Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Kingdom awaits . . .

Faithful readers:  We are welcoming a new group of volunteers in about a month.  Thinking back to one year ago when Kathy and I were in the same situation I decided to write a bit about what I've learned since then as sort of a high-level overview with them in mind.  However, I  think you'll enjoy it as well.

So Welcome Peace Corps Tonga Group 76 to the Kingdom!  Here's a bit of perspective from someone with all of one year of experience here, so keep that in mind as you file this with everything else you may be learning.

The Kingdom of Tonga has entered the wider world's awareness only in the last 200 or so years, just a few grains in the great sand clock of civilization.  Today I was showing my Economics classes a video about why geography was largely responsible for creating the conditions that led to the development of the great industrial nations.  Of course, virtually none of those conditions exist in this tropical island country, a geographically dispersed collection of really small islands with little to offer the rest of the world.  So little that no Western powers were all that interested in colonizing it; consequently it has more or less stumbled into the inevitable globalising process by itself.

We Americans are a very diverse bunch, from a multitude of different cultures with a plethora of ethnic and racial identities all of which shapes who we are as individuals.  For the most part we are very accepting of our differences and hold no particular common values around culture and ceremony (although we all stand for the National Anthem at ball games.)  

Tongans, in stark contrast, are a very homogenous people.  They share an ethnic identity and a complex set of common social and cultural traditions that we Americans have some trouble comprehending.  Social norms and rules of behavior are very well defined and ongoing compliance is expected.  It is, as you have no doubt read, a hierarchical society, with the King at the top and various strata of royalty and nobility above the common folk.  It is helpful to understand that it wasn't until late in the 19th century that commoners were declared to be full citizens by King George Tupou I.  Until then their ongoing right to live was at the pleasure of the entitled nobility.

The royals and nobles have a very complicated set of traditions, relationships, and hierarchies that you will never begin to understand. They have responsibilities to look after the welfare of the commoners, just as the commoners have responsibilities to supply them with food and gifts. It's all very complicated and you will want to try to figure it out, especially if you are assigned to a smaller village, but don't expect that anyone will really be able to explain it to you.

This fairly rigid set of norms and traditions has served the nation very well for centuries.  As long as Tonga was a subsistence economy with limited contact with the rest of the world this colorful fabric of culture provided meaning, spice, and a sense of order to everyday life.  You will, no doubt, get to expeience the dances, costumes, feasts, and singing that come from these traditions. The country did quite well in providing the basic necessities of life.

But the rest of the world has encroached, first with the missionaries who converted King George Tupou I and, consequently, everyone else, to a brand of Wesleyan Methodism, and then later with those seeking markets for manufactured goods and processed foods, many of which made life easier (such as bicycles, ready-to-wear clothing, tools and building materials) and many of which have created a whole host of problems (junk food and its wrappings most notably).   Radios, TVs and DVDs, and now computers and the internet have brought the rest of the world smack dab into the midst of all this tradition. And created a mountain of e-waste in the process.

Tonga is having trouble figuring all this out.  A traditional culture based on an unchanging subsistence way of life trying to preserve traditional values facing up to appetites whetted for consumer goods and the ubiquitous MTV culture.  It is a transition fraught with danger and confusion. You will especially see this in the young adults who are trying to figure out where they fit with all this change.

The current great unknown is how the government and the country is going to make the transition to a more democratic form of governance after elections this Fall create a legislature with a majority of elected members (until now the majority has been nobles appointed by the King.)  So you will have the opportunity to experience this first hand.  Your timing is great!

On to more mundane matters.  Bring stuff that is important to you;  we were really glad we brought our big non-stick skillet, our pillows and a nice set of sheets, and our French press coffee maker.  We wish we would have brought a good knife sharpener.  I haven't even unpacked most of the shirts I brought from home, and have worn the long pants only when I've traveled outside the country (except for one pair of jeans I've worn a few times at night).  Bring your snorkel and mask and take them to your training in Ha'apai. Think seriously about bringing your serviceable mountain or cross bike; while you might get lucky here and find a good used bike to buy, the Chinese bikes sold by stores are of poor quality.

They say the day begins in Tonga, and we look forward to meeting you as your new life in Tonga begins on October 7.