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.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


(This post from Kathy)
16 'o Ma'asi
Compare and Contrast
Sometimes, when trying to share life in Tonga with others, I find that the words available to me simply are not adequate. I am not able to paint a vivid picture of my experiences living and working in the Friendly Islands. I can hear my readers saying, “Oh, but that’s not so different from ______ (fill in the blank). But it is. I have decided to share some of the very stark contrasts I have observed. Perhaps this approach will more accurately describe Tongan reality.

The Typical Tongan Teen:
The primary school where I work is located right next to a secondary school: Tonga High School. Sometimes secondary schools are called high schools and sometimes they are called colleges, so it can be a bit confusing. Tonga High is one of the premier government secondary schools in the kingdom and students must pass the Secondary Entrance Exam (SEE) with a very high score in order to gain entrance.

There are 2000+ students attending Tonga High and they all make their way to school each morning by their own initiative. Some walk, but there is little residential housing in the vicinity. Most ride the bus. No, not the school bus. There are no school busses in Tonga. The bus system is privately owned and makes a great deal of money off of the students who ride to school, both primary and secondary. I have never seen a parent deliver their child to school. And, there is no parking lot at Tonga High because it’s not needed—not one student drives a car to school—or owns a car for that matter. That’s the stark contrast I was talking about in the introduction. Can you picture a high school in America without a parking lot full of students’ cars—couldn’t happen.

Canteens and Cafeterias:
The Class Six students I am currently working with are attending both “Morning School” and “Night School.” Their school day begins at 7:00 a.m. and doesn’t end until 5:00 p.m. This is part of the Class Six Teachers’ effort to raise test scores on the SEE—since only 7 of the 130 Class Six students passed the SEE last year (a major black eye for the school). This, in itself, would be grueling, but the school doesn’t serve the children breakfast, lunch, or snacks. There is no cafeteria or food preparation facilities whatsoever (this is true for all public schools in Tonga). There are, however, “canteens” set up behind the school by private vendors. The canteens are shanty-like structures that are tended from early morning until the children leave at the end of the day. They sell a variety of non-nutritious foods ranging from plastic baggies filled with a kool-aid type of mixture (the children bite the corner off the baggie and suck the contents out—just picture it!) to packages of ramen noodles to chips and twisties (a favorite here) and lollies. Of course, the children are on their own as far as paying for their daily bread. I have noticed, however, that many children do not have money and, therefore, do not eat all day long. Again, can you picture this in America? We’d call it child abuse and sue someone. A rather stark contrast.

Obesity and BMI:
You have no doubt heard me railing about Tongans having the highest BMI ratio in the world, right? So, you might imagine that Tongan children share their parents’ proclivity for heftiness. But, if you so imagined, you would be wrong. Perhaps this is due to the above scenario—no food all day long—but I don’t think so. I think it has more to do with their activity level. Tongan children run and climb trees and play marbles and play tag and hide and seek and soccer (when they can find something to serve as a ball) and the girls are the most talented hula hoopers I have ever seen. There are no organized sports for children in Tonga so children are not shepherded from soccer practice to dance practice to gymnastics. They have to entertain themselves and, for the most part, they have to take care of themselves. Parenting in Tonga is quite ad hoc. The stark contrast: I have not seen one child in Tonga playing with an electronic game. So, if Michelle wants to fight childhood obesity, I think she should ban electronic games (oh, and limiting TV time wouldn’t hurt either).

I’m fairly certain that there is not a single American school child who knows how to wield a broom. In stark contrast, every single child at Nuku’alofa GPS, all 600+ of them, are quite capable with a broom. They sweep the concrete floors in their classrooms. They sweep the walls of their classrooms to rid them of spider webs and other detritus. They sweep the school grounds—really! And, they sweep the sidewalks and sometimes the access roads to the school.

I must admit that I am completely incompetent with Tonga taufale, which are sort of “witches broom” type of constructions made with natural materials. So, I am quite happy with the fact that the puleako/principal has assigned me two “duties” whose responsibilities include sweeping the library/office each morning before I arrive (remember the children arrive at 7:00 a.m., which is much too early for me!)

Tokoni mai! Help me!
As part of a story writing project, I facilitated a Mind Mapmaking activity with the Class 5 and 6 students. Each of the children created a Mind Map that included personal information: Where I Live, My Family, What I Like To Do, and What I Want To Be. A fairly high percentage of children actually wrote “I like to help” on the “What I Like To Do” section of their Mind Maps. All right, given the whole universe of activities a child might list under this category, how many American children do you think would list “I like to help?” Oh, and many children also stated that they “Like to sweep.” But, in relation to my earlier obesity paragraph above, not one child said, “I like to play electronic games.” Another stark contrast.

In fact, the contrast between the typical over-indulged American child and the typical under-indulged Tongan child is too stark for words to convey. Every afternoon I work in the school library, attempting to get it in shape for our Grand Opening during Literacy Week, March 22 to 26. The work I have to do is not pleasant. And yet, each and every day, I have children lined up at both doors begging to help me. So, I invite a handful in and they quite happily scrub walls, doors, and floors. They scrape glue and tape off of the walls and shelves, they perform any task I ask of them and they do it with a smile.

Last month, Cyclone Rene roared through Tonga, scoring a direct hit on our island of Tongatapu. Our school building suffered minor damage but the entire facility and grounds were ransacked by the gale force winds. Many of the massive trees on the playground lost limbs, which were scattered about, some left hanging tenuously from their mother trees. Detritus from other sources had been deposited on the playground: pieces of roofing, fence parts, and wall sections. All of the classrooms had suffered wind and water damage, some were completely trashed. There were power lines lying on the ground.

Rob and I walked to the school the day after the cyclone to inspect the damage done to “my” library, of which there was none. Surveying the damage, we wondered how may days it would take to clean up and set things right so school could resume.

The next day children arrived with machetes and other implements of destruction and set to work cleaning up the mess. They hacked apart tree parts and hauled them into piles. They hauled desks and benches out of classrooms and then swept the standing water, along with stacks of sodden paper, out. They filled the trash barrels, dumped them on the school’s trash heap, and then filled them again. They filled up pick-up trucks with the downed branches then hopped on top of the stacks, rode to teachers’ houses, unloaded the branches, and then returned for more.

This experience provided me with yet another, “You’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto,” moment. In America, we would never allow children to enter school grounds in such condition. We would first assure that the facility and grounds were safe before allowing the children’s return. In Tonga, the children would be waiting a very long time. So, these can-do children—and teachers—got it done.

As I compose this post, two cyclones are menacing our ‘neighborhood:’ Tomas and Ului. While the projections show both of them passing us by, I have no doubt that the Tongan people, both young and old, will simply take it in stride if one or both should make landfall. They won’t wait for FEMA. They won’t wait for a declaration by the president/king. They won’t wait for the insurance companies to step in to the cover the costs. They’ll just get ‘er done. And that seems like a stark contrast to me.