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 Congress (and state legislatures) are completely dysfunctional; reason and dialogue have long ago left the scene and been replaced by a proliferation of special interests catering to peoples’ fears with the power of the internet and seemingly endless amounts of money.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.