Saturday, December 18, 2010


Peace Corps Tonga has just sworn in its 76th group of volunteers. 26 bright shining faces have joined the ranks that have served the Kingdom over the past 43 years. We celebrated with them yesterday as they completed their 2 ½ months of training with a lovely ceremony here in Nuku'alofa. It is with hope and enthusiasm that we say “hello” to our new compatriots.

Arrivals and departures are a hallmark of Peace Corps service. Just over a year ago we said goodbye to family, friends, jobs, communities—our life in the States—to say hello to our new life as PCVs in Tonga. Our first hellos were to our fellow Group 75 trainees in Los Angeles, followed in a few days by hellos to the Peace Corps staff who support us, and to some of the Group 73 volunteers we would soon be replacing. These hellos soon became goodbyes as these folks completed their service and left before we really had much of a chance to get to know them.

As we settled into our sites and began our work assignments, we started to get to know our Group 74 colleagues who were beginning their second year of service. As we served alongside these folks, we gained respect and appreciation for the work they were doing and became good friends with a few. Over the past few weeks we have been saying goodbye to these friends as they completed their service. It's been especially hard to say goodbye to our closest Group 74 friends and neighbors, Melanie and Eric.

We met Melanie and Eric when they were relocated from an outer island in Ha'apai to Nuku'alofa (see previous post). They moved into a house near us, and since then we've shared many meals, trips to the beach, and long conversations together. As primary teachers Kathy and Melanie are kindred spirits, and Eric and I provided each other with motivation for our early morning work-outs: getting up at 5:30 a.m. and going to the gym 3 times a week. Our first trip to Pangaimotu was a result of their encouragement, and, again, with their encouragement, we even ventured out to the infamous Billfish nightclub.

On the day of their departure from the Kingdom, Kathy wrote the following “Ode to Melanie.”
The past few days have felt like Christmas at our house as our PC colleagues, neighbors and friends, Melanie and Eric, have undertaken final preparations for departure. But rather than Worcestershire sauce, a Christmas tree, myriad art supplies, camp chairs, or even Nestle's semi-sweet chocolate morsels, I'd still rather have Melanie.

I met Melanie about 10 months ago when she and Eric wer moved from their outer island site to the main island of Tongatapu. And, while she and Eric were devastated about having to leave their small island where they were happy, fully invested, and looking forward to a successful second year, they approached their new assignments with the “can do” spirit typical of their upper midwest upbringing.

Melanie, in her assignment as an English teacher at a nearby primary school, once again took an empty concrete block room and turned it into a haven for children's academic and expressive pursuits. As time passed, the children came to know and trust that their thoughts and opinions would be respected, their work products valued, and they would be free from harm. They were safe to explore and create when in Melanie's environs.

For Melanie and Eric, Peace Corps was always about service. Melanie shared with me a mantra that she had adopted when faced with yet another Tongan conundrum: “I'm doin' it for Jesus.” This statement, in its simplicity, sums up Melanie's motivation. Her service to the people of Tonga was completely selfless; her service originated in a deep and profound love for people, all people, and her love of God.

Melanie, while young chronologically speaking, is wise beyond her years. With a journalism background, she took on the challenge of teaching with an open mind and open heart. When faced with the rote recitation methodology prevalent in the Tongan education system, her heart and mind, rather than an educational philosophy supported by a teaching credential or degree, told her to pursue a more reasoned and reasonable approach. As a result Melanie implemented an intact and sound pedagogy. She is a gifted natural educator.

I have great respect for Melanie and I value the few months I was fortunate enough to spend time with her. Her optimism and enthusiasm are boundless. She truly exemplifies the adage that “hope springs eternal.” Her heart for service, giving all of herself to the people of Tonga, continues to inspire me. Her passion and patience left friendships and a legacy that will long be remembered.

As dozens of people lined up to throw good bye parties, bestow blessings, and shower gifts on Melanie and Eric I chose to express my heartfelt sadness by writing this “Ode to Melanie.” Thank you, Melanie, for shining your light so brightly in my life. I really would rather have you than Nestle's semi-sweet chocolate morsels.

So as Eric and Melanie are adjusting to their new lives back home in the frigid Mid-West, we are beginning some fine new friendships with volunteers from Group 76 and looking forward to our week of training next month which will reunite us with our Group 75 colleagues from the other islands.  Once again, we'll be saying hello and then good-bye again as we go our respective ways to begin our second year of service.  And then next October, it will be hello to Group 77 as we prepare our good-byes to Tonga.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


This week there are competing claims from the two major factions elected to Tonga's Parliament regarding the election of the next Prime Minister. Neither the nine nobles nor the 12 Friendly Island Democratic Party people's representatives have enough seats to control the decision, leaving the election up to the five “independent” people's representatives.

The online magazine Matangi Tonga reports that a bloc of 15 members, which includes the nine nobles, have agreed on one candidate. While no one is willing to state who that candidate is, speculation is that the nomination is for the noble Tu'ivakano, currently the interim Minister of Training, Education, Youth and Sports.

Meanwhile, Radio New Zealand is reporting that the leader of the Friendly Islands Democratic Party, Akilisi Pohiva, remains confident that it will form the government, claiming that he should have 15 votes.

All this speculation will end soon, as the Interim Speaker is scheduled to receive formal nominations next Thursday, with Parliament due to sit the next day to begin the process to finally elect a Prime Minister.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Election results are in, and . . .

38,474 Tongan citizens—fully 90% of the those registered-- came out to vote last Thursday. And while the big winner was the Friendly Islands Democratic Party (FIDP), which won 12 of the 17 popularly elected seats for the next Parliament, it fell two seats short of capturing a majority of the 26 total number of seats.

Nine nobles were elected by their peers, and together with the five “independent” people's representatives the majority of the new Parliament will not be affiliated with any one party.

No women were elected (eleven were candidates) despite “women's issues” being one of the bigger issues in the campaign. Women are prohibited from owning land, and domestic violence has recently become a front burner issue in Tonga. Women are also prohibited from inheriting noble titles, making the nobles' election an exclusively male business.

The Friendly Islands Democratic Party is led by 'Akilisi Pohiva, long-time leader of the pro-democracy movement in Tonga and currently the longest serving member of Parliament. But nine of the 12 elected from his group are new to Parliament, and three have no experience at all in in civil service. And only two won more than 50% of the vote in their electorate, as most districts had multiple candidates. On the other hand, the five independent people's representatives are experienced in government; several have headed ministries in the recent past.

The first order of business for the new Parliament is to elect a Prime Minister. While the King and several nobles are advocating for a commoner to be elected, this sentiment is not shared by all. While Pohiva has openly lobbied for the post, the prevailing sentiment is that none of the nobles would vote for him. So with all of the ministry heads also to be appointed, most of whom will be members of Parliament, there is plenty of room for negotiation. It appears the five independent people's representatives will determine whether the nobles block or the FIDP block will prevail.

During the campaign most of the successful candidates focused on the need for the new government to conduct the country's business with honesty and integrity, as it is widely perceived that the current government is corrupt and inefficient. An opinion poll focused on issues reported that only 41% believe the country is “headed in the right direction,” and the most important issue by far was “growing the economy.”

In the weeks just before the election there were reports of vote buying and candidate defamation; a police officer was investigated for actively campaigning for a candidate; and two candidates' names were struck from the ballot because of court orders to pay debts. One candidate campaigned to legalize marijuana, and another advocated that Tonga declare itself to be a “welfare state” (neither won).

The earliest anyone expects a Prime Minister to be elected is Christmas, and it is more likely to be in early January. In the meantime the most interesting politicing is now taking place behind closed doors. It will be most interesting to see what results.