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Ten years ago I flew out to Nuku’alofa, the downtown dusty capital of Tonga, undertaking a photography assignment. The subject of this project was ‘The Fakaleitis of Tonga’. ‘Fakaleiti’ translates to ‘Like a Lady’ – a man who lives as a woman. It is abbreviated to ‘Leiti’, simply ‘Lady’.
The Leitis are predominantly unknown to the rest of the world. Tradition provides that these boys were raised as girls – assigned at birth, for families lacking female children. This was deemed necessary, based on the ratio of males to females on the islands. The story has it, that they were dressed by their parents in female clothes and taught to manage the home: cooking, cleaning, weaving, and eventually caring for the parents in old age; essentially a third gender. However, in modern day, despite many references, it seems that this idea has been somewhat exaggerated and is outdated.
Tonga has its quirks. It may be a third world country, but as the natives themselves will tell you, ‘there is no such thing as a skinny Tongan’. The food is delicious, but sugary, fatty, and often served with the starch overloaded potato fruit. Other than the capital’s Main Street, it doesn’t have any addresses. Getting around then involves using your mental compass, memorising landmarks and the general character of the road – that, I may add, all look very similar. Life, in general, is at a slower tempo. The nation has a very interesting concept of time, which is often referred to as ‘Tonga Time’. It’s also one of the few countries worldwide, where you can take a short flight to the neighbouring country [Samoa] and you do in fact, arrive the day before. The ‘time traveller’ crosses the international dateline, which defines the boundary between the two consecutive calendar dates.