The Tongan archipelago is a chain of islands in the South Pacific, nearest to Fiji and Samoa, which has been inhabited by humans for about 3000 years, making it one of the oldest settled islands in the South Pacific. Although Tongan culture has gone through its share of changes, especially due to later Western influence, the people of Tonga still retain a distinctive society, material culture, and cultural practices, including the drinking of brewed kava root at social and formal occasions.
Traditionally, Tongans have made their livelihood through farming and fishing: the main crops grown today for export are pumpkins and squash, bananas, vanilla beans, and copra (the dried meat of the coconut). Women were typically exempt from cooking—which, because it was hot and difficult, was considered a man’s job— and didn’t work in fields either. Rather, they gathered shellfish, raised children, and wove barkcloth and mats that were used to sleep on and also worn around people’s waist in a kind of grass skirt. Some of these mats have accrued long familial histories and are considered prestige objects in Tongan culture; the Tongan royal family retains a few ancestral mats that are displayed only at formal occasions such as a coronation or royal funeral.
In their leisure time, men would carve wood into everyday items like headrests and bowls for food and drink (including kava), canoes, and ceremonial objects like war clubs and cult images. They would also build huts (called fale), consisting of a woven, dome-shaped grass roof tied between four tree trunks sunk into soil. These huts could be quickly cut down, and their domed roofs used as a shield in case of hurricanes, making the fale more resilient and storm-worthy than many modern brick and mortar buildings.
Like other societies in Polynesia, Tongan culture is stratified: at birth, people traditionally attained their blood rank from their mother, and their status (or worldly power) from their father. Tongan culture was and is arranged hierarchically (although somewhat less rigidly in modern times), with the king (tu’i) and the royal family on top, followed by the high chiefs (hou’eiki) who were landholders and warlords, the lower chiefs (fototehina), and the working chiefs (matapule). The working chiefs were actually assistants and vassals to the lower chiefs, responsible for carrying out services for them such as fishing, tax collection, and harvesting and brewing kava root.
As in other regions of the South Pacific, kava drinking figures in important ways in Tongan culture. In the past, a young woman who was of the right age for marriage would preside over a faikava (literally, “to do kava”): after brewing a large bowl of kava, she would act as hostess to several suitors, passing kava around to them in cups and controlling the distribution of brew as the young men chatted and pointed up their various accomplishments and good points to the prospective bride. The young hostess was called a tou’a in Tongan on these occasions.
Kava was also consumed at ceremonial occasions such as weddings, funerals, and state functions: when a new king ascended the throne, or a new chief accepted his title, he had to cement his position by participating in an ancient kava drinking ceremony called pongipongi, a practice that has survived into the present day. For a pongipongi ceremony, the kava brew is made from scratch using the whole root (rather than the powdered kava that people brew on a day to day basis), a job reserved for a chief who acts as a kind of male tou’a for the ceremony.
However, kava drinking isn’t just removed to the realm of ritual in Tongan culture: many people like to drink kava several times a week, with the frequency of use varying by island in the Tongan archipelago. Everyday kava drinking usually happens in fraternal clubs, called kalapu (“clubs”) or faikava after the old marriage tradition, where groups of men gather to drink kava. Though women don’t traditionally drink kava, they are usually the ones serving it. In modern times, Western women living in Tonga as international volunteers are often called on to be tou’a for a night! Being the tou’a is considered an honorable position, as it relates to the old custom when a woman would choose her future husband in the original form of the faikava courtship ceremony. At those times when a female kava server can’t be recruited, a man in the group will take on the mantle of kava server; such gatherings are called fakatangata, or “all-man”. These modern day kava clubs are friendly evening affairs that can take up to 8 or 9 hours to complete, as bowls of kava are leisurely passed around, interspersed with other fun activities like watching rugby on TV (one of Tonga’s favorite national sports).
Tongan culture has incorporated much of what Western contact brought to the archipelago, including elements of Catholicism (the Catholic Church is a respected institution in the Tongan archipelago), television, elements of Western dress, and of course quick and convenient kava powder from which to brew their traditional beverage. Yet Tonga has also preserved many of its ancestral values and ways of doing things. At present, there are two cultural streams that guide a Tongan’s everyday actions and decisions: one is the anga fakatonga, the Tongan way of doing things; the other is the anga fakapalangi, the Western way of doing things. Culturally adept Tongans switch between these two streams as they navigate everyday life in Tonga, which has become a cross-cultural nation with a cosmopolitan population.