THE 2013 WESLEYAN CHURCH CONFERENCE IN NUKU'ALOFA was another big annual fest with an abundance of singing and feasting galore. As always with these annual conference gatherings, hundreds of Wesleyans were busy for weeks preparing for their choral performances and emptying all the market shelves preparing the food. It became nearly impossible to find eggs during the conference as all the chickens had been slaughtered for their meat. It is always a sore point for those who are not a part of the 10 days of feasting. For those attending the conference, in the words of one faifekau "Eat as much as you like - there is NO LIMIT". It reminds me of the old Snuffy Smith cartoon in the Sunday paper, where Snuffy would hide the apple pie once he saw the pastor coming over for a visit. Yes the faifekau certainly do like to eat plenty good, and the conference will provide for this need.
There is also no apparent limit to the amount of choral music on tap at these church conferences. Eight or nine groups performed each night after the dinner feast (sometimes to be followed by a supper feast). These groups come from right next door (as in the picture to the left) but also from Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. Most groups bring their brass ensembles with them, but a larger number each year seem to make do with a Yamaha keyboard. The keyboard "player" pushes the start button and a massive orchestration begins. Each choir using this approach also brings their sound system to surround their own group. Several groups engaged a local brass ensemble from friends, the police band, or from a local church. The choral groups include church choirs, school choirs, and community choirs from all the places where Tongans live. They say there are more Tongans now living outside the Kingdom than the 100,000 who live here.
This choir is one of the two choirs that has it's home in this very church, which is the main Free Wesleyan church in downtown Nuku'alofa - the capitol of Tonga. It is called either Centenary, Centennial, or Sione church depending on who you ask. Many just call it "the big church" to avoid the confusion over what the name is. The other choir which alternates Sunday performances is the Royal Mafi choir, which is my favorite choir in Tonga. At most Sunday church services the Royal Mafi might have about 30 choir members and 20 brass, but at the annual conference I think I counted about 80 choir and 50 instruments. This included an orchestral percussion section. It was very nice to hear them all!
The music school supports this choir and brass ensemble at Tupou High School in Vaololoa. Here at the left you see them getting ready for their performance at the conference. They are quite nervous as there is some sense of a competitive atmosphere present at the conference. Not to worry, as this same band took home all the first place trophies at the school music competition a couple of weeks after this conference performance. Just to think that when I first came to work at Tupou High School in 2004, there was no band or choir at that time. I can say that I had absolutely nothing to do with this change as I was at other schools from 2005 to 2013, but I do what I can to support my colleagues at T.H.S. now that the music school is housed within the Tupou High School campus.
Then there were the feasts, three per day for 10 days. Pictured at the right you can see me with two hungry Tongans. At my left is Kentu, a choir director from Laramie Wyoming, and on my right is Feleti Atiola. Feleti is the man who brought me from the USA in 2005 and again in 2013. He is a very special person in my life and a major figure in the Free Wesleyan church. We were all getting to the feast a little bit late that day but when we were joined by Tevita Havea, the general secretary of the Free Wesleyan church, we began to be treated like Royalty. Tonga is a very hierarchical society, and has always been like that.
I had made friends with a charming Australian couple who were working for the church in Tonga that year, Rev. Paul Swadling and his wife Janet. As they were 'high up the ladder', when I attended the feast with them I was granted a seat at the very front of the assembly. I must say the food there sitting close to the King and Queen is certainly very good food! There were dishes I have never seen in Tonga before: steak with mushrooms, ham with pineapple, trout almondine, and roast turtle (I didn't try that last one). Although the Wesleyans don't drink alcohol, there were many types of sparkling juice in champagne buckets which were offered by an army of servers. And then there were the desserts.
A big part of the feasts are the presentation of gifts to the King and Queen. These gifts include large woven mats, huge bark cloth rolls, kava roots, cotton drapes of unimaginable size, and food. There is a ceremonial aspect to this gift presentation, actually it is mostly ceremony as I am quite sure the King and Queen do not need any more woven mats, bark cloth, or drapes! One part of this may be that it does require the presence of the King and Queen in order to receive the gifts, as you might imagine the King may not really want to go to thirty feasts in a 10 day period. So this makes it hard for the Royalty to skip too many of the feasts. One time the King was absent and they had Paul and Janet take the royal position. I sat about 10 feet to their right and many people later mentioned they had seen me. I am not sure if this was really in my favor as I felt a bit out of place, but the food was really good!
Then there are the feast dancers. If you have not experienced a Tongan feast then you might find it a bit extraordinary. There are the dance performances which are an organized choreography of solo or mass groups, and those are extensions of an ancient culture. But these dancers like the video at the left are not that kind. They are older women, all quite obese, and they are carrying on in a manner like a second adolescence of some kind. The feasts are organized so that two or three long tables are assigned to a church or community group to provide the food for one day. There is a small competitive aspect to this as well. So the women who have spent a great deal of money and time preparing huge amounts of food are then driven to dancing to encourage guests to sit at their tables. It may be they are just driven crazy by exhaustion.
There are also several specific fund raising events held during the church conference. This photo shows the Methodist Bishop from California having a little dance during the fund raiser for Tupou High School. They raised several hundred thousand dollars at this event. It is not the kind of fund raising one finds in the USA, nor are these Alumni Foundations under any kind of financial regulation. During a particular dance number, a village or overseas district will try to raise more than the others. The money is deposited by check in some cases, but much of it is placed into a briefcase IN CASH. A shady looking minister quickly counts the money and reports how much has just been collected during that dance. At the end of the evening he dissappears into the night with his briefcase full of cash. Later that year he may take a lavish vacation overseas, and it's almost like people expect that he is corrupt, but that he has somehow earned this as a right.
As people begin to get all of their fill out at the feast, there is always a second group waiting to get their meal. When I come into the feast area wearing my Free Wesleyan church identification, there is most often a well dressed man or woman who is seating people into the proper place as befits his or her status, and I will be seated into a place where there is room for me. It is a nice way to meet new people, or to meet a student who I haven't really talked to outside of classes. It's great to joke around with all the Tongan children. For others who perhaps are not even Wesleyans, and who might not be able to find much food left in the markets during this time of year, they wait along the side and watch for others to leave the feast. There is so much food there will be a lot of packages unopened, and they swoop in ready to eat what they find.
Of course as people are getting full at the feast, they are welcome to take a bit of food home with them. It is not as evident during the first feast, but as the 10 days of feasting gets near the end, then you will see people coming with bags and boxes to collect food for the days ahead when the markets will still be very depleted. Especially the children who are eager to have special treats like soda and fruit, at the final few feasts as soon as the grace blessing has been said the grabbing and stashing of take away food begins in earnest.