6 'O Tisema
Our training is nearing its end. On Friday morning we said our goodbye to our host family and moved down the road to Pangai, the biggest town in Ha’apai, to spend the weekend with Kate and Brett, volunteers finishing up their first year. This phase of training is called attachment, our opportunity to experience volunteer life and to have the opportunity to learn from their experience. We are enjoying the break from the intensity of the training. We also appreciate the time with Kate and Brett to learn some useful stuff about how to set up a house, how to make things work, manage the creepie crawlies, and do some creative cooking. They post regularly to their blog (asleson.blogspot.com) and have helped me learn more about how to manage photos, links, etc. And we’ve done some playing; more on that later.
Our last week in Faleloa with our host family had its moments. Our host father had traveled to Nuku’alofa the week before to gather materials to improve the church facilities for Christmas, and the project began in earnest bright and early Monday morning. The church was emptied of furniture, the gaping hole in the ceiling was quickly sheet rocked, and the entire interior painted by an energetic crew of male parishioners, mostly the young men.
At the same time, the women of the family began a thorough organization and cleaning project of our house. This house of chaos was transformed over the course of two days into one of order and relative cleanliness. Even the shower room, which now features a neat little table for the soap and shampoo, received a thorough clean-up and scrubbing.
I’ve noted previously that most of the homes we and our fellow trainees are experiencing have rudimentary sanitation facilities. While we do have an indoor toilet, it rarely gets cleaned (Kathy has taken it upon herself to correct this problem). There is no sink for washing hands and brushing teeth, etc. For drinking water we must boil water from the sima vai (rain water cistern) so we don’t get puke (sick). We’ve had to develop some elaborate routines for accomplishing the most basic tasks, like tooth brushing and hand washing. It has been very troubling to us that these cleanliness issues seem lost on our family, despite our attempts to help educate them. (In October, the Peace Corps had an international hand-washing day, and volunteers around the world, including here in Tonga, provided education of school children and others on the importance of hand washing and how to do it.
There has been no visible impact of that message here. And the biggest cause of death of young children in third world countries like Tonga is diarrhea/dehydration and respiratory infection, both of which can be significantly controlled through improved hand washing and related sanitary practices.)
So we were literally flabbergasted to see our house transformed. Even the kitchen floor was thoroughly swept, washed, and the torn carpeti (a kind of flimsy vinyl laid loosely on floors) replaced. Why all this effort? It turns out the head minister of the Uesiliani churches and group of other minister’s wives were going to be touring all the homes of the island’s faifekaus starting Wednesday, so it was clear that everything possible was going to be done to give a good impression . The church paint crew moved to the house on Tuesday and painted the filthy kitchen walls (without any surface prep) and the hallways a nice sky blue, then turned their attention to painting the exterior.
The crowning touch to all this effort occurred Wednesday morning. As we often do, Kathy and I walked the mile or so to Sandy Beach starting about 6 a.m. On the way out we were passed by the minister and one of his sons in a borrowed flatbed on their way to the ngoue’anga (their garden plot in the bush). When we returned an hour later, we were amazed to see two big banana trees flanking the entrance to our yard. Another trip to the bush produced several more trees which were planted to create a pretty tree lined entrance for the house.
Later that morning after language class we returned to the house and the inspection group was being entertained in the kitchen with big plates of food. After they left, the newly planted trees were chopped down. In Tonga, this kind of effort to create a good impression is greatly appreciated; while the entire effort seems to these Western sensibilities to by hugely hypocritical, it’s apparently absolutely normal behavior here.
The other major event of the day was the papakiu (barbeque) the church organized as a farewell to the group of Peace Corps trainees the community has hosted the last two months. Food prepared by the church families started arriving around 7 p.m. and was placed on a long row of tables that had been set up in the church meeting hall. The food was arrayed on paper plates and wrapped in plastic wrap. The typical plate was mostly bread of various kinds, maybe a hunk of some root crop or another, a few plates had a piece of chicken and a hot dog or two and maybe a hard boiled egg. Lots of food, but very little protein and not a vegetable in sight. There were pitchers of sweet punch and some pots of some kind of really good sweet tea. The village elders created a space in the corner for their kava circle and prepared some kava while everyone waited until the last of the food arrived from the families. Our fa’e (host family mother) led the children in some songs, and Kathy helped with a couple songs she taught the kids during her practice teaching (which was at the school in our village). By 7:30 the food was ready, the faifekau (minister, our host father) did the obligatory prayer and everyone dug in.
Tongans have what is to us a curious way of eating. There is no silverware or napkins of any kind on the table. People unwrap a plate close to them, eat what they want from it, pass it on to a neighbor or wrap it back up and then sample from another plate. As guests of honor, various plates are passed to us. I had a couple pieces of chicken, a couple hardboiled eggs, and a little puteni (sweet bread).
Soon after the eating began, the speeches started. One of the first to speak was our host family mother, who spoke in English some of the time (her English is better than average) and gave a heartfelt and tearful appreciation for our visit. Our fellow trainee Siua (Joshua) gave the obligatory fakemalo (thank you speech) on behalf of all of us; earlier that day he had help from us and especially our language teacher on just what he should say, and he did admirably.
The speech making was over when the makaui (talking chief for the noble who owns the village) ended his speech. The retired faifekau gave a closing prayer, then (to my great surprise) asked me to end the feast with a prayer. I was grateful for the opportunity. I basically said that while we PC come from a country rich in material possessions, we have a lot to learn about the true richness of the Tongan culture that values ceremony, family, church, and respect above all else, and how grateful we are to have the opportunity to live and work among them.
After the feast I joined the kava circle with several other male trainees, and two of our female colleagues acted as toua (young unmarried woman who mix and serve the kava). I sat next to my host father, and had a good time for a few hours. Although I left around 10 p.m. the fiekava went on until about 3 a.m., and my host father, as usual, stayed the entire time.
On Thursday Kathy tried to organize a picnic with our host family at Sandy Beach. Several of the other trainees’ families were doing the same thing. We were only successful in getting our 3 youngest “sisters” to join us, and we ended up having a marvelous time. We literally opened their eyes to the undersea world in their backyard by teaching them how to snorkel, and they absolutely loved it. There are numerous coral heads just off the beach that are easily accessible that feature a nice variety of coral and reef fish, and the girls were amazed by the beauty of it all.
The day was marred somewhat by two near drownings. Tongan families tend to be very lackadaisical in the supervision of their children and the majority of parents do not know how to swim. The kids, however, love to play in the water, but because of the lack of supervision they know little about how to play safely. Several of our colleagues helped rescue children who had been held under the water by rambunctious playmates or had gotten out over their heads. The disturbing fact is that the parents, once they were aware of what had happened, only laughed.
Our day concluded with a family dinner quasi-American style. Kathy set the table with plates and silverware along with a vase of flowers for a centerpiece. We waited to start eating until everyone was present, and since the family never eats together this was no small matter. Plates of food were passed for people to serve from rather than eat directly from, and this was a bit strange as well. But each person said a little thank you speech to us, each one concluding with a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Both parents said their thank you as well, which included apologies for the behavior of the children and the poor quality of the food (other trainees reported their thank yous also had the same kind of apologies.) Kathy and I then both said our thank yous for the love and hospitality they had shown us, as well as some specific comments for each member of the family.
On Friday we left our homestay with promises to stay in touch, which we fully intend to do.