Because much of modern "Tongan Culture" is so Christianized (and therefore, sadly, Westernized), the chance to experience a piece of old, truly unadulterated Tongan culture is becoming rare, even for us. This, I believe, was one of those instances.
We heard about this village event in the way that most often occurs. People mention things to us in passing and assume that we already know what's going on. A week before the event, someone told Alissa about the "Kupenga Kava". "Kupenga" is the Tongan word for fishing net, so questions naturally came about. What net? People are having a faikava because of a net? We assumed we misheard and went about our week.
Then, a couple days later, one of the village guys asked me if I wanted to come to an event set to occur in the middle of the night. As I deciphered his rapid-fire Tongan, he basically told me that there was going to be a place where you can "hack at fish with your bush knife" at low tide. Sounding like something I definitely wanted to be a part of, I eagerly asked if I could join them. But later that evening, I was told that the event was postponed to the next day.
That next day, someone finally realized that I haven't lived here all my life and took the time to clarify and explain. One section of our island is a beautiful "tide flat" - a place full of mangroves, where at low tide, one can walk very far from the shore in shallow water (the same place that those boys took us exploring a few months back). Every year, seemingly out of duty and tradition, one of the men in the village strings a net about four feet high, tied to a secured stick every twenty feet, over an extremely long distance on the tide flat. He does so at low tide during the day, so that as the tide comes in over the next few hours, hundreds of fish get stuck in the net. Then, in the middle of the night, all the village men go to the net with flashlights, ropes, bush knives, and burlap sacks to collect the fish.
Thus, I finally understood the Kupenga Kava - the night before the event, there was a very formal kava ceremony in honor of the kupenga . I attended and expressed interest in at least seeing this phenomenon. One of my neighbors agreed to come wake me up for it, so at three in the morning, I was awoken and taken to the spot, where a few men were already waiting. A few minutes later, I set off with a few of them for the net. It was a cold night, but reasonably easy work; you simply grab the fish, force it through the net, and give it a good whack if it's wriggling too much. As we worked our way down the hundreds of feet of net, the ropes and bags were quickly filled. Most catches were average size reef fishes, but a number of three foot long, barracuda-like fish with long rows of teeth were caught as well. I even got to witness my first sting ray catch - a feat that involves chopping off the tail while it's still in the water.
After about an hour and a half, we had picked the net pretty clean, so we headed in to make room for some more men. The best fish were loaded into the coolers of the man who set up the net, and as we rested, a couple of fish were scaled, gutted, and sliced right there for some true 'ota ika (raw fish). As I dipped my fish into the ocean for a salty kick and tore into it with the other men, I felt honored having been given the chance to take part in this tradition. I love when you think that you know a place so well, but you can still get utterly surprised by newness.