Info on Tonga (2002)

Information about Tonga (as of 2002)

This section is composed of excerpts from the Tonga Welcome Guide that I received during the last phase of the application process.  While there was basic information sent out when I was told about the assignment, it wasn’t until I received the guide that I had a clearer idea of where I was going despite all my research.  This will probably change from year to year anyway. This segment is divided into:

  • Tonga at a Glance – History, government, economy, people and culture, environment of the Kingdom of Tonga
  • Peace Corps in Tonga – History of Peace Corps in Tonga, and future programming in Tonga

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Tonga at a Glance


The history of Tonga can be traced as far back as 950 AD, during the rule of ‘Aho’eitu, the first Tu’i Tonga, or King of Tonga.  He was both the civil and religious ruler of Tonga, and exercised tremendous power. 

By the 15th century AD, civil wars had begun, and the ruling Tu’i Tonga was increasingly under threat of assassination.  As a result, the Tu’i, Kau’ulufonua Fekai, established another line of kings, known as the Tu’i Ha’atakalaua.  Kau’ulufonua Fekai appointed his younger brother Mo’ungamotu’a as the first Tu’i Ha’atakalaua, and bestowed all the temporal (civil) functions onto the new line.  The Tu’i Tonga retained the religious functions, and, as a result, remained mainly in the background.  By the time of the sixth Tu’i Ha’atakalaua, another subdivision of power took place.  This particular kings passed on the temporal functions to the third line of kings, the Tu’i Kanokupolu. 

Three lines of kings ruled Tonga, but over time, the Tu’i Tonga and Tu’i Ha’atakalaua lines began to lose their prominence.  In 1845, with the emergence of King George Tupou I, the Tu’i Tonga and Tu’i Ha’atakalaua lines became extinct.  All the chiefs and nobles in Tonga today are descendants of the three lines of kings.  The present king of Tonga is the 22nd Tu’i Kanokupolu.  He is the only direct descendant of all three lines, and as such, holds the distinction of being the most superior person in Tonga by rank and person.

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Tonga is a constitutional monarchy ruled by the king.  Since the adoption of the Constitution in 1875, Tonga became a Kingdom under a monarch whose heirs are entitled to perpetual succession to the Throne.  The Government is divided into three branches – the executive which is headed by His Majesty’s Privy Council and Cabinet, the Legislative Assembly (Parliament), and the Judiciary. 

The Privy Council assists the King in the discharge of his functions and is the highest executive authority.  It is composed of the Cabinet Ministers and the Governors of Ha’apai and Vava’u.  The Cabinet consists of the Prime Minister, twelve Ministers, and two Governors who are all appointed by His Majesty.  The Legislative Assembly consists of the Cabinet members, nine elected representatives of hereditary nobles (elected by the 33 nobles), and nine elected representatives of the people.  Election to the Legislative Assembly is held every three years.  The Judiciary consists of the Supreme Court, the Land Court, and the Magistrate’s Court, with a right to appeal to the Court of Appeals in respect to land cases, civil cases, and sentences in criminal cases. 

The last two decades have seen the biggest change in Tonga, especially with regard to its international status.  Tonga became a member of the Pacific Forum and the Pacific Conference, both important regional bodies.  In 1975, Tonga developed economic and political ties with the European Economic Community and with different African, Caribbean, and Pacific nations.  In 2000, Tonga became a full member of the United Nations.  The most obvious benefit to Tonga from its widening association with other countries has been the inflow of foreign aid from developed countries and international agencies.  aid has enabled the Kingdom to bring about improvement in social services and in the construction of essential infrastructure.

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Agriculture and fishing are the mainstays of the Tongan economy.  The main agricultural products include various types of taro, yams, cassava, sweet potatoes, potatoes, and fruits and vegetables such as watermelon, papaya, pineapple, mango, tomatoes, carrots, and cucumbers.  The main cash crops are kava, vanilla, and in the last five years, export of squash pumpkins to the Japanese market has shown great potential.

Remittances from Tongans living abroad have played a significant role in the economy over the last decade.  The major imports are textiles, building materials, petroleum products, vehicles, and food.

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People and Culture

Tongans have a well-developed sense of community based on an intricate and extensive extended family unit and a close affiliation to the church.  Tongan families are close knit and take care of each other almost unconditionally.  One’s immediate family includes grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins.  In many cases, the entire family works together to plant, harvest, cook, and fish.  It is still common for children to marry and live with either parents or grandparents, and it is quite uncommon for single adult children to live independent of their families.

As a devoutly Christian kingdom, religion is woven into almost every aspect of daily life.  Tongans attend church regularly and bless each meal, meeting, and event with a prayer.  Almost all Tongans are Christians and belong to any one of the twenty or so different denominations in Tonga.  About 43 percent of the total population belongs to the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga, followed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon), the Catholic Church, the Free Church of Tonga, and the Church of Tonga.  Laws of the Sabbath are quite strict and widely upheld in Tonga.  Virtually everything is closed on Sundays, except for emergency facilities, bakeries in the afternoon, and tourist facilities.

There are some elements of Tonga’s rich and traditional culture that are still prevalent in the Kingdom today.  One of the most distinct customs is the use of the ta’ovala, a decorative woven mat tied around the waist.  There are certain ta’ovala for each occasion, and the kind of ta’ovala is determined by the nature of work one does and one’s social status.  Peace Corps Volunteers are usually given a ta’ovala by their host families.  Wearing the mat in professional and religious settings earns Volunteers the respect of community members.

Another element of Tongan culture that is still celebrated today is dancing.  Tongan dance can be traced as far back as the 15th century.  No celebration in Tonga is complete without some form of dancing, and impromptu dances are something common to Tonga and other islands in the Pacific.  This love of dancing gave rise to the tradition called fakapale, or giving appreciation for artistry and performance.  In modern times, the tradition of fakapale has been expanded to include money that is tucked into a performer’s costume, stuck to the legs or arms, or placed at the dancer’s feet.  Volunteers will have the opportunity to participate in and observe Tongan dancing in their communities throughout their service.

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Tonga has seven officially protected areas, including marine parks and national marine and coastal reserves.  Unfortunately, funds are limited and conservation is not a high priority in Tonga.  Most of the land in Tonga has been converted into either plantations or town tracts; however, large areas of natural rainforest and bush-land occur on the Niuas and ‘Eua, as well as on the volcanic islands.  The upland areas of ‘Eua contain a relatively large forest reserve.  Along with the forest crater of Tofua island, they represent the only significant strands of first-growth rainforest in the country.

The most common plant you will see in Tonga is the coconut palm, the “tree of life” for all South Pacific peoples.  The beeches and reefs are also home to numerous species of crabs, shell-fish, starfish, and crustaceans.  Popoises and migrating humpback whales may be seen in the waters around Tonga.  The only land mammal native to Tonga is the flying fox.

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Tonga at a Glance | Peace Corps in Tonga |

Peace Corps in Tonga

The Peace Corps has a rich and extensive history in the Kingdom of Tonga.  Volunteers arrived here in October 1967 at the invitation of King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV.  The initial group consisted of only 39 trainees; within the first year there were more than 400 Volunteers and trainees in Tonga.  More than 1,000 Peace Corps Volunteers have served in the Kingdom of Tonga since, the majority as teachers.  However the Peace Corps programming in Tonga has also included work in fisheries, agriculture, physical therapy, architecture, health, marine biology, water resources, cooperatives, business, construction, environment, and youth.  Today, approximately 70 Volunteers are serving in the Kingdom of Tonga.  Volunteers are working in two projects – school-based community education and community-based youth development.

Most school-based community education Volunteers teach classes in either government or church schools.  They teach 10-15 hours per week in a formal classroom situation, working in one or more of the following areas: English literacy, business education, basic computer skills, and industrial arts.  Some teacher-trainer Volunteers conduct English lessons in multiple schools, modeling proven and creative teaching techniques, while others are developing science and creative writing curricula.  In addition to formal classes, Volunteers are developing libraries, computer-assisted reading programs, community computer classes, school gardens, and enhancing practical skills for girls.  In the communities, Volunteers are working with youth groups, and several have organized workshops for women and girls.  The school-based community education project emphasizes the development of English usage, computer, vocational, and life skills for students; the strengthening of teachers’ and support staff’s professional development, including bilingual capabilities; the expansion of learning options within the schools and the communities; and creating school-community linkages.

The purpose of the community-based youth development project is to positively engage youth and strengthen their capacity to assume expanded roles within their family life, in the world of work, and as active citizens.  The project focuses on building capacity in four areas – among individuals, service providers, organizations, and communities.  Peace Corps / Tonga has expanded its role in providing unemployed and at-risk Tongan youth with educational, personal, and skills development opportunities.  This project has placed a strong emphasis on community and family development and the role of youth as citizens and future leaders.  The emphasis of this project in the coming years will be in the development of income generation and employability strategies and activities for the youth of the Kingdom.  With an increasing youth population, a weakening economy, and a depleted land supply, addressing the issue of employability has become more critical than ever.

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