Friday, October 23, 2009

Happy on Ha'apai?

Update,October 24
We did get our site assignments as expected, but there were some last minute changes to some of the other trainees' assignments. However everyone seems pleased, and quite a few of us are in Pangai today (Saturday)celebrating and catching up with internet business.

October 23, 2009
It’s about 6 p.m., the end of a long training day, and we have dance practice tonight to (finally) begin learning the ma’ulu’ulu for our culture day dance. So far today the location for the practice has changed twice, so we’ll see where (and if) the practice actually happens. Since this activity has been placed in the hands or our fa’e (host mothers) we have no control over how this will proceed.

We all had interviews this week with the placement staff and program managers to discuss our placement. While many of us have a fairly clear idea of what they will be doing, some do not, so the announcement tomorrow of our site assignments will be welcome by everyone. Kathy learned that her assignment will be different than what we first thought; she appears slated to be assigned to one of the larger primary schools in Nuku’alofa as a mentor teacher. My assignment as an Economics Instructor at the ‘Atenisi Institute still looks like a go. By the time I post this (hopefully tomorrow) we’ll have confirmation and I’ll post a link.

The really good news this week is that most everyone is basically healthy. My asthma has kicked up thanks to all the mold and smoke from cooking and rubbish fires, and I’m now using an inhaler to control the bronchial spasms that come with that. Other than that we’re doing fine.

We had a contest today—“Last Trainee Standing”-- to see which trainee had been the most successful at some of the activities and skills we are learning as part of our acculturation process. We all started standing up and as the activities were read we were required to sit down if we could not say we had done it. I had to sit when I could not say that I had not “flashed,” that no one had seen my shorts that I wear under my tupenu (mid-calf length skirt) when sitting on the floor. This a very difficult task for most of the guys to master. Other skills were consistently dressing in our Tongan garb (tupenu, ta’ovala, kiekie), helping a child in our home with their lessons, helping with household tasks, eating with the family (which is very difficult, as they want to make sure we are well fed before they have any food). Kathy ended up being the last woman standing, and her prize was a cell phone! (Now we just have to figure out how to use it!)

We also spent time learning various other things, like how to kill the molokau the dreaded stinging centipede we will sometimes encounter in our home, how to dress a coral wound, how to wash clothes by hand, and other useful tasks. We wished we had learned earlier that we should not give our underpants to our host fa’e when she asks for our laundry, that it is considered very bad form to have underpants hanging from the clothesline outdoors. Now we know why there are all those underpants hanging up in the bath!

Trainingb, Week 2

October 20, 6:30 p.m.
Day 2 of Week 2 of our training in Faleloa. The weather is great, warm, mostly sunny, not too humid. Today in language training we started learning some basic grammar, so it doesn’t feel like we’re just memorizing words and phrases and starting to learn how to put our thoughts into sentences. Hard work, but with some organization the language is starting to make more sense.

Tomorrow begins our introduction to the schools, and I will be going to Ha’apai High School to observe some classes tomorrow morning. More on that in my next post.
Yesterday we took the afternoon for our “trainee directed activity” session and walked out to Sandy Beach, where I did a little snorkeling for the first time on the reef. Absolutely gorgeous, many typical reef fish, lots of coral. I’m definitely looking forward to doing more of this when we have free time. Mostly we sat in the shade and prepared for our cross cultural session today and started planning our activities for culture day. More on that, too, in a later post, although later this evening I’m told we have our first dance practice, led by the fa’e, our host mothers. It’s a sitting dance involving both men and women.
Various of us PCTs (Peace Corps Trainees) have had bouts of sickness. Themost serious was one of our Faleloa women who apparently suffered a bout of heat exhaustion and had to go to the hospital early this morning to get some treatment including intravenous fluids. We are keeping our Peace Corps Medical Officer very busy, and she is not getting much sleep.

8:45 p.m. Another frustration related to Tongan planning. After discovering that our planned dance practice could not be held at the town hall due to a previously scheduled youth meeting, we heard several different ideas about where it would be held, and ended up being directed to go to the makelui’s house. We arrived and were greeted pleasantly by the makelui, his wife, and the fellow PCT residing there, all of whom knew nothing about a dance practice. So we headed back home; soon after we arrived a young boy arrived to tell us to go the makelui’s house for dance practice. I’ve retired to my room to regain some perspective and finish this entry.

Have I described Faleloa yet? This is the northernmost village on Foa, which is connected to the main Ha’apai island of Lifuki by a causeway. I would guess there are maybe 500 or 600 people here, three or four small stores operated basically out of homes, 5 churches (Wesleyan, 3 Churches of Tonga of various identities, and a big Mormon Church), a small wharf which supports the local fishing and a taxi service to the island of Ha’ano, and a primary school. About a mile north on the Northern end of Foa are two small resorts and the lovely beach I’ve described earlier. Aside from the Mormon Church grounds and maybe two or three fairly nice homes roughly comparable to ‘50s ranchers most homes appear to be quite rundown and poorly maintained. The lack of supplies, parts, and any kind of reliable outside support makes maintenance and upkeep difficult. For example, since the ferry Princess Ashika sank in August there has been no one willing to transport propane to the island, so any home (which is most of them) that relies on propane to power their stoves and ranges has not been able to use them. All the cooking in our house occurs on an open fire outside or in an electric skillet.

Weekend in Faleloa

Our first weekend in Faleloa included a Saturday with a few frustrations and a typical Tongan Sunday made a bit interesting since our host family is the Wesleyan Church’s Faifekau (Minister). We wanted our Saturday to be a leisurely morning/early afternoon in Pangai, the only town in Ha’apai with an internet café and ice cream, so that we could check e-mail and post to the blog. We had attempted to find out if the local “bus” that runs from Faleloa to Pangai every day, primarily – but not exclusively – to transport kids to the secondary schools in Pangai, would be running on Saturday; however, no one seemed to have a clear idea about that. So our host father said he would take us in, but when we told him all nine of us PCTs were going he wasn’t sure what to do. We assured him that we would just start walking (it’s about 8 miles) and that we were sure someone we knew would come along and give us a ride. However that certainly did not settle the issue as far as he was concerned.
So our group started out around 8 a.m. walking, and about a mile down the road we were offered a ride with some Faleloa fisherman which we gladly accepted. We arrived safely, gave the driver a few pa’anga for gas, and got to work at the internet café. We soon learned that our host father had borrowed a 4-Runner from someone in the congregation and followed us to make sure we would arrive safe and to give us a ride home. So much for our leisurely Saturday! Because he was anxious we cut our planned four hour or so visit in Pangai down to two hours and headed back to Faleloa.
The rest of Saturday was spent working on our homework assignments (charting our host family’s family tree and created a map of Faleloa) and getting ready for a tutoring session we thought we had set up with our host family daughter and several of her friends who have an important exam coming up which will determine whether or not they can go on to university studies. But we learned that there was an important church service involving the youth that she needed to attend and there was no mention whatsoever of the class we thought we had set up.
A Tongan trait that is very difficult for us palangi to deal with is that a Tongan feels it is impolite to not answer a question, even if they do not know the answer. So they will give you an answer even if they know it is wrong. I suspect our host family “sister” was willing to say yes to our suggestion to have the class on Saturday afternoon, because that was what we proposed and it would have been impolite to not agree. We have been taught to ask open-ended questions; we should have asked her when she and her friends would like to have the class and then worked from there. Lesson learned.
So we just had to hike the mile or so up the road to the North end of our island (Foa) and spend some time at one of the prettiest beaches you would ever want to see. Oh well.
Sunday: Sunday begins with a service at 5:30 am; we did not attend. After that service the family begins the cooking in the umu (earth oven) for the mid-day meal and then gets ready for the main service that begins at 10. Kathy’s dress was deemed totally unacceptable (she had been asked to do the English Bible reading, and the family wanted her to be totally appropriate) so a brightly colored dress was produced for her to wear. She was also provided her first ta’ovala (decorated woven mat worn around the waist) to wear with it. And I was also provided a special ta’ovala to wear as well. It was clear the family wanted us to represent them very well.
Host father fiefekau Mekulio also consulted with us about his sermon for the day. He was using a passage from Mark 10 in which James and John were asking Jesus to promise them they could sit with him in heaven; Jesus tells them he can promise no such thing, “You don’t know what you are asking for. Can you drink the cup of suffering I must drink?” Mekulio is struggling to find a good English phrase to use as the theme for his talk, which he wants to be about making choices to not use drugs or alcohol or engage in adultery, and he is trying to say something like “you ask for enough?” After reading the passage, these noted biblical scholars (forgive us Bob Webb) suggest he try the phrase “Be careful what you ask for” and the palangis in the audience would get his drift.
The service went very well, and since it was 99% in Tongan we had little involvement in the prayers and messages (except the occasional “Be careful what you ask for” in the sermon with Mekulio’s booming voice). Host mother Makalesi did provide us with a hymnal, so were able to join in the singing; that was fun. The singing in these churches on Ha’apai is full voice, shape note style singing, so it is more boisterous than beautiful. And everyone sings in harmony, more or less.
After church we took some photos of everyone in their finery before the big meal, which featured three different kinds of lu, a dish of meat and a few vegetables wrapped in banana leaves; octopus and eel (Kathy’s first experience with either) which were quite tasty.
The three things Tongans do on Sunday are go to church, eat, and sleep. After the mid-day meal most everyone had a pretty good sleep. Not a bad way to spend the day.
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Friday, October 16, 2009

Picking up the trash

Yesterday (Thursday) we spent the day involved in a massive Ha’apai island project organized by a Kiwi (New Zealand) group named Sustainable Coastlines. The overall objective of the project is to raise awareness of the need for Tonga to create a waste management program that will eliminate—or at least reduce the amount—of waste that is burned in backyard fire pits or just thrown in the ocean.
The project involved organizing island residents to spend the day picking up trash in their communities and then transporting it to Pangai for later transport to Tongatapu in containers. Our Peace Corps group was actively involved in the day’s work, and one of the PCVs working here has been peripherally involved with the Kiwis as much of the preparation for the clean-up involved educating school children on the island of the importance of waste management in protecting the environment and some of the environmental issues associated with the current practices. Kathy and I spent the morning picking up trash around our neighborhood in Faleloa, and it appeared that most of the community was involved in some way or another. There had been a lot of publicity for the day; trucks had been organized for transporting the collected trash, the school children all participated, and the various teams were led by local youth group members. The Town Officer (roughly equivalent to the Mayor) was heard early this morning announcing the project by shouting from his front yard. Of course, this being Tonga, there were problems with trucks breaking down, a shortage of gasoline on the island, not enough trash bags in communities where participation turned out to be much bigger than anticipated, and other logistical issues complicated by the lack or readily available resources to deal with any unplanned for exigencies. However, it is estimated that 3200 people participating, exceeding the organizers' expectations.

Today as part of our training program we heard from the two primary organizers of Sustainable Coastlines. Sam and Emilie told of the history of their organization and how they came to Ha’apai (see their website at They were extremely articulate and passionate about their work, and they have worked very hard to learn how to set up a successful project in Tonga through meeting with and gaining the cooperation of a host of government officials, nobles who control the villages, other affected NGOs, Tonga education officials and local schools, youth organizations, and sponsors. It was very impressive how well they have tried to make sure that the project has all the buy-in they could possibly create. One of the perspectives they share is how prevalent plastics have become in the waste stream, whereas 30 years ago there was virtually no plastic in Tonga, especially in the form of plastic bags, bottles, wrappers. The burning of these materials in backyard pits is very unhealthy to people and the environment, and yet there is little knowledge of these consequences. And there is no ready resource for recycling plastics, which makes the problem that much more difficult to manage. All in all a strong beginning to a very difficult long-term effort, and the good news they shared today was that the country’s prime minister pledged to initiate an effort to create a country-wide waste management program, so all their good work may have lit the necessary fire toward beginning the process to achieve the primary goal.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

First week Reflections

We arrived in Tonga one week ago this morning and this will be just our fourth night in our home stay, but it feels like we’ve been here much longer. This has much to do with the adjustments we’ve had to make to our daily routines. Here are some reflections on what big shifts we’ve had to make.
1. Some comforts of home don’t feel so important as we acclimate to Tongan life. Cold showers are not a big deal in a tropical climate. Refrigeration is not that important when most food is consumed the day it is prepared. And what goes on in a home, the quality of the relationships and the interactions, is so much more important than the quality of the building.
2. Some comforts of home are sorely missed. Our home has no sink for washing hands and brushing teeth, and having one does not seem important to most of the families we are staying with. Hot – or at least warm – water is good for washing hair when you are a girl.
3. Regular meal times are not a part of this village’s culture. It does seem like the big meal of the day is often dinner, but sometimes it’s closer to mid-day or mid-afternoon, but it could as easily be at 9 p.m. The feast yesterday was at 3 p.m., but since most of the food was passed on to others their meals occurred somewhat later. And our family had another meal later in the evening; Kathy and I were not interested at all.
4. It’s amazing what can be prepared in an earth oven. Our host mother will be baking cakes in one tomorrow morning for the church’s youth group to sell as a fund raiser.
5. It’s great to live in a culture where your shoes are just not important at all. Life in sandals and flip-flops is just fine by me.

Tongans do not place great importance on money. They share most everything. They look out for each other and take care of someone else’s children if that is what is needed. Our host family moved here from a nearby island just two months ago; he is a Wesleyan minister and apparently the practice is to move every three years or so to a new church. As we are getting to know them we have learned that they did not bring their refrigerator with them because someone there needed one. They left their chickens with their former church, and other items were left for various other reasons, so they are living without. That’s the Tongan way.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Faleloa Feast

More language training this morning, our second day of formal study. Boy is it getting confusing! With all the preparation we did with the materials sent out by the Peace Corps, the informal studying we did with our peers while at Sela’s, the attempting to talk with our host family members and learn new words and phrases, and now formal instruction. I really need to start learning some basic grammar to try to make sense of some of these phrases and how to construct some basic sentences. I’m sure that will come. In the meantime, we will be doing other things the next few days, so no more formal classes until Monday. Hopefully this weekend we can continue to practice what we have learned and dial some of it in.
This afternoon we attended a feast organized to honor the Class 6 students who completed their exit exams this week. These exams are a very big deal; success has something to do with what they will be able to do next year. The seven families involved spent all day preparing a variety of food; our family roasted four young pigs over an open fire, prepared both raw and cooked fish and a variety of other dishes. The food was transported up to the school and laid out on a long row of tables set up on the school grounds under a series of canopies. When all was ready we were invited to sit with our host family’s table, and after a long, long prayer (length of prayer is a sign of respect) from the Town Officer we were able to start eating. The table was piled high with food, including the pigs (straight off the spit, uncarved), cooked potatoes, squash, and other root vegetables wrapped in foil), various plates of food on plates or in bowls wrapped in plastic, and wedges of watermelon. One was expected to select a dish or two, eat what you wanted from it, share some with your neighbor, then rewrap the remainder and return it to the table.

Meanwhile speeches were being made, and both our host parents spoke, as well as Luseane, who is one of the students being honored, and we noticed some tears from some while she apparently gave heartfelt thanks to the families for supporting them through this time. (Luseane later told us that she knew none of her classmates would have the nerve to speak, and she thought someone from the class should.) This went on for a while, until the Town Officer made a final speech, and the feast was over. Guests were encouraged to take some food home, and the families then started giving much of what was left (feasters had eaten only a small portion of the food available) to others who were not guests at the feast. Our host family packed up the remaining food on our table and brought it back to our house. Here Mekulio oversaw the organizing of this food into about eight baskets, which were then given to the neighbors who had helped with its preparation, and several other families from his church. Much more food was distributed, including the four pigs, than was eaten at the feast. It is likely that most of that food has been consumed by now (three or four hours later). A graphic illustration of the Tonga way of sharing, and also of the Tongan propensity to live for today.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


Yesterday (Monday, October 12) we flew via Chathams Pacific Convair 380 to Ha’apai for our 8 week home stay and intensive language and culture training. Just for the record, it was yet another flight with no empty seats. We were bused from the airport to Foa, an island connected to the main Ha’apai island (Lifuka) by a causeway, and then to our village of Faleloa. We met our host mother, Malekasi, her daughters Luseani (age 11) and Sofaia (9), and husband Mekulio, who is the local Wesleyan Methodist minister. They showed us around our new home and then invited us to the kitchen where the table was laid out with a variety of food prepared just for us. As is the custom in Tonga they invited us to eat first; guests are entitled to the best food before the family is allowed to eat. However, after we ate a little we encouraged the family to eat as well, and some of them did. Later we met one of their twin sons, Uluakiola (17); his brother is at college (high school) and will be home in a day or two.
These home stays serve as our initial entry into Tongan life, and there is plenty of adjustment to make. At Sela’s guest house, our home for our first four nights in Tongatapu, we had hot water and plenty of companionship with our fellow PCTs (Peace Corps Trainees); Kathy likened the experience to a living in a college dorm. Here we are on our own, in a home that wouldn’t come close to meeting any kind of building and housing code in the USA, with no hot water and the most rudimentary of bathing facilities. The village Kava circle takes place in the church meeting hall about 50 feet outside our bedroom, and a family of goats, including one baby that is being denied by its mother and therefore wants to bleat frequently through the night, is also just outside our window. Pigs and dogs everywhere. However, the family could not be kinder and is genuinely interested in getting to know us and helping us learn Tongan.
After eating we took a stroll around the village with Mekulio and on the way encountered several other PCTs doing the same. At several homes Mekulio stopped and handed out some money to the man of the house, and at one point a man in a pickup stopped to talk to him, and it seemed there was an expectation that he would be given money, so I gather this is a regular practice. I’ve been reluctant so far to inquire about this. Mekulio did share that they moved here only two months ago from another Ha’apai island North of here, and that ministers are transferred every few years.
Anyway, today, Tuesday, we had our first language lesson with our Faleloa group (8 PCTs) and we had the opportunity to share our first night’s experience in our new homes. Some involved creepy crawlies, unregulated children, and eating adventures. One thing stands out: Tongans live quite the ad hoc life style; no set bed or meal times and children are largely undisciplined (although that does not seem to be the case in our home). Many family members have no set place to sleep, and that does not appear to be much of an issue.
The most touching time for us was last evening when Mekulio invited us to a family prayer meeting in our living room. He formally welcomed us and said how pleased he was for his family to have the experience of learning from us and thanked God for bringing us to them. He became tearful while saying this as he was speaking from his heart. A scripture reading, a prayer, the family singing “Nearer My God to Thee” in full voice in Tongan, and the 23rd Psalm, also in Tongan, completed the service. It was all very touching and it was good to feel included in the family rituals.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Tongatapu, October 8

So here we are. After a completely uneventful 13 hour flight, we arrive safe and sound to a beautiful morning in Tongatapu, Tonga. We did stop in Apia, Samoa on the way and dropped off our Samoa colleagues and witnessed a beautiful, breezy tropical island dawn as we reboarded the plane for the last leg. After touching down in Tonga and working our way through the customs and baggage claim process (also uneventful and relatively fast) we received an enthusiastic greeting from the Tonga Peace Corps staff, complete with leis (kahoe), a truck for our bags, and a school bus to take us to Sela’s Guest House, our home for the next few days while we receive our basic orientation to Peace Corps Tonga. The warmth continued after we found our rooms and gathered around for more welcome, included a song from three of the staff in three part harmony. Our first witnessing of the Tongan singing we have read so much about.

And then: we’re told everything is on hold and we must stay put here at Sela’s because a tsunami warning has been issued as a result of some big earthquakes in Vanuatu and the Cook Islands. After all the drama associated with the big Tsunami that hit Samoa just last week, with all the questions we received about whether our service would be affected, and all the uncertainty of associated with serving in dynamic seismic area, this news was a tad bit sobering. But everyone took it in stride, some games came out, and we passed the time until the warning was lifted.
So off to the Peace Corps office for our formal welcome. Such ceremonies in Tonga invariably involve a Kava ceremony. One of the Tongan Program Managers, Viliami Mafi, told us the fable associated with the Kava ceremony, and then described the process of preparing the kava. Then the kava is served to us one by one, and is the custom this task was performed by young women or girls, in this case current PCVs. After kava, some traditional dancing performed by two PCVs (three if you count Poki’s comic performance behind them), then a feast prepared by the staff where we all ate outside on the lawn amongst the palms.

I ate with Carol, currently the oldest Volunteer at age 67, who teaches computer classes at a village middle school in a village on Tongatapu about 10 miles from here. Since I thought for sure that I would be the oldest volunteer in Tonga this was great news. She’s enthusiastic and open and seems unfazed about living in a smallish village by herself. Kathy made her initial connection with Sune, a volunteer finishing her third year who has been working to develop early childhood education teacher training.

Nuku’alofa reminds us a lot of the Mexican villages we visited last December, only somewhat cleaner. Most residential streets are dirt and potholed, but the main streets have pavement in reasonably good repair. We wandered along a portion of the waterfront and through the main part of downtown, and there is only a block or two that any kind of urban feel to it. A major wharf area is undergoing massive reconstruction, there’s a park area along the waterfront, and a nice internet café/coffee bar/restaurant (“Friends”) that will undoubtedly become a favorite place if this is where we end up being placed.

All in all, a pretty good day.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

On our way!

We write from LAX as we wait for the flight that will take us away from most of what is familiar in our lives. We are, however, in the company of 21 other very fine mostly young people; our group is twice as many women as men, and seems representative of what I understand the typical Peace Corps group to be. A day of "staging" and getting to know each other, Peace Corps policies, discussions of anxieties and goals. Later, getting to the airport with all that entails, a little food, some last minute phone calls to loved ones before turning off the cell phone forever.

As I begin to experience these people, for the first time I can start thinking more concretely about just what life will be like with this brand new community of people, who I will be wanting to work with, and how we will be supporting each other. Until now we have been an abstract creation, just some images and cryptic postings on Facebook from some as we disentangled our old lives and prepared for the new.

Now it's all about looking forward.