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Tonga, The People of Tonga

Tongan culture, Tongan women, Polynesian language, population of Tonga, Neiafu

The population of Tonga (2002 estimate) is 106,137, giving the country an overall population density of 142 persons per sq km (367 per sq mi). The population is unevenly distributed, however, and about two-thirds of the people live on Tongatapu, including one-fifth of the population that reside in Nukualofa (population, 1995 estimate, 40,000), the capital town. Neiafu, a smaller urban area, is located on Vava’u. The remainder of the population is scattered over 35 other permanently inhabited islands. Most of Tonga’s people are Polynesians; only 2 percent consists of members of other ethnic groups. English and Tongan, a Polynesian language, are the official languages. Tongan is preferred for everyday communications. English, which is taught as a second language in schools, is used mainly for business.

Tonga’s population has been almost entirely Christian for more than 100 years. The vast majority are Protestants, belonging to one of four branches of Methodism. The Free Wesleyan Church, the largest, is headed by Tonga’s monarch. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Catholicism, and other Christian denominations are minority religions.

Education is free and compulsory for children from the ages of 6 to 14. Most primary schools are operated by the government, while most secondary schools are sponsored by churches. At 99.6 percent, Tonga’s literacy rate is among the highest in the Pacific. The University of the South Pacific Extension Center and ‘Atenisi Institute (1971), a private Tongan institution that offers several degree programs, are located in Nukualofa.

Tonga has retained much of its Polynesian culture. There is respect for traditional authority and customs, and the lifestyle is conservative. Christianity has been thoroughly integrated into Tongan society. All commerce and recreation are prohibited on Sundays, the Christian day of rest, and much of Tongan social life is structured around the church. Western-style houses, usually constructed from wood and topped with corrugated tin roofs, are common in urban areas. Housing in rural areas is a combination of Western-style dwellings and fales, traditional Tongan homes constructed of woven coconut leaves. Western-style clothing is common for everyday use. Women typically wear dresses and men are required by law to wear shirts in public places. Urban Tongans rely on imported foods. People in rural areas are largely self-sufficient, relying on foods from their gardens and fish caught from the ocean. Everyone is expected to contribute to the well-being of the extended family, which typically includes parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Men head the extended family, while women typically play supportive roles.

Competitive sports such as soccer and rugby are popular. The Tongan National Center, located in Nukualofa, displays and promotes Tongan culture and art, including Ngatu, a decorative bark cloth made by Tongan women. Tongan artisans also create weavings and wood carvings.

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