Tuesday, June 8, 2010

It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's a . . What?

Kathy has been teaching her primary school kids about animal groups, and now they all know about how birds are vertebrates that have two legs, feathers, and can fly. Of course they learn that there are always exceptions, like chickens that are birds that don’t fly. (Then there are bats which do fly, but aren’t birds, but that’s another story.) Until I came to Tonga I had no trouble with this knowledge myself, but I have now witnessed several events of actual chickens flying. The most recent one almost caused me to crash.

I was riding along on my bicycle when a chicken started to run across the road in front of me. No big deal, chickens are everywhere, even in downtown Nuku'alofa. A car was coming along a bit too fast toward us, so the chicken flew up to avoid the car, but her timing was a bit off and she was hit by the car’s windshield. Feathers went flying, but most alarmingly the chicken was now hurtling out of control toward me. I ducked, managed to stay upright, and with racing heart got stopped safely. I don’t know the ultimate fate of the chicken from this encounter, but she did get herself up and run off. So you have it from me; Tonga chickens can fly, so be careful out there!

About the bats: early on in her experience at her school Kathy observed a teacher doing a lesson, in which she was talking about Tonga’s “flying fox,” a pretty good sized bat that we saw a lot of when we were in Ha’apai. The teacher was going on about the bat, and concluded by saying that because this creature can fly, and using big arm motions to demonstrate, categorically stated that therefore “A bat is a BIRD, because BIRDS can fly!” She then proceeded to have the children mimic her, flapping their arms, reciting “A bat is a Bird because Birds can fly!”

These sorts of situations in schools pose some tricky dilemmas. Many Tongan teachers are not particularly well educated, and there are tremendous gaps in their knowledge, particularly of geography and biology. (Segue: When Kathy and I were doing some of our initial research about Tonga before we came, we learned that the peka (the flying fox bat) and another smaller bat are the only mammals native to Tonga). And of course one cannot just jump in and try to correct them. Later on when Kathy was teaching about animal groups as part of her English lessons she taught the correct information in a very straight ahead, factual manner; the teacher was in the room during the lesson, and nothing further has been said.

The domestic animal life really is something here in the Kingdom. In our "city" neighborhood pigs are all around. Even though we have a fenced yard, there are several holes that a very young pig can get through, so we've had to do some chasing lately as we don't want them tearing up our our little bit of grass and molesting Kathy's newly planted vegetable garden. One of these little guys was killed by dogs who must have followed the pig through the hole into our back yard. Not a pretty sight. Dogs roam the neighborhood freely, and while they do have owners they are not kept as pets and are not well cared for. Not to mention that many Tongans think roast dog is quite a culinary treat. They can be a menace to bike riders as well as piglets, and I have been bit on the foot by a neighborhood pack that decided to chase me on my bike one day. And then, of course, the chickens. We don't mind them being in the yard because we have heard that they like to eat the giant stinging centipedes (molokaus) that occasionally come snaking into the house and scare the bejeezus out of us. And anyway, after all, what can you do when as we now all know "Chickens are Birds, and Birds can Fly!"

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