Kathy and I participated in the Peace Corps-orchestrated Culture Day (Aho Ulangaanga Faka-fonua ‘o Tonga) celebration today (Saturday). Since our Peace Corps cohort is placed in four different villages, just about the entire island of Foa was invited to the party. Each Peace Corps group was responsible for providing three cross-cultural activities: a traditional Tongan dance, a skit (sikiti) in Tongan, and an American song or dance (which we had taught to kids from our village). There are a variety of traditional Tongan dances: the ta’olunga which is reserved for the virgins in the village (we didn’t want to burst the Tongans’ bubble by suggesting that any of the unmarried PC trainees might not be virgins), the kailau which is the men’s war dance, and the ma’ulu’ulu, the ‘sitting’ dance which can be danced by one and all. As a married woman Kathy was not allowed to dance the ta’olunga (for obvious reasons), a severe disappointment, so we both participated in the ma’ulu’ulu.
The women in our host family, the fa’e (mother) and kui fefine (her mother) spent considerable time creating the appropriate accoutrements for Kathy and me. The kui fefine spent two full days crafting our sisi and kahoa out of flowers and greenery. Dressing for the event began 45 minutes before it was actually supposed to begin. We were brought into the living room (lotofale or heart of the house) and inspected. We passed the initial inspection; then they began swathing us in the floral delicacies. We each had sisis (sort of grass skirts but made entirely of flowers/greenery) placed around our waists (remember that bigger is ALWAYS better in Tonga), kahoas (leis) placed around our necks, and greenery bracelets placed around our wrists and ankles. Then we were lathered up with coconut oil to make the greenery and the flowers shiny, along with any of our skin that was showing. We smelled a bit like a salad that had already been dressed.
All of the other PC trainees in our group were similarly attired and oiled. We may not have had the most well-rehearsed dance presentation but we certainly did look and smell good—and that counts in Tonga. As we danced and acted and sang, the Tongans laughed and joined in--clapping along and shouting “Vela! Vela! Vela!” (which curiously means “hot” in Tongan).
Other groups followed with their dances, including the ta’olunga and an enthusiastic kailau by two of the men. We all loved it, Tongans and palangis alike. The skits were hilarious and the musical performances of American songs we taught to our village kids were also very well received. I don’t think the island of Foa will see anything like this for a very long time!
After all the dances and skits from the various groups were completed (about two hours of program), we ate (no celebration in Tonga is complete without feasting) and we celebrated our success. I heard several of my trainee colleagues state that “days like today are why I joined the Peace Corps.” Well said.