Saturday, February 20, 2010


Februay 20, 2009
(This entry is an edited version of an article I wrote for the next Peace Corps Tonga newsletter. My Peace Corps assignment is to teach Economics and reorganize the library at ‘Atenisi University.)

TONGAN Professor 'Ilaisa Futa 'i Ha'angana Helu (age 75) passed away on Tuesday, February 2 in Tongatapu. He was an icon of late 20th century Tonga, highly learned in Tongan culture and language as well as Western philosophy, literature and science. He founded and guided the only truly independent institution of higher learning in Tonga and had enormous influence on the pro-democracy movement. He loved Tonga deeply, and because of that love was one of the harshest critics of some contemporary Tongan trends.

Futa was born in 1934 at Lotofoa in Foa, Ha'apai, and he was one of the founding class of 12 in the newly established Tonga High School in 1947, which was started by the government to provide a secondary education for Tongans comparable to what was then only available in New Zealand or Australia. He passed the New Zealand School Certificate exam in 1951 in every subject but could not qualify for a scholarship because of his punishment history (mostly for his long hair). However, his extended family financed his education by making copra, and he attended Newington College and the University of Sydney in Australia from 1952-61.

In Australia Futa was more interested in learning than earning a degree, and he studied philosophy, English literature, mathematics, and physics, and he developed a love for Italian opera. After 10 years in Australia he was called home by his family, but instead of following his family’s expectations and embarking on a career in government he stayed in Nuku’alofa and began informal studies in Tongan culture and history, ethnography, and Italian opera.

He began attending fiekava (traditional men-only social gatherings around the kava bowl) and these sessions quickly became known for the conversations Futa led reflecting his insights and stories from his Western education as well as his knowledge of the Tongan language and history. Former student Sefita Hao’uli(1): “Before long it became known that Futa brought a new and refreshing dimension to these gatherings, and that the kava aficionados were now joined more and more by a wide range of people all keen to hear Futa and his stories. He introduced Socrates and the Greek philosophers, Homer, Shakespeare, Milton and others into the conversation so interestingly that it was never above anyone’s head.” He became a tutor to students who were having trouble keeping up with school, and later he began night classes for civil servants interested in improving their English and mathematics. These classes led him to begin ‘Atenisi Institute, which in English means "Athens," in 1963 as a night school. At this time there was a bulge of high school age students and a consequent demand for secondary schooling that could not be met by existing schools, and so ‘Atenisi High School was started by Futa and a group of parents in 1964. The first classrooms were traditional Tongan fale built of branches and thatch; later buildings were constructed by students, teachers and parents from timber they cut and milled themselves. In 1971 experimental university level classes were offered in Tongan culture, philosophy, mathematics, and English literature which led to the formal founding of ‘Atenisi University in 1975.

Probably the most ambitious project undertaken at ‘Atenisi was to establish a performing arts school. “Notwithstanding his and his institute’s existence in a swamp amidst all the apparent signs of poverty including the unfinished buildings and minimally equipped classrooms that constitute ‘Atenisi, in 1987 the ‘Atenisi Foundation for the Performing Arts (AFPA) was established. . . . The cynics and skeptics have long been silenced as, despite its humble material circumstances, AFPA has developed into an exciting and strong creative force. Its regular concerts contribute much to the artistic life of Tonga . . .” (1)

The editors of Polynesian Paradox (1) call Futa "one of the giants of modern Tonga, and indeed of the whole Pacific." Kalafi Moala, one of his earliest students: “I never cease to be amazed at this man’s knowledge. He is well read and a tireless thinker. There are three particular aspects of Futa’s life that come readily to mind when thinking about his contribution to Tonga. First, his incredible knowledge of Tongan history and culture that make him one of the most authoritative voices on any matter pertaining to Tongan society. Second, Futa has been a distinct voice in establishing a foundation of learning in which education is not just for utilitarian purposes, a means of getting employment, but a system of pursuing truth and the learning that would lift life to a higher level. Third, the contribution that he has made through his teaching on critical thinking: Futa personifies the notion of the critical thinker, which is, for Tonga, a radical one, and one lived out in his life and those of his students.”

From the editors: "For non-Tongans he is a paradox: a deeply traditional man, steeped in Tongan culture, but also the most articulate, thoughtful and strident critic of Tonga values and society. He led the way in Tongan studies at secondary and tertiary levels, but is a devotee of European civilization and especially its thought and music. The enigma of Futa has attracted many foreign scholars as well as Tongans to seek him out both for the pleasure of his company, for what they might learn from him, and sometimes simply to be a part of the exhilarating and audacious experiment that has been his whole life and work."

Futa was a scholar and a teacher, but never earned a degree. He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Literature by the University of the South Pacific in 1999 and has authored numerous books on Tongan culture. He retired as the ‘Atenisi Institute's Director and Dean in 2007 as his health was in decline, particularly due to Alzheimer’s disease.

The last word is from former student Sefita Hao’uli (2): “Futa may have been the founder of the ever-fledgling 'Atenisi Institute and University on the swampy western fringe of Nuku'alofa, but for those of us who came to know him well, he will forever be the scholars' scholar, the tutor to a nation, a mentor to the growing Tongan intelligentsia, an authority on Tongan arts culture, and a humble but courageous critic of Tonga's powerful elite.”

(1) Polynesian Paradox, a collection of essays in honour of Futa Helu on his 70th birthday edited by Ian Campbell and Eve Coxon, currently out of print.
(2) Letter to the editor, Matangi Tonga.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Our Date with Rene

Monday, February 15, noon

Kathy and I are enjoying our lunch of crackers and cheese, apples, and brownies while we listen to and watch the torrential rain outside the windows of our second floor room at the Peace Corps office. Last evening we received a “consolidation” order from our Country Director, which means all PCVs on Tongatapu were to make their way (we took a taxi) to the Peace Corps office to ride out Cyclone Rene. As of this hour Rene has passed directly over the Northern island group of Vava’u as a Category 3 cyclone (equivalent to a Category 1 hurricane) and now has the middle island group of Ha’apai and us directly in her sights.

We came with food, some water, some bedding, iPods and computers. Here in Nuku’alofa the 13 of us are spread all over the building; most of us are in the training room right now watching a movie. We’re lucky; our Vava’u colleagues gathered in a local Mormon Church, and the Ha’apai group is all together in one of the volunteer’s home, so they do not have the luxury of space or electricity (we have a generator) that we do. We keep hoping the storm track will veer away to the West or East, but so far we have been disappointed on that score, so it looks like we are going to experience our first hurricane. We are informed that the cyclone proper should arrive later this afternoon and will probably take until early morning to pass through. At this point we have lost electricity, landline phones, and the internet, but cell phones are still working. While most everything is closed down, the food store across the street was still open as of an hour ago and there are a few cars on the increasingly waterlogged roads.

For the most part the local Tongans don’t seem to be taking the storm as seriously as we are. However, our immediate neighbors were boarding up windows as we are leaving yesterday evening, and because they own our little house they were going to put something up over our very exposed East facing windows. We’re hoping for the best as far as damage, but obviously won’t know anything until we can go home, which won’t be until tomorrow at the earliest.

Monday, 7 p.m.
Extremely strong winds and buckets of rain are exposing any place that will leak; the door from the outside to the room we’re camping in is letting in a fair amount of water from not just underneath, but around the sides and the top. Several smaller trees on the property have come down, and at least one screen door has been blown off one of the more exposed first floor rooms. The latest news is that the brunt of the hurricane will hit about 9 p.m. and we should expect the eye around midnight. That would mean we should be back to just gale force winds by dawn. What fun.

8:20 p.m.
It’s been strangely quiet now for about 45 minutes. Was our forecast wrong? Is this the eye? Or the “armband?” I’ve never heard of an armband before, so I’m thinking (hoping) it’s the eye. We’ll know soon; if it’s the eye the winds will be coming from the opposite direction when it resumes. Anyway, the tension is eased, we took the group photo (hopefully I’ll have it to post) and now everybody’s getting ready to watch another movie.

9:30 p.m.
The winds have picked up again, and the good news they’re coming from the North! That means it was the “eye” and while we’re in for another 3 or 4 hours of blasting, the winds should gradually diminish as Rene passes on by. The bad news is we have no power to the second floor of the building where we are all staying; some glitch in the building’s electrical system. The generator continues to run and the lights, etc. are all working on the first floor, so the movie watchers moved down to the volunteer lounge to watch on the TV down there. Kathy and I and others are staying up here, writing on our computers and thinking about getting some sleep.

Tuesday, February 16, 6:30 a.m.
As predicted the winds continued all night, although without as much rain as earlier. I’m up at 6:30, and the Country Director is starting to waken everybody to send us home. The brunt of the storm is past, and we will continue with strong winds all day, but we’re up and moving.

8:30 a.m.
Our little house is in remarkably good shape. The cardboard nailed up by our landlords’ boys has kept water from blowing in our windows, and we only have some water on the floor by the back door to clean up. No power, so no internet, but we do have water. We are most thankful that the storm has spared us from any significant damage. Our little cat Lilo greeted us hungrily, and she has now had her first food in a few days. We’ve boiled some water on the stove and made French press coffee and are feeling pretty good—and pretty darn lucky. While there is a lot of debris around, a number of uprooted trees and many broken branches (one appears to have taken out our power line), there does not appear to be any major damage. We see evidence of a few roofs that have come off, but nothing more serious than that. Life is slowly returning to normal. We don’t expect to have power for a few days, but we do have water so we’ll be fine. And probably back to work tomorrow.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Cyclone Rene - Part 2

It's 4 p.m. Sunday our time, and Cyclone Rene is now a Category 3 cyclone (hurricane)moving along towards the northern Tongan islands at about 15 mph. The latest projected path brings Rene right to us here on Tongatapu (our island) tomorrow afternoon/evening. However, this is the 3d path projection we've seen, and cyclones don't read the maps. As of right now we're thinking we'll be called in to PC headquarters tomorrow morning in a move called "Consolidation," but it could happen tonight. In any event we're preparing for that. If you'd like to see the path it's here: (look for the link in the lower left for the track map). And we'll keep you posted as internet service allows.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Cyclone Rene, Part 1

It's Saturday morning here in the Friendly Islands, and we are in "Stand Fast" mode, which means we are staying close to home, monitoring the progress of Cyclone Rene and doing some stocking up (kerosene for our oil lamps, batteries, drinking water). Forecast models have us in Rene's path (the most current one has Rene passing to the West of us) with the Northern island group of Vava'u most likely to get hit, possibly by tomorrow. We plan to do our usual Saturday routine of shopping, but we'll be monitoring the situation throughout the weekend.

We have plenty of information about how to weather a cyclone (hurricane) and are not worried. If we are to get a direct hit we will likely "consolidate" at the Peace Corps Office (nice big building with emergency supplies). I'll try to post new developments here as they occur.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Removed, yet Connected

An email from a good friend back home has caused me to do some thinking about where we are four months into this Peace Corps adventure. We’ve been caught up in the busy-ness of getting settled, of integrating into our community, orienting to our teaching work, and continuing to adapt physically to the tropical climate (not as easy as you would think!). At the same time, because we are connected via the internet to the rest of the world we (make that mostly me, Kathy not so much) are in touch with the goings on back home.

Anyway, my friend asks about how my world view has been affected by this experience. He also writes about the continuing issues he faces as a public employee with this persistent recession; mandatory furlough days and office closures coupled with an increased human services workload because of the poor economy. And in the midst of the uncertainty all that creates, being aware of the stumbling efforts of our leaders to proactively deal with unemployment, health care, bank reform, and how to provide public services with declining tax revenues and no prospect for improving that situation.

Just last year I was working in that same environment, having to take a pay cut, taking additional unpaid furlough days, and watching my retirement nest egg turn south. And yet I counted myself among the lucky ones because I wasn’t carrying a lot of debt, had great health insurance, and could still pay the mortgage and the bills and help my daughter with her wedding expenses. But given the increasing anxiety and stress in my workplace as my good-hearted and willing colleagues were becoming worn down trying to keep up with the demanding workload with less and less to work with, “retiring” from state service and entering the Peace Corps felt like a very sane thing to do. Get out of the country for a few years, leave the uncertainty and stress, and do some good work in a simpler place in a situation where I could still count on my basic needs being taken care of. Peace Corps has not disappointed on that part of the vision.

So four months into this experience and from my vantage point—removed, yet connected--it is easy to see what a mess the United States is in. Congress (and state legislatures) are completely dysfunctional; reason and dialogue have long ago left the scene and been replaced by a proliferation of special interests catering to peoples’ fears with the power of the internet and seemingly endless amounts of money. It doesn’t help that the highest court of the land has approved unbridled political spending by corporations as a form of free speech. Much of this spending advances blatant misrepresentations (e.g. “death panels”) that further factionalizes politics and creates even more fear. The result is legislative paralysis; one party refuses to play at all, and the dominant party can’t get its act together because too many players are all trying to get their piece of the pie.

The rest of the world watches this drama and shakes its collective head. Why can’t this great and powerful country at least make sure that all its citizens can have access to affordable health care? Why does it allow the rich and powerful to make billions from unregulated financial markets and massive tax cuts and then bring the world to the brink of an economic depression through their irresponsible and reckless behavior?

Tonga is most definitely a third-world country, and it certainly has major issues of its own. For starters it has extremely limited resources. It is an economy that relies heavily on remittances from family members living in affluent countries, and the global recession has drastically reduced this flow. But all Tongans have free access to health care; it could be better, actually much better, because many critical services are not available (our neighbor died of kidney failure because he had no access to dialysis here and could not afford to travel out of country for care). And it has lots of arable land; Tongan families typically have one or more plots of land which have been given to them by the government (all first born male children are entitled to their own plot when they turn 16) that they use to grow food, and subsistence agriculture is still a mainstay for most families, especially away from the capital city. While unemployment here is nominally quite low, many adults are not included in the labor force because they are engaged in subsistence agriculture and/or fishing and don’t otherwise “work” as far as earning a wage is concerned. Those who get good educations usually go abroad for higher education in New Zealand, Australia, and the U.S. and many do not return on a permanent basis (there are more Tongans living outside the country than in.)

And Tonga has some very serious political problems stemming from some peculiar traits around decision making. This is a very hierarchical society; great importance is accorded to rank. Tongans may engage in a lively debate about how to solve a problem, but when the highest ranking person in the room voices his opinion, the matter is settled. For example, it’s been most illuminating to read about the ongoing inquiry into what led up to the decision for the government to purchase the Princess Ashika ferry; this is the ferry that sank last August carrying some 80 people to the bottom of the ocean. Ample evidence has been presented to document that this ship was an unseaworthy “rust bucket” at the time it was purchased, but curiously that information was not known to (or not acknowledged by) those who approved the purchase, who curiously did not seek to verify the ship’s condition, and apparently no one who did know the ship’s condition felt they had the obligation to inform. This inquiry has led to the docking of the only other ferry serving the Tongan islands, the privately owned MV Pulupaki, which has also been determined by experts to not be seaworthy. This decision has led to the Peace Corps calling in five volunteers living and serving in outer islands in Ha’apai who now do not have a way to get to and from their islands. More importantly it has left many residents of those islands without inter-island transportation or a reliable way to get supplies.

I’m learning that it really doesn’t matter where you live, there is plenty of
political and cultural craziness wherever you happen to be. Do I want to trade places with the our host family in Ha’apai who now does not have a reliable way to send their sons and daughter to school on Tongatapu or get necessary supplies like propane for their home because the government can’t make the necessary decisions to provide safe transportation for people and goods? Life goes on for them, they will adapt and adjust just as life goes on for us and for our friends and family back home.

So, my friends, at this point I must report that living this experience has not led to any profound changes in my thinking as yet. In my next post I will be writing about Futa Helu, the thoroughly Tongan intellectual giant who fervently promoted a Classical model for education, using the Socratic Method as his instructional model. He embraced traditional Tongan culture and was a significant advocate for the development of democratic governance in Tonga. He was the founder of my college (‘Atenisi University), and he died earlier this week. Since the college has been floundering in recent years, there will be much to write about as school begins and we see how his death impacts the whole situation. So stay tuned.