29 May 2011

Celebrating the birthday of a Queen

The tau'olunga dancers from Queen Salote College
We sat on rough cement bleachers, looking out into the bright tropical sun at row upon row of uniformed young adults, color-coded, it seemed, into large blocks stationed around the track field. A line of girls started padding out from the right of the field, their coconut-oiled feet crossing the white track lines painted on the rubber surface, their shiny hands held together before them at eye level in a graceful dancing posture. It was time to start the next performance.

The spectacle looked like a marching band competition to my unaccustomed eyes: orderly blocks of young people, blending together in uniforms of blue, red, green, and white, each taking the field in succession to present their performance. All of this was part of the Queen Mother's five-day, 85th birthday party.

The Queen is particularly beloved by everyone in Tonga for her sincere love and respect for Tonga's people and culture, and her involvement in much that goes on in the country. Many had flown in from overseas just to be here to celebrate her birthday, and when shouts went up of "Long live the Queen!" people really meant it. Everyone sincerely hopes that she will stay well and active for a long time to come.
"Jesus loves you Queen Halaevalu Mata'aho.
Praise the Lord Queen Mother happy long life.
Happy birthday your majesty Queen Halaevalu Mata'aho God bless you."

The celebration had kicked off with a midweek "tea" at the palace that the older generation of ladies who were invited had looked forward to all year. Dress was strictly non-Tongan, and invitees came dressed in costumes from Papua New Guinea, England, Samoa, and every other country that caught fancy. There was great demand for clip-on earrings that day.
A stick dance by Apifo'ou College, with two schools lined up behind

Friday dawned, and all the schools which had been preparing for weeks trouped out to the stadium and awaited the parade, winding through the city center, to arrive, and the Queen to signal the start of the programme. The first group of students patiently stood, ready to perform, for an hour and a half before the festivities were ready to start.

Each of the large schools in the area performed a number, carefully lining up behind the previously performing group before they went on, which looked to us like an army ready to take over a weaker opponent. The effect was most pronounced when a large school started lining up while a small school was finishing their performance; in the front of the field danced the small group of young adults, while from all three remaining sides, rows upon uniformed rows marched in unison, about to converge in the centre.

The performances themselves were very good. One sang professional-quality choir pieces, another played brass band numbers, and others did sitting dances, standing dances, stick-tapping dances, and war dances. A particularly memorable show was an unusually large-scale war dance by one of the secondary schools, in which all of the men performing wore tall red and white paper-mache type cone hats. We sat directly behind the VIP section in the middle of the stadium, and watched with dog-like eyes as that section was served plates of fresh fruit, cold coconuts, and pastries. The programme had extended well past lunchtime. We calmed our rumbling stomachs and stayed until the last number, carefully slipping out before all the crowds could stampede out at the end of the show.
'Atele College performing the large scale kailao, this section in red hats

Sunday ended the celebrations with a special service at the King's Church, a huge Wesleyan structure near the middle of town. We dressed to the nines in our best formal wear, and walked the two blocks from our house in the crisp Tongan winter morning air. The church was especially packed, and we saw many people we knew who had also shown up for the service. In attendance were the Maori King and Queen, on a visit from New Zealand, the Samoan Head of State and his wife, the First Lady of Fiji, and of course the King of Tonga and his mother, the birthday-celebrating Queen. We could see them all sitting in the royal box to the left of the pulpit.
Queen Salote girls singing Happy Birthday in church

After the service, many of those in church walked down the street for a birthday lunch on the Palace lawn, by invitation only, held on linen-draped round tables with red velvet monogrammed chairs under a large red tent.

Today, when I went in to work, my colleagues greeted me jokingly with "Hey, were you tired in church yesterday? We saw you there, yawning!" The morning service had aired on TV later that night, and the cameraman had panned over us, catching me at just at the wrong (or right!) moment. Being pale in a sea of golden brown faces doesn't do anything for camouflage.

1 comment:

  1. Mark and Elena,
    Read through some of your posts here, and I really find the hard work, love and care that both of you have shared with the Tonga people. With a mission in our heart and the strength from above which makes many impossible things possible!
    Blessings in His love,
    Georgia

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