“Healthy feasting” - is that possible?
A feast, by definition, is a sumptuous banquet partaken by multiple people and usually held in celebration of something. The sort of occasion the phrase “eat, drink and be merry” was invented for.
Under the headline “Tonga King promotes healthy feasting” Radio New Zealand International (RNZI) news reported last week: “King Tupou the 6th has urged Tongans to make their church feasts healthier and use traditional, local produce.”
All good so far.
The RNZI report continues though: “Opening the 89th annual conference of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga (FWC) in Nuku’alofa, the King also suggested that, during the event, he would like to see the number of meals each day halved, from 4 to 2.”
Hello? ‘Healthy feasting’ may be an oxymoron (a figure of speech that combines contradictory terms) but where exactly does that fourth, from the statement obviously ‘full, meal fit within the time frame of any given day?
Pre-breakfast? Apres dinner? Early AND late lunch? When?
And while ‘traditional, local produce’ one would think should be healthier than imported ‘junk’ food, maybe not, and certainly not for four meals a day for a week – or more.
Home grown pig cooked in umu’s (underground ovens) that save every gram of juicy fat for consumption; island vegetables smothered in coconut cream full of saturated fat; cholesterol rich seafood, no longer swimming in the nearby ocean but in packages lashed with more coconut cream; cakes and puddings baked with every egg and every ounce of butter available to a multitude of cooks eager to sate the appetites of the feasters all washed down with sugar rich soft drinks. Uh uh.
Feasts, particularly in the Pacific Islands and even more particularly in the zealously religious nations such as Tonga are often connected with the yearly congresses or conferences of religious organizations. Sometimes these assemblies coincide with the opening of a new church, a situation that, feast wise results in double everything to eat for twice as long. Believe me, I’ve been there and watched it happen: in Neiafu in Tonga’s Vava’u Group in 1991. A similar event to last week’s Wesleyan conference happened to coincide with the opening of a new church at both of which events the then Tongan King had, naturally, to be present. For weeks prior, during and after, the shops and market were devoid of everything. And I mean everything. Every egg, chicken, pound of flour, rice, butter, margarine, meat of any kind including lamb flaps and lobster tails – yes, in those days they were usually quite plentiful - in town was commandeered to provide the wherewithal for the invading multitudes of devotees. As well every hotel bed and the largest of the inter-island ferries were bespoken to provide them a place to rest their feast weary heads between courses.
It was unfortunate that everyone, well off and poor Tongan members of the church alike were expected to contribute most to the feast by way of donations either in money or in kind. Contributions that, not coincidentally in a country where it was considered bad form to be unable to pay your own way, were read out from Sunday pulpits week after week in an effort to shame those who had given least last week into reaching further into their meager household budgets this week to keep up with their more generous neighbours.
No matter that the average person in Vava’u lived in a tin or thatch house the size of an oversize chicken coop in a bare earth compound with no running water, no sanitation, no electricity, no privacy and no hope for those lifestyle amenities most of us take for granted to be installed anytime soon. These compounds were inevitably dominated by the pastor’s home, an expansive iron roofed, concrete house usually complete with tennis court, perhaps a swimming pool and, always, thanks to the iron roof, water tanks. The water in these tanks might sometimes be made available to the villagers, for a contribution, but tennis anyone? Forget it. The haves and have nots were unlikely ever to meet on the turf of those sacred courts.
And no matter that every Monday bank queues comprised mostly of church officials spilled out onto the street as suitcases full of pa’anga notes were counted and duly deposited in accounts from where, apart from funds needed to maintain the pastor in the style to which he was accustomed, they would be quickly sent to the overseas headquarters of Tonga’s religious masters. Certainly, looking at the bare earth compounds in which the majority of the locals lived, few, if any, were re-invested into the local economy.
Even Say NO to WTO’s favourite film “Fool me Once” agrees that the Tongan economy is based largely on religion and so it is. Amen.
RNZI quotes Radio Tonga as reporting that the King told last week’s Wesleyan conference that while church members donated nearly five million US dollars last year, the church still has a debt of over three million dollars (a total of US 8 million or 14 million pa’anga) partly because it lent money to some of the congregation. Who, exactly, one wonders? Where? Tonga has a population of 104,000 or 110,000 depending whether you believe the World Bank or the CIA Fact Book. To collect the entire 14 million pa’anga every man, woman and child in the Kingdom would have had to contribute about 130 pa’anga (just under VT 7,000) if they were all members of the FWC. But of course they are not. Nor are they all of income earning age and many do not work in the cash economy. Statistics show that 36 % of the population is under 15 and that 37% of the rest belongs to the FWC, therefore every single one of those approximately 26,000 souls, whether or not they earn any income at all, would have to contribute approximately 540 pa’anga (VT 28,000) to the church partly to ease debts that they themselves have not incurred.
Debts such as that of the Free Wesleyan Pulela’a church in Sydney which owes A $10 million to its financiers. To satiate the lenders who want their money back the Supreme Court last week ordered the church in Australia to immediately sell five of its other properties. Radio New Zealand tells us the Tonga conference is considering the financial plight of the Sydney church. Will the Tongan members of the church also have to contribute to this bail out?
If so saving some funds by cutting down on feasts would be a good place to start. It might also help embark the Tongan population on a healthier lifestyle that can only benefit them. Sadly this is unlikely to happen. Feasting, at any time is soooo good! And even better when everyone’s doing it at an organized event that lends a touch of legitimacy to the overeating! It’s a hard habit to break.
Footnote: To see how the Pulela’a church came to be in such massive debt go to:
>>The ideas and opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer and are not necessarily those of the Vanuatu Daily