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Latter-day Saints in Tonga experienced a strict lockdown during the pandemic — the government ordered them to stay in their homes. They couldn’t even go to the market.
“A lot of people ran out of food,” said Sam Fonua, first counselor in the Nuku’alofa North Stake presidency.
I met Fonua in May 2019 when I covered President Russell M. Nelson’s trip to Tonga and wrote a story about how his stake was building 95 homes from felled coconut trees to replace ones destroyed by Hurricane Gita.
I recently called him to profile what life in the pandemic has been like in Tonga. It’s remarkably different from the American experience.
The island nation has not had a single case of COVID-19 because it closed its borders, but the loss of international tourism has had a painful effect on the economy.
Bishops and stake presidents have helped provide food, but the need was immense. So stake leaders went to poultry farms and paid $10 per chicken to distribute among the members to use for eggs and Relief Society presidencies visited homes and encouraged and taught families to plant gardens.
Latter-day Saints make up 63% of the population in Tonga, so government leaders often take notice of church programs, Fonua said. They did again this time, launching a program to provide 10 free chickens to every family. They required each family to show it had a fenced area to keep the animals safe from dogs and cats. They also needed a lightbulb to warm the chicks at night. Families could receive more chicks after two months if they proved good stewards.
“After two months, they are ready to eat, so it is recommended we kill and eat them when they give us more chickens,” Fonua said. “A lot of people wasted them, and there were a lot of little chicks dying.”
The six members of the Tu’avao family in the village of Talafo’ou has long kept pigs. Sitāuni Tu’avao serves as bishop of the Talafo’ou Ward, and he and his wife, ’Alapasita, decided to buy chickens to help feed their four children — Tēvita, Fifita, Maileva and Nancy.
“We bought our chickens from Prison’s farm at Tolitoli,” Bishop Tu’avao said. “The stake said they’d bring chickens and they never came, but our chicken coop was ready. After the level-4 lockdown, we went and bought chickens for our coop. Our kids also love feeding the chickens. Now, it’s part of our welfare and food storage. We won’t have to look for eggs or meat for our meals. We’ve raised pigs for a lot longer for the same reason. Pigs are great for our Tongan functions and responsibilities. There’s less spending also because we have eggs, pigs and chickens here. Whenever there’s a need for meat, we get it right here.”
Many people in downtown Nuku’alofa or close to it had come to rely on markets for food. The pandemic has reoriented them back to eating the abundant fruit off the land. The government now is providing water tanks, too.
Sia Angilau, a Latter-day Saint woman I met in Tonga, has talked to people all over the islands for her popular Facebook page, “Ordinary Tongan Lives.” She is grateful to see the preparation.
“A lot of us turned to planting vegetables and raising chickens,” he said. “We know if COVID ever hits Tonga what it will be like again in a level-4 lockdown, and we will be prepared.”
She and her husband Toni and their 4-year-old daughter Maryan grow a vegetable garden with carrots, tomatoes, beans, lettuce, onions, cucumber, cabbage and more. They have access to breadfruit and bananas. Her neighbors raise pigs and Bishop Tu’avao has his chickens.
In fact, the families recently camped together and boiled and roasted some chickens.
For now, the only flights into Tonga are repatriation flights, with native Tongans returning from Fiji, New Zealand and Australia. They have to quarantine for 14 days at a campsite owned by the church or at an army base or the Tanoa International Dateline Hotel.
Many Tongans have lost loved ones to the pandemic in far-off places like the United States, many of them with no family by their sides.
“We feel as much depth of pain as others because of these spontaneous losses,” Angilau said. “I had a friend who lost a mom overseas. Even if COVID isn’t here, we are affected. We are a social and communal type of people and this has changed that a lot.”
The country has undertaken a campaign of weekly fasting and prayer that began on a normal Latter-day Saint Fast Sunday with a multi-faith radio and streaming broadcast.
Since then, the prime minister has traveled to many of the islands to lead them in the national fast.
Fonua said the lockdown forced Tongan Latter-day Saints to worship at home. Slowly, they returned to having sacrament meetings at their church buildings.
“Now we’re back to the normal two meetings at church on Sunday,” he said. “We started out wearing masks but we’ve stopped because the government wants to preserve the masks for if we have cases. Even though we don’t have the coronavirus, we follow the church updates. We use hand sanitizers and we keep 1.5-meter distance between families (and) the youth wear gloves as they use chemicals to wipe down the building between meetings. We’re really strict with the rules.”
The Nuku’alofa Tonga Temple recently began holding live sealings and endowments for missionaries. It will reopen in Phase 3 on Monday.
The pandemic has spurred family history work. Fonua said his stake has quadrupled the number of names submitted for temple work.
Nationwide, farming has tripled, Fonua said. Church members have focused on stocking up on livestock, fruit and food storage.
His family has had as many as 20 chickens. When we spoke, he had five, “because we keep eating them.”
“They give us enough chickens for two months, enough to grow 5 kilos of meat,” Fonua said. “Ask any church member here now. We’re ready for another level-4 lockdown.”
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