Did we mention that the ferry that we’re on replaced the one that sank with 27 people onboard a few months back? The ship was unsafe and everyone died.
We found this out at about 1 am while chatting with the bridge team.
Our voyage was thankfully uneventful and we arrived the next day on the capital island of Tongatapu.
We spent a week there and first off: Best Chinese fried rice ever! No idea why, makes little sense, but dude, you’re talking to two people who lived in the Bay Area for years so it’s not like we’ve not had good Chinese. If you ever get to Tonga, go to the Chinese restaurant next to the hotel in the capital facing the water on the main shore road.
Speaking of friend rice, Tonga is also a perfect example of something we’ve been meaning to bring to your attention for quite some time now: The Mormon church and the Chinese government are buying the South Pacific one village at a time.
With the Chinese government the tactic is pretty simple: give money away to poorer countries so they can build infrastructure. Overtly this gives them leverage with those countries’ governments and it also makes them seem the nice guys to the locals. Most nations do this, including the US who does it a lot and it’s still worth noting that all that money China has? A piece of it is going into forming strong bonds to third world nations in the South Pacific.
The Mormons though, that was not something we saw coming. The church of later-day saints has gone completely gangbusters in injecting themselves into Polynesian nations. Even back in French Polynesia there were complete islands that had become predominantly this young US-based faith. Their churches are literally everywhere, so much so that before this trip we honestly could not tell a Mormon church from any other non Christian church but now we can easily identify them on sight. Mostly because we can’t pass a town without seeing one.
They are absolutely prolific, especially in Tonga. From what we’ve heard the royalty is growing concerned about the rapid spread of the Mormon faith simply because of the insane expansion and the unknown effects the Mormons will have on the country. So how are they doing it? In a word? Money.
Step 1 – Build a church
Step 2 – Build a basketball court at the church. (Weird huh? But that’s what the locals say and fair enough, we can’t find a single Mormon church out here without a basketball court. Not that Tongans are really all that into basketball…)
Step 3 – Offer any local who converts to your faith a free education for their children up to and including college at Brigham Young University (either in Salt Lake or the remote campus in Hawaii).
This has given rise to many Tongans becoming “school Mormons.” They join the church then leave once their kids finish school, but that’s not a complete loss for the church. Think about it:
1) Not everyone leaves. Once someone is part of a church for around 16 years or so they might just stick around.
2) Even if people do leave, their children just spent 16 formative years of their life being educated by their church. That’s a lot of influence and though the adults may leave, the kids may not. Or they may come back.
To be upfront, we know literally nothing about the Chinese or the Mormon agenda when it comes to the South Pacific but we know they are both here and in force. We also think offering free infrastructure and free education is something these countries desperately need. We just weren’t expecting to see the churches of what is a predominantly American religion all over the place. We certainty weren’t expecting to see them in just about every single population center we come across. As a member of other faiths represented strongly in the area (Catholic and Baptist) it is interesting to see what appears to be a waning of their influence and a waxing of Mormonism due in large part to the amount of money each organization is willing to throw into the area.
Either way, both groups are here and they have begun to firmly weave themselves into the tapestries of the modern Polynesian culture.
You can also check out how Tahitians approach Catholicism a little differently than Americans by clicking on “Sex and Jesus”
About the authors
Greg and Tiffany are traveling around the world on sailing yachts and keep a video blog of their (mis)adventures. If sailing to Tahiti on a 44 ft sailboat, getting pooped on by seagulls, opening coconuts with dull machetes, sailing past tornadoes and ukulele Christmas carols are for you, then check them out at www.CoastGuardCouple.com!