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.