Saturday, October 23, 2010

FAI TOTONU: Doing the Right Thing

'Atenisi University (where I work as an Economics instructor and librarian) has a tradition of hosting occasional evening lectures by people with something compelling to talk about. Recently we had the great pleasure of hearing Dr. Eric Shumway, currently the head of the Mormon Mission to Tonga, reflect on his 50 year love affair with the Kingdom, which began when he was assigned here as a young missionary. He quickly became fluent in the Tongan language, and most of us in the Peace Corps know him because of the excellent Tongan language course he developed; he was the first language trainer Peace Corps Tonga used way back in 1967.

Most significantly Dr. Shumway has developed a profound appreciation for the Tongan culture and the values it supports. He presented as clear an understanding of these values as I have heard, and I'd like to share some of what he said.

The young missionary was first assigned to a remote village, “trapped in an alien, hostile environment” and told not to leave the village until he was fluent in Tongan. Suffering from culture shock and a “cold despair” he was eventually saved by the “immense friendliness of the Tongan people.” One of his first lessons from his Tongan teachers was about four behaviors “essential to your happiness and your effectiveness” as someone wanting to “be Tongan.” These are:
  1. First, Kai pō is forbidden. Kai pō, (eating at night or in the dark or on the sly, without sharing) is a serious offence in Tonga, sometimes generating negative reactions, even scandal. Kai pō is the metaphor for and the embodiment of selfishness. You must not only share, but share your best. You seek the interest of others first.
  2. The second essential behavior. “Oua ‘e kai filifili.” Don’t be picky about the food that is offered you. Learn to eat everything with relish. Gratefully take advantage of every love offering.
  3. The third principle – ‘Oua ‘e mohe ‘uli, don’t sleep dirty, bathe before you sleep. This motherly counsel caught me off guard but then I remembered that most of the palangi coming to Tonga over the years, especially in the earlier days, came from cold climates where a once a week bath was the norm. Obviously, a once only a week bath in Tonga could create unfortunate social consequences. I took the counsel as hygienic. Stay healthy!
  4. The fourth behavior was to become fluent in the language of expressing gratitude; “Koe koloa ‘a Tonga koe fakamālō: Saying thank you is the real wealth of a Tongan, and accepting the thanks of others as sufficient “payment” for any kind service on your part.”
Dr. Shumway's talk was filled with good stories of his personal experiences and appreciations for the Tongan “generosity of soul.” A well known public example of this is the story of Queen Salote at the the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II which he related this way: “Another aspect of generosity of soul is the reverence with which one subordinates one’s own needs to the comforts and convenience of another, particularly a person considered to be of rank or importance. Queen Sālote of Tonga manifested this trait in 1953 at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in London. As with many monarchs and heads of state, she participated in the coronation ceremonies, including the grand procession of royalty. It was a cold, gloomy day. Tens of thousands of excited spectators stood in the rain along the procession route to catch a glimpse of all their majesties from around the world. Unfortunately the steady drizzle had forced the royal entourage in the procession to seek cover by bringing up and securing the hoods of their carriages. In so doing they became virtually invisible to the public view – not so with Queen Salote of Tonga. She refused to cover up but rather rode in full view of spectators. Though completely wet, she smiled and waved to the adoring crowd, who responded with loud applause. Newspapers, radio, and television stations praised the radiant Tongan queen for her deeply moving regard for the British queen and her people. She later recorded her feelings saying:
“'I was so caught up in the warmth of the people and the feelings of grace flooding my heart from the recent ceremony that I could not bear to be excluded from any part of that day, good and bad. …….I just suddenly got the feeling that I wanted to join the people in the happiness of the day, and my Tongan heart was excited and foolish. But I am still thankful that I was soaked with rain on that significant day …. I did not notice what others were doing: I was too busy doing what I thought I should do … whether I was noticed or not. I was only happy because of the … warmth that the people felt for their sovereign.'”
“The media heralded Queen Sālote’s action in the most laudatory terms, but she deflected the praise by suggesting that in the Tongan way of life it is impossible to seek one’s own comfort if it would disappoint or discomfort someone else.”

He elaborates further: “This generosity is part of the traditional attributes of a True Tongan that every preacher, poet, and chief’s spokesmen or matapule articulates and sings about, the five golden badges/sashes of a true Tongan or āfei koula:” These are:
  • 'ofa – or love
  • Faka'apa'apa – Respect and reverence;
  • Tauhi va – maintaining warm relationships and social obligations;
  • mamahi'i me'a – loyalty and passionate commitment; and
  • loto-to – humility and a ready and willing heart.
As a foreigner wanting to be Tongan, especially on the eve of the transfer of political power, I am going to indulge in a bit of fie poto and suggest a 6th āfei koula – namely fai totonu. For without fai totonu – that is, honest, integrity, and doing what is right, fair, and just – then all the other virtues or āfei koula are corruptible.” Love can become favoritism, respect can morph into mere flattery, and maintaining relationships may result in cultivating only those relationships that can provide advantage. Loyalty and commitment can result in excitability and being carried away by emotion. “Fai totonu holds on to the purity of these Tongan virtues, unites them as one golden set and protects them from corruption. Fai totonu is the shield and  protection against kaipō – in its many forms of consuming or controlling selfishness, ignoring the needs and desires of others.”

In our experience here we have experienced many instances where these virtues have been expressed, such as when a neighbor comes to our door with big plate of food from their Sunday umu, how the school children who are fortunate enough to bring a lunch to school readily share with those who did not. And we have also seen the corrupted versions he talks about. For example it's not unusual for food to be prepared when an official from a government ministry or the head office of the church plans an official visit. This is nominally done out of respect, in humility, and to express sociability in adherence to these virtues, but in reality the practice has become institutionalized; the food is expected, but despite the expectation of those who prepared it the official may simply load the food into the car without accepting the hospitality involved with sharing. It is a testament to the Tongans' generosity of spirit that such behavior is accepted (sai pe: no problem).
Dr. Shumway concluded by describing an encounter with an old friend as he arrived in Tonga three years ago on this assignment as President and Matron of the Tonga Temple. His old friend “was the embodiment of the āfei koula virtues of Tonga. He was a great chief, a district officer, a loving nature, a devoted subject, a deeply religious person and member of the United Free Wesleyan Church. .   .  I greeted my venerable friend affectionately and asked him off-handedly: 'Siaosi, how is our country?' I was surprised at his answer and the emotion with which he gave it. 'Well,' he said 'We all still go to Church, we still sing to the high heaven, we still say our Amens to the prayers, but with regard to fai totonu, (that is honesty, integrity, and doing right guided by a sense of justice) – we are empty as a people.'”

How often have I heard the prayer that the impending changes to our political system would somehow restore and reaffirm fai totonu in government – But we the people are the government. And the question remains how do we get the āfei koula off our shoulders and our chests and into our hearts – How do we anga ’aki these virtues, so that they are not just decorations or badges of a false honor and an empty rhetoric, but real qualities of heart and soul?”

I came to Tonga to gain perspective from a different culture to help me better understand my own. As a citizen and product of the most consumption oriented culture ever, I am constantly challenged personally and in my teaching to understand and appreciate the Tongan generosity of spirit, in its pure as well as its corrupted expressions. It appears to be a challenge for many Tongans as well. A recent story in the English language newspaper profiled one of the candidates for parliament who has visited each household in his district in the last month. He expected the topmost concern of villagers to be reviving the economy. But these are people for whom a consumer culture is relatively new, who don't really understand globalisation and are not so sure it is the best future for Tonga. “What kept coming back to me, from rich and poor, from old and young, was that people just wanted their new government to be faitotonu—to just do the right thing, be honest with them, not corrupt.”

A worthy wish for any government.  Thank you, Dr. Shumway.

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