The Juggling Girls of Tonga

By Steve Cohen

Whole Earth Review, Spring 1988

Steve Cohen is a full time travel writer whose interest in juggling produced a book in 1982, Just Juggle. While researching the book he came across an intriguing tidbit: schoolgirls in Tonga juggle. Fascinated by the prospect of seeing a whole subset of society juggling, Cohen headed for the tropic isles. This is the tale of that trip.
Almost every schoolgirl in Tonga knows how to juggle. Only girls do it, not boys, and some as small as five or six years old. Women rarely show off the skill, although juggling is like bike-riding - once you learn 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 is there this sex-typing?

Tonga is an extremely remote country situated 1,100 miles north- east of New Zealand. It is the South Pacific's last monarchy, with a king whose ruling family dates back to 950 A.D., and whose rule is absolute. The country is made up of 171 small islands, with only 41 of these inhabited; the others are deemed unsuitable for sustaining life. Most of the islands are low coral atolls or volcanic cones, rimmed by reefs and supporting acres of coconut palms, and in certain areas, vanilla bean plantations. Agriculture is the main economic activity with tourism far behind in second place. There are prettier South Pacific countries, more lush ones for sure in Samoa or Tahiti, but Tonga, because of its isolation, is definitely one of the most culturally authentic nations in that part of the world. It is hard to get to, even today, and its remoteness has helped maintain its purity. Only in recent years has Tonga begun to court tourism, and at that. only in a typically low-key, South Pacific way. They are still rather unsophisticated about it Jets fly in and out a few times a week and whole villages turn out for the spectacle. There is no facility at the airport for exchanging currency, and even the Dateline Hotel, the biggest hotel in the capital city of Nuku'alofa, often runs out of cash for foreign exchange. Delays are common in all areas of trade. and if, for example, you are scheduled to fly on the only inter-island line. Friendly Island Airlines, and the King decides he wants to go somewhere, you can be unceremoniously bumped with no explanation given, and delayed hours or days, depending on the royal fancy.

It was in this climate of casual regard for visitors' concerns that the search for juggling information was engaged, 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 the sport. No one in Nuku'alofa, aside from the TVB staff, seemed to know what the word meant. Most Tongans speak English and Tongan, and they 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 out 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 flying them fast and accurately. In a few moments there were half a dozen girls from five to sixteen years old, ranging across the small yard, standing, sitting, chasing drops, smiling, laughing, all juggling and chanting a sing-song verse in time with their movements. A five-year-old boy and I watched in awe.

"No one in Nuku'alofa seemed to know anything about juggling, er, hiko," I asked, "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 people who can do it. City girls do hiko not so much any more. They can't find the things [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 school girls 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 her mother could juggle ten items, too many to hold in her hands at once, so she had to grab them from a bowl placed in front of her, but no one could explain where hiko came from or why Tongan women juggled. All anyone could 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 in a ragged and much slower and simpler pattern (up through the middle and over the sides), a group of skillful juggling girls laughed at me.

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

Back in Nuku'alofa, I found nothing written about juggling at the Friendly Islander Bookstore, and reached a similar dead end at the King's palace archives. Finally, hours before my scheduled flight out of the country, persistence paid off. The answer was found at the home of an ex-Palace functionary - Baron Vee'hala. His home was a relatively 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, worn by men as well as women. He was nearly blind; I had to place my hand in his to shake it. He spoke slowly at first, in a heavy British accent, with a dignity that was practically palpable.

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

"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 snatches 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 steal 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.

"There's a recital that the girls used to say while they juggled. Much later they put a melody into it. Ask any Tongans to translate it into modern Tongan, no, only a mere guess. The words are odd. A few words here and there are still utilized in our language now, but most of them look at it as a recital - it's meaningless. No one can say and decide its meaning. They can try to tackle it, yes, but it doesn't mean anything to the Tongans. The actions are still remembered, and the words, but the meaning is lost.

"It's just a game to amuse themselves," Vee'hala continued, "to keep themselves occupied, probably. When they have spare time they get together, and mostly unmarried girls... Young girls, and in the schools they do the juggling, sitting there, or in groups, small ones use just one, two or three, then as you go up into upper forms, four, five, six.

"Sometimes the boys jump in when they see the juggling material and try to make fun, and most of us stay with the three, that was all: four, five, six, no, only the girls know how to do it.

"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. Girls had taken a special physical skill from the underworld, stolen it, as it were. 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. But they too lived in that same primitive world, a rugged place where the sea, the jungle and the rain from the sky could all pose threats. There was a need for the more sedentary girls to learn where they stood in relation to potentially quick-moving things around them. They needed to do something to create spatial awareness of nothing less than their place in the world. The rapid and accurate hand-eye coordination learned by juggling was actually an ancient survival skill, something girls had taken for their own to maintain balance in a challenging worldly environment.

Over centuries modern life has encroached on Tongan customs. They don't need to juggle any more, but the game is still alive. Hardly anyone knows why they do it, but they still 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 denied them. Tongan girls juggle, for now. In the future, well, it's up in the air.

The Juggling Girls of Tonga / Juggling Papers /
© 1988 Steve Cohen. All Rights Reserved.