Thursday, September 11, 2008

A Place called Community

Imagine living in a suburb, town or village where, when someone dies, the whole community wears black as a symbol of solidarity with the immediate family.

Or imagine if all members of the suburb, town or village felt free to attend the funeral service and many did.

I know I would feel deeply touched and greatly supported if this were to happen where I live. It doesn't nor do I suppose does it happen where you live. But it does in Tonga, a little island, north-east of Australia.

Village/communal mourning is just one of the ways in which Tongans hold strong their sense of community. So is the communal and male only drinking of 'cava', a natural alkaloidal hypnotic narcotic extracted from the roots of the pepper plant.

In Tonga, males congregate for a ceremony where they are served this yellow-green extract by females who must not be related to them. Drunk from well-used coconut shells, the drink disposes them to a state of mild euphoria during which they launch into harmonies of uplifting songs.

I happened to see both of these traditional Tongan practices on the television this evening. I couldn't help feeling what masterful ways these were in keeping the bonds of community strong as well as engaging in safe social drinking. In the case of the latter, it seemed to me that drinking was undertaken not only for the pleasure of it but also for the purpose of reinforcing solidarity, kinship and male bonding.

I believe these interests did originally lie at the heart of most social drinking. However, it seems to me that, particularly in western societies, the importance of these interests has diminished, if not been lost completely, by a corresponding erosion of community living and community spirit/mindedness. It has certainly made me appreciate the value of these practices in cultures such as the Tongans and other Polynesians.

We are all longing to go home to some place we have never been — a place half-remembered and half-envisioned we can only catch glimpses of from time to time. Community. Somewhere, there are people to whom we can speak with passion without having the words catch in our throats. Somewhere a circle of hands will open to receive us, eyes will light up as we enter, voices will celebrate with us whenever we come into our own power. Community means strength that joins our strength to do the work that needs to be done. Arms to hold us when we falter. A circle of healing. A circle of friends. Someplace where we can be free.

Starhawk at


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  2. I love that passage about community - perhaps another victim in the tragedy of worrying about tomorrow.
    But I came across this recently, in an anthropological study of a certain Philippine tribe made in 1922.
    "On the morning of the third day,[after the burial] the male guests assemble in the yard, and after drinking basi they select one of their number and proceed to beat him across the wrist or thigh, with a light rod. Two hundred blows are required, but since the stick is split at one end only, one hundred strokes are given. This whipping is not severe, but the repeated blows are sufficient to cause the flesh to swell. As soon as the first man is beaten, he takes the rod and then proceeds to apply one hundred and fifty strokes to each man present, excepting only those whose wives are pregnant. Should one of the latter be punished, his wife would suffer a miscarriage. The avowed purpose of this whipping is 'to make all the people feel as sorry as the relatives of the dead man.'"

    It has to be said - is this the origin of "having a whip round for the widow?"

  3. My goodness Tim, what a find...If I were one of those men, I suppose the inevitable prospect of getting whipped would have an immediate sobering effect!!! It would surely distract me from my other cares, presuming I had any...

    But seriously, what a practice! That surely is communal pain...and presumably, communal relief (once the whipping is over). Nature (including homo sapiens) is simply fascinating.

    And what an astute suggestion as well re 'whip round'!