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Devotionals

The Allegory of the Yam


Brothers and Sisters, malo ’e lelei,

Before I begin my devotional talk, I would like to acknowledge my Tongan Heritage with a formal greeting of respect to those who have made this day possible. 

     • I pay tribute to my Heavenly Father for my being here,

     • I pay tribute to President David O. McKay for his vision and foresight in choosing this sacred land on which this school stands,

    • I pay tribute to President Tanner for this honor that I never thought possible,

    • Lastly, I respectfully pay tribute to all of you for your presence here at devotional. 

Being asked to speak is a humbling experience. In all my years here as a student and then a teacher, I never imagined that I would have the opportunity to speak at a devotional. 

This situation reminds me of a Tongan proverb I learned as a child growing up in Tonga. 

Tongan Proverb:

’ufilei fie ‘ufi “baby yam trying to be a big yam”

At this moment, I feel like a baby yam that is playing at being a big yam. 

I bring up this proverb not only as a metaphor for my situation today, but as an introduction to who I am.

The origin of the aforementioned proverb is Tongan. I was born and raised in Tonga by goodly parents. My mother was Hawaiian and my father Tongan. They met here at church college of Hawaii as students, and married in the Hawaii LDS temple, then returned to Tonga to teach and work in the Church Educational System. It was always my dream to come to BYUH, which I did as soon as I graduated from Liahona High School. 

My parents were a fulfillment of President David O. McKay’s promise that this school would produce leaders. They were leaders in Tonga that many people looked up to. My parents were a great example to me of what I should aim to be. I can’t help but feel like a ‘ufilei (young baby yam) in comparison to them. 

I share with you my background because the allegory or story that I’m about to explain is a very important part of my Tongan heritage and a very big part of my own family traditions. 

Allegory of the Yam:

As a child growing up in Tonga, ‘ufi or yam, was a main staple in our household. My father was a yam farmer just like his father before him. Dinners usually consisted of yam, which was normally cooked in coconut milk, and some kind of delicious meat dish carefully prepared by my mother. I would like to note that Tongan yams are not to be mistaken for what many people here in America call the sweet potato. They are two very different things.

This tuberous root can weigh up to 150 pounds and grow up to 6 feet in length. The outer skin is dark brown in color, and the inside, a soft substance that can range in color from white or yellow to purple or pink. 

In Tonga, the yam is a valuable commodity because of all the hours of labor put into it. It typically takes 10 months to a year for it to grow. There are many varieties of yam grown in Tonga. In an interview with my father, he listed at least 14 different varieties of yam. Of the long variety are the: kahokaho, kaumeile, takulevu, kapakau’ikava, kivi, solomone, and lose. Of the short variety are the: mahoa’a, voli, paholo, Hawaii, kulo, manisela, and ‘ufilei. Of those 14 mentioned, 7 grow deep into the ground, while the other 7 grow similarly to sweet potato or kumala.

The planting process is usually between the months of June and September. There are two harvest seasons. The main harvest season or as the Tongans call it, Ta’ulahi, is 10 months to a year after planting, so if you plant in August, your harvest season will be in July of the following year. The smaller harvest season, Tokamu’a or Fakapeito, is 7 to 8 months after planting, so if you plant in June, harvest falls during Christmas. This crop is not usually as impressive in size and weight as the main harvest crop. 

Seed Yams:

  To grow yams, you need seed yams. Seed yams are cut from a mature yam. Every part of the yam can become a seed yam. One yam can yield many yams depending on its size. The yams produced from the body of the seed yam reach up to three feet. However, the head of the yam (where the leaves grow), or a whole average size yam, planted as a seed yam, can grow up to six feet in length. The best seed yams are ones from your own harvest.

As a yam farmer you have to decide if you want to grow short and fat yams, or long yams. As I previously mentioned, there are different types of yams, long and short. Once the farmer has decided on his choice of yam he prepares the land. The holes that are dug in preparation need to match the seed yam. If you are planting a seed yam from the body of the yam, the hole will be about three feet deep. For the seed yam that is the head of the yam (where the leaves grow), the depth of the hole needs to be deeper than three feet. Many farmers, like my dad, will dig the hole to its maximum potential, which is six feet in depth.  

After digging the hole, the hole is filled to the top with loose top soil. The seed yam is laid down at the top of the loose top soil which now fills the hole. The seed yam is then covered under a mound of dirt to protect it from the rain and the sun. 

“Felei” or Support: In addition to the mound of dirt is another layer called “felei.” “Felei” are thick plants with many branches that are laid over the dirt to act as nature’s trellis to catch the vines that grow from the yam. The “felei” keeps the leaves of the yam off the ground. One way to kill a yam quickly is to let the yam leaves burn on the hot ground. If there are no leaves, there are no roots.

During the months after planting the farmer will often visit the yams to clear out the weeds. The more visits the better. In my father’s words:

’Ufi is a special kind of plant. Manako ma’u pe ‘ufi ki he mafana koia koe ‘oe sino ‘ae tangata. (The yam likes the heat and warmth that radiates from the presence of people around them). They like people who are planting them to be present all the time. When it is hot they love the person who grew them to be present, moving their leaves, moving part of the soil, they feel it. If the ‘ufi is neglected, they will not grow well, or “foha” (bear fruit).” 

According to my father, the best “foha” or crop, is the one whose owner was always present during its growing stage. The lack of attention of a farmer can cause the ‘ufi to not “foha” or produce. He says yams want to be yams, “’oku fie ‘ufi ae ‘ufi,” because of the special care they receive from their growers. It is interesting to note that “foha” also means “son” in Tongan.

“Mahunu”: Another important stage of the growth of the yam is knowing when to leave the yam alone. During the rainy season, farmers know to keep away from the yams. This is called “mahunu.” Digging and weeding during rainy season can actually kill the yams. This is because the activity of digging can splash mud onto the stem and leaves of the yam, and when the sun eventually appears, it burns the mud on the leaves, killing the leaves. This kills the yam because without the leaves, the roots die.

Harvest Season:

 Growing season ends and harvest season begins around ten months to a year after planting. Harvesting yam is hard work as the long yams need to be dug out of its six foot home. The process can take half an hour or more. It takes special skill to remove the yam from its home without scarring or breaking it. For storing, long yams can be stood on its end. The end closest to the ground will spoil first. If the yam rests on its head, the yams roots will begin to grow in the ground, this is better for storing. 

For many Tongans, the harvest time is a time for celebration. Farmers will gather their yams and compete for the best looking yam: longest, heaviest, and overall prettiest. During special events held by the royal family or nobles of the land, farmers will gather their best yams to offer up as gifts. Any other gift is considered a lesser gift.  

Interpretation:

Now, one way to interpret this allegory is to look at the whole story as a representation of our life here on earth. The farmer is Heavenly Father. We are the yams. He has “planted” us here on earth and knows what we are capable of. He knows our potential. It is up to us to “grow” to that potential. As stated by Alma (Alma 42:10) “this probationary state became a state for them to prepare; it became a preparatory state.” Also, just like the Tongan proverb, “’oku fie ‘ufi ‘ae ‘ufi,” or “yams want to be yams” because of the special care they receive from their owners, we also find comfort at the presence of Heavenly Father in our life. His presence allows us to become the best versions of ourselves. Lastly, once we have grown to adulthood, just as the seed yams are produced from a mature yam, we also can produce our own “foha,” or children, and fulfill the commandment made to our first parents of multiplying and replenishing the earth.

Another way to interpret this allegory is by looking at some of the lessons that can be learned through the process of farming yam. The Tongan yam farmer knows that the best seed yams are the ones from his own harvest. This is likened to how a father knows that the best lessons are the ones planted through their own example. Two such lessons planted by my father are the lessons of hard work and faith. 

Another lesson that can be pulled from the farming process mentioned earlier is that of anticipating your harvest. The farmer anticipated the potential growth of the yam and dug to a depth that reflected that potential. We also can show our Heavenly Father our faith in Him by becoming the best versions of ourselves that He knows we can become.

The rest of my talk will focus on these three lessons. 

Seeds of Hard Work:  To understand the first two lessons lets revisit the story of the yam. As I explained previously, yams take ten months to one year to grow. It is labor intensive and grueling work. It cannot be done alone. It takes many people to plant and maintain a yam farm. Not many people choose to grow yams for this very reason. However, my father chose yams because of the lesson of hard work he wanted to sow in my brothers. 

I have five brothers and keeping them busy, so they stayed out of trouble was a priority for my father. He was never an idle man. I remember him always hard at work. He put into practice the principle (D&C 58:27) “[of being] anxiously engaged in a good cause,” and taught all of his children the importance of “laboring with [our] own hands” (D&C 56:17). He truly believed in the saying (2 Thessalonians 3:10) “that if any would not work, neither should he eat.” 

A typical day in Tonga was to wake up early in the morning, read scriptures, shower, eat breakfast, say family prayer, go to school, come home, go to the bush (for the boys), clean house and cook (for the girls), eat dinner, do homework, shower, and then sleep. There was no time to be idle. My dad believed that living off of the fruits of the land like breadfruit, or cassava (which I understand takes very little work to grow), made a man lazy. 

Teaching the boys how to farm yam was my father’s way of keeping them out of trouble but also his way of sowing seeds of hard work. Today all five of my brothers are hard workers. Three of my brothers live in Utah. They work very hard to provide for their families. I have one brother, a marine, stationed in Japan. His job speaks for itself. I also have a brother here in Hawaii, he also works tirelessly to provide for his growing family. 

Seeds of Faith: In addition to sowing seeds of hard work, my parents sowed seeds of faith. They both taught me the importance of living the gospel principles. 

As a child, I remember I couldn’t understand the language of the Book of Mormon, and that upset me because every family home evening my mother would give a quiz on a chapter from the Book of Mormon. I wanted to take the quiz, but I couldn’t understand the Book of Mormon (you can see the seeds of teaching were planted in me at a very young age). My mother found for me a copy of the Book of Mormon that was in simple English. She could have very easily had said “wait till you grow up and you’ll understand,” however, she found a copy that I could understand, which showed me how important I was to her. She gave of her time, her knowledge, and her experience, just like the farmer, and like the yam who wants to be a yam (‘ufi fie ‘ufi), I bloomed and grew in the gospel.

My parents planted the seeds of faith when they taught the importance of prayer, scriptural study, family home evening, attending church meetings, fulfilling church callings, doing service, fasting, paying tithing, visiting teaching, home teaching, missionary work, the list goes on. They taught through example. We have a family song that my mother wrote for our family as a mission statement to remind us of who we are and our purpose here on earth. 

It follows the tune of Give Said the Little Stream:

Moleni Family Song

By Ana Kahililani LaBarre Moleni

We are the Moleni, family as you see
Pate, Remi, Anela, too, 
Nini, Leola, and Georgie, 
John, Dan, Alana, Ana, Tuki, and George
An eternal family.

Chorus: 

Learning, missions, temple work,
Is our goal, here on Earth.
Family love will always last
When we pray and fast.

Kapau te tau lava ke hoko ko ha mama,
[If we can become a light]
‘I he ‘e tau lea, mo ho tau ‘ulunganga.
[In our words and actions]
Ke tau ‘ofa, fie tokoni, talangofua, moe fai lelei,
[To love, want to help, be obedient, do good]
‘Oku tau hoko leva ai, ko ha mama ngingila
[We will become a bright shining light] 

My parents followed the commandment issued in D&C 93:40 that states: “But I have commanded you to bring up your children in light and truth.”

Let’s return for a moment back to the yam story. If you remember, after planting the seed yams, a farmer will cover the seed yam with a mound of dirt and then lay branches over the mound of dirt to support the yam leaves as they begin to sprout out of the ground. Without that layer of support, or “felei” as the Tongans call it, the yam leaves will lay on the dirt and be burned by the intensity of the sun. This is a sure way to kill the yam as it cannot survive without its leaves.

The lessons and church principles that my parents taught our family to live by are like the “felei” that is laid over the growing yam. These church principles like prayer, family home evening and so forth protected and strengthened us children while we were yet young, so that when the time was right, we could stand on our own. That early support system resulted in all 9 children serving missions and 8 marrying in the temple (I have one brother who is not married.)  

However, the “felei” or the support provided by parents, friends, church programs, and so on, will not prevent the weeds, the insects, or the hot sun from appearing. We will still face trials. We will still face hardship. It will be our responsibility as an adult, after we have left the care of parents and home, to take the seeds of faith planted in us and cultivate it as Alma stated in: (Alma 32:28)

"Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me."

As we cultivate the seeds of faith planted in us by our parents and teachers, we can become “felei” to our own children and to those who are in need of shade and support from the blistering fire of adversity that none of us can escape from.

Your True Potential: If you remember from my yam story, during the planting stage, the farmer will dig a hole to the size that he anticipates the yam will grow. If the farmer plants a long yam in a three foot hole, the yam will grow down until it hits the hard floor - the three foot marker - and stop growing. Most farmers, like my dad, will dig a hole to the maximum length of six feet in anticipation of the yam growing to that length.

Like the yam farmer and his hope that his yam will grow to reach its maximum potential, our earthly and Heavenly Father both want us to reach our maximum potential. 

To reach our potential we need to have a clear understanding of who we are and where we came from. Elder Nelson speaks on this point when he says:

"It is important to know who you are and who you may become. It is more important than what you do, vital as your work is. You pursue an education to prepare for life’s work, but you also need to prepare for life—eternal life. I emphasize this because some people on life’s journey forget who they really are and what is really important. Without sure identity and priority, blessings that matter most are at the mercy of things that matter least." (Elder Russell M. Nelson)

Knowing who you are and where you come from is very important in Tongan culture. In Tonga it is customary at a first meeting of a stranger to ask for their genealogy. “What is your name? Who are your parents? Who are your grandparents? What island are you from?” Such are the types of questions you could be asked. This is their way of identifying a person and of making connections. It is very difficult to get in trouble in Tonga because everyone knows who you are and who your parents are. Any misdeeds will always get reported back to them.

A Tongan’s identity is strongly tied to their name and that name is tied to their past. How many of you know a Mele? Or a Sione? These names were not given because there were no other names around. These names have been passed down from generation to generation. 

This naming tradition is a common theme in the Book of Mormon. One example is that of the brothers Nephi and Lehi. Their father Helaman tells them:

In Helaman 5:6-7 it reads:

"… Behold, I have given unto you the names of our first parents who came out of the land of Jerusalem; and this I have done that when you remember your names ye may remember them; and when ye remember them ye may remember their works; and when ye remember their works ye may know how that it is said, and also written, that they were good.

7 Therefore, my sons, I would that ye should do that which is good, that it may be said of you, and also written, even as it has been said and written of them."

Helaman’s hope was that by giving his sons the names of their ancestors, they would be reminded of what good they could do and thus fulfill a parents hope of their child doing good in life.

A name can be a promise. A promise to live up to. Just as the depth of the hole to plant the yam is the potential of the size of the yam, the name given to a child represents the hope the parents have that their child will realize their potential. 

I have two daughters and as is usual in the Tongan culture, the names given to them have special meaning. Both my daughters were named in honor of their ancestors. My eldest daughter’s first name, Kahililani, is the middle name of my Hawaiian mother. This name was given to my mother by her own mother. It represents her Hawaiian heritage. My daughter’s second name is Kaye, this name represents her palangi or haole side and is the middle name of my husband’s mother. My daughter’s third name is Fetutuki. This name is Tongan. Fetutuki is the middle name of my step-mother, who married my Dad after my mother passed away when I was eight years old. My step-mother took on the role of mother to nine children when she married my dad. The last name that is part of my daughter’s identity is Solis. This name is Mexican and represents her Mexican heritage. My husband’s family is part Mexican on the father’s side.

My youngest daughter was also given a family name. Her middle name, Malia, is to honor all the Marys and Meles on both sides of the family, as there are many.

These names were given to my daughters as a tribute to those who came before them and as a reminder to do good, just as Helaman’s naming of his sons, Nephi and Lehi, were a reminder for them to do good. 

In life, others will give us names. As a child, I was labeled a “hafikasi” (half-Tongan), as a teenager, I was labeled a “fiepalangi” (wannabe white person), and as an adult a “Tongan.” 

Depending on what community of practice, or subculture, we are a part of, we may carry the name of daughter, sister, wife, mother, woman. I am all of those. I am also Tongan, Hawaiian, American, hafikasi, fiepalangi. In a different setting I am a student, teacher, colleague, friend, employee of BYUH, Mormon and so forth. 

We all have different names that identify who we are. Because our identity is fluid and changes according to the community of practices we are a part of, we can become confused as to which name to follow. If we choose the wrong name to follow, we can be like the farmer that chooses to limit the yam to three feet instead of aiming for the maximum potential of six feet. Elder Oaks warns us of this when he says:

We have our agency, and we can choose any characteristic to define us. But we need to know that when we choose to define ourselves or to present ourselves by some characteristic that is temporary or trivial in eternal terms, we de-emphasize what is most important about us and we overemphasize what is relatively unimportant. This can lead us down the wrong path and hinder our eternal progress. (Elder Dallin H. Oaks)

Out of all the names that we use to define ourselves, I think the name that best defines who we are and helps us realize our true potential is that of “child of God.” Knowing that we are His child should free us to become the best versions of ourselves that He knows we can be. Every day of our life we should remember President Packer’s words:

You are a child of God. He is the father of your spirit. Spiritually you are of noble birth, the offspring of the King of Heaven. Fix that truth in your mind and hold to it. However many generations in your mortal ancestry, no matter what race or people you represent, the pedigree of your spirit can be written on a single line. You are a child of God! (President Boyd K. Packer)

Knowing who we are gives us a better understanding of where we are going. We are His children. He has created us in His image. He knows us and knows what we can do. He has not put limits on what we can do. So, we should not put limits on what we can do, but instead, aim, like the farmer, on obtaining our maximum potential.

Brothers and Sisters. I hope that the lessons shared with you today provide some guidance in your journey on this earth. I hope that the story of the sowing seeds of hard work and faith inspire you to be a good example to those around you. I hope that you have the chance to offer shade and shelter to friends and family and be offered the same in return, so that the sting of adversity is lessened. It is my prayer that you remember that you are a child of God. That we were sent here to this earth by Him. That we have the capacity to become like him.  

In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

 

References:

Excerpts from President David O. McKay’s Church College of Hawaii/ BYU–Hawaii dedication at the Groundbreaking Services, February 12, 1955.

Moleni, John L. Personal Interview. 4 January 2016.

Moleni, Siaosi ‘E. Personal Interview. 5 January 2016.

Nelson, Russell M. “Identity, Priority, and Blessings,” BYU Speeches, September 10, 2000.

Oaks, Dallin H. “How to Define Yourself,” From a BYU–Idaho devotional given on November 7, 2006.

Packer, Boyd K. “To Young Women and Men”, Ensign, May 1989, 54.