Matriarchy, conservatism and reincarnation: A peek into Tonga culture

The Chronicle

Nqobile Tshili, Chronicle Reporter

THE Tonga community in Binga remains one of the most conservative ethnic groups in the country who still practise their traditional culture and perform rituals that connect them to their dead.

The Tonga people believe in reincarnation.

To keep the memory they create a necklace for each of their deceased relatives which is made from coloured beads.

The necklaces of the deceased are kept by a family custodian who leads relatives in performing rituals within a family or a community.

For instance, before the farming season commences, chiefs in Binga perform certain rituals.  The community is also very strict on issues relating to infidelity and it is believed that their cultural practices have seen Binga district having one of the lowest HIV infection rates in the country.

In Tonga, maternal relatives take precedence over paternal ones and this is witnessed in the appointment of chiefs as well as performance of family rituals.

Chief Siansali, a custodian of Binga culture said: “In Tonga culture, if someone dies, those who take charge of the burial proceeding are the maternal relatives. The father of the child would be told what to do. We are also a people who believe the maternal side is very important. Even chieftaincy is derived from the mother’s side,” said Chief Siansali.

Chief Siansali

He said their system was totally different from the Nguni culture where a son becomes an heir to his father’s chieftaincy.

Chief Siansali said in Tonga, a chief is appointed among brothers born by a woman who is in a chieftaincy line. 

“This means that while I’m a chief my child will not become a chief. But my brother’s son can be a chief,” said Chief Siansali.

He said through the necklaces they are able to count the number of relatives who died.

“Those necklaces in the ancient era had no name tags on them but in trying to modernise it, names are being put on them to say the necklace is for who and who passed away when. We now make these necklaces made from beads. We use that necklace to shout out to and call on the spirit of the deceased person,” said Chief Siansali.

“For instance, if someone dies, we can give the necklace to the brother of the deceased to keep and wear, meaning the person assumes responsibilities of their dead relative. We do so because it is our belief that his spirit is attached to someone alive. In our Tonga culture, no one just dies and vanishes but he gets reincarnated through his brother if he is a man or her sister if she is a woman.”

He said those who are given necklaces of their deceased relatives will be empowered to make decisions on behalf of the dearly departed as it is their belief that the spirit of the dead will still be alive. 

Chief Siansali said it is believed failure to honour the spirits of the deceased can affect the living.

“In our Tonga culture we believe that the spirit of the deceased still works on us the living, giving us good health, good luck or fortunes. We believe that those spirits can bring bad luck if we do not perform the rituals properly,” said Chief Siansali.

He said in case the necklaces are lost or destroyed they are recreated and their spirits are appeased.

Chief Siansali said chiefs also derive their powers from those who came before them.

“For one to be a chief they have to be given a necklace of a deceased person who also was a chief. The chief inherits that throne giving him the power to rule. The chief does not rule on his own but through the spirits of those who were chiefs before him,” said Chief Siansali.

He said Government’s decision to issue a community radio station for Binga will be key in the preservation of Tonga culture.

“As I’m telling you this, there might be some young people who might not be aware of some of our cultural practices as their relatives would have converted to Christianity. But with a community radio station I suppose we shall have slots for such cultural education which is key in our identity,” he said.

Chief Siansali said the rituals however remain popular to an extent that even those who are Christians, when they die, are buried following the traditional practice.

Binga District Development Coordinator Mr Kobome Land Siansole said the Tonga community has preserved most of their traditional cultures.

He said being conservative has also saved the Tonga from the scourge of HIV and Aids. 

“If you look at the HIV prevalence rate it remains at five percent and it is because of the traditions, norms and values. In our culture if you are involved in infidelity cases, they would create songs and sing badly about you, rebuking you and they will make sure they will also sing to my relatives who are very innocent,” he said.

“The lesson will be to say, as his relatives, why are you not rebuking your relative. So doing bad things in Tonga culture will affect even your relatives.”

Mr Siansole said the reason why matriarchs are prioritised in Tonga culture is that paternity can be contested.

“We believe that someone can claim to be the father and stay for 50 years with a child who does not belong to them. But the mother will be having the empirical evidence as they would have borne the child. That is why when we appoint chiefs, we don’t not take chances as a culture, for you to be a chief you take from nephews not from your father,” said Mr Siansole.

“The Tonga people highly esteem the issue of family. Unlike in other tribes where they believe that the child is for the man, here the child belongs to the maternal side. Even if I’m Munkuli as the father and the child share a surname with me but on spiritual matters, they will conduct rituals using their mother’s side.” 

He said the community has however abandoned some of the cultural practices that they used to perform including the removal of front teeth on married women. 

Mr Siansole was not keen to share why the teeth were removed but it is believed it was a way of communicating that the woman was married and suitors should stay away. – @nqotshili

Article Source: The Chronicle

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