16 August 2010

Are you offending your Tongan female friends?

In the US, if a friend at work comes in with a new stylishly short haircut, it is only natural to comment on how much you like the new style. In Tonga, no one says a word.

Black and white funeral ta'ovala
Tongan women usually have gorgeously thick, long, wavy black hair that most keep pinned in a tight bun at the back of the head. The only reason anyone would cut it shorter than shoulder-length is when they are obligated to -- that is, as a sign of mourning for the death of a close relative.

Today when I came in to work, I almost blurted out to my coworker "I love your new haircut!" until I sheepishly remembered that she had just been away from work because of a death in the family -- and kept my mouth shut. Unfortunately, I had learned through experience, when I made a similar comment to a colleague at my old school several months ago. I was mortified when she graciously reminded me that her relative had just passed away- something I should have noticed from her black clothes and large ornate ta'ovala. It isn't outright offensive to give comment, but just horribly inappropriate; as if, after a colleague undergoes painful body-altering medical surgery, you jubilantly remark on how much you like their new look.

Ta'ovala for mourning father's side
Bark-stained ta'ovala
Some women choose to cut their hair of their own accord, but also frequently, are required to by their fahu, or aunt on their father's side. The aunt can require almost anything of her nieces and nephews; frequently children get adopted by relatives because the fahu asks the woman to allow her to adopt the woman's new son or daughter. They can't refuse. In turn, the fahu usually takes special care of her nieces and nephews, giving them gifts, financial support, and keeping track of them far more than any other relative.

Procession in front of our house- the brass band
Mourner with his cell phone

When I was walking home from work today, Mark was already on the porch taking these pictures of a funeral procession going by. The hearse (and the deceased's house) is almost always draped in purple and black, and most processions stop all traffic until their slow walk takes them by.  Mourners wear huge ta'ovalas, and close family will wear black for an entire year. This will be followed by days of sitting up with the body and singing, and of course a lot of feasting. Most of the relatives, friends, and community members will come to the putu, taking turns singing and eating, usually around the clock. It is a huge, expensive affair for the family, and many times, they are lucky if the extravagant funeral gifts they receive from their guests cover the cost of the funeral itself.

Procession in front of our house- the hearse, mourners, and car procession after the brass band

The day after I posted this, my manger Leta read the article and helped me understand even more about the nuances of the imagery in funerals. The fahu of the deceased is one of the most important members of the funeral party, and usually walks in front of the hearse, or with the processional party, wearing a flower in her hair. Among the brass band pictured above, the men with the lighter colored ta'ovalas are of higher status in relation to the deceased, followed by the wearers of darker ta'ovalas indicating slightly less close in relation. The lowest status are the tattered ta'ovalas you can see in the man on the left side of the picture, second from the front.
During the year of mourning after the funeral, mourners wearing "rags" or a grass-skirt wrap over their long funeral ta'ovala indicate that a close member of their father's side has passed away (see second picture on the left). Occasionally, we see mourners in huge head-to-toe mats that are tattered and dirty, often in a hood over their head. This indicates that either their father, fahu (oldest paternal aunt), or other paternal aunt has just passed away. As time passes, they switch to the shorter, colorful bark-dyed ta'ovalas. In contrast, a mourner whose mother or mother's side has just passed away usually wears the short colorful ta'ovala at the beginning of mourning instead of the huge mat, and continues to wear the shorter gear for the rest of the mourning period.

1 comment:

  1. The burial traditions of a culture are always very interesting, so thank you for this blog. If you have had an opportunity to learn about Tongan beliefs in an afterlife it would also be of interest, specifically pre-Christian influence.
    A woman's aunt on their father's side, the fahu, has an amazing amount of power. Does this mean, Elena, that if your Aunt Katy, your father's sister, were to visit that she would be queen of the home?
    Bob Borquist


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