The Liahona attitude
With its modern houses, streets named after American states and landmarks, English-language signage, and absence of wandering pigs and chickens, Liahona resembles a suburb of Salt Lake City dropped in the middle of Polynesia. The village's temple is the largest Mormon structure in Tonga, and is used for especially important rituals. Thousands of coconut trees crowd the edges of Liahona, shelling its backyards and streets when the wind gets up.
Futa Helu, the founder of the 'Atenisi Institute and an inveterate critic of dogmatic religion, predicted that Mormonism would become the most popular religion in Tonga by the end of the twentieth century. Helu's prediction hasn't quite come to pass, but Mormonism is an undeniably powerful force in the Kingdom. The church is widely identified with American-style material prosperity and with high-quality education. It is wealthy enough to offer members loans to start up businesses, and to run free primary and secondary schools for the children of believers. In a country with a creaky and sometimes expensive public education system the lure of Mormon schools should not be underestimated.
Much of Liahona is taken up by the largest of all the Mormon-run high schools in Tonga. I was looking at the outside of the school, and wondering whether a smartly-dressed young man or woman might emerge from the depths of the institution to proselytise me, when I spotted a large sign, nailed up beside the bus stop which sits on the main road through Liahona. The sign read ENGLISH ONLY HERE.
I knew that Mormons taught in English in their Tongan schools, but I wasn't aware that the church was attempting to ban Tongans from using their native language in a public space in the centre of the largest island in the Kingdom.
It is easy to be shocked by the neo-colonial arrogance of the Mormon church in Tonga - by the way that the Utah-based palangi who fund the church and who direct its operations assume that the heirs to an ancient Polynesian culture need to be separated from their language and their traditional way of life, and shown that the road to the Kingdom of Heaven runs through middle America.
But Liahona is not the only part of Polynesia where the Tongan language is officially discouraged. Just before my trip to Tonga I blogged about the Pacific Leo Bilingual Coalition, which was formed in response to the decision of the New Zealand government to stop producing books for schoolchildren in Tongan and other Pasifika languages.
As Coalition activist Judy McFall pointed out in a recent speech, New Zealand schools are treating languages like Tongan as obstacles to learning, rather than as a means by which children from Pasifika nations can engage with the world. Fifty years ago Maori children were forced to study in English rather than in their native tongue, and the results were disastrous; the research compiled by McFall and others suggests that today's attempts to force Pasifika children to forget their native tongues at school are having similarly negative effects.
I thought about that sign at the bus stop in Liahona today, when I got this e mail message from the Pacific Coalition:
...Currently we already have 33 Bilingual units in primary schools: Three Tongan, Two Cook Island (Tokoroa), and 30 Samoan, most of them in Auckland. We look forward to Tokelau and Niue bilingual programmes. We have 110 ECE Pacific language centres but this Petition is about primary school programmes that need to follow on from ECE.
All the extra costs of running these primary school bilingual units are currently paid for by the schools and communities ourselves.That is we are allowed to do it IF WE PAY THE COSTS OF DOING SO...
The NZ Ministry of Education cut The TUPU and FOLAUGA reading materials for our children WHO ALREADY UNDERSTAND and SPEAK a PACIFIC LANGUAGE. It has replaced them with materials designed only for beginner learners.
Literacy and academic achievement in both English and our family & community languages is our goal.
You can find out how to support the Pacific Coalition here.
[Posted by Maps]