We felt the topic of excess weight on our skin much sooner than we thought.
We boarded the plane bound for Nuku' Alofa, the capital of Tonga. Less than a minute after we sat on board, we got to know our most immediate flight partners. A lady approaching from the back of the aisle gains an intimidating volume.
With a lot of effort, it fits into the meager seat. Without being able to avoid it, it makes the left arm of our nearest chair disappear and invades the space that was reserved for us.
The plane slows down on the runway at Fua'amotu airport and comes to a stop in front of its main building. Freed from the squeeze, we crossed the final meters of asphalt, attentive to the nation's inaugural peculiarities.
Dozens of other Tongan passengers slowly followed, waving to family and friends on the balcony overlooking the airport.
Between them, the exaggerated and rounded size of the people stood out once again. not the tupenus and os kofu-tupenus – the traditional striped skirts – disguised the bulk of the figures, many of them over 90, 100 or even more kilos.
As we explore the city and island of Tongatapu around, we realized how widespread overweight and population size were. And how, over time, it had accumulated from the top of its dynastic sphere.
A Monarchy of Weight
In September 2006, after 41 years on the throne, Tonga lost its king Taufa'ahau Tupou IV.
In the three decades before his death, Tupou IV he held his place in the record books as the heaviest monarch in the world, at the time of the initial registration (1976) with a modest 209 kg. Throughout his life, health problems followed, cardiac, diabetes and derivatives.
The king even ventured to exercise three times a week and lost nearly half that weight. Down to 130kg. The effort was not enough to avoid a year and a half of exile and treatments in Auckland. And his death, at the age of 88, even so, not as early as could be predicted.
Many of its innocent and humble subjects succumb to the same ailments, too many, in their middle age, or shortly thereafter.
This was not always the case. Despite the prevalence of poor diet and disease, a significant portion of Tongans resist, especially those who do not even have the money to eat outside the home, or to consume differently than their land provides.
The food base of the Tonga archipelago, of all the islands of the vast Polynesia, in fact, was based on tubers (especially taro), bananas, coconut and fish and shellfish caught offshore.
However, from the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries, due to the influence of the emigration of these islanders to the New Zealand and Australia, began to popularize, in origin, fatty meat pieces (full of saturated fats, cartilage and skin) and inexpensive.
Tonga: From Traditional Food to Harmful
These were the cases of boobs of lamb and turkey tails, considered leftovers in countries that produce cattle. The habit of eating them will have developed in those same countries. Over time, producers found that immigrant Polynesians appreciated them.
Aware of the difficulty that the isolated islands of Tonga, Samoa and the rest of Polynesia had to consume meat, either because of its scarcity or the high cost of the best quality pieces, they found in the export of those “leftovers” a profitable business niche.
A New Zealand started to export the mutton flats that it produced in industrial quantities or did not have many more ovine inhabitants than humans. already the United States, holders of neighboring American Samoa, exported the turkey tails.
Before long, South Pacific Polynesians saw them as delicacies.
At the same time, this pseudo-meat generated an obesity epidemic that would only get worse, which is not surprising if we take into account that every 100g of Mutton Flaps contain 40g of fat, 20g of which are saturated.
Some Tongans consume almost 1kg in a single meal.
Os Mutton Flaps, instead of Fish and Vegetables
On the days that we dedicate to Nuku'Alofa, we work at the computer, rest and eat in such a “friends cafe” a cosmopolitan den that attracted and brought together outsiders, tourists and on business.
Even if its westernized menu proved to be one of the most expensive in town and the WiFi offered took half an hour to send or receive files with a few dozen kb.
We also rented a car and set out to discover Tongatapu, the mother island of Tonga. On these tours, we noticed the number of natives who, during low tide, passed the reefs with a fine-tooth comb and collected everything that moved or looked alive: octopuses, cuttlefish, molluscs, urchins and similar creatures.
And inland, like different families, they continued to plow the land and plant and harvest the most prized vegetables.
However, lacking any notions of health or nutrition, many of these fishermen, gatherers and farmers seek to sell the products of their work.
If they succeed (which is not always easy), they acquire the cravings Mutton Flaps that fed and addicted the last generations that grew up without viable meat alternatives. Often, the Mutton Flaps they were the only piece of sheep for sale.
Healthier meats from other livestock were priced out of reach. At the same time, consumers were deceived by the widespread prejudice that what came from outside was of superior quality:
“Once upon a time, Tongans paddled across the vastness of these Pacific seas in their big canoes,” Elder Papiloa Bloomfield Foliaki told the BBC about the problem. “When it was no longer necessary, we inverted these canoes on land and used them as homes.
The Harmful Prejudice that If You Are a Foreigner is Better
As modernity washed over Tonga and other Polynesian islands, different recipes of the same evil spread.
In line with what we have witnessed in the poorest and most socially unprotected communities of New Zealand, mainly Maori or Polynesian immigrants, later in Apia – the capital of Western Samoa – the MacDonalds, Burger Kings, KFCs and similar franchisees enriched owners and parent companies.
It generated large profits generated based on the families' lack of knowledge of what they should and should not eat, what was healthy or would ruin their health.
On repeated occasions, we have noticed how they gathered their great clans within months of these establishments. And how they stuffed themselves with hamburgers and chicken wings and fries, ice cream and smoothies, and pushed them with near-buckets of sugary and fizzy drinks.
On other occasions, we have seen how they indulged in lively homemade barbecues in which they devoured spare ribs, sausages and other snacks as fat or greasy.
Or how, in Samoa, Kosetalau Toreafoa, the returned owner of the diaspora in the Australia e USA of a roadside store had little more for sale than sodas, canned goods, and Chinese packets of noodles instant, full of MSG's, salt and saturated fats.
The Genetic Vulnerability of Polynesians
As if that were not enough, scientists found that many Polynesians carry an obesity gene developed over the centuries, it is believed that because, in their travels and attempts to colonize the Pacific, they were forced to resist for long periods without feeding .
This gene allegedly causes more fat to accumulate in their bodies and make them gain weight and volume faster.
This factor will be decisive in the Polynesian predominance at the top of the ranking of the heaviest countries in the world.
According to the World Health Organization, nine of the top ten countries are American Samoa, Nauru, Cook Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Samoa, Marshall Islands, Kiribati and Palau.
Only Qatar, Kuwait, Saint Kitts and Nevis, the Bahamas, Barbados and other Caribbean islands make their way into the Top 20 in this restricted obese club. In several of the territories more than 50% of the population is obese.
In some, the national percentage exceeds 80%. In more recent times, American Samoa, with nine obese in ten inhabitants, has come to stand out from the rest. The even more intense adoption of the fast food which has long been wanton USA
Polynesians like the tattooed, full-bodied, paunchy Kosetalau Toreafoa, who cares for us to pat the big belly displayed above the counter, resist abandoning cultural beliefs that “big is beautiful and a sign of wealth and prosperity”.
They fail to understand that thin does not necessarily mean poor or hungry, and to distinguish between big and fat.
Other Harmful Agents in Tonga and Samoa: Churches and Multinationals
Religion, in turn, fills in a non-negligible variable in the theme.
The priests of churches such as the Free Wesleyan Church, the Mormon Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-day Saints, the Free Church of Tonga, and even the Roman Catholic Churches occupy influential but harmful places of authority and social model if we keep in mind that almost all are obese.
Not everything is negative. Both in Tonga and in Samoa, young people and men up to middle age continue to play rugby in the evenings or mornings on weekends and holidays, in various natural grasslands spread across the archipelago.
Rugby not always first class but athletic and eager, violent spaces and that makes the small nation the 12th world power in the sport, supplier of countless naturalized players, especially the all-powerful New Zealand.
Na French Polynesia, the Welsh authorities reacted in 2009 with taxes on sugary drinks. Since then, other Pacific nations have followed suit, with limited success.
Multinationals are so prevalent that they end up manipulating governments and circumventing restrictions. Here and there, their logos and designs decorated the facades of homes, bars and other businesses on the islands, as happens with those of multinationals from fast food prominent.
Meanwhile, most Polynesians still do not know how to unravel the nutritional scourge that victimizes them.
More information on this topic on the respective page of Wikipedia.