Thursday, January 7, 2010


"Beauty is about the improbable coming true suddenly." Charles Simic

7 o’ Sanuali, 2010

The holidays are over, Uike Lotu (Week of Prayer) is in full swing (church services every morning and evening), and every once in a while it rains a bit. In between it’s quite warm and humid, but not yet oppressive. With the warmer temperatures and moisture, there is more color popping out than we’ve seen before. Our little garden is producing orchids, amaryllis, bougainvillea and heilala, and on our walks around the neighborhood we see frangipani, hibiscus, camellias, poinsettias, Rose of Sharon, and others we don’t know the names of yet. Hedges and fencerows that previously looked like little more than dried thickets are now bursting into a riot of color: improbable…and beautiful.

This is the week we begin our primary assignments in earnest. For Kathy this has meant beginning to tackle the library/laipeli at Nuku’alofa GPS. Located in a small building that also serves as the principal’s office/puleako ofisi, storeroom for groundskeeping and athletic equipment, teacher work space and resource room, and copy center, her first task is to identify what library materials are worth keeping and then how to get rid of all the garbage/extraneous materials that don’t belong there. And because all the school officials are on their summer break and not available, she is somewhat limited in what she’s able to accomplish.

I also have been designated as the Librarian for ‘Atenisi, and I had my first good look at it earlier this week. These materials are more organized, at least by topic, but there is no catalog. Most of the books are dated, and many are in poor condition. Like most university libraries the best books that once were there are long gone, checked out or just taken, never to be seen again. (I vividly remember from my college days that the most relevant books were checked out to professors and residing on their office shelves). I’ll likely spend a few days in there before school starts to become familiar with what’s there and then propose some kind of strategic planning process with the university faculty regarding what the library needs to be.

So the bulk of my time these days has been spent getting familiar with on-line text resources and setting up my course outlines. Of course the big unknown is what the capabilities of my students will be, so I really can’t do much actual lesson planning until I meet my students and have the opportunity to assess their abilities. It’s been interesting getting back up to speed with teaching a subject that I haven’t worked with for almost 20 years, but the synapses seem to be restoring.

On one level I have a pretty good idea what to expect from my students, based on my practice teaching experience and conversations with people who have been teaching in Tonga for a while. As one college teacher expressed it, Tongans are taught that compliance is all-important. This is, after all, a feudal society at the heart. There is great reverence for the king, absolute respect for the nobles who control village life, and well prescribed rules governing relationships and responsibilities in the family. A Tongan doesn’t have to think much about important issues of family and village life, as the decisions are largely out of his/her influence.

Tongans are taught to be rote learners, and for the 12 years of their primary and secondary education they have been punished (often pinched, slapped, hit, and/or ridiculed) for wrong answers. You can ask your Economics students to explain the Law of Demand and they can give you the textbook definition, but if you ask them to explain what will happen to the price of a good when a famous athlete endorses it you’re likely to get blank stares in response, and if you're able to get them to write an answer to this question you’ll get some interesting answers. So it’s going to be a challenge to try to engage them in some creative or critical thinking.

My school, ‘Atenisi University, was founded as an institution of “classical” learning. It’s the only university in Tonga that is not run by either the government or a church. The founder, Futa Helu, is a local legend, and I encourage you to read about him: He is still alive and lives on the grounds of the school; I met him the other day as I was getting the lay of the land there. He is in his 70s and suffering from dementia and appears to also be in frail physical health.

As we phase into the Tongan summer and experience the blooming all around us we prepare to start encouraging the blooming of young creative minds; hoping for opportunities for the improbable to come true…suddenly.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, I am a Cdn volunteer working at the Api fo'ou College as the librarian and was very interested in hearing about your library work as I am pretty much working in isolation here. I arrived in Sept. and am just now getting the library to the point of being useable. I will be adding the books to a computerized database which I have had to research on-line as there is not one set up. I'd be very happy to have some collaboration on this if you are interested. I will try to contact you thru the Peace Corps headquarters at some point if that's OK. Thanks, Penny Cameron