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Sunday, January 9, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Girls Juggle An Ancient History In Tonga

Special To The Seattle Times

NEIAFU, Tonga - Almost every schoolgirl in this tiny South Pacific country knows how to juggle.

But only girls do it. Not boys. And some of the juggling girls of Tonga are only 5 or 6.

Women here, however, rarely show off the skill; it's considered a child's game.

Outside of circus troupes and Las Vegas, juggling is not a popular activity anywhere. And the shy and quiet Tongans are definitely not practicing for Cirque du Soleil.

Friendly islands

Tonga is about 1,100 miles northeast of New Zealand, just west of the International Dateline. It's the South Pacific's last monarchy.

The king, who lives in a wooden palace, is descended from a family that has ruled here since 950 A.D. Tonga contains 171 small islands; 41 are inhabited. Most lack fresh water.

The islands are primarily low coral atolls or volcanic cones, rimmed by reefs and supporting coconut palms and vanilla bean plantations.

While it probably would qualify as a tropical paradise, there are prettier and more lush South Pacific countries such as Samoa or Tahiti. But Tonga, because of its isolation, is one of the most culturally authentic nations in this part of the world.

Captain Cook called these the Friendly Islands, and during my visit I was always greeted with a smile when I started asking about juggling.

"Jock-link?" was the typically puzzled response when I asked about juggling in Nuku'alofa, the capital city.

"Oh, you mean hiko." a Tongan girl said days later in rural Neiafu, on Vava'u, the farthest north and most remote part of Tonga. She burst out laughing. "Only the little girls play that game."

"Can you do it?" I asked.

"Oh, sure."

She grabbed five oranges from her porch, juggling them fast and accurately.

Within moments, six girls from about ages 7 to 15 appeared and started juggling. It was a surreal scene of chattering, laughing girls plucking nuts or fruit from trees, then juggling them expertly, chanting a singsong verse in time with their movements. 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," replied a juggler, or hiko player, while keeping five oranges circulating through the air.

"It's only a game," the hiko player said. "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 oranges, limes, or nuts so easy. They care more about radio and TV, and the videos . . ."

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

Into the history

Accompanied by a tour guide, I found more answers at the home of a retired Tonga historian named Baron Vee'hala. Pigs and chickens scattered from a cluttered yard as we neared his door. We removed our shoes and bowed our heads deeply in respect before entering his home.

Baron Vee'hala was sitting cross-legged on a bed, his head bent forward, like a pensive Buddha figure. Tonga has practically no written history. An important part of its oral tradition was sitting before me.

He was nearly blind; I had to place my hand in his to shake it. He spoke slowly, in a heavy British accent.

"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. We call her Hikuleo. When she moves or gets outside, there is an earthquake.

"The story is that Tongans from above want to spy on her. She snatches the people who were not authorized to approach the underworld. She picked out their eyes and put them in a wooden bowl. Then she call her girls of the underworld. The girls sit in her house and do the juggling with the eyeballs.

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

"Not a single male in the underworld ever went to the house or joined in the game. She invited only girls. . . .

"There's something that the girls used to say while they juggled. Much later they put a melody into it. The words are odd. A few words here and there are still utilized in our language, but most of it is meaningless. The actions and the words are still remembered - but the meaning is lost," Vee'hala said.

"It's just a game to amuse themselves, to keep themselves occupied, probably. When they have spare time they get together and do the juggling, sitting there, or in groups."

Modern life has encroached on Tongan customs. Few women juggle, but many still know how. But Tongan girls have preserved their own set of special physical skills.

Boys were free to be outside all the time, running around, building things, playing rough games.

Girls stayed closer to home, cooking, cleaning, helping mothers raise large families, playing house games.

But questions remain: Did juggling once help fill a need for the more sedentary girls? Were balance, dexterity and hand-eye coordination ancient survival skills for girls?

In Tonga, as elsewhere, girls participate in practically any activities formerly reserved for boys. But American girls still jump rope or play jacks, while boys don't. Tongan girls juggle, for now. In the future, well, it's up in the air.

Steve Cohen is a freelance writer from Durango, Colo. ------------------------------ More information

The Consulate of the Kingdom of Tonga in San Francisco can provide limited travel information: 415-781-0365.

For current information on Tonga that may not be so readily available elsewhere, check with Sunmakers, a private tour operator, 100 West Harrison Street, Suite 350, Seattle, WA 98119-4123. Phone 206-216-2900.The company specializes in remote areas of the South Pacific.

Lonely Planet publishes "Tonga," a useful guidebook.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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