Inventing health : tradition, textiles and maternal obligation in the Kingdom of Tonga

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  • The dissertation offers a localized, symbolic analysis of the tropes which organize mothers' everyday practice on a remote Tongan atoll. It pays particular attention to the language, meanings and practices associated with 'health'. I argue that as mothers, women are active agents in the invention of Tongan culture, and figure in the production of a national image of traditional modernity. Insofar as Tongan health promotion and medical services include a strong focus on maternal child health issues, mothers are placed at nexus points between 'modern' medicalized ways of perceiving bodies, food, hygiene or risks, and the future generation, their children. As mothers therefore, women are key figures in the interpretation of medical and modernizing messages and directions for social practice.

    Despite the government's official adoption of Western models for representing health, at the level of everyday life in the village, 'health' is played out differently from the illness treatment and prevention focus associated with biomedicine. Locally, traditional practices, including notions of kinship, gendered roles of motherhood and traditional behaviour, counter the orthodox emphasis of biomedical health, and replace it with a more locally meaningful tropes of "mo'ui lelei" [living well] and "va lelei" [good connections], according to "anga fakatonga" [the 'Tongan way]. Va lelei depends on making and exchanging traditional textiles made from pandanus fibre.

    Examining rural mother's everyday practices demonstrates the way in which textiles are polysemic, signifying good mothering, but also the obligation of the entire maternal kindred, through life and death. Mothers in this remote and economically under-privileged part of Tonga are what feminist philosopher Ruddick (1989) would call 'good mothers', but their behaviour and priorities differ from her germinal theorising of the work of mothering. In re-inventing WHO-promoted, biomedical notions of health, they use their own cultural practices to be both traditional and modern. In the process protecting their families in the face of state players who use modernity as an excuse to forget to redistribute wealth to the remote areas of Tonga.

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    Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International