Monday, November 23, 2009


This is Thanksgiving week, and we are planning a big Thanksgiving Dinner with all the trainees, our training staff, and the current PCVs here on Ha’apai, a group of about 50. Peace Corps Tonga is supplying the turkeys, and the volunteers and trainees are providing everything else. Kathy was intent on having pumpkin pie, and by golly it looks like she’s going to be able to do it.

There are green Japanese pumpkins available on Tongatapu, and our host mother arranged for one of her relatives to buy some and ship them to us here. We had one for Hallowe’en (see our previous post) and knew that they would work, as they have the same orange flesh and flavor as our USA varieties. The primary problem turns out to be having the right kind of milk and spices, since they don’t have any regular evaporated milk in Tonga, only the sweetened condensed stuff that’s great for making butterscotch but not much else. So on Saturday Kathy bought some regular milk, borrowed some precious cinnamon from the PCV working here in Faleloa, and experimented with a recipe. We had to cook it at the house where some of the training staff our staying, one of the few working ovens in this village, and it actually turned out pretty good. So Kathy will bake a couple more on Wednesday and we’ll be good to go.

This is our second week of practice teaching. I had a great time with my little class (10 students, nine girls, one boy) today, and I’m looking forward to the next few days as well. We created a “market” in class and they really got into it. We’re learning that if you can get these kids up and doing it seems to work. Their typical class involves copying lessons down from the blackboard and then memorizing various concepts and definitions, but with little involvement in learning what this all means in daily life. So most of us trainees are working to create more student centered activities.

Today there was an actual morning assembly at my school. This is the usual procedure at a Tongan high school. The students assemble in the big assembly hall, sing a song or two, have a scripture reading and daily prayer (even at the government schools), and announcements from the principal. There were no such assemblies last week, as the only students that were coming to class were the ones in the classes we Pisikoas were teaching. But today most of the Form 5 & 6 (essentially Juniors and Seniors) returned to begin practicing for the end of term festivities and graduation ceremonies next week. We were led in by the Deputy Principal and then introduced to the students as part of the Principal’s announcements. After the announcements we and the few other teachers who actually showed up today then filed out before the students were dismissed. The students were then dismissed and our classes could begin.

This training program has been intense. Now as we near the end all of us are quite ready to move on, to move on from the home stay experience (as illuminating as this has been to the daily life and culture of Tonga), first to our “attachment” sites (living with a current volunteer for 4 or 5 days to gain some firsthand experience with the day-to-day life of a PCV), and then back to Nuku’alofa to complete training. This culminates in our swearing in ceremony on December 16, and presumably we will then be moving in to the home that will be “ours.” If everything goes as planned Kathy and I will be living in the SW part of Nuku’alofa, quite close to my school, and about a 20 minute walk to Kathy’s.

I spend a fair amount of time every day walking around, getting to and from various places or just doing some eva pe (wandering around). I particularly like to walk the 300 yards or so from my house to the Faleloa wharf and watch the sunset. Lately my thoughts on these walks have been about what a tremendous privilege it is to be here, to be a Peace Corps Volunteer, and how lucky I am to have the health and the heart to be doing this. I am thankful for my fellow trainees, a great bunch of people, some of whom are truly talented teachers. Some have never taught before or had any education classes, but they are working hard and most seem to be getting the hang of it. I am thankful that they all look like they are going to make it through training and be committed volunteers. And I am thankful for the staff we’ve been working with here, a very supportive group. Peace Corps Tonga is in transition; a new country director will be hired before too long and there are new people in some key posts. And we are the first batch of volunteers hired under the new Tonga Expanded Community Education Program, so it is going to be an interesting year. I am very much looking forward to it.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


18 ‘o Novema
I’m tired. It’s Wednesday evening, 8:30 p.m. of our first week of practice teaching, and I’ve just returned from my second Tongan language class of the day. Since 7 a.m. I have been either teaching, preparing a lesson plan for tomorrow, traveling to or from Pangai without necessarily having a clear idea of how I’m getting to or from there (an 8 mile trip each way), or studying the language.

And it’s starting to get hot. The rains we had a few weeks ago have not continued, and I’m starting to understand why Tongans try hard to stay out of the sun. In the sun it feels 20 degrees warmer than in the shade. Thank goodness we live on a relatively small island and we enjoy fairly consistent ocean breezes.

My practice teaching is at Pangai High School, the government school that is the best funded of the various high schools (there are three other church run high schools in Pangai) and that is able to attract the best students, i.e. those that get the best scores on the class 6 exam. It is fairly new, less than ten years old, and is in relatively good shape. Nevertheless, in the boys bathroom only one of the six urinals had a working water connection, and I wasn’t brave enough to look in a stall at any of the toilets. And the floor was filthy; there was no evidence that any cleaning had taken place in there in recent times. However, there is one drinking fountain that provides purified water which I was thankful to find since I forgot my usually ever present water bottle today. And a working computer lab that we can use after we finish teaching.

One great big hitch in our training schedule is that in the Tongan schools the end of the school year is just a week or two away. All of the classes have had their final exams, so there is little expectation for children (or teachers for that matter) to actually come to school this week. Those that are coming to school are practicing singing for the final school assembly or working on the schools bush plots. So we essentially have no good reason to be teaching anything. Our challenge, therefore, has been to create lesson plans that are basically review lessons. We are trying to use games as much as possible. I am working with a Form 4(essentially high school sophomore) Economics class and we are creating a Jeopardy! Game. I have challenged the students to help write the questions for the game, and tomorrow we are going to see how well they do. My class of anywhere from 6 to 9 students (6 or 8 girls plus one boy who showed up for the first time today) is going to challenge one of my Pisikoa colleagues Accounting class tomorrow.

Our other challenge this week has been getting to and from Pangai. Usually there is a “bus” that runs from our village of Faleloa (the end of the line) to Pangai every morning. It usually takes a bus load at 7 a.m. and then returns to take another bus load at 8 a.m. Now this is not a school bus, but most of its passengers are school kids as the schools do not transport. The fare is 50 seniti (about 30 cents) each way. So on Monday the four of us Faleloa Pisikoa who are teaching in Pangai planned to take the 8 a.m. bus, which would get us there in plenty of time for our 9 a.m. classes. But, because so few kids are actually going to school, the bus driver decided he did not need to make the return trip at 8. So here we were, suddenly reliant on the primary mode of transport here, hitchhiking. This usually involves walking along the road until we can flag down a minivan or one of the fairly common 1-ton flatbed trucks and then climb on or in with whoever else may be in the same boat as we are. Thankfully, this is a highly accepted mode of transportation and most everybody (with the noted exception of the Chinese delivery vans supplying all the little village shops) willingly stop to give rides. The main problem is there is just not very much traffic at all. On that day we luckily arrived at our destination just as classes were getting ready to start. Yesterday, after being assured by the bus driver that he would be returning for a second trip, the same thing happened again, and again we had to cope with hitching and a just-in-time arrival.

So today we got up early and rode the 7 a.m. bus, arriving 1 ½ hours early for our class. That gave us plenty of time to get ready and actually do a little language study before the few students who have been directed to attend our classes arrived.
I should interject here that despite these hassles I’m enjoying this week very much. After class today I was able to use the high school’s computer lab to catch up some internet business, then walk over to Mariner’s CafĂ© to enjoy some French press coffee and chat with my Pisikoa colleagues. Then a few of us decided to begin the journey back. After walking for maybe a half mile we got a short ride as far as the airport (about a third of the way home). Today we had to wait a few minutes for a plane to take off before continuing our walk on the road. The road crosses the airport’s only runway and has to be closed every time a plane lands or takes off, which probably only happens four or five times a day. We walked another mile or so, really feeling the heat as there is no shade at midday in the tropics, to the causeway connecting Lifuka and Foa islands and the welcome ocean breeze. During this stretch not one vehicle passed us going in our direction.

I should note here that when we left the bus driver this morning he told us he would not be making a return trip to Faleloa until later this afternoon. Well, at 11:45, as we were walking across the causeway that connects our island with Lifuka, guess what came up behind us? The bus was fairly full of mostly school kids; by fairly full I mean there were no empty seats and maybe only a dozen or so people standing in the aisle. Not a problem for us at all. In any event, I absolutely have given up trying to divine any kind of schedule for the bus, and have finally learned that even the bus driver has no clear idea when he will decide to make a run. We will be on the only known run, the 7 a.m. from Faleloa, once again tomorrow.

Friday, November 13, 2009


We knew that joining the Peace Corps and moving some 4000 miles across the Pacific from home was isolating us from important events back home. After our cross-culture day (see previous post) concluded early Saturday afternoon we hitched a ride into Pangai to try to catch up on our internet correspondence, our only real link to news from home. There I learned my good friend Jack Dugan had died. While I knew this news would be coming it was difficult to process given the separation of both distance and circumstance. Jack went from being the picture of good health to a cancer death sentence over a matter of just a few months, and the irony was that this happened as he was finally preparing to retire from a successful college teaching career to move full-time to his other passion of building and flying airplanes.
So it was prophetic, I suppose, that an elderly woman in the village died Sunday morning, and we had our first opportunity to experience a Tongan funeral. It was amazing to watch how over the course of the day, a day on which nothing is supposed to happen in Tonga, all the elements of a proper Tongan funeral were assembled and constructed. By mid-afternoon a huge cooking fire and food preparation area was assembled in a vacant lot across the street from the family’s home, with stacks of firewood and lots of root crops. In the vacant lot next door to their house portable awnings were put up, tables and chairs arrived, and another food preparation area was created. Relatives and friends began arriving, and everyone was busy doing something, it all seemed somehow to be guided by an unseen hand. By evening hundreds of loaves of bread, dozens of cut-up chickens, and various other foods had arrived and were being prepared for cooking as the cooking fires were ignited. Meanwhile at the family’s home the body was prepared for viewing; she was dressed in her finest clothes and placed on a tall stack of tapa mats in a room that was decorated floor to ceiling with more mats and curtains.
Sometime after dark the family was ready for the ‘apo, the wake, to begin. We waited outside the home in the dark for it all to begin. The first groups to be admitted were from their church, the Church of Tonga; they left after a half hour or so and a large group from “our” church (the Wesleyan Methodist) was admitted next. Congregation members brought with them more mats, blankets, quilts, etc. from their homes to present to the bereaved family. As we entered the room with the deceased at the center we sat down and our faifekau (minister, also our host family father) led a prayer service that included several hymns that lasted a good half hour. At the conclusion a spokesman from the family thanked us for our prayers. As we left various people knelt by the body and did a fe’iloaki, the Tongan greeting kiss, done right cheek to right cheek. As we left we were led to the rows of tables where we were invited to partake in a light meal.
The procession of “mourners” through the home continued for some time; many people kept vigil, children were allowed to stay up, the cooking continued, and there was singing through the night. We went home to bed. In the morning we noticed at least a half dozen large pigs had arrived for roasting at the cooking fires. The deceased was buried at the adjacent cemetery sometime around mid-day, but because we were in class we were not able to witness this part of the funeral. Funeral activities have continued through the week, although most normal activities have resumed. Our host father has been doing faikava with the village elders the last three days as part of the funeral vigil process.
Since Sunday (I write on Wednesday) the family has been dressed in black and wearing very large ta’ovala (the woven mats Tongans wear around their waist). Everyone else in the community wore black as well (including all of us Pisikoa) until the body was buried. Much of the community and all of the family was still wearing black today and will continue to do so for a week or so.
The funeral process is a good example of how Christian practices and Tongan traditions and culture create something entirely unique to Tonga. Tonga must be the most overtly Christian nation on earth, yet so many of their practices bear little resemblance to how similar practices are carried out in the Western world. All the ceremony and process surrounding the Tongan death is so foreign to this Westerner. Yet Tongans value family and community above all else, and so death must be honored.
Once he knew that there was no treatment to cure him my friend Jack faced his fate with grace, and I am glad I had the opportunity to spend some time with him and say good bye before we left for Tonga. He will be remembered at a “celebration of his life” on Saturday. His friends and few remaining family members will gather to share their grief and remember him and to be together in his spirit. I will miss being there.


Kathy and I participated in the Peace Corps-orchestrated Culture Day (Aho Ulangaanga Faka-fonua ‘o Tonga) celebration today (Saturday). Since our Peace Corps cohort is placed in four different villages, just about the entire island of Foa was invited to the party. Each Peace Corps group was responsible for providing three cross-cultural activities: a traditional Tongan dance, a skit (sikiti) in Tongan, and an American song or dance (which we had taught to kids from our village). There are a variety of traditional Tongan dances: the ta’olunga which is reserved for the virgins in the village (we didn’t want to burst the Tongans’ bubble by suggesting that any of the unmarried PC trainees might not be virgins), the kailau which is the men’s war dance, and the ma’ulu’ulu, the ‘sitting’ dance which can be danced by one and all. As a married woman Kathy was not allowed to dance the ta’olunga (for obvious reasons), a severe disappointment, so we both participated in the ma’ulu’ulu.

The women in our host family, the fa’e (mother) and kui fefine (her mother) spent considerable time creating the appropriate accoutrements for Kathy and me. The kui fefine spent two full days crafting our sisi and kahoa out of flowers and greenery. Dressing for the event began 45 minutes before it was actually supposed to begin. We were brought into the living room (lotofale or heart of the house) and inspected. We passed the initial inspection; then they began swathing us in the floral delicacies. We each had sisis (sort of grass skirts but made entirely of flowers/greenery) placed around our waists (remember that bigger is ALWAYS better in Tonga), kahoas (leis) placed around our necks, and greenery bracelets placed around our wrists and ankles. Then we were lathered up with coconut oil to make the greenery and the flowers shiny, along with any of our skin that was showing. We smelled a bit like a salad that had already been dressed.

All of the other PC trainees in our group were similarly attired and oiled. We may not have had the most well-rehearsed dance presentation but we certainly did look and smell good—and that counts in Tonga. As we danced and acted and sang, the Tongans laughed and joined in--clapping along and shouting “Vela! Vela! Vela!” (which curiously means “hot” in Tongan).

Other groups followed with their dances, including the ta’olunga and an enthusiastic kailau by two of the men. We all loved it, Tongans and palangis alike. The skits were hilarious and the musical performances of American songs we taught to our village kids were also very well received. I don’t think the island of Foa will see anything like this for a very long time!

After all the dances and skits from the various groups were completed (about two hours of program), we ate (no celebration in Tonga is complete without feasting) and we celebrated our success. I heard several of my trainee colleagues state that “days like today are why I joined the Peace Corps.” Well said.

Friday, November 6, 2009


Posted by Picasa

Trick or Treat

November 4, 2009
As recently as Sunday I was wondering when the rainy season was going to begin. Well, it started Monday, and it’s been raining most of the time since then. I would guess our total rainfall over the last three days is four or five inches. The rain water cisterns and barrels are overflowing, it’s cool, there are puddles everywhere, and we can’t walk anywhere without getting our feet wet. Going sockless does have its advantages!

This week (week 4) is our last full week of language training, and we end this phase of training with a practice language exam on Friday morning. On December 11 we have to take a language exam at the conclusion of training, and they want to make sure we have at least a rudimentary grasp, enough to get around and have our basic needs met. We’re told that no one actually flunks this test, that if you do poorly it means a prescription for more ongoing language training. Those that do well on the test may be required to only continue studying on their own; those that do poorly will be required to take two or three ongoing classes a week with a language tutor. I believe that I will definitely be in the latter group, which is just fine by me. Both Kathy and I are at the point where sorting everything out, especially the grammar, is very trying. Probably the hardest part for me is actually processing what a Tongan speaker is saying since the language is still unfamiliar.

This afternoon we had a session with our Country Director (CD), Kelly, on Safety & Security. She is our “acting” CD, and her regular job is head of safety and security for the Peace Corps, so she really knows what she is talking about. All things considered Tonga appears to be a relatively safe country to work in; the primary issues confronting volunteers here are burglaries, with a low rate of person crimes. Two PCVs have died while here; one back in the 70s was murdered by a fellow volunteer, some kind of love triangle that apparently has been the subject of a “48 hours” story and a book. Three years ago another volunteer died as a result of a shark attack, a very unusual occurrence in Tonga. She also gave us an overview of the Emergency Action Plan, which looks to be a very well crafted set of procedures to deal with various emergencies. We mostly worry about natural events, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, etc., but there is also civil strife to be concerned about. As there was rioting in the streets of Nuku’alofa in 2006 which resulted in much of the main downtown being burned, this is a real issue. A year from now the country will have elections to expand the role of Parliament and increase the number of representatives elected by the people. Since this continuing transfer of authority from the King to the people is not a universally accepted idea there could be trouble. So you can expect to hear more from me on this subject later on.

A few weeks ago we talked with our family about our Hallowe’en traditions with the idea of having a bit of a Hallowe’en party. Since this conflicted with all the hoopla around the Misinale (see previous post) this turned out to be impossible. However, Makalase somehow acquired a small green pumpkin shaped squash. On Sunday we carved our little pumpkin with input from our little “sisters,” put a candle inside and after dark Kathy took each member of the family outside to show them how to “trick or treat.” This resulted in a great deal of laughter and a wonder filled evening. We left the jack-o-lantern outside overnight with its candle burning (we actually forgot about it), and the next morning as parishioners made their way to the 5 a.m. prayer service, they were greeted by this strange smiling visage. Our “mom” had quite a bit of explaining to do, and considering her level of understanding about what this was all about it left people laughing about the strange ways of these crazy palangis living in their midst.

The Misinale

October 29
We’re finishing up our third week of training; one more week of primarily language training, then we move to four weeks of program training. We’re all struggling mightily with the language and worried about not having ongoing language training. Hopefully we’ll set up some study sessions during our free time.

So much for my comment last week about being well. My asthma was much worse over the weekend, and Kathy ate some bad ice cream Saturday in Pangai and spent Sunday and most of Monday in bed dealing with the usual results. She’s better now and my asthma is also settling down. So hopefully we’ll stay this way.

We had our second practice session for our ma’ulu’ulu (seated dance including both men and women) this afternoon, and it’s starting to look like something. We couldn’t practice with the music because the village is in official mourning for a native son who died Monday on some other island. No music or dancing for three days (although there has been plenty of music going on in homes.

These next few days are the concluding days of the church’s Misinale, which apparently is the primary fund raising activity for the church, kind of like the annual campaign conducted by charities back home. Each family is expected to contribute what they can, and the amount each family contributes will be announced by the mother at a public meeting/celebration on Saturday. So naturally there is some competition involved. The church youth have been doing their part, and they are going to perform a concert tonight to conclude their fund raising efforts. It sounds like they are finally ready to go; it was advertised to begin at 7 and it’s now 8:15.

October 30, 2009
So the dance was fun. When I went over to the hall last night (which is about 50 feet from our room) there was a group of men gathered in one corner around the kava bowl, and one of our female trainees was acting as the tou’a, who has the duty of ladling out the kava into bowls which are then passed around to those in the circle. In the opposite corner a group of children were gathered, and along one wall were the mats on which the various other spectators and participants were gathering to sit on. I sat with the kava group and enjoyed my first real bowl of kava since arriving in Tonga. Several of the young men were gathered around the stereo system; it appears the delay was because they actually had to go get it in Pangai and for some reason no one been able to get it until it was actually needed (this was most likely a transportation issue; somehow when a trip actually must be made transportation becomes available, but otherwise can be very hard to arrange).
So once the sound system was figured out, the town officer announced the beginning of the event, the faifekau said the obligatory prayer, and the festivities began. As best as I could figure out each dance involved a family, and as family members danced spectators would approach and stick money on them, either by sticking it on their oiled skin or tucking it in their shirt. This is called fakepale, I believe, a common practice in traditional dance that has bled over into this definitely less traditional form. When the Me’afo’ou family’s turn came Kathy and I were obligated to join in, and I collected $11 pa’anga in fakapale!

After each family danced, they collected all the fakapale and turned it in to the money counter, and the result was announced.

There were actually a few performances of the more traditional variety including 5 young men doing some kind of more traditional dance while dressed casually, but very few dancers dressed in traditional dance garb; this was a youth organized fund raiser and not a more formal event.

Tonight the various family groups (there are five) of the church gathered to finalize their contribution for the Misinale. The group our family is part of will be able to contribute almost $5000 pa’anga (about US$2700), most of which is being provided by relatives living abroad. Our modest contribution was the only one made by check; in these Tongan villages there is not a lot of money and very little need for checking accounts or credit cards. There are no ATMs on the island, and the only bank is in Pangai is eight miles (that might as well be 80) miles away and not open on Saturdays, the only day we have time to go there, so we were not able to get cash.

The big day is tomorrow, where everyone will reveal publicly at a church service the amount of their family’s contribution.