The Legend of the Skillful Little Jugglers of Tonga

Almost every schoolgirl in Tonga knows how to juggle. Only girls do it, not boys, and some as young as 5 or 6. Women rarely show off the skill, although juggling is like bike riding--once you learn how, you never forget.

Relatively few people practice juggling elsewhere, and Tongans are definitely not flashy circus or carny types, so why does half the population juggle, and why the sex-typing? Does juggling skill infer other practical qualities in Tonga, or is there some cultural reason for women and not men to require the extraordinary hand and eye coordination that juggling imparts?

Or is it just fun? If so, why do only women do it, and could the quirky practice of this sport relate to ideals of romantic island imagery versus modern island reality?

The island nation of Tonga, 1,100 miles northeast of New Zealand, is the South Pacific's last monarchy, with a king whose ruling family dates back to AD 950 and whose rule is absolute.

Of the 171 small islands, only 41 are inhabited, the others deemed unsuitable for sustaining life. Most are low coral atolls or volcanic cones, rimmed by reefs and supporting acres of coconut palms and some vanilla bean plantations.

Courting Tourism

Tongans are still rather unsophisticated about courting tourist dollars. Jets fly in and out a few times a week, and whole villages turn out for the spectacle. If you are scheduled to fly on the only interisland line, Friendly Island Airlines, and the king decides he wants to go somewhere, you can be unceremoniously bumped, delayed for hours or days, depending on the royal fancy, with no explanation given.

It was in this climate of casual regard for visitors that the search began for juggling information, based on assurances from the Tonga Visitors Bureau that indeed the story was here to uncover.

"Jock-link?" was, however, the typical street response to inquiries about juggling. No one in Nuku'alofa, aside from the TVB staff, seemed to know what the word meant. Most Tongans speak English and Tongan, and have a certain friendly way of saying yes to everything, even when they mean no.

This juggling question brought official yesses from authorities and only blank stares from supposed leads in the first three days of a planned week in the country.

The pilot of the plane was six hours late for the flight to Vava'u, the northernmost island group, where hand gestures and sign language broke the ice.

"Oh, you mean hiko ," a pretty, young Tongan girl said, laughing. "Only the little girls play that game."

"Can you do it?" I asked, with an edge of desperation in my voice.

"Oh, sure."

And she did, on the spot, grabbing five oranges from her porch and juggling fast and accurately. In a few moments there were half a dozen girls, from 5 to 16 years old, across the small yard, standing, sitting, smiling, laughing--all juggling and chanting a singsong verse in time with their movements.

Watched in Awe

A 5-year-old boy and I watched in awe.

"No one in Nuku'alofa seemed to know anything about juggling, er, hiko ," I said. "How come?"

"Maybe they are ashamed," an articulate hiko player replied, while keeping five oranges circulating through the air. "It's only a game. They used to do it more a long time ago. In Nuku'alofa it's hard to find some people who can do it.

"City girls do hiko not so much anymore. They can't find the ghings (oranges, limes, nuts) so easy. They care more about radio and TV, and the videos, and the Walkman. They not so much interested in the old things because the country is developing. Out in the village is a very good place because not yet developed, so children there is really interested in old things."

It made sense, but there had to be more to it. "Why do you do it, and why only girls? Where does it come from? What do the verses mean?"

"Where it come from? It's a game. Only primary schoolgirls play it. It's a silly game. The words is nonsense."

The next three days were spent asking everyone, including shop owners, high school teachers and even the oldest women in the village about the origins of hiko .

One woman claimed that her mother could juggle 10 items. Too many to hold in her hands at once, she had to grab them from a bowl placed in front of her, but no one could explain where it came from or why Tongan women juggled.

All anyone would say was that little girls played the game and played it well. Juggling four oranges or green tui-tui nuts in a fast, round shower pattern was the standard minimum. Many girls could juggle five without even warming up.

When I offered that I could juggle, and tossed three oranges into a ragged and much slower and simpler cascade pattern (up through the middle and over the sides), a group of skillful juggling girls laughed at me.

Gleeful Exaggeration

"That's too easy," one said, as they all tittered, imitating my awkward moves with gleeful exaggeration.

Back in Nuku'alofa, after reaching a dead-end at the king's palace archives and finding nothing written about juggling in the Friendly Islander bookstore, on my last day in Tonga, only hours before a scheduled flight out of the country, persistence paid off.

I found the answer at the home of a retired nobleman, an ex-palace functionary named Baron Vee'hala. His home was a large compound of several houses, bespeaking comparative wealth, in the heart of Nuku'alofa, only blocks from the palace. Chickens and pigs ran about the yard.

My guide from the visitors bureau removed her shoes and bowed her head deeply in respect before entering Vee'hala's abode. He was sitting cross-legged on a bed, framed in the doorway, his head bent over, a pensive Buddha figure in a V-neck T-shirt and the traditional skirt, called a tu-penu , and worn by both men and women.

He was nearly blind, so I had to put my hand in his to shake it. He spoke slowly at first, in a heavy British accent, with a dignity that was practically tangible.

"I won't claim it (juggling) as Tongan. It's Polynesian, but according to our tradition it started from the underworld.

Girls Grounded

"The head of the underworld is a lady, a blind lady (Hikuleo, ancient goddess of the underworld), and she was asked to stay put in her home. When she moves or gets outside, then there is an earthquake. So the story is that she picks some of the people who were not authorized to approach the underworld. She picked out their eyes and put them in a wooden bowl and then she call her girls of the underworld and they sit in her house and do the juggling with the eyeballs.

"Then a soul escaped and relayed the story to the people of the earth, the Tongans. Then they started.

"Tongan girls were always grounded by the old women never to play hiko at night because the spirits from the underworld are coming up and they look around. And then the girls who would be caught juggling, they want to take their eyeballs and take them to the underworld.

"Not a single male in the underworld ever went to the house or join in the game. She invited only girls . . . just for Hikuleo and the girls.

"It's just a game to amuse themselves, to keep themselves occupied, probably, when they have spare time they get together, and mostly unmarried girls.

"This is one of the first Tongan myths. Hikuleo was the outcome of creation."

There it was. It went back that far and there really was something special about it. Boys were outside all the time, running around, building things, playing rough games, swimming, diving, fishing, climbing trees in a primitive culture where physical activity defined their place in the world.

Girls, however, stayed closer to home, cooking, cleaning, helping mothers raise large families, playing house games only. They needed to do something to create spatial awareness of nothing less than their place in the world.

Tongans don't need to juggle anymore, but the game is still alive. Hardly anyone knows why they do it, but they do it just the same, couched in terms of a game, the way women of so many cultures have had to play at keeping even with physically stronger men.

American girls jump rope or play jacks, in part, no doubt, to make up for the more physical game outlets formerly denied them.

Tongan girls juggle, for now. In the future, well, it's up in the air.

For more information about Tonga, contact Polynesian Airlines Office, 9841 Airport Blvd., Suite 418, Los Angeles 90045, or phone (213) 642-7487.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World