Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Liahona attitude

Liahona is one of the stranger places on Tongatapu, the capital island of the Kingdom of Tonga. Named after an ancient compass which Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, supposedly discovered in that gold-plated hill in upstate New York, the village was established in the 1950s, in a small clearing made amidst the agroforest plantations which take up most of Tongatapu.

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]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mormon is da 1 true church!!!!!!!!!!!

10:24 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Accept Joseph Smith as a Prophet

This is a really big one for Mormons, since the whole religion is founded upon his teachings. The story of Joseph Smith is one every convert needs to know. Here's the book-jacket version: At the age of 14, Joseph Smith was confused as to which church he should join. As he was praying for guidance on this decision, he saw a vision in which God, the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to him. Rather than joining a church that was already in existence, Joseph was instructed to restore the true church of God. To convert to Mormonism, it is essential that you accept this vision as truth and accept Joseph Smith as a true prophet of God.



10:27 am  
Blogger Paul Janman said...

It's interesting that you mention Futa Helu here. Futa was all too aware of the limitations of the Tongan intellectual and economic situation and that is probably why he prophesied the supremecy of Mormonism in Tonga. Prophesies are perhaps as much warnings as they are actually predictive.
Of course Futa always asked Tongans to accept that there were other philosophers besides Jesus Christ... and other prophets. Futa was critical of organised religion but he was still friends with Mormon leaders and he even translated the Book of Mormon into Tongan. He also translated the writings of Bahá'u'lláh, the prophet of the Baha'i faith for followers of Baha'i in Tonga.
At his school 'Atenisi, there was no religious agenda though students were also always encouraged to study in English in order to get access to other philosophers' work. The enforcement of English at 'Atenisi was only ever casual however and it was implicit that English and Tongan would and should mix and mingle. But Futa was very vocal against the corruption of Tongan grammar by English and in his later years he began to write more books in Tongan, probably as a reaction to ever-increasing cultural imperialism in Tonga. Futa was a paradoxical Pacific visionary who understood the meaning of 'both/and' over 'either/or'.

12:11 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

4:02 pm  
Blogger Paul Janman said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

9:58 pm  
Anonymous NOT racist said...

NZ is diverse.
There are many different linguistic groups here.
Can we let them all have tgeir own schools?
Where will this end?
Afrikaans classes? Hindi classes? French classes?
Surely we have Maori and English as our official languages...because English is the lingua franca and Maori are the tangata whenua...

what justification is there for foreign languages to become official languages, when they are not like English a lingua franca?????

11:08 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

NOT racist ..how did you come up with that post? No one is arguing that (say) Tongan become our new official language.

1) It appears that the Mormon Church are prohibiting or discouraging the use of Tongan in their churches.

2) Maps supports the Pacific Leo Bilingual Coalition

(I presume that Atenisi is more "open" on this issue)

Re 1) The Mormon Church and The Church in general has a strong hold on Polynesian people and also some Maori. This is not all bad news. There is a merit in their (at least those of the "mainstream" Mormon groups) to not drink, smoke, use drugs etc They are ambitious and industrious. Many who join gain pride and a sense of belonging and community (as they do in other churches). They seem sincere.

The downside are the associations with late capitalism, and simplistic thinking. Mormons (the ones in suits I meet around here) seem unable to talk about anything of any substance except to repeat like Robots how JC died for our sins and other abstract and meaningless nonsense of dubious proof...they seem to be in a kind of weird time warp..from another planet... never to have heard of Friedrich Nietzsche who explained that God is dead!!

They are boring.

If Tongan is discouraged in favour of English that is not good.

I agree with 2) that (implied) it is very important for people to keep their own culture as well as the culture and history NZ, including English and Maori and so on.)

I have never heard of anyone advocating compulsion to learn languages anywhere.

It is more that Maori (in NZ) was at one stage banned and much else.

I think it is essential for people of whatever culture or origin to keep their own language if they chose that, or to be able to do so.

But those living in NZ need also to respect our own history and culture (Maori and Pakeha (British etc)) here, and have good command of English* and understanding of Maori and Pakeha history and culture before being allowed to live here.

[I don't mean they need to have PhD's in say Maori studies but they should pass exams in English basic Maori and (British, Maori and other relevant) history etc ]

*The level of English (by immigranmts) is too weak here, for me that would mean I would, if I was the Minister of Immigration, ask them to get "up to speed", show a strong and genuine interest in this country; or they would be returned to where they come from...NZ doesn't want to become a dumping house...

8:49 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'Richard', have you ever READ the holy Book of Mormon?

Do that and you might KNOW what to say...

10:02 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


10:02 pm  
Anonymous Steven said...

In which 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. Thanks a lot for posting this article

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