I have only ever owned one pig. It didn’t have a name, due as it was for the table. Just pu‘aka. But I liked feeding it; nothing from the household was wasted. I planned not to become attached. We were having a feast and a pig was the one essential requirement. The piglet came to us as a small creature with a curly tail. It would not even live an adult life, as the fully-grown local pig is a fatty beast with little meat. Pigs are mostly killed when partly grown, when the meat/fat ratio is at its optimum. The pig was one of the few animals to accompany Polynesians as they made the slow journey across the islands and oceans from Asia: pigs and chickens and dogs. The DNA of island pigs reveals details about the route taken that were previously hidden (Larsen et al.). Of these three animals, pigs assumed the most ceremonial importance.
In Tonga, pigs often live an exalted life. They roam freely, finding food where they can. They wallow. Wherever there is a pool of mud, often alongside a road, there is a pig wallowing. Huge beasts emerge from their pools with dark mud lining their bellies as they waddle off, teats swinging, to another pleasure. Pig snouts are extraordinarily strong; with the strength of a pig behind them, they can dig holes, uproot crops, and generally wreak havoc. How many times have I chased them from my garden, despairing at the loss of precious vegetables I could get no other way? But they must forage. They are fed scraps, and coconut for protein, but often must fend for themselves. Despite the fact that many meet an early death, their lives seem so much more interesting than those lived by the anonymous residents of intensive piggeries in Australia, my homeland.
When the time came for the pig to be sacrificed to the demands of the feast, two young Tongan men did the honours. They also cooked the pig on an open fire after skewering it on a pole. Their reward was the roasted sweetmeats. The ‘umu was filled with taro and cassava, yam and sweet potato, along with lū pulu and lū ika: tinned beef and fish cooked in taro leaves and coconut cream. In the first sitting, all those of high status—church ministers, college teachers, important villagers and pālangi like me—had the first pick of the food. Students from the college and lowly locals had the second. The few young men who remained knew it was their task to finish off all of the food. They set about this activity with intense dedication, paying particular attention to the carcass of the pig. By the end of the night, what was left of our little pig was a pile of bones, the skeleton taken apart at every joint. Not a scrap of anything edible remained.
In the early 1980s, I went to live on a small island in the Kingdom of Tonga, where my partner was the Principal of an agricultural college, in the main training young men for working small hereditary mixed farms. Memories of that time and a recent visit inform this reflection on the contemporary Tongan diet and problems associated with it. The role of food in a culture is never a neutral issue. Neither is body size, and Tongans have traditionally favoured the large body as an indication of status (Pollock 58). Similarly the capacity to eat has been seen as positive. Many Tongans are larger than is healthy, with 84% of men and 93% of women “considered overweight or obese” (Kirk et al. 36). The rate of diabetes, 80% of it undiagnosed, has doubled since the 1970s to 15% of the adult population (Colagiuri et al. 1378). In the Tongan diaspora there are also high rates of so-called “metabolic syndrome,” leading to this tendency to diabetes and cardiovascular disease. In Auckland, for instance, Pacific Islanders are 2.5 times more likely to suffer from this condition (Gentles et al.). Its chief cause is not, however, genetic, but comes from “differences in obesity,” leading to a much higher incidence of cardiovascular disease and diabetes (Gentles et al.).
Deaths from diabetes in Tonga are common. When a minister’s wife in the neighbouring village to mine died, everyone of status on the island attended the putu. Though her gangrenous foot could have been amputated, the family decided against this, and she soon died from the complications of her diabetes. On arrival at the putu, as well as offering gifts such as mats and tapa, participants lined up to pay very personal respects to the dead woman. This took the form of a kiss on her face. I had never touched a dead person before, let alone someone who had died of gangrene, but life in another culture requires many firsts. I bent down and kissed the dry, cold face of a woman who had suffered much before dying. Young men of the family pushed sand over the grave with their own hands as the rest of us stood around, waiting for the funeral food: pigs, yes, but also sweets made from flour and refined sugar.
Diet and eating practices are informed by culture, but so are understandings of illness and its management. In a study conducted in New Zealand, sharp differences were seen between the Tongan diaspora and European patients with diabetes. Tongans were more likely “to perceive their diabetes as acute and cyclical in nature, uncontrollable, and caused by factors such as God’s will, pollution in the environment, and poor medical care in the past”, and this was associated “with poorer adherence to diet and medication taking” (Barnes et al. 1). This suggests that as well as being more likely to suffer from illnesses associated with diet and body size, Tongans may also be less likely to manage them, causing these diseases to be even more debilitating.
When James Cook visited the Tongan group and naively named them the Friendly Islands, he was given the customary hospitality shown to one of obviously high status. He and his officers were fed regularly by their hosts, even though this must have put enormous pressure on the local food systems, in which later supply was often guaranteed by the imposition of tapu in order to preserve crops and animals. Further pressure was added by exchanges of hogs for nails (Beaglehole). Of course, while they were feeding him royally and entertaining his crew with wrestling matches and dances, the local chiefs of Ha‘apai were arguing about exactly when they were going to kill him. If it were by night, it would be hard to take the two ships. By day, it might be too obvious. They never could agree, and so he sailed off to meet his fate elsewhere (Martin 279-80). As a visitor of status, he was regularly fed pork, unlike most of the locals. Even now, in contemporary Tonga, pigs are killed to mark a special event, and are not eaten as everyday food by most people. That is one of the few things about the Tongan diet that has not changed since the Cook visits.
Pigs are usually eaten on formal feasting occasions, such as after church on the Sabbath (which is rigorously kept by law), at weddings, funerals, state occasions or church conferences. During such conferences, village congregations compete with each other to provide the most lavish spreads, with feasting occurring three times a day for a week or more. Though each pola is spread with a range of local root crops, fish and seafood, and possibly beef or even horse, the pola is not complete unless there is at least one pig on it. Pigs are not commercially farmed in Tonga, so these pigs have been hand- and self-raised in and around villages, and are in short supply after these events. And, although feasts are a visible sign of tradition, they are the exception. Tongans are not suffering from metabolic syndrome because they consume too much pork; they are suffering because in everyday life traditional foods have been supplanted by imports.
While a range of traditional foods is still eaten, they are not always the first choice. Some imported foods have become delicacies. Mutton flap is a case in point. Known as sipi (sheep), it is mostly fat and bone, and even when barbequed it retains most of its fat. It is even found on outer islands without refrigeration, because it can be transported frozen and eaten when it arrives, thawed. I remember once the local shopkeeper said she had something I might like. A leg of lamb was produced from under the counter, mistakenly packed in the flap box. The cut was so unfamiliar that nobody else had much use for it.
The question of why it is possible to get sipi in Tonga and very difficult to get any other kind of fresh meat other than one’s own pigs or chickens raises the question of how Tonga’s big neighbours think of Pacific islands. Such islands are the recipients of Australian and New Zealand aid; they are also the recipients of their waste. It’s not uncommon to find out of date medications, banned agricultural chemicals, and food that is really unsuitable for human consumption. Often the only fresh and affordable meat is turkey tails, chicken backs, and mutton flap. From July 2006 to July 2007, New Zealand exported $73 million worth of sheep off-cuts to the Pacific (Edwardes & Frizelle). Australia and the US account for the supply of turkey tails. Not only are these products some of the few fresh meat sources available, they are also relatively inexpensive (Rosen et al.). These foods are so detrimental to the health of locals that importing them has been banned in Fiji and independent Samoa (Edwardes & Frizelle). The big nations around the Pacific have found a market for the meat by-products their own citizens will not eat.
Local food sources have also been supplanted as a result of the high value placed on other foods, like rice, flour and sugar, which from the nineteenth century became associated with “civilisation and progress” (Pollock 233). To counter this, education programs have been undertaken in Tonga and elsewhere in the Pacific in order to promote traditional local foods. These have also sought to address the impact of high food imports on the trade balance (Pollock 232). Food choices are not just determined by preference, but also by cost and availability. Similarly, the Tonga Healthy Weight Loss Program ran during the late 1990s, but it was found that a lack of “availability of healthy low-cost food was a problem” to its success (Englberger et al. 147). In a recent study of Tongan food preferences, it was found that “in general, Tongans prefer healthier traditional, indigenously produced, foods”, but that they are not always available (Evans et al. 170). In the absence of a consistent supply of local protein sources, the often inferior but available imported sources become the default ingredient. Fish in particular are in short supply. Though many Tongans can still be seen harvesting the reef for seafood at low tide, there is no extensive fishing industry capable of providing for the population at large. Intensive farming of pigs has been considered—there was a model piggery on the college where I lived, complete with facilities for methane collection—but it has not been undertaken. Given the strongly ceremonial function of the pig, it would take a large shift in thinking for it to be considered an everyday food.
The first cooked pig I encountered arrived at my house in a woven coconut leaf basket, surrounded by baked taro and yam. It was a small pig, given by a family too poor to hold the feast usually provided after church when it was their turn. Instead, they gave the food portion owed directly to the preacher. There’s a faded photo of me squatting on a cracked linoleum floor, examining the contents of the basket, and wondering what on earth I’m going to do with them. I soon learnt the first lesson of island life: food must be shared. With no refrigeration, no family of strapping youths, and no plans to eat the pig myself, it had to be given away to neighbours. It was that simple. Even watermelon went off within the day. In terms of eating, that small pig would have been better kept until a later day, when it reached optimum size, but each family’s obligation came around regularly, and had to be fulfilled. Feasting, and providing for feasting, was a duty, even a fatongia mamafa: a “heavy duty” among many duties, in which the pig was an object deeply “entangled” in all social relations (Thomas). A small pig was big enough to carry the weight of such obligations, even if it could not feed a crowd.
Growing numbers of tourists to Tonga, often ignored benignly by their hosts, are keen to snap photos of grazing pigs. It is unusual enough for westerners to see pigs freely wandering, but what is more striking about some pigs on Tongatapu and ‘Eua is that they venture onto the reefs and mudflats at low tide, going after the rich marine pickings, just as their human counterparts do. The silhouette of a pig in the water as the tropical sun sinks behind, caught in a digital frame, it is a striking memory of a holiday in a place that remains largely uninterested in its tourist potential. While an influx of guests is seen by development consultants as the path to the nation’s economic future, Tongans bemusedly refuse to take this possibility seriously (Menzies). Despite a negative trade balance, partly caused by the importation of foreign food, Tonga survives on a combination of subsistence farming and remittances from Tongans living overseas; the tourist potential is largely unrealised.
Dirk Spennemann’s work took a strange turn when, as an archaeologist working in Tonga, it became necessary for him to investigate whether these reef-grazing pigs were disturbing midden contents on Tongatapu. In order to establish this, he collected bags of both wet and dry “pig excreta” (107). Spenemann’s methodology involved soaking the contents of these bags for 48 hours, stirring them frequently; “they dissolved, producing considerable smell” (107). Spennemann concluded that pigs do appear to have been eating fish and shellfish, along with grass and “the occasional bit of paper” (107). They also feed on “seaweed and seagrass” (108). I wonder if these food groups have any noticeable impact on the taste of their flesh? Creatures fed particular diets in order to create a certain distinct taste are part of the culinary traditions of the world. The deli around the corner from where I live sells such gourmet items as part of its lunch fare: Saltbush lamb baguettes are one of their favourites. In the Orkneys, the rare and ancient North Ronaldsay Sheep are kept from inland foraging for most of the year by a high stone fence in order to conserve the grass for lambing time. This forces them to eat seaweed on the beach, producing a distinct marine taste, one that is highly valued in certain Parisian restaurants. As an economy largely cut out of the world economic loop, Tonga is unlikely to find select menus on which its reef pigs might appear.
While living on ‘Eua, I regularly took a three hour ferry trip to Tongatapu in order to buy food I could not get on my home island. One of these items was wholemeal flour, from which I baked bread in a mud oven we had built outside. Bread was available on ‘Eua, but it was white, light and transported loose in the back of truck. I chose to make my own. The ferry trip usually involved a very rough crossing, though on calmer days, roof passengers would cook sipi on the diesel chimney, added flavour guaranteed. It usually only took about thirty minutes on the way out from Nafanua Harbour before the big waves struck. I could endure them for a while, but soon the waves, combined with a heavy smell of diesel, would have me heading for the rail. On one journey, I tried to hold off seasickness by focussing on an island off shore from Tongatapu. I went onto the front deck of the ferry and faced the full blast of the wind. With waves and wind, it was difficult to stand. I diligently stared at the island, which only occasionally disappeared beneath the swell, but I soon knew that this trip would be like the others; I’d be leaning over the rail as the ocean came up to meet me, not really caring if I went over. I could not bear to share the experience, so in many ways being alone on the foredeck was ideal for me, if I had to be on the boat at all. At least I thought I was alone, but I soon heard a grunt, and looked across to see an enormous sow, trotters tied front and back, lying across the opposite side of the boat. And like me, she too was succumbing to her nausea. Despite the almost complete self-absorption seasickness brings, we looked at each other. I may have imagined an acknowledgement, but I think not.
While the status of pigs in Tongan life remains important, in many respects the imposition of European institutions and the availability of imported foods have had an enormous impact on the rest of the Tongan diet, with devastating effects on the health of Tongans. Instead of the customary two slow-cooked meals, one before noon and one in the evening (Pollock 56), consisting mostly of roots crops, plantains and breadfruit, with a relish of meat or fish, most Tongans eat three meals a day in order to fit in with school and work schedules. In current Tongan life, there is no time for an ‘umu every day; instead, quick and often cheaper imported foods are consumed, though local foods can also be cooked relatively quickly. While some still start the day by grabbing a piece of left over cassava, many more would sit down to the ubiquitous Pacific breakfast food: crackers, topped with a slab of butter. Food is a neo-colonial issue. If larger nations stopped dumping unwanted and nutritionally poor food products, health outcomes might improve. Similarly, the Tongan government could tip the food choice balance by actively supporting a local and traditional food supply in order to make it as cheap and accessible as the imported foods that are doing such harm to the health of Tongans
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