. Roosters and chickens ran wild, and they also raised a vegetable garden. The students of Liahona High School had to spend part of each day working on the plantation or farm to help pay for their tuition and food.

My husband’s parents worked as dorm parents for the girl’s living on campus. We waded through water up to our knees to get to their little apartment. It was the first time I had met my mother-in-law. I briefly met my father-in-law when he had visited the mainland United States. This was the first time both of them had met their little granddaughter, and they instantly fell in love with her. They were so welcoming, and I could see that they were preparing a fine feast for us.

Lu sipi, manioke, fish, mussels, sweet potato, raw fish and taro, TongaWhile they were cooking, we were invited to take a rest, which was much needed after the long flight. My husband and I took a nap, while our daughter enjoyed getting to know her grandparents and many cousins. When I awoke, I saw a huge beetle (about two inches long) right in front of my face. There was a flashlight, with a large lamp nearby. I grabbed it, and put it right on top of the beetle, so I could show it to my husband when he arose. When he finally opened his eyes, I proudly picked up the flashlight to reveal what I thought was a rare exotic beetle. He just laughed, and informed me that it was just a cockroach, and that they were all over in Tonga.  I was mortified!  In all my growing up years, I had never seen a cockroach, but had heard that wherever they lived, it was filthy! Later, I realized they thrived in Tonga, because of the warm moist climate.

Tonga FeastAfter the buggy shock wore off, I looked down at my ankles and realized that they were swollen and red.  They felt very itchy. There were a few fat mosquitos swarming around that were filled with my blood. Needless to say, I was not too fond of the “wild life” in Tonga. I later experienced spiders as huge as my hand (they won’t harm you, I was told), centipedes that were a foot long (they will harm you), fleas (to which I found I was allergic), bees, hornets, coconut beetles, walking sticks, plenty of lizards and other creatures. At least there are no snakes in Tonga.

So after my creep-crawly education, we were taken to a table laden with all manner of foods, which I had never laid my eyes on. There were root crops, including taro, ‘ufi (yam), manioke (tapioca), and kumala (sweet potato). I did my best to try everything, and I particularly enjoyed the kumala. There were also tropical fruits including mangos, pineapples, guava, watermelon, passion fruit, lychee, and lesi (papaya).

Most Tongans love mutton, and their favorite is mutton flaps (because they are inexpensive and have plenty of ngako or fat on them). They wrapped mutton flaps in taro leaves, added onions and coconut milk, and baked it. Yummy! They also served New Zealand sausages, chicken, fish and beef. A Tongan feast must have several meats. Often they will have a suckling pig. To top it off, we were served trifle, an island favorite. I was stuffed! I discovered that food is the ultimate gift, and very important in Tonga.


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



My Introduction to Tonga

Guest Post by Ruth Elayne Kongaika

By far, the most interesting experiences in my life have occurred in Tonga. We lived there for a total of thirteen years with a break after the first three. My husband taught school there, and later became an administrator at a high school.

When I first heard about Tonga, my mind conjured up spectacular scenes of sandy beaches in a tropical paradise similar to Hawaii. Tonga is indeed beautiful, and it does have many picturesque beaches. However, there were quite a few surprises that I had not expected.

Road Through Palm Trees, TongaAfter a long flight from the mainland United States, we finally flew over our future home. As I looked down, what I saw were rows and rows of coconut tress. Here and there you could see a dirt road weaving through the tress. There were a few shanties with an adjacent round cement tank for water, and clothes hanging on lines in the yard. There were no mountains on Tongatapu, where we were to live. In fact, there were no hills. The land was almost perfectly flat. Having been raised in the Rocky Mountains, I knew this would be a different experience, especially since we were almost at sea level.

When we finally landed (on a grass runway), the heat was intense, and the humidity level was obviously high. Mind you, we arrived there in January, which is right in the middle of the summer in Tonga. That was a shock, having lived with a snowy January all my life up until then.

Little wood and metal home in TongaMy husband’s brother picked us up at the airport in his “taxi”. He drove us over several miles of dirt roads. It had recently rained, or rather poured, and in some places the showers had left huge pools of water. The taxi would be semi submerged in these major potholes, and the car stalled a couple of times. My brother-in-law got out of the car, made a few adjustments under the hood, and managed to get us going again.

We passed the endless rows of coconut trees that we had seen from above. Pigs of all sizes wandered across the road as well as chickens and ducks. I felt as though I had traveled back in a time machine a few decades.

About a half hour later, we arrived at a little village called Liahona, that looked like it had been dropped right out of Southern California. Most of the houses along the way were made of wood or out of woven coconut fronds. The homes at this little church college (high school) were made of cinderblocks. They looked out of place, but I was so glad to find out this is where I would be staying while my husband taught school.

Liahona High School, TongaWe were taken to a little flat (apartment), and I was ecstatic to find we had running water (including hot), and then I got acquainted with my new wringer washer. Our little girl was six months old, so I knew that I would get to know this washer quite well. I was just glad I wouldn’t have to wash my clothes by hand, as I was informed that is how most of the neighboring village women did their laundry.

My first day in Tonga was a real eye opener. I realized how spoiled I had been, and gained a new  appreciation for my husband and his family. In the next three years, Tonga would teach me so many lessons as I became aware of the culture and traditions that had been orally passed down for generations.

Guest Post By :Ruth Elayne Kongaika

Ruth Elayne Kongaika was raised in the mainland, USA, but has been living in the South Pacific for the past forty years. She enjoys trying 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:



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