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.