Archive for April, 2008
For the first time since December, Scot and I have left our little island of Ha’apai. At first we had a few fears originating from the tv show “Lost,” that maybe the island wouldn’t “let us leave.” *Lost fans know what I’m talking about…. Yet our flight took off with no problems and we are now in the capital city of Nuku’alofa! Being on Ha’apai can often be quite isolating, and I honestly forgot that we had such a great community of friends scattered amongst the islands of Tonga. We had a fantastic dinner with several other volunteers, and just caught up on life over the past few months. I do have to say that walking into the grocery store and the market was an overwhelming and quite frankly– emotional experience. I certainly expect to see the abundance of food and produce on our upcoming trip to New Zealand, but I wasn’t prepared to see the plethora of food, fresh veggies, and supplies available to the volunteers living on the main island. In so many ways, Ha’apai is just a different world. When we first arrived in Tonga, I thought that Nuku’alofa looked like this shabby, run down town. This time here, it honestly looks like a clean, lovely cosmopolitan city– just bursting with commerce. Ahh, how perspectives change with time. But then last night over dinner, a PC staff who served in one of the most remote outer islands in all of Tonga (in the Niuas, about 10 years ago) shared some about her experience. Her accounts of peeing in a can, no running water and having to walk an hour to wash clothes in a lake demonstrates the huge spectrum of variety in the Peace Corps experience. Anyway, for now I am LOVING the warm showers, the brightly colored fruits and veggies in the market, internet that works, and catching up with friends we haven’t seen in months. We are actually in town for a Peace Corps conference and a high intensive language training, and then we finally fly to our much anticipated vacation in New Zealand! Now that we have better access to the internet, we will try and keep the blog more updated:)
Well last week after we left Sandy beaches, my Mac Powerbook died. I tried freezing my hard drive, but to no avail. Karen’s is on the fritz and could go at any time. Kiki’s ibook is on it’s way out, and both of our bikes broke last week. The internet has been out for over 2 weeks and they keep saying “next week”. We are bracing for whats next.
The foreigners (or palangis) I meet in the Tonga never cease to amaze me. Two weekends ago, Scot and I were given what felt like “the opportunity of a lifetime.” As we’ve definitely mentioned in earlier postings, our lives here are very simple and modest. We live in a Tongan home with an outdoor kitchen and shed. We often cook by a kerosene lamp and battle legions of ants, mosquitoes, and centipedes on a daily basis. Air conditioning is just a distant memory, and the meals that we consume that are actually tasty and nutritious are few and far between. So when the Boris, the German owner of a luxury resort on Foa Island, asked Scot if he was interested in working on his computers in exchange for a free evening at the resort—we JUMPED at the opportunity. Although it was rainy, it was impossible to not enjoy the amazing meals and the hot showers. Our bed at home has got to be one of the most uncomfortable mattresses of all time, and without a box spring, we both wonder what the condition of our backs will be post Peace Corps service. The king sized, fluffy bed at Sandy Beaches Resort felt like floating on a cloud in heavenJ
We had the Resort mostly to ourselves, but ended up sharing a meal with some NGO development workers in town. And I have to say, I am often baffled by the sheer number of volunteers and development workers pouring into Tonga. They are all equipped with their big budgets and grand ideas, and Peace Corps is no different. The entire population of Tonga is a mere 100,000, and I honestly cannot go five feet without seeing another Peace Corps worker, Japanese Jica volunteer, Methodist missionary, Mormon missionary, Australian NGO worker, New Zealand non-profit volunteer, etc, etc. Tonga is a country with few environmental diseases, long life expectancies, and they boast a high literacy rate. What it is so hard for me to process is that I have been in places that desperately need such volunteers, budgets, ideas, and services. Those of you who know me well know that my heart is in Haiti. In that impoverished country, I met children dying of malnutrition, tuberculosis, malaria, and Aids. I met children that huddled around a tattered English dictionary from the 1960s to learn a foreign language. And in that country of millions of people, located in such a close proximity to the US, the foreign aid and development workers I met were few and far between. No doubt, the ones I met were INCREDIBLE, but Peace Corps was gone. Jica was never present. Doctors without Borders pulled out. Aus Aid and New Zealand assistance were worlds away.
But I digress. Anyway, the conversation with this particular volunteer immediately delved into the nature of development work. Although he had only visited Tonga a handful of times (and stayed in foreign owned, luxury resorts), he had the audacity to lecture us about Tongan culture and the desperate need for the foreign assistance he was providing. Now I admit I am no expert on Tongan culture, but I like to think I’ve learned a thing or two in the seven months I’ve lived and worked here. He launched into quite the lecture about “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs” (which I’ve taught classes on) and passionately proclaimed that Tongans basic needs aren’t met. Now I’ve definitely worked with people whose basic needs aren’t being met. Mostly in Haiti and at a homeless shelter in Charleston, SC. That just quite simply is not the case in Tonga. Most people have rain water collection tanks to drink fresh water (without having to walk the miles that Haitians often have to walk), the collectivist society readily shares yams and pigs between neighbors, pele (a large green leaf similar in taste to spinach) grows abundantly, and most people have the know-how and materials necessary to fish. Not even to mention that thousands of Tongans have relatives overseas that support their families in the island by sending back large remittances. There are more Tongans living in just Auckland, New Zealand than all of Tonga, and I’ve been at the bank when the money wires go through. The stacks of bills exchanged are not paltry amounts.
When finances are needed to fulfill what Tongans perceive as a need, the money seems to readily appear from within the community. For example, all month the schools are participating in sport competition. My modest primary school raised over $900 pa’anga (about $450 US) in forty-eight hours to buy matching yellow t-shirts for the sporting team. The minister’s house across the street from a large church in the neighborhood is an absolute mansion, even by US standards. Apparently the church was largely funded by its congregation because due to the social hierarchy ministers are entitled to such estates. Approximately 900 Tongans are traveling to Australia this summer to “Catholic World Youth Day” to see the Pope. Which is all fine and good, but I’d rather not hear a sob story about how Tongans can’t meet their basic needs.
Then he launched into a diatribe about how Western society has devalued and denigrated Tongan culture. Yet five minutes later he proclaimed that two functioning computers could “save Tongan high school students from a future of weaving.” Don’t get me wrong—of course I believe in educational opportunity. That is why I am a teacher and social worker living and working in a developing country. But “saving a student from weaving” is hardly like saving someone from a future in prostitution. And it’s not like the weaving is done a sweatshop. Tongan women weave like they have for centuries upon centuries. They use all natural, indigenous resources and typically sit on a porch with generations of women from the village. Weaving is certainly hard work, but it allows for artistic expression, and there always seems to an enormous amount of laughter and chatter during work hours. Small children sleep next to their grandmothers after just being nursed by their mothers. It preserves indigenous skills and knowledge and at the same time has become an incredibly lucrative line of work. Entire villages are funded just on weaving alone. Tongans living abroad purchase the handiwork for thousands of dollars. And unfortunately, in these climate conditions, those computers he spoke of are often ruined by the heat, the moisture and the insects (a colony of ants made home in my cd drive and Scot has encountered computers with wasp nests) and the computer equipment ends up in the ocean. Which is hardly beneficial considering the toxic chemicals then transmitted into a delicate ecosystem and food source.
Whew, I know this was a lengthy post. I just really felt the need to share some of what we grapple with here. No doubt, we are also in the learning process and are not experts on sustainable development. We are just taking it all day at a time, with our eyes open to the realities of our surroundings and the perspectives of the past.
Some of the recently uploaded pictures are from Sport Day at my school. It was an absolute blast, even for a non-athlete like myself. This last Friday was an island wide sport competition for seven area primary schools. We met some very nice New Zealander’s there, a father and his two kids. They were some of the nicest palangis yet.
We are heading to Nuku’alofa in a this week for a Peace Corps conference and then on to New Zealand for a short vacation. We miss you all and hope all is well!