Tonga - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. Tonga have been exposed to Christian missions of many denominations since the beginning of the twentieth century. More recently, they have been evangelized by Pentecostal and Apostolic groups originating in the towns. Churches exist in many neighborhoods. Many people consider themselves Christians, but they may also adhere to some aspects of earlier Tonga belief and practice.

The Tonga recognized the existence of a creator god, Leza, now identified with the Christian God but formerly not responsive to human appeals. Basangu are spirits concerned with the fate of neighborhood communities and sometimes with larger regions. Mizimo are the spirits of the dead, concerned with the affairs of their own kin. Adult men and women become mizimo after death. Mizimo of parents are the most important, but offerings are also made to any former member of the descent group, to siblings of the father, and to grandparents. Invading spirits, masabe, attack individuals, as do ghosts, zelo. In the twentieth century new masabe are frequently recognized; recent ones have been Angels, Negroes, and the Regiment. Many Christians say these, along with the spirits of the dead and the community spirits, are demons.

The world is basically good. Evil exists through the malice of human beings who try to obtain power to maximize their own interests by use of medicines. Suffering may also occur because of failure to deal correctly with spiritual forces.

Religious Practitioners. Adult men and women serve as officiants at offerings to their ancestors. Spirit guardians are appointed to make such offerings on behalf of the children and grandchildren of the deceased. Shrine custodians perform rituals at neighborhood shrines and first-fruit rituals at their homes. Spirit mediums and diviners discover the will of spirits. Many women and some men are subject to possession by masabe and, when treatment is completed, may treat others similarly afflicted. Since the 1970s, some Tonga have become heads of evolving cults. Witch finders, today based in the towns, provide a means of controlling sorcerers. Evangelists, pastors, and other Christian leaders are other religious figures.

Ceremonies. Christians attend church services, and Christmas and Easter are now days of feasting. Appeals for rain and community protection are held at local shrines, but such rites are now rare among Plateau Tonga. Mediums are consulted by neighborhood delegations to learn why communal spirits are angry and how to renegotiate relationships with them. The spirits may demand an offering of beer or the sacrifice of a chicken, goat, or cow, after which those attending share a communion meal. Men and women pour an offering of beer at the doorway of a dwelling or at a special spirit shrine in the doorway. The beer should be made from grain grown in the field of the supplicant. Possession by invading spirits is treated by holding the appropriate dance and drama, through which the demands of the spirit are enacted.

Arts. Wood carving, pottery, basketry and metalwork are utilitarian, although fine pieces are made. Beadwork was formerly elaborate, but beads are now scarce and styles have changed. Music is important: Gwembe Tonga pride themselves on their drum teams; musical instruments include several types of drums, antelope-horn flutes, rattles, hand pianos, musical bows, and crude xylophones. Guitars, homemade banjos or ukeleles, and accordions cater to new musical interests. Men compose elaborate songs describing personal adventures or embodying insulting comments toward others. Women compose lullabies, dirges, and other songs. Beer drinking is enlivened by dramatic dancing.

Medicine. Illness is attributed to the anger of ancestral spirits, sorcery, the misuse of medicines acquired for success, the use of a tabooed substance, or spirit invasion. Minor illnesses are considered normal. Treatment may involve driving out an invading ghost through fumigation, sucking out the intrusive object, cupping (drawing blood by suction), pacifying an indignant ancestor, or taming an invading alien spirit through a dance, as well as the use of medicines. Herbalists supplement the widespread knowledge of home remedies. Medicines are infused and drunk, rubbed into cuts, or used in fumigation. People also use Western medicine, dispensed by hospitals, local health centers, private doctors, and herbalists.

Death and Afterlife. Infants and small children are given abbreviated funerals, and their spirits return to their mother's womb to be reborn. Adults receive elaborate funerals in preparation for their return as ancestral spirits at the end of the funeral, when the chosen guardian is pointed out to the spirit. If possible, beer is poured in its honor, to which it summons fellow spirits, thereby becoming acceptable to them. Burial is immediate, and usually close to the dwelling of the deceased; some villages have established cemeteries. Formerly, bodies were buried in the fetal position; today they are laid at full length and, if possible, in a coffin. Christians attend and pray over the grave even if the deceased was not a Christian.


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