Saturday, December 18, 2010


Peace Corps Tonga has just sworn in its 76th group of volunteers. 26 bright shining faces have joined the ranks that have served the Kingdom over the past 43 years. We celebrated with them yesterday as they completed their 2 ½ months of training with a lovely ceremony here in Nuku'alofa. It is with hope and enthusiasm that we say “hello” to our new compatriots.

Arrivals and departures are a hallmark of Peace Corps service. Just over a year ago we said goodbye to family, friends, jobs, communities—our life in the States—to say hello to our new life as PCVs in Tonga. Our first hellos were to our fellow Group 75 trainees in Los Angeles, followed in a few days by hellos to the Peace Corps staff who support us, and to some of the Group 73 volunteers we would soon be replacing. These hellos soon became goodbyes as these folks completed their service and left before we really had much of a chance to get to know them.

As we settled into our sites and began our work assignments, we started to get to know our Group 74 colleagues who were beginning their second year of service. As we served alongside these folks, we gained respect and appreciation for the work they were doing and became good friends with a few. Over the past few weeks we have been saying goodbye to these friends as they completed their service. It's been especially hard to say goodbye to our closest Group 74 friends and neighbors, Melanie and Eric.

We met Melanie and Eric when they were relocated from an outer island in Ha'apai to Nuku'alofa (see previous post). They moved into a house near us, and since then we've shared many meals, trips to the beach, and long conversations together. As primary teachers Kathy and Melanie are kindred spirits, and Eric and I provided each other with motivation for our early morning work-outs: getting up at 5:30 a.m. and going to the gym 3 times a week. Our first trip to Pangaimotu was a result of their encouragement, and, again, with their encouragement, we even ventured out to the infamous Billfish nightclub.

On the day of their departure from the Kingdom, Kathy wrote the following “Ode to Melanie.”
The past few days have felt like Christmas at our house as our PC colleagues, neighbors and friends, Melanie and Eric, have undertaken final preparations for departure. But rather than Worcestershire sauce, a Christmas tree, myriad art supplies, camp chairs, or even Nestle's semi-sweet chocolate morsels, I'd still rather have Melanie.

I met Melanie about 10 months ago when she and Eric wer moved from their outer island site to the main island of Tongatapu. And, while she and Eric were devastated about having to leave their small island where they were happy, fully invested, and looking forward to a successful second year, they approached their new assignments with the “can do” spirit typical of their upper midwest upbringing.

Melanie, in her assignment as an English teacher at a nearby primary school, once again took an empty concrete block room and turned it into a haven for children's academic and expressive pursuits. As time passed, the children came to know and trust that their thoughts and opinions would be respected, their work products valued, and they would be free from harm. They were safe to explore and create when in Melanie's environs.

For Melanie and Eric, Peace Corps was always about service. Melanie shared with me a mantra that she had adopted when faced with yet another Tongan conundrum: “I'm doin' it for Jesus.” This statement, in its simplicity, sums up Melanie's motivation. Her service to the people of Tonga was completely selfless; her service originated in a deep and profound love for people, all people, and her love of God.

Melanie, while young chronologically speaking, is wise beyond her years. With a journalism background, she took on the challenge of teaching with an open mind and open heart. When faced with the rote recitation methodology prevalent in the Tongan education system, her heart and mind, rather than an educational philosophy supported by a teaching credential or degree, told her to pursue a more reasoned and reasonable approach. As a result Melanie implemented an intact and sound pedagogy. She is a gifted natural educator.

I have great respect for Melanie and I value the few months I was fortunate enough to spend time with her. Her optimism and enthusiasm are boundless. She truly exemplifies the adage that “hope springs eternal.” Her heart for service, giving all of herself to the people of Tonga, continues to inspire me. Her passion and patience left friendships and a legacy that will long be remembered.

As dozens of people lined up to throw good bye parties, bestow blessings, and shower gifts on Melanie and Eric I chose to express my heartfelt sadness by writing this “Ode to Melanie.” Thank you, Melanie, for shining your light so brightly in my life. I really would rather have you than Nestle's semi-sweet chocolate morsels.

So as Eric and Melanie are adjusting to their new lives back home in the frigid Mid-West, we are beginning some fine new friendships with volunteers from Group 76 and looking forward to our week of training next month which will reunite us with our Group 75 colleagues from the other islands.  Once again, we'll be saying hello and then good-bye again as we go our respective ways to begin our second year of service.  And then next October, it will be hello to Group 77 as we prepare our good-byes to Tonga.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


This week there are competing claims from the two major factions elected to Tonga's Parliament regarding the election of the next Prime Minister. Neither the nine nobles nor the 12 Friendly Island Democratic Party people's representatives have enough seats to control the decision, leaving the election up to the five “independent” people's representatives.

The online magazine Matangi Tonga reports that a bloc of 15 members, which includes the nine nobles, have agreed on one candidate. While no one is willing to state who that candidate is, speculation is that the nomination is for the noble Tu'ivakano, currently the interim Minister of Training, Education, Youth and Sports.

Meanwhile, Radio New Zealand is reporting that the leader of the Friendly Islands Democratic Party, Akilisi Pohiva, remains confident that it will form the government, claiming that he should have 15 votes.

All this speculation will end soon, as the Interim Speaker is scheduled to receive formal nominations next Thursday, with Parliament due to sit the next day to begin the process to finally elect a Prime Minister.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Election results are in, and . . .

38,474 Tongan citizens—fully 90% of the those registered-- came out to vote last Thursday. And while the big winner was the Friendly Islands Democratic Party (FIDP), which won 12 of the 17 popularly elected seats for the next Parliament, it fell two seats short of capturing a majority of the 26 total number of seats.

Nine nobles were elected by their peers, and together with the five “independent” people's representatives the majority of the new Parliament will not be affiliated with any one party.

No women were elected (eleven were candidates) despite “women's issues” being one of the bigger issues in the campaign. Women are prohibited from owning land, and domestic violence has recently become a front burner issue in Tonga. Women are also prohibited from inheriting noble titles, making the nobles' election an exclusively male business.

The Friendly Islands Democratic Party is led by 'Akilisi Pohiva, long-time leader of the pro-democracy movement in Tonga and currently the longest serving member of Parliament. But nine of the 12 elected from his group are new to Parliament, and three have no experience at all in in civil service. And only two won more than 50% of the vote in their electorate, as most districts had multiple candidates. On the other hand, the five independent people's representatives are experienced in government; several have headed ministries in the recent past.

The first order of business for the new Parliament is to elect a Prime Minister. While the King and several nobles are advocating for a commoner to be elected, this sentiment is not shared by all. While Pohiva has openly lobbied for the post, the prevailing sentiment is that none of the nobles would vote for him. So with all of the ministry heads also to be appointed, most of whom will be members of Parliament, there is plenty of room for negotiation. It appears the five independent people's representatives will determine whether the nobles block or the FIDP block will prevail.

During the campaign most of the successful candidates focused on the need for the new government to conduct the country's business with honesty and integrity, as it is widely perceived that the current government is corrupt and inefficient. An opinion poll focused on issues reported that only 41% believe the country is “headed in the right direction,” and the most important issue by far was “growing the economy.”

In the weeks just before the election there were reports of vote buying and candidate defamation; a police officer was investigated for actively campaigning for a candidate; and two candidates' names were struck from the ballot because of court orders to pay debts. One candidate campaigned to legalize marijuana, and another advocated that Tonga declare itself to be a “welfare state” (neither won).

The earliest anyone expects a Prime Minister to be elected is Christmas, and it is more likely to be in early January. In the meantime the most interesting politicing is now taking place behind closed doors. It will be most interesting to see what results.

Monday, November 22, 2010


Tonga is just two days away from the historic election which will provide the country with a Parliament that has a majority of domocratically elected members.  It's been a long time coming. 

For an excellent overview of what the election means please go to my friend Elena's blog here:
She has created some great visuals to illustrate the changes that are being made, and there's no way I could say it better.

Matangi Tonga, the online newspaper, has also just published a great article with good information about how the election will be conducted. All of the 17 districts have multiple candidates running and its anyone's guess who will win, but in every case it will be the top vote getter, meaning someone with as little as 20% of the vote in a district with eight or nine candidates could be elected.

Tonga does not have political parties, but some candidates have created coalitions.  The pro-democracy coalition attempted to field candidates for each of the districts, but the last I heard 2 had been dismissed from the coalition because of pending domestic violence charges, and another for some other reason.  There is a loose coalition focusing on women's issues (women cannot own land) and domestic violence.  One candidate is advocating legalizing marijuana.

As everywhere, campaigning consists of all manner of signs, from the handmade to the elaborate.  Enjoy this collection of signs around our neighborhood in Nuku'alofa.  I'll write another post about the results next week.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

FAI TOTONU: Doing the Right Thing

'Atenisi University (where I work as an Economics instructor and librarian) has a tradition of hosting occasional evening lectures by people with something compelling to talk about. Recently we had the great pleasure of hearing Dr. Eric Shumway, currently the head of the Mormon Mission to Tonga, reflect on his 50 year love affair with the Kingdom, which began when he was assigned here as a young missionary. He quickly became fluent in the Tongan language, and most of us in the Peace Corps know him because of the excellent Tongan language course he developed; he was the first language trainer Peace Corps Tonga used way back in 1967.

Most significantly Dr. Shumway has developed a profound appreciation for the Tongan culture and the values it supports. He presented as clear an understanding of these values as I have heard, and I'd like to share some of what he said.

The young missionary was first assigned to a remote village, “trapped in an alien, hostile environment” and told not to leave the village until he was fluent in Tongan. Suffering from culture shock and a “cold despair” he was eventually saved by the “immense friendliness of the Tongan people.” One of his first lessons from his Tongan teachers was about four behaviors “essential to your happiness and your effectiveness” as someone wanting to “be Tongan.” These are:
  1. First, Kai pō is forbidden. Kai pō, (eating at night or in the dark or on the sly, without sharing) is a serious offence in Tonga, sometimes generating negative reactions, even scandal. Kai pō is the metaphor for and the embodiment of selfishness. You must not only share, but share your best. You seek the interest of others first.
  2. The second essential behavior. “Oua ‘e kai filifili.” Don’t be picky about the food that is offered you. Learn to eat everything with relish. Gratefully take advantage of every love offering.
  3. The third principle – ‘Oua ‘e mohe ‘uli, don’t sleep dirty, bathe before you sleep. This motherly counsel caught me off guard but then I remembered that most of the palangi coming to Tonga over the years, especially in the earlier days, came from cold climates where a once a week bath was the norm. Obviously, a once only a week bath in Tonga could create unfortunate social consequences. I took the counsel as hygienic. Stay healthy!
  4. The fourth behavior was to become fluent in the language of expressing gratitude; “Koe koloa ‘a Tonga koe fakamālō: Saying thank you is the real wealth of a Tongan, and accepting the thanks of others as sufficient “payment” for any kind service on your part.”
Dr. Shumway's talk was filled with good stories of his personal experiences and appreciations for the Tongan “generosity of soul.” A well known public example of this is the story of Queen Salote at the the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II which he related this way: “Another aspect of generosity of soul is the reverence with which one subordinates one’s own needs to the comforts and convenience of another, particularly a person considered to be of rank or importance. Queen Sālote of Tonga manifested this trait in 1953 at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in London. As with many monarchs and heads of state, she participated in the coronation ceremonies, including the grand procession of royalty. It was a cold, gloomy day. Tens of thousands of excited spectators stood in the rain along the procession route to catch a glimpse of all their majesties from around the world. Unfortunately the steady drizzle had forced the royal entourage in the procession to seek cover by bringing up and securing the hoods of their carriages. In so doing they became virtually invisible to the public view – not so with Queen Salote of Tonga. She refused to cover up but rather rode in full view of spectators. Though completely wet, she smiled and waved to the adoring crowd, who responded with loud applause. Newspapers, radio, and television stations praised the radiant Tongan queen for her deeply moving regard for the British queen and her people. She later recorded her feelings saying:
“'I was so caught up in the warmth of the people and the feelings of grace flooding my heart from the recent ceremony that I could not bear to be excluded from any part of that day, good and bad. …….I just suddenly got the feeling that I wanted to join the people in the happiness of the day, and my Tongan heart was excited and foolish. But I am still thankful that I was soaked with rain on that significant day …. I did not notice what others were doing: I was too busy doing what I thought I should do … whether I was noticed or not. I was only happy because of the … warmth that the people felt for their sovereign.'”
“The media heralded Queen Sālote’s action in the most laudatory terms, but she deflected the praise by suggesting that in the Tongan way of life it is impossible to seek one’s own comfort if it would disappoint or discomfort someone else.”

He elaborates further: “This generosity is part of the traditional attributes of a True Tongan that every preacher, poet, and chief’s spokesmen or matapule articulates and sings about, the five golden badges/sashes of a true Tongan or āfei koula:” These are:
  • 'ofa – or love
  • Faka'apa'apa – Respect and reverence;
  • Tauhi va – maintaining warm relationships and social obligations;
  • mamahi'i me'a – loyalty and passionate commitment; and
  • loto-to – humility and a ready and willing heart.
As a foreigner wanting to be Tongan, especially on the eve of the transfer of political power, I am going to indulge in a bit of fie poto and suggest a 6th āfei koula – namely fai totonu. For without fai totonu – that is, honest, integrity, and doing what is right, fair, and just – then all the other virtues or āfei koula are corruptible.” Love can become favoritism, respect can morph into mere flattery, and maintaining relationships may result in cultivating only those relationships that can provide advantage. Loyalty and commitment can result in excitability and being carried away by emotion. “Fai totonu holds on to the purity of these Tongan virtues, unites them as one golden set and protects them from corruption. Fai totonu is the shield and  protection against kaipō – in its many forms of consuming or controlling selfishness, ignoring the needs and desires of others.”

In our experience here we have experienced many instances where these virtues have been expressed, such as when a neighbor comes to our door with big plate of food from their Sunday umu, how the school children who are fortunate enough to bring a lunch to school readily share with those who did not. And we have also seen the corrupted versions he talks about. For example it's not unusual for food to be prepared when an official from a government ministry or the head office of the church plans an official visit. This is nominally done out of respect, in humility, and to express sociability in adherence to these virtues, but in reality the practice has become institutionalized; the food is expected, but despite the expectation of those who prepared it the official may simply load the food into the car without accepting the hospitality involved with sharing. It is a testament to the Tongans' generosity of spirit that such behavior is accepted (sai pe: no problem).
Dr. Shumway concluded by describing an encounter with an old friend as he arrived in Tonga three years ago on this assignment as President and Matron of the Tonga Temple. His old friend “was the embodiment of the āfei koula virtues of Tonga. He was a great chief, a district officer, a loving nature, a devoted subject, a deeply religious person and member of the United Free Wesleyan Church. .   .  I greeted my venerable friend affectionately and asked him off-handedly: 'Siaosi, how is our country?' I was surprised at his answer and the emotion with which he gave it. 'Well,' he said 'We all still go to Church, we still sing to the high heaven, we still say our Amens to the prayers, but with regard to fai totonu, (that is honesty, integrity, and doing right guided by a sense of justice) – we are empty as a people.'”

How often have I heard the prayer that the impending changes to our political system would somehow restore and reaffirm fai totonu in government – But we the people are the government. And the question remains how do we get the āfei koula off our shoulders and our chests and into our hearts – How do we anga ’aki these virtues, so that they are not just decorations or badges of a false honor and an empty rhetoric, but real qualities of heart and soul?”

I came to Tonga to gain perspective from a different culture to help me better understand my own. As a citizen and product of the most consumption oriented culture ever, I am constantly challenged personally and in my teaching to understand and appreciate the Tongan generosity of spirit, in its pure as well as its corrupted expressions. It appears to be a challenge for many Tongans as well. A recent story in the English language newspaper profiled one of the candidates for parliament who has visited each household in his district in the last month. He expected the topmost concern of villagers to be reviving the economy. But these are people for whom a consumer culture is relatively new, who don't really understand globalisation and are not so sure it is the best future for Tonga. “What kept coming back to me, from rich and poor, from old and young, was that people just wanted their new government to be faitotonu—to just do the right thing, be honest with them, not corrupt.”

A worthy wish for any government.  Thank you, Dr. Shumway.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

I Saw Three Ships

MV Otuanga'Ofa, MV Ajang Subuh, MV Pulupaki @ Queen Salote Wharf

The big event in Tonga this week was the arrival of the long-awaited MV Otuanga'ofa, the new passenger and freight ferry built by Japan to meet Tonga's critical need for reliable transport between its far flung islands.  It was greeted Friday afternoon (October 15) by an ad hoc flotilla and escorted to a berth at Nuku'alofa's Queen Salote wharf.  This ship was originally commissioned in 2005 when the Tongan government realized that the MV Olovaha, its workhorse ferry since 1981, was at the end of its useful life.  Since then construction delays (which have been blamed on the operator of the competing private ferry, the MV Pulupaki, who is also a member of Tonga's parliament) and the resulting ill-advised purchase and subsequent sinking tragedy of the MV Princess Ashika have underscored the urgent need for the new ship.

Tonga's only port usable by freighters is here in Nuku'alofa.  Most freight and all passengers wishing to travel to the other major islands and a few smaller islands rely on ferries.  The Shipping Corporation of Polynesia, the government owned operator of the Olovaha, has provided the bulk of the freight service, but because the Olovaha was slow, uncomfortable and reportedly "bobbed like a cork" most passengers preferred to ride the MV Pulupaki, operated privately by Uata Shipping. 

The Olovaha was damaged in a hurricane in 2003 and required major repairs.  Since then her operation became increasingly problematic, and in 2005 the government began planning for her replacement.  The government of Japan offered assistance, and planning for the construction of the Otuanga'ofa began.  The Olovaha was finally removed from service in late 2008.  She has sat in port since then and is slowly being dismantled for scrap. 

The government then began its search for a temporary replacement and ended up purchasing the ill-fated Princess Ashika.  After serving less than a month it sank in August, 2009 taking 74 passengers with it to a watery grave (see previous post:  "Remembering August 5").

 Since that time until just a few months ago the only ferry service has been provided by the MV Pulupaki, but its service has also been plagued by seaworthiness issues. Last Christmas it was ordered berthed after a marine survey indicated the need for repair.  So for several months there was no freight and passenger service except for the airline service provided by Chathams Pacific.  Outer islands had to scramble for ways to get needed provisions students were late getting back to their schools on Tongatapu after the summer break. No one knew for sure when the Pulupaki would return to service, but she was suddenly determined to be fit for service after her owners defied government detainment orders.  In the meantime the Peace Corps reassigned five volunteers serving on outer islands, whose only transportation at the time was the Pulupaki, for safety reasons.

Meanwhile the government continued its search for a temporary replacement for the Olovaha, finally finding a new Indonesian ship, the MV Ajang Subuh, which it was able to lease for a year.  With financial `help from Australia and New Zealand, the Ajang Subuh arrived in Tonga in April and began service in May.  With a capacity of only 70 passengers and 200 tons of cargo it has been only a stop gap measure.  But since many Tongans refuse to ride on it (remembering the government told them the Ashika was safe, too) it has served very nicely.

Which brings us to the long anticipated arrival of the Otuanga'ofa, which will carry 400 passengers, 400 tonnes of cargo, and promises to be the reliable transportation option the country has sorely needed.  Dock upgrades are in process in all her ports of call, but the government is still looking for an operator.  If interested contact the Ministry of Transportation ASAP!.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Kingdom awaits . . .

Faithful readers:  We are welcoming a new group of volunteers in about a month.  Thinking back to one year ago when Kathy and I were in the same situation I decided to write a bit about what I've learned since then as sort of a high-level overview with them in mind.  However, I  think you'll enjoy it as well.

So Welcome Peace Corps Tonga Group 76 to the Kingdom!  Here's a bit of perspective from someone with all of one year of experience here, so keep that in mind as you file this with everything else you may be learning.

The Kingdom of Tonga has entered the wider world's awareness only in the last 200 or so years, just a few grains in the great sand clock of civilization.  Today I was showing my Economics classes a video about why geography was largely responsible for creating the conditions that led to the development of the great industrial nations.  Of course, virtually none of those conditions exist in this tropical island country, a geographically dispersed collection of really small islands with little to offer the rest of the world.  So little that no Western powers were all that interested in colonizing it; consequently it has more or less stumbled into the inevitable globalising process by itself.

We Americans are a very diverse bunch, from a multitude of different cultures with a plethora of ethnic and racial identities all of which shapes who we are as individuals.  For the most part we are very accepting of our differences and hold no particular common values around culture and ceremony (although we all stand for the National Anthem at ball games.)  

Tongans, in stark contrast, are a very homogenous people.  They share an ethnic identity and a complex set of common social and cultural traditions that we Americans have some trouble comprehending.  Social norms and rules of behavior are very well defined and ongoing compliance is expected.  It is, as you have no doubt read, a hierarchical society, with the King at the top and various strata of royalty and nobility above the common folk.  It is helpful to understand that it wasn't until late in the 19th century that commoners were declared to be full citizens by King George Tupou I.  Until then their ongoing right to live was at the pleasure of the entitled nobility.

The royals and nobles have a very complicated set of traditions, relationships, and hierarchies that you will never begin to understand. They have responsibilities to look after the welfare of the commoners, just as the commoners have responsibilities to supply them with food and gifts. It's all very complicated and you will want to try to figure it out, especially if you are assigned to a smaller village, but don't expect that anyone will really be able to explain it to you.

This fairly rigid set of norms and traditions has served the nation very well for centuries.  As long as Tonga was a subsistence economy with limited contact with the rest of the world this colorful fabric of culture provided meaning, spice, and a sense of order to everyday life.  You will, no doubt, get to expeience the dances, costumes, feasts, and singing that come from these traditions. The country did quite well in providing the basic necessities of life.

But the rest of the world has encroached, first with the missionaries who converted King George Tupou I and, consequently, everyone else, to a brand of Wesleyan Methodism, and then later with those seeking markets for manufactured goods and processed foods, many of which made life easier (such as bicycles, ready-to-wear clothing, tools and building materials) and many of which have created a whole host of problems (junk food and its wrappings most notably).   Radios, TVs and DVDs, and now computers and the internet have brought the rest of the world smack dab into the midst of all this tradition. And created a mountain of e-waste in the process.

Tonga is having trouble figuring all this out.  A traditional culture based on an unchanging subsistence way of life trying to preserve traditional values facing up to appetites whetted for consumer goods and the ubiquitous MTV culture.  It is a transition fraught with danger and confusion. You will especially see this in the young adults who are trying to figure out where they fit with all this change.

The current great unknown is how the government and the country is going to make the transition to a more democratic form of governance after elections this Fall create a legislature with a majority of elected members (until now the majority has been nobles appointed by the King.)  So you will have the opportunity to experience this first hand.  Your timing is great!

On to more mundane matters.  Bring stuff that is important to you;  we were really glad we brought our big non-stick skillet, our pillows and a nice set of sheets, and our French press coffee maker.  We wish we would have brought a good knife sharpener.  I haven't even unpacked most of the shirts I brought from home, and have worn the long pants only when I've traveled outside the country (except for one pair of jeans I've worn a few times at night).  Bring your snorkel and mask and take them to your training in Ha'apai. Think seriously about bringing your serviceable mountain or cross bike; while you might get lucky here and find a good used bike to buy, the Chinese bikes sold by stores are of poor quality.

They say the day begins in Tonga, and we look forward to meeting you as your new life in Tonga begins on October 7.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Dwelling in the Magic Kingdom of Playdough

It's the middle of August and we're nearing the end of Term Three. This is significant because of the Secondary Entrance Exams (SEE) which will take place in early October, shortly after Term 4 begins, and are the END ALL AND BE ALL in the Tongan Education system. Class Six students basically chart their future for life with the scores they receive on these tests. Class Six teachers and students are in an absolute FRENZY of preparation--giving and taking exams/sivi every single day from 7:00 a.m., when the school day begins, until 5:00 p.m., when it ends.

My part in the preparations? I decided to make playdough.

As a lifelong educator, I am keenly aware of the value of playdough as an instructional tool. I have used playdough with learners of all ages, from preschoolers to adults and am certain that it contains not only flour, salt, and water, but a healthy dose of magic, as well. I recently had an opportunity to introduce the Tongan education system to the magic of playdough.

A week or so ago, I was informed that my “program” for the following day would have to be cancelled due to the fact that the Class Six students would be away from school for the entire day on a field trip (this is my terminology, the Tongans don’t really have a word for field trip). After much more enquiry on my part, I discovered that the students would be participating in a daylong celebration of culture, Kava Kuo Heka (Literally, this means kava, the national drink made from the root of the pepper plant, now and always rides), sponsored by the Ministry of Education. The celebration was to include demonstrations of traditional crafts, talks, video presentations, and an art show. I decided to tag along.

The day of the field trip, I was again reminded that, “You’re not in Kansas, any more, Toto.” The boys all assembled at the given time and marched off up the street, a trek of about a mile. I began to ready myself for departure, but when I looked outside, I noticed that all the Class Six girls were still playing on the playground. When I asked what was going on, I was informed that it was too far for the girls to walk so transport was arranged using one of the Class Six teacher’s vehicles, a small Toyota-style pick-up. The pick-up pulled onto the playground, about 20 girls piled into the back, and the teacher drove off, emptied the pick-up at the destination, and then returned for another load. I decided to walk.

Once at the convention center, the children, teachers, and I were treated to an incredible display of art by Tongan artists. The display included wood carvings, clay bowls, glass sculptures, paintings, stone and wooden sculptures, clothing made from bark cloth, fiber arts, photography, tapa (bark) cloth, weavings, and even a demonstration by a tattoo artist (a traditional art form that was stamped out of existence by the missionaries). The various artists served as docents, patiently describing the plethora of art to small groups of children. I was enthralled.

As I observed the children’s awe and wonder, I became convinced that it was important for them to have an opportunity to respond to this experience in some authentic and meaningful way. I began taking a mental inventory of my stash of art supplies—nope, I didn’t have anything in a large enough quantity to meet the demand of over 120 students. Financially, I just couldn’t afford to purchase paints or paint brushes. I didn’t know of any reasonable source for art materials. Finally, the idea of playdough came to mind. One of the docents had introduced the children to the word and concept of sculpture, shaping or molding a media into a form/figure. Playdough would provide them with an opportunity to mold, shape, and physically experience the material, while allowing them to have a creative experience, trying on the idea of being an artist.

The next day, armed with flour/mahoa’a and salt/masima, bowls, measuring cups, and a recipe for uncooked playdough I had received from a Peace Corps colleague, I took the plunge. Remember, Tongan students are not EVER allowed to explore or experiment with materials. Every aspect of the curriculum and each school day is carefully scripted. The students are seldom allowed out of their assigned seats and are never encouraged to express themselves creatively. In this kind of setting, it is a bit daunting to introduce a full-on “messy art” activity; the results could be disastrous. But, that’s never stopped me before.

I set the stage, eliciting from them responses to the art gallery visit. I asked them for their favorite pieces of art, recalling some of the terms introduced by the docents. We created a list of the images they had seen depicted in art, including the ancient pagan Tongan gods, war clubs, the Ha’amonga, a trillithon (stone structure) located on the main island, and even the Tu’i Malila, a Madagascan turtle that had been a gift to the first Tu’i Tonga (now stuffed and displayed in a glass case).

I then divided each class into groups, gave each group the required materials needed to make playdough, and had them set to work. The only rule: the flour must stay INSIDE the bowl. The students mixed their dough with great care and seriousness. Some groups ended up with dough that was a bit too sticky. No problem, just add a bit more flour. Once the dough was mixed, I told them to count the number of people in their group and divide the dough evenly amongst the members. Some groups did better than others at this task…but I was committed to providing them with a real world application of the math concept of fractions as equal parts of the whole.
Once each child had his/her own lump of clay/dough, the work of creative expression began. During this time, I emphasized the importance of the process, working with the material, and experimenting with various shapes/techniques. I also emphasized the individuality of creative expression.

As our class time drew to a close, I provided each child with a “base” (piece of cardboard) to mount his/her piece of art. I asked each child to put his/her name on the base, along with the title for the piece of art. I then had them carry their pieces of art to the library, which was transformed into an art gallery, exhibiting GPS Nuku’alofa students’ work.

There are days when, as an educator, you just know deep down in your soul that you’ve done a good thing. This was one of those days. Feeling pretty good about myself, I left school on Friday afternoon, looking forward to a long weekend.

Do you know what happens to playdough in a humid, tropical environment? Well, I didn’t either. When I returned on Monday, after a rainy three day weekend, I found the playdough sculptures sagging, melting, and seeping into the bookshelves and display cases. Evidently, since playdough contains so much salt, it soaks up moisture from the environment, resulting in a soggy, doughy, gooey mess. Hmmm, what to do?

I know what the Tongan teachers would have done…because several of them suggested that I dump the blobs of goo in the garbage. But, again, I’m committed to providing the children with opportunities for choice and decision making. And, since the pieces of art were the children’s own creations, shouldn’t they be allowed to determine what happens to their art? So, for the past week, I have invited the children into the “gallery” in groups of two or three, explained to them what happens to sculptures made of clay/playdough in humid environments, and allowed them to make the choice: garbage or squish up the goo into a ball, add some more flour, and return to the drawing board…or pottery wheel, as the case may be. So far, they have all chosen to retain ownership… providing for more creative expression. I noticed a few of the more athletic boys experimenting with the dough’s adhesive capacity as they threw it against the cement block walls of the school. Some of the girls achieved vibrantly colored dough by using the ink in their pens as coloring agents, infusing the playdough with indigo blue, inky black, emerald green, or cardinal red.

I have also discovered that the dough is everywhere. Class One children show up in the library carrying their treasured lumps of dough. Class Five girls are making batches of playdough at home, bringing it to school to share with their friends. Class Four children are making pen holders out of playdough. That’s the thing about magic—it’s contagious.

Saturday, August 7, 2010


Our friend and Peace Corps colleague Melanie has graciously permitted us to post her moving account of the impact of the sinking of the Princess Ashika ferry on the small village where she and her husband Eric were serving at the time. As background to her story, this week marked the anniversary of the sinking of the Princess Ashika, a tragedy that claimed 74 lives. A special commission was appointed to review the circumstances which led to the tragedy which found that the Princess Ashika was an old “rust bucket” and not seaworthy when it was purchased by the Tongan government a few months prior to the sinking. Trials begin next month of five individuals who are accused of approving the purchase and operation of an obviously unsafe ship.

The one year anniversary of the sinking was not commemorated in any way by the government.

Here is Melanie’s story:

“On August 5 it will be one year since the Tongan government’s “new” passenger boat, the Princess Ashika, sank, killing some 74 people. Six of them were from our tiny village, Ha’afeva. The boat sank in the middle of the night on its way to our island. The survivors say it had been leaning on its side for two hours before it sank. It took only two minutes for the Ashika and most of the passengers to disappear under the water. The survivors were left floating in the dark. They sat waiting in lifeboats for three hours before they were rescued.

That next morning Eric and I were getting ready for school when a faifekau (minister) came to our house. He told us in Tongan that the boat sank. That was all he said. I was confused and didn’t know if I heard him correctly. I immediately thought of our school’s principal, Saia. He was on that boat. He, along with two other dads and the youth president, had gone to Nuku’alofa to buy supplies for a new school roof. They should have returned around two that morning.

I left for school right away and on my walk I didn’t see any of the usual neighbors sitting outside. The first person I saw was seven year old ‘Olivia. As Peace Corps Volunteers, most of us are lucky enough to get our own “family” in our villages. ‘Olivia’s family was ours. We spent most Sundays going to their church where the congregation consisted of their family and us. ‘Olivia’s parents Piutau and Halani spoke little English, but they tried so hard to include us. They would sing the same few English songs over and over each Sunday and try to incorporate every English word they knew into the sermon.

‘Olivia’s dad Piutau was on that boat. Olivia started telling me lots of people had probably died, including a baby from our island. She told me she wasn’t worried about her dad. She thought he would probably be coming home later that day. He was bringing her apples and candy from Nuku’alofa. I didn’t know what to tell her, so I asked her if she wanted us to pray for him. She told me she already had.

When we got to school the kids came plowing towards us, yelling everything they had heard. I learned new words that morning. The words for “lost” and “sunk” would now be a part of my vocabulary. The words for “dead” and “dead baby” and “sad” would be repeated over and over for weeks. School started like it always does, with a prayer. But that day, 37 children were praying for their families and friend’s families to come back home.

The school day went on. At eleven we all gathered for a news report on the radio. It told us nothing. At 12:30 it was lunchtime. More than ten hours had passed since the boat should have stopped in Ha’afeva. A group of kids and I started walking from the school when all of a sudden they started screaming “vaka! vaka!” and went running towards the beach. I didn’t even hear anything but by the time I got to the beach, a small boat was pulling away. I had no idea what was going on. Then I saw a group of people walking down the road towards us.

When two or more Tongans get together it’s noisy with laughter or singing. But I remember it being so quiet. There was no sound. As the group came closer, we could hear crying. The nurse, Fusi, was holding up one of the youth who was leaning on her shoulder, sobbing. He had just learned his sister died along with her husband and their first child, their newborn baby. They had gone to Nuku’alofa to have the baby and were returning home. I saw Siaosi, a giant athletic man and father of five young kids at our school. He’d been on the boat to help bring back the materials for the roof. He was crying. He had survived, but we later learned that his mother was killed.

Then someone yelled my name and told me to look. There was my principal, walking towards us. I have great respect for Saia. He is a good man and a good dad. He is the world to his four year old daughter, Kepa. Her favorite thing to do is walk around the village holding his hand. I can’t even express how it felt to see Saia walking towards us. You see, this is how the village found out who survived and who didn’t. Those that made it were just dropped off and were now walking down the road. Saia came over with tears in his eyes and hugged me. I asked him where Piutau was. He just looked at me and then continued down the road.

A group formed behind the survivors and we followed them through town. For some reason it was so confusing and Eric and I didn’t completely understand what was happening. As we walked, we gradually started to hear wailing coming from the houses. One house at a time, the survivors were visiting the families of the dead, to tell them their loved ones did not make it.
By the time Eric and I got to Piutau’s house, Saia was already sitting on the floor across from Piutau’s wife, Halani. It wasn’t until that moment that we understood that Piutau was dead. ‘Olivia’s dad was gone.

Halani sat there on the floor, crying and rocking her three year old in her lap. Through his crying, Saia was telling Halani that when the boat tipped, Piutau had been outside, so he had been safe. But Siaosi’s mother was trapped inside the cabin. Piutau went inside to help her, and that’s where he died. Our island lost Piutau, a young 30‐something faifekau with the most beautiful big smile. His four kids would now have to grow up without him. One of the last things Piutau told Eric before he left to Nuku’alofa was “you are my friend.” The loss of Siaosi’s mother meant five kids from school lost their grandma. Ha’afeva also lost one youth and the young couple with their newborn baby. Our neighbor’s sister and her three children had been on
their way to Ha’afeva for a visit. All four were killed.

Ha’afeva has fewer than 300 people. Everyone knows everyone and most are related. These deaths affected everyone. And that was just Ha’afeva. Nearby islands suffered their own losses. A survivor from a nearby island was dropped on our island that morning. He sat on the beach and told how he had been riding the boat with his wife and his nine year old daughter. When the boat tipped, he was separated from them. He could hear them yelling. His wife yelling for him to leave them, they would die there. Through tears he also told of his daughter’s screams. Her screams for him to help her. She didn’t want to die in the dark.

Three days after the boat sank was a Sunday; the first without Piutau. That day in church, I stood in awe of Halani. Her world had come crashing down, but that morning she stood up front, looking up to the heavens, singing her heart out. She was crying, but she was praising. She has a mighty faith and she knows one day she’ll see Piutau again.

The black clothes will soon be coming off. It will be a year and not much has changed in these people’s lives. They are still riding the Pulupaki; a boat said to be less seaworthy than the Ashika. They don’t ride the temporary new boat. That’s the safe one, but I’m not sure they trust it. They were told the “new” Ashika was safe. As Peace Corps Volunteers, our voices are limited. We can’t fight the government, but we can share the stories of the people around us. Those people’s voices do go unheard and too often, they are forgotten. Let’s not forget them August 5.”

Postscript: Melanie and Eric had been serving Ha’afeva for about 9 months when the Ashika tragedy occurred, happily living the quintessential Peace Corps experience in a small village with no running water, electricity for a few hours each evening to power the single light bulb in their house, and little access to events in the outside world. The village was completely reliant on the ferry for transportation and supplies. When the second ferry, the Pulupaki, was also determined to be unseaworthy last December, Eric and Melanie and other volunteers on other outer islands were transferred to new assignments on Tongatapu. A few months later ferry service to the outer islands was restored after an Indonesian boat was rented thanks to Australia and New Zealand funding and repairs were made to the Pulapaki. A new ferry has been built in Japan and will be delivered once wharf facilities have been upgraded.

Friday, July 9, 2010


As I was walking home from my workout at the Teufaiva gym this morning the air had that clean feeling that comes after a rain shower. The sun was up; a few clouds mingled with the blue sky. It rained again just after I arrived home, just another brief shower coming out of nowhere, which seems to happen a lot in Tonga.

We’re back from our 12 day trip to New Zealand’s North Island, a comfortable reminder of our former life, and beginning the second half of the school year. The schools are back in session, but I have this week to prepare. The Tongan Winter is so much more pleasant than the summer; temperatures in the 70s most of the time, with some nighttime lows dipping into the 60s and even the 50s. A consistent breath of fresh air, and the odd day that does climb into the low 80s only stays there for a few hours.

Whatever “honeymoon” there may have been when we began our work here is long gone. Our experience this first five months of teaching has revealed that in our current assignments we will have little lasting impact on our Tongan colleagues or our schools. The integration into our various schools has revealed some stark realities of working here. The education system in Tonga, with it’s overarching emphasis on rote learning and knowing the “right answer” (rather than how to think) makes it very difficult to effectively engage students in a discovery learning process. A big surprise has been the behavior of many primary and secondary teachers. There is little discipline or accountability required of them; Many teachers often arrive well after the school day has begun and some frequently do not show up at all. Particularly vexing is arriving at school to find out some event or another (“Didn’t anyone tell you?”) has completely disrupted the schedule and put you another day behind.

Which is not to say that there aren’t many fine and dedicated teachers working in Tongan schools, women and men who can be counted on to be there every day, who will cover the absent teacher’s class whenever necessary without complaint, and who seem to respect the students as learners. These teachers are not responding to any external rewards or stimuli, they just seem to care more, particularly for the kids. However, it is “the Tongan way” to not complain about the inequities, and the absent and/or indifferent teachers’ jobs are not jeopardized.

As Kathy has so eloquently described in a previous post, it’s the children who are responding to our efforts and who will be the primary beneficiaries of our efforts, not the system. Especially at the primary school level they are a lot of fun and can be very responsive, but that frequently depends on how controlling their regular classroom teacher is, how much permission they feel they have to speak up, to be creative, to do something other than try to figure out what the “right answer” is.

It was eye-opening for me to come to the end of my first term with college students with the realization that I really hadn’t done much toward expanding my Economics students understanding of the world. The last few weeks were all about getting ready for the end of term exam, memorizing concepts to parrot back and then just as quickly forget. The few application questions I included and tried to prepare them for bombed. Time to rethink my approach.

When I taught Economics before, I could rely on my students possessing some basic knowledge and background experiences. They would have all held jobs and received a pay check, paid taxes, maybe lived on their own, held a driver’s license and owned a car and bought insurance. They would understand basic budgeting concepts. My Tongan students have none of these experiences. Most live at home or with a relative and have never worked for a wage or paid income taxes, Budgeting is a foreign concept. Given their life experiences and different methodology is necessary.

So this week I’m scratching my head and researching “critical thinking” materials and lesson plans in an effort to create a learning environment that will cut way back on how much economics content we will cover and focus more on developing some basic working understandings about the way the world—and Tonga in particular—works. Wish me luck, and I’ll keep you posted.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's a . . What?

Kathy has been teaching her primary school kids about animal groups, and now they all know about how birds are vertebrates that have two legs, feathers, and can fly. Of course they learn that there are always exceptions, like chickens that are birds that don’t fly. (Then there are bats which do fly, but aren’t birds, but that’s another story.) Until I came to Tonga I had no trouble with this knowledge myself, but I have now witnessed several events of actual chickens flying. The most recent one almost caused me to crash.

I was riding along on my bicycle when a chicken started to run across the road in front of me. No big deal, chickens are everywhere, even in downtown Nuku'alofa. A car was coming along a bit too fast toward us, so the chicken flew up to avoid the car, but her timing was a bit off and she was hit by the car’s windshield. Feathers went flying, but most alarmingly the chicken was now hurtling out of control toward me. I ducked, managed to stay upright, and with racing heart got stopped safely. I don’t know the ultimate fate of the chicken from this encounter, but she did get herself up and run off. So you have it from me; Tonga chickens can fly, so be careful out there!

About the bats: early on in her experience at her school Kathy observed a teacher doing a lesson, in which she was talking about Tonga’s “flying fox,” a pretty good sized bat that we saw a lot of when we were in Ha’apai. The teacher was going on about the bat, and concluded by saying that because this creature can fly, and using big arm motions to demonstrate, categorically stated that therefore “A bat is a BIRD, because BIRDS can fly!” She then proceeded to have the children mimic her, flapping their arms, reciting “A bat is a Bird because Birds can fly!”

These sorts of situations in schools pose some tricky dilemmas. Many Tongan teachers are not particularly well educated, and there are tremendous gaps in their knowledge, particularly of geography and biology. (Segue: When Kathy and I were doing some of our initial research about Tonga before we came, we learned that the peka (the flying fox bat) and another smaller bat are the only mammals native to Tonga). And of course one cannot just jump in and try to correct them. Later on when Kathy was teaching about animal groups as part of her English lessons she taught the correct information in a very straight ahead, factual manner; the teacher was in the room during the lesson, and nothing further has been said.

The domestic animal life really is something here in the Kingdom. In our "city" neighborhood pigs are all around. Even though we have a fenced yard, there are several holes that a very young pig can get through, so we've had to do some chasing lately as we don't want them tearing up our our little bit of grass and molesting Kathy's newly planted vegetable garden. One of these little guys was killed by dogs who must have followed the pig through the hole into our back yard. Not a pretty sight. Dogs roam the neighborhood freely, and while they do have owners they are not kept as pets and are not well cared for. Not to mention that many Tongans think roast dog is quite a culinary treat. They can be a menace to bike riders as well as piglets, and I have been bit on the foot by a neighborhood pack that decided to chase me on my bike one day. And then, of course, the chickens. We don't mind them being in the yard because we have heard that they like to eat the giant stinging centipedes (molokaus) that occasionally come snaking into the house and scare the bejeezus out of us. And anyway, after all, what can you do when as we now all know "Chickens are Birds, and Birds can Fly!"

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Saturday Market

Welcome to our Saturday mornings in Nuku'alofa! It always involves a bicycle ride from our house in the South part of town through downtown to the road that runs along the waterfront. As we ride along the waterfront we're reminded that we do indeed live on an island as we don't see the water during the week. As we near the Saturday flea market at Queen Salote Wharf the street is lined with vendors selling mostly root crops from their bush plots.

There is plenty of car traffic, and drivers are inclined to stop anywhere along the way to make a purchase or just say hello to someone they know, so we have to be on our toes, so to speak. As we near the market the traffic slows; there's always quite a crowd as people come from all over the island looking for bargains.

At the flea market there are usually three rows of vendor booths set up, one end of which is under cover. It's probably half a kilometer from one end to the other. We walk down one row and back the other.

It's a great place for people watching; most everyone is dressed in weekend informal attire, but we often see people in more traditional attire, such as the folks dressed in black and elaborate ta'ovalas, signifying they are mourning the recent death of a family member. They will wear the funeral dress for a month, and if the relative was close they will continue to wear black for a full year.

Lots of vendors like to take advantage of the big crowds; the two cell phone companies in particular. On this day the Mormon missionaries were also present. The Mormons are a big presence in Tonga, and missionaries in their uniform traditional garb are seen everywhere. The nicest buildings in Tonga are Mormon churches and schools; we recently attended a meeting at the Mormon high school and it was comparable to one of the better schools in the U.S.

These pictures were taken the day before Mothers' Day. The first three Sundays in May honor children, mothers, and fathers in that order. So on this day there were many fancy dresses and lots of cakes and flowers for sale in addition to the normal assortment of a little bit of everything, from cosmetics, toiletries, all kinds of food items, shoes, used and new clothing, tools, some furniture, even a toilet. I find myself humming Alice's Restaurant (You can get anything you want . . .) a lot on our Saturday market forays.

We have established a few flea market traditions; about halfway through as we are beginning to wilt a bit from the heat and just before we double back, we buy shaved ice from an entrepreneurial family that includes Mom & Dad, their daughter and a grandma, pink lemonade for me and half-strength pina colada for Kathy.

On our way back I always stop to talk with Maui, a Tongan who has lived and worked in Oregon for many years and is often wearing Oregon Duck colors. I first noticed him when I spied a Portland Trail Blazers jersey hanging in his booth. He and his wife mostly sell Avon, but their kids sell popcorn (Kathy's a regular customer and a generous tipper) and like many vendors they have some used clothing and other stuff to sell as well. They've been back in Tonga for a year, but his wife and kids will be going back to the States in a few months for school and to deliver their next baby.

At the market we have found a product that is better than any other kind of potato chip I've ever eaten, the Toatu chips, made here from breadfruit, taro, banana, and cassava. The two girls who staff the booth also sell Tongan made soap, kuikui nut exfoliant, and pineapple and papaya jams. We're usually good for a purchase or two here.

There's one section reseved for local fishmongers. It's always felt a bit daunting to buy here, but the variety of fish and shellfish available is impressive.

After stopping at the Beach Hut (locally known as "Fresh") for a capuccino, it's back to downtown and a stop at the Talamahu Market. This big, open air market has been a fixture a downtown for quite a few years. We buy most of our fruit and vegetables here, and it also has an area for craft and clothing vendors on the second floor.

One of our favorite vendors (because she has a nice variety of salad greens) always hails us with a "Hello, friend" hoping to get our business, which she usually gets. But we always buy from at lest two or three vendors as it always seems that the shopping list can't be filled at only one. In fact that's the way of all shopping in Nuku'alofa; any trip to buy four or five items involves shopping at least three different stores.

Our bike baskets are fully laden at this point and we're getting hungry so it's time to head for home and see what the rest of Saturday will bring. I have posted more pictures in a Picasa web album; click on "Picasa" to the left to see more of the Saturday markets and people of Nuku'alofa.

Monday, April 19, 2010


20 'O 'Epeleli
I believe I have made the small but significant leap to embrace a Tongan practice shared by everyone; commoners, nobles, government ministers, and even the King, but nevertheless a practice I have studiously avoided: the wearing of cheap flip-flops. It’s been a source of wonder for me to observe people dressed to the nines, yet with nothing but flip-flops on their feet. Until now I have been wearing my trusty Chacos, strappy and sturdy, good support, molded to my feet. But I’ve made the switch, and I have my friend Mark to blame.

We spent a delightful, albeit rainy, Easter weekend (4 days!) on the beautiful island of ‘Eua with Mark & his wife Elena, a young couple also from Oregon, and the only other couple in our Peace Corps training group. ‘Eua is a relatively small island, populated mostly be Tongans who were relocated here in 1948 by order of Queen Salote from the far northern island of Niuafo’ou after the volcano that dominates it erupted. It’s the oldest island in the South Pacific, the one island in Tonga with a rain forest, and the Eastern side is dominated by cliffs. (See the Picasa link below for some photos). It’s starting to become noticed by those in the eco-tourism industry, although as of now there are only a few guest houses available to house tourists.

‘Eua has one main road running North and South, and our hosts live toward the Northern end on the grounds of an agricultural college where Elena teaches. Like most of the smaller islands in Tonga the roads are not well maintained, and as noted above it was rainy weekend. Meaning most of the considerable hiking we did was in mud. Of course my trusty Chacos were handy for some of the more rugged hiking we did, and Mark and Elena also had sturdier footwear for these adventures, but all the rest of the time everyone but me was walking around in flip-flops. In the mud and puddles and muck. After about the third time I tried to clean all the mud of my Chacos, I realized there might be something to this, as the flip-flops cleaned right up. If Mark was o.k. splashing around in these flimsy things, then I guess I could, too. My mother didn’t raise no dummies!

We have no lack of flip-flops at our house, thanks to Kathy’s sister Sheryl and our niece Alayna, who apparently has dozens of pairs, and Sheryl has been slipping a few pairs of the ones Alayna doesn’t wear anymore into the packages she has been sending us. So upon our return I selected a robin’s egg blue pair that seemed to fit, and for the last two weeks I’ve been wearing nothing but.

Since Easter we have had a lot of rain; apparently the rainy season which should have started a few months ago has arrived. On Sunday it rained so much our streets and front yards were completely flooded, and at least one of our PCV colleagues was flooded out of his house. Our house sits up a bit, but for a while Sunday evening we were an island in the Vaololoa sea. The access path to my library at ‘Atenisi (see photo gallery at Picasa link) is completely flooded, so I’ll be working from home today (Tuesday), a day I normally spend working there. The weather forecast indicates we’ll be having more of the same for the rest of the week. The flip-flops have been great for dealing with the continuing puddles, ponds, and mud.

We have become acutely aware that life in a developing country, and service as a volunteer, can be unpredictable in ways we have not experienced in our former lives. Our service is subject to change or interruption for any number of reasons, and good communication is often scarce. Five Tonga volunteers had to be relocated from outer islands when the ferries were berthed; three of those volunteers were beginning their second year of service and had created strong, positive working and personal relationships with their villages that were heart-wrenching to leave. Any significant medical issue usually requires a medical evacuation to Fiji or Australia. And there are the natural disasters, cyclones and tsunamis and earthquakes that occur without any warning. Coupled with the inherent difficulty of getting straight information from anyone, and especially government officials—no one wants to go out on a limb and state something as their superior could always overrule them—and you might get the picture that anything you might think you know today could be different tomorrow.

So as I continue this adventure venturing out each day in my flip-flops I do believe I am learning more about the importance of taking life as it comes, one flip flop at a time.

P.S. Mark & Elena's very interesting blog is linked below: "mk squared"

Monday, April 12, 2010

Things I Wouldn’t Have Learned If I Hadn’t Lived in Tonga

(This post by Kathy)
If It Itches…I missed a question on a Ninth Grade Biology Exam that went something like this; “Your skin performs a variety of functions, among them waterproofing.” True/False. Being a critical thinker, I reasoned that I put lotion on my skin and it soaked in so, therefore, skin does not perform a waterproofing function. I got the question wrong. This, in itself, is significant; most of the time I didn’t get anything wrong. But, this one missed question remains with me still and continues to inform my life. Case in point:

You may remember that I had a brush with a rather insistent staph infection early in my tenure in Tonga. The staph was able to gain entrance into my body organism because I had broken the skin, impairing the ability of my waterproofing to perform its primary function. Most likely, I had scratched one of the hundreds of mosquito bites I received while with my homestay family in Ha’apai.

I have since learned that it is entirely possible to have an itch that you do not scratch. I get mosquito bites every day, despite insect repellent and mosquito coils and mosquito screens on the windows. Mosquitoes find me very attractive. And the bites itch. I can choose to scratch them and play Russian Roulette with a recurrence of staph, or I can simply experience the itch until it passes. It does pass…eventually. The momentary gratification of scratching an itch is surpassed by the desire to live rather than succumb to flesh-eating bacteria (okay, this might be over-stating the severity of the situation just a bit).

Think about the ramifications of this lesson. No matter what the itch, no matter how much you want to scratch it, you don’t have to. You always have the choice to scratch or not scratch. So, if it’s your boss who is providing the itch, or perhaps your mate or significant other, or your child, or even if it’s the U.S. government, you can choose NOT TO SCRATCH the itch. What power.

The Ants Go Marching…Ants are very industrious creatures (think of the movie, “Antz”). In Tonga, they are particularly so. With the onset of taimi afa (cyclone season, also the rainy/hot season), the ants have decided to move indoors. I don’t blame them; the heat can be rather oppressive. This has necessitated increased vigilance in the area of food preparation and clean up for Rob and me. Any speck of food that is left on any surface immediately draws a swarm of ant activity. One might ask, “Where do they come from?” But, that thought is too frightening to consider and is not really the purpose of this missive.
When we first arrived at our site in mid-December, I remember a Group 74 PCV (the group that arrived in 2008) stating that she didn’t even worry about ants in her food anymore, she just gobbled them up taking advantage of the extra protein. I was appalled and certain that I would never get to that point.

We are very intentional about food storage. We seal all packages and sometimes place them inside Zip-lock bags. And, sometimes we even double bag particularly tasty treats (sugar) and then put them inside a Rubbermaid type of locking container. Still, the ants successfully track down any and all available unsecured food items. Rob thought that he could leave his jam on the shelf instead of refrigerating it; covered with ants inside and out. He forgot to place his cereal in the double bag/locking container system one morning and the next morning found it crawling with ants. Last night I made a couple of loaves of banana bread from the bananas harvested from our yard. I loosely covered the loaves to let them cool. When I went back to secure the foil covering, I found an ant swarm.

You’re wondering if we threw out the items mentioned above? We did not. We transferred each item to the freezer and froze those suckers out. So, while we’re still not willing to eat live ants (as far as we know, anyway), we’re not going to throw out good food just because of an ant invasion.

I guess it is possible for me to co-exist with ants, as well as the many other insects that thrive in a tropical climate. I never would have learned this about myself if I hadn’t spent these past few months in Tonga.

Also, just in case you’re wondering: ants really do go marching down to the ground to get out of the rain. I know this because we had to evacuate our home during Cyclone Rene. Pre-cyclone, ants were very active in every room in our house. Post-cyclone, two days later Rob and I returned and found nary an ant. The obvious conclusion: they went down…to the ground…to get out of the rain—which was prodigious. So now you know.

Getting Ant-sy. I believe that ants are quite interested in our evolution as humans and, therefore, provide us with many opportunities to learn and grow. Ants have helped me develop exceptionally strong skills in the area of maintenance and caretaking.

Did you know that ants will eat silicone? (no, not the kind that breast implants are made out of, although I wouldn't know about that!) In Tonga, we have a variety of species of ants. The ants that seem to be most pervasive are those that are about the size of a grain of sand. They are EVERYWHERE! They are especially keen (this is a word that I have begun to use while in Tonga, the Kiwis and Aussies have influenced me, I guess) on computers. Rob and I were just smashing them with our fingers whenever we’d see them on our computers until we found out that they are actually after the silicone chips. They gain entry into your laptop and devour the silicone. And, before you know it, your laptop is kaput.

So, we are now placing our laptops in over-sized Zip-lock bags whenever they are not in use. We must remain very vigilant in this practice for a single slip-up could mean the loss of our laptops; not a happy thought. This, in addition to using dessicant to eliminate moisture and placing our laptops in our bedroom, double-locking the doors every time we are away from home (security). It reminds me of a line from The Little Prince: “You must be vigilant in the toilette of your planet.” Planet Tonga requires a great deal of vigilance.

Wine Whine. While living in Pendleton, I was relatively certain that I couldn’t make it through a single day without a glass of wine. Partly, because I felt that I deserved it: I had been pretty much a tee-totaler for the first four decades of my life and felt that it was high time I enjoyed the fruit of the vine. And, partly because we had access to wines from the Walla Walla Valley appellation which is producing some of the finest red wines in the world. But, mostly just because I loved the idea—and the taste--of ending each day with a lovely glass of wine; it seemed so sophisticated.

Well, I can make it through a day without a glass of wine. Actually, I can make it through day after day, week after week, and even month after month. Wine is very expensive in Tonga. As Peace Corps Volunteers, we are not paid. We do receive a monthly living allowance roughly equal to the average Tongan’s monthly salary. It is not possible to drink wine and stay within our budget. Additionally, I have discovered a direct correlation between the red wines available in Tonga (mostly from Australia) and migraine headaches. I have indulged in about three glasses of wine while in Tonga and have had immediate migraines in response. It’s just not worth it.

So, I’m pleased to find that I can make it through my days without the assistance of alcohol…or chocolate…or ice cream. It’s good to know.

Bipedal Life. In my real life, back in Pendleton, I would sometimes give thought to shunning motorized transport in favor of bipedal transport. Think of the benefits: cut down on your carbon footprint, lengthen the life of the ozone layer, contribute to breathable air for you and your neighbors, gain additional aerobic exercise, to name a few. My commitment to bipedal living generally lasted until the next crisis—like running out of wine. Then, I’d hop in my car and make a run downtown. When it comes to a decision between saving the ozone layer and having a glass of wine with dinner, wine will win out every time.
The Peace Corps does not allow Volunteers to drive vehicles. So, Rob and I purchased bicycles from two former PCVs and make our way around the capital city on bikes or on our feet. Finally, without the option of motorized transport, I am able to live a more principled and altruistic life. Isn’t it lovely when the Universe provides you with the support you need to make the choices that you really should make for yourself? And, now that we have been living bipedally for almost six months, I’m pleased to know that it is entirely possible and there aren’t really any crises that demand the use of carbon belching vehicles—not even an impending cyclone. I’m certain that I would not have come to this conclusion had I not spent the past six months living in Tonga.

I wonder what lessons Tonga will teach me over the next six months. Stay tuned….

Saturday, March 27, 2010


28 'O Maasi (This post by Kathy)
You might think that life on a South Seas Island would be a serene experience. If that South Seas Island were Tongatapu, however, you would be mistaken.

Our days typically begin well before the break of day with the opening notes of the Rooster Symphony. One rooster, located somewhere on our island, provides the downbeat. Not to be outdone, roosters from one end of the island to the other chime in, each adding his unique instrument to the symphony. The music lasts long after daybreak and, sometimes, it breaks out throughout the day if the weather should be overcast and, therefore, the roosters confused.

Competing with the Rooster Symphony on most mornings are the bells from the various churches. The church in our neighborhood calls parishioners to Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning Prayer Services beginning at 5:00 a.m. The first set of bells rings at 4:00 a.m., the second set at 4:30 a.m. and the final set at 5:00 a.m. (the “you’d better get your butt in the pew" set), when the service actually begins. There are three church services on Sundays, each of which are announced by three sets of bells. Choir rehearsal takes place on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday evenings; again, these rehearsals are chimed into existence with three sets of bells. There are also additional services all of which, yes, you’re right, demand three sets of bells.

In addition, Tonga is filled with a variety of animals that simply roam about the neighborhoods. The noisiest of these animals/fanga manu are the dogs and the pigs. The dogs run in packs that take up barking and howling and growling at the most inopportune times, usually around 2:00 a.m. The pigs evidently do not sleep during the night time hours because they quite often join the dogs, adding their snorts and squeals to the cacophony.

Adding to the music of the night are the local kava circles. You will remember that Tonga’s national drink is kava, made from the pepper plant. It is non-alcoholic but does have a sedative effect. Kava circles take place in a variety of venues but ALWAYS take place in association with the local churches. The kava circle that takes place regularly (2 to 5 nights each week) in the church next door to our house has a number of members who are fond of singing. Once they begin singing, they may sing for hours. One night, they sang us to sleep around 10:00 p.m.; they were still singing at midnight, 2:00 a.m., and 4:00 a.m. Too much of a good thing is still too much.

So, as you can see, life on our island is filled with some uniquely Tongan sounds. Due to the fact that I have very acute hearing, I get to enjoy all of these sounds to their fullest.

Sounds are only one aspect of the sensory-laden experience that is life in Tonga. There are also a variety of aromas that waft through the air.
You will remember that Tongan houses are not really “intact” structures. Whatever is taking place outside your home is also taking place inside your home. The windows are made of louvered glass panes approximately 6 inches by 18 inches which are typically tilted wide open to provide access to the breezes . So, the aromas that drift through the neighborhood also drift through your house.

Some of those aromas are pleasant. Recently some of the bushes in the neighbor’s yard were in full bloom and the fragrance was delightful. Typically, however, the smells are not all that pleasant. The most unpleasant comes from the Tongan practice of burning rubbish. Yes, there actually is a waste management company that picks up trash from all houses on the island, and, yes, there is actually a law against burning rubbish. And, yes, trash burning continues.

Each Saturday, Tokonaki (which means preparation…for church, of course) a neighborhood wide clean-up takes place. Of highest importance is clean up of the church grounds. The grounds are swept (they are covered with lawn but the grass is first cut with a string trimmer and then swept), then all the detritus is gathered into a heap and burned. Since everything is swept up together, the burn pile contains leaves and other green materials, paper trash, metal trash, and most notoriously, plastic trash (which is a HUGE problem in Tonga). Depending on what has taken place during the week, the resultant fire can be quite a conflagration. We happen to be downwind from the church’s burn pit. So, at least once a week, usually more often, we are suffocated by smoke filled with PCBs. This is especially helpful for Rob’s asthma.

This practice is doubly interesting in that Tongan’s get their drinking water from water catchment systems that include their roofs. Okay, let’s connect the dots: we burn rubbish releasing PCBs and other toxins which then land on our roofs, then we gather the water that falls on our roofs, picking up the toxins enroute, into cisterns which provide us with our drinking water. Truly, a brilliant plan. Rob and I drink water from the sima vai/cistern in our backyard.

One curious phenomenon that is quite widespread in Tonga is the brass band. We happen to have two large brass bands in our neighborhood: one at the police academy and the other at the Anglican high school, St. Andrews. The police cadets are especially fond of practicing late into the night and then again early in the morning. Most days they wait for 7:00 a.m. to start the drum beat but there are times when their enthusiasm gets the best of them and they have to begin earlier. I actually really like the brass bands, especially the one at the King’s Church (just imagine it—a brass band in a church), but not before 7:00 a.m. (Check out the Police band here:

So, between the brass bands and the burning rubbish and the roosters/pigs/dogs, it is sometimes difficult to find peace in Tonga. Rob suggests that peace is not something that you find but, rather, something that you create within yourself. On my better days, I agree with him.

I have been reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Peace Is Every Step, which suggests that the path of mindfulness in everyday life will help you create peace in every step you take. In the section entitled, “Walking Meditation” Hanh suggests:
“Walking meditation can be very enjoyable….The purpose is to be in the present moment and, aware of our breathing and our walking, to enjoy each step. Therefore we have to shake off all worries and anxieties, not thinking of the future, not thinking of the past.” He says that, while we walk all the time, our anxiety-filled walking “imprints anxiety and sorrow on the Earth. We have to walk in a way that we only imprint peace and serenity on the Earth. Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.”

So, on my daily walk to school (about a mile), I attempt to walk in peace, being present in the moment, and kissing the Earth with each step I take, imprinting peace and serenity on the Earth. Most mornings this works very nicely and I am able to create a peaceful space within myself. Other mornings, when I’m caught in a deluge, when I forget something at home, when a driver almost runs me over—or all three—I am less successful.

I haven’t given any thought to attempting to imprint peace and serenity on the Earth on my walk home from school; it’s simply beyond my capacity to do anything but simply take the next step at the end of the day. Perhaps, by the end of 2011 when I return home, my experience in Tonga will have taught me to find peace in every step, even the steps that bring me home at the end of the day.

May you kiss the Earth with every step you take and dwell in peaceful coexistence with the cacophony that is daily life.