Friday, December 18, 2009


15 ‘O TISEMA (Tusite)
Our first day in Tonga featured a tsunami warning which threatened to delay our formal welcoming ceremony. Our Swearing In Ceremony, the celebration of the conclusion of our training and the conversion from “Peace Corps Trainee” to “Peace Corps Volunteer,” is now threatened by Cyclone Mick.

Mick crossed the main island of Fiji last night as a Category 2 hurricane and is now headed straight for us. The last report had Mick downgraded to a “tropical depression” so the likely result will be strong winds and buckets of rain. We’ve been having the rain for the last 24 hours; my guess is it’s rained 3 or 4 inches, and we’ll probably get at least that much more over the next 36 hours. Peace Corps staff has already changed the venue for our ceremony from a resort on the Northwest tip of the island and a nice catered lunch to a hall here in Nuku’alofa with simple refreshments. While we all appreciate the caution it is a bit of a letdown.

The other impact is a delay in moving to our sites. Kathy and I (and all the other volunteers on Tongatapu) were scheduled to move into our house tomorrow afternoon after the ceremony; that’s now been moved to Thursday. Those going to other islands will be delayed until the ferry is running again, which will likely not be until Friday. All their stuff is going on the ferry, and while they will be flying that can’t really go until they know their stuff will be arriving. So it’s all up in the air.

Today was our last official training day. We all received the results of our language exam, and nine of us (including Kathy) scored “Intermediate High” which is the best result of any training group. I was happy to score “Intermediate Low” and as a result will look forward to continuing language study with a tutor.

16 ‘O TISEMA (Wednesday morning)
After a very stormy night we have awakened to a calmer morning. It’s breezy, strong winds are in the forecast, but it appears the worst of the rain is over. Tongatapu is basically flat, it has no rivers and therefore no flooding, but there is a great deal of standing water everywhere. We had a power outage last evening for about an hour, but thankfully the power came back on and has stayed on.

Everyone is getting ready for swearing-in; we all need to look good. I’m giving the “thank you” speech as part of the ceremony and it’s ready to go. Hopefully I won’t stumble over the little bit of Tongan I’m including at the beginning and end. Here is the main (English) part of what I’m going to say:

“Today you are honoring 26 Americans by accepting us as Peace Corps Volunteers. I say “honor” because we believe that Peace Corps service is a privilege, a privilege that few Americans have the opportunity to pursue. We come from all over America, from the East Coast to the Great Lakes, from the Deep South to the Great Northwest, from the Heartland to the sun-drenched beaches of California. Most of us have lived, worked, and studied in other countries, so we bring a very wide range of life experiences with us. Our motivations to join the Peace Corps are as varied as our backgrounds, but we all come with the desire to serve. We signed up without any idea of where we would be working, but we are absolutely delighted that we were chosen to serve the Kingdom of Tonga.

For the last 10 weeks you have worked very hard to prepare us for the challenges facing us. You have taught us the basics of the Tongan language and the ulangaanga faka-fonua ‘o Tonga, and showed us how to dress and behave in a culturally appropriate manner. We’ve even had the opportunity to sing and dance faka-Tonga. Along the way these efforts have given all of us the opportunity to have some good laughs. But more importantly it has helped us begin to appreciate the Tongan Way of living. For this work and these experiences we are profoundly grateful.

We have also had the opportunity to do some teaching of Tongan children in Tongan schools, and to a more limited extent to work with Tongan teachers. This experience has helped us appreciate some of the challenges we will experience during our service; it has also showed us that Tongan children are as eager to learn as children anywhere. As the first group of volunteers to serve the Tonga Expanded Community Education Project we look forward to working with our Tongan partners and the Ministry of Education to further the goals of TECEP, especially to move toward the vision for the Tongan teacher: “Faiako ma’a Tonga,” “Teach for Tonga.”

President John F. Kennedy created the Peace Corps almost 50 years ago. He said that the Peace Corps “is designed to permit our people to exercise more fully their responsibilities in the great common cause of world development.” This group of 26 fortunate and grateful Americans is ready to accept that responsibility. So on behalf of the group, malo ‘aupito.” (The speech concludes with some thank yous in Tongan.)

17 ‘O TISEMA: Tuapulelulu EVENING
What a day! I’m writing from our house; we’re all moved in and have spent the day cleaning, cleaning, organizing, cleaning and a little bit of shopping. But we’re in; we celebrated with a pasta dinner cooked in our own kitchen, the first time we’ve done that since the end of September.

Swearing-in went great, although Kathy was pissed because nobody bothered to tell us some dress expectations. Most of the women wore a puletaha (a traditional two piece outfit worn on special occasions), and she didn’t have one. Most received one as a gift from their homestay family. There’s more, but it’s too complicated to explain here. I got through my speech just fine, some of our colleagues did a ma’ulu’ulu (seated dance) and Kathy and I sang with the singers. This was the same dance we did at culture day a few months ago. The Tongan Minister of Education was the guest of honor, the Japanese ambassador and the New Zealand Deputy Chief of Mission attended, and we all took the basic Federal oath to obey the constitution and defend the U.S. from all enemies domestic and foreign. (So watch out, Osama Bin Laden!)

Afterwards we did some more shopping for household stuff, and then we all went out to a celebration dinner at a very nice Italian restaurant. We had a great time; I kept looking up and down the table and realized that we’ll never be together like this again.

It has been an incredible journey these past two months; every single one of us that came in October was sworn in; that is very, very unusual. Usually a few decide this isn’t for them, often someone has a medical issue arise that prevents them from going on, and sometimes Peace Corps terminates a trainee for not following the rules. (usually too much partying). One of the rules is to not drink at all in our homestay village; during the two months we were there I had a grand total of 3 beers and 2 glasses of wine, usually on one of our forays into Pangai. We heard that the Samoa group we staged in L.A. with lost at least three during training, which is more typical). But we all made it, no one seems the worse for wear, although there are varying degrees of weight loss (mostly men; I lost 10 pounds) and gain (mostly the women, but not Kathy, who has lost weight much to her delight). We will always be Tonga Group 75 and that is now part of our identity. As I said in an earlier post, we begin a new chapter in Peace Corps Tonga’s history with new leadership (interviews for the next Country Director are taking place in D.C. as I write), a new project and focus, and, of course, a fresh batch of volunteers. This will be interesting; stay tuned.