Join our adventure in The Kingdom of Tonga

Attention New Peace Corps Volunteers!

During my time as a PCV, I became concerned about Peace Corps’ approach to sexual assault response protocol, prevention, and training. I am now an active member of the First Response Action Coalition ( First Response Action is a coalition of both returned and current Peace Corps Volunteers with a mission to support PCVs who are survivors of sexual abuse by advocating for policy reform, relevant training, medical and emotional support. As you may know, there were 131 reported victims of rape or sexual assault in Peace Corps in 2008. It is our belief that many posts have not developed clear response procedures when such crimes occur. We have developed a Peace Corps Survey on sexual assault training to further assess the situation.

Casey Frazee, First Response Action founder, had a conference call with Peace Corps Headquarters in March. PC says they are implementing changes to the Volunteer Handbook and they are even updating the Rape Response Handbook (the most recent version is from 1996). While I whole-heartedly want to believe Peace Corps, I also want to check and see what is going on in sexual assault trainings around the world.

If you are a new Peace Corps Trainee or Volunteer (or if you are leaving soon) please visit the blog, fill out the survey, and pass it along to any incoming PCVs (PCTs). Instructions on how to return the survey are on the form. Honest answers are most appreciated. No names or identifying details will be shared with PC or anyone outside the Coalition board members. We respect confidentiality!

It only takes a minute! Thanks SO much! The survey is available here-

A New Chapter…

Our time in Tonga has come to an end. There would be too many people to possibly thank in one blog post. We are so grateful for the kindness and support we received from friends, family, fellow Peace Corps Volunteers, and co-workers during our time in the Kingdom. I was 29 when we went to Tonga; now I am 31. We left during the Bush Administration, and have returned to the Obama era. We are sure to feel incredibly blessed and patriotic this upcoming 4th of July. Right now, we are enjoying the opportunity to reconnect with our families and loved ones. We plan to move to the Denver, Colorado area in mid-July. We have returned to the U.S. with a wider world perspective, countless anecdotes and stories about our time in Polynesia, enhanced Professional skills, and a renewed appreciation for home. Thanks for following our journey!

Book Readings and Parades…

I wanted to give a few updates from the past few weeks.  Two winners of the prestigious “Commonwealth Writers’ Prize” happened to be in Tonga after receiving their awards in New Zealand.  The authors, Marina Endicott and Mandla Langa, were only in the Kingdom for a couple of days.  I was fortunate enough to set up a book reading at my school.  My Form 6 students (High School Seniors in the U.S.) attended the event.  It was really such an honor to have the authors at my school, and I was so proud of my students.  Although they may not have understood every single word, they listened diligently and actively participated in the question and answer session.  Because we had recently studied the apartheid movement in South Africa, the students were especially interested in talking with Mandla Langa.  He is a South African poet and novelist, who was honored with the Commonwealth Writers’ Award for his recent novel, “Lost Colours of the Chameleon.” My students asked about racism in South Africa today, as well as the post-apartheid political climate.  For more information about these novels, you can click here.

Mandla Langa at Tupou High School

Mandla Langa at Tupou High School

Lost Colours of the Chameleon

Marina Endicott

Marina Endicott


Cynthia and Sateki, two of my favorite students, at the book reading.

Cynthia and Sateki, two of my favorite students, at the book reading.

If you get a moment to look at some of our new photos, you will see me– all dressed up in traditional Tongan clothes, mat and all, marching in the opening of the Parliament parade.  I’m just going to over generalize here, and say that Tongans love a) marching bands b) parades.  I honestly think all of Nuku’alofa came out for the event.  The parade, which involved nearly every school in Tongatapu, seemed to be designed to signify the people’s support for both the Royalty and the Parliament.  I don’t know if that is always a social/political reality, but like I said… everyone loves marching bands and parades!  This was the first year my school had a marching band, due to recently acquired instruments.  I have to say… I was impressed and enjoyed myself– despite the heat and the massive crowds.  And the outfit:)

Not Tonga Related…

Obviously this blog is specifically about our experiences as Peace Corps Volunteers in the Kingdom of Tonga, but this post is about a different topic. I wanted to share a story about health care in the United States. Of course this is a controversial political issue. Yet for many working class Americans, it is much deeper than political banter. Not to sound like a cliche, but the inability to afford health care can be a matter of life and death.

Elaine is one of my closest friends. We worked together at the domestic violence shelter, My Sister’s House, in Charleston, SC. Her family is currently struggling with the inability to afford health care. Her 38-year old nephew, John Wesley (JW) Frierson, was diagnosed with hemochromatosis late last summer. Hemochromatosis causes iron overload and can cause damage to internal organs. JW has lost 70 pounds since September. The family recently learned that his liver is close to complete failure and he is a candidate for a liver transplant at the Medical University of SC. They call it “non-alcohol related cirrhosis.” The transplant team has advised that the surgery could take place within several weeks, however, the amount of funds in his account will be one of the determining factors as to when the transplant actually takes place. They will not proceed with the vital operation until enough funds are procured. JW and his wife, Carol, have 2 young children (Lori, 11 and Wesley, 7) and are an independent, loving, hard-working young couple and great parents. They just don’t have the resources they need to deal with this.

The family is fund raising through the National Transplant Assistance Fund, which is a 501 (c) 3 (non-profit), so donations made directly to them will be tax deductible. His website is:

Living in this part of the world has given me a broader perspective on health care. We meet a lot of Australians and New Zealanders, and they are just appalled by the lack of health care coverage in the U.S. Those nations also provide comprehensive medical grants for Tongans who need medical procedures that cannot be addressed in Tonga. I just wish that my own nation felt that health care was a basic human right. If you are able to make even a small donation for John Frierson, please visit the “National Transplant Assistance Fund” as soon as possible.

JW & Family
The Frierson Family

Renewables all over Tonga

Well my main position here at the Ministry has always been IT, but since Lara’s departure, I was able to transition over to GIS. It’s a great time and I really enjoy working with Richard, Seli, Leilika, and Maka. We have a good time and I have actually felt like I have had things to contribute as well as learning a great deal from them! I just finished writing a guide on mapping the seismic data from Geology for the past number of years. It’s good fun!

I am also working with my IT counterpart, Vinod, and a new Energy Planner, Lano, on biofuel initiatives here in Tonga. It’s really exciting because these guys are really excited about the potentials here. In just few weeks, with Lano’s navigation of the culture and extreme enthusiasm and some background work I have done, we have been able to identify some real potential for reinvigorating the copra economy here in Tonga! We have also identified some people doing some really interesting things with grid tie solar systems as well as experimenting with gassification of wood systems! We have also gotten approval to install a two tank straight vegetable oil system in a Ministry truck!

BYU reactor from 2006, still being used! They are out of chemicals at the moment.

The Product line they are creating! The second from the left is the washed biodiesel.

Here is the couple and their tractor they have been using their homebrew in!

Here is Murray with his Solar grid tie system!



Here is Murray’s new project, his gassification of wood unit!

Here is the truck we are going to covert to a 2 tank SVO(straight veggie oil) system!

Peace Corps flu shot, is it mandatory?

In 2008, when Karen and I lived in Ha’apai, we were notified that we were to receive a mandatory flu shot from Peace Corps. Personally I have a problem with being told that I have to have a shot and not to mention that it makes me sick every single time, so I fought the issue. I went back and forth on email and phone with Peace Corps here in Nuku’alofa that I did not want to take it because it makes me sick with the flu for at least several days. So they came back with their final response; “take the shot or be administratively separated”. So I took it. Guess what, it made me ill. Just about the time I was getting over my mandatory flu I received an email that the flu shot was no longer mandatory. I had to admit this was a bit laughable.

But for some reason I felt a bit relieved to know that I wouldn’t have to take one next year. So it was a bit surprising this week when I received an email that the new flu shot was mandatory due to the world wide H1N1 outbreak. Hmmm, is this the H1N1 flu shot? No. This is last fall’s flu shot. I have had the flu or flu like symptoms twice since January, I feel like I have developed an immunity to local strains and if/when H1N1 makes it here then we have Tamiflu. So why is it “mandatory”? We will find out if it actually is and I will let you know here. Stay posted.

Trying to teach in Tonga…

I wanted to share a link to the blog of a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer in Tonga.  Sarah completed her service here about six months ago, and compiled a list “25 Reasons you Know you Volunteered in Tonga.”  It is hilarious, and totally worth a read.

Teaching has been incredibly challenging lately.  The Ministry of Education dictates extremely high standards for students.  Which is all well and good, but the standards are incredibly difficult to implement.  Students are routinely promoted to a new grade, often times regardless of merit or achievement.  A 50% is considered a passing score, and cheating or “sharing work” is often times cultural acceptable.  There are very few textbooks– not because the school cannot afford them or that piles and piles are not donated annually.  Students simply write all over them, tear out pages, loose them, etc.

This year, I have about 90 students, in Junior and Senior English and Junior Geography.  The Ministry of Education determines each syllabus for the courses.  My Geography class just completed a unit on Environmental Conservation.  Here was my experience with that unit.  We spent several days studying the mangrove trees.  They are vital to the coastal marine ecosystem here for a plethora of reasons, such as protecting the coast from erosion, storms and tsunamis.  Their roots provide refuge for crabs, fish, algae, oysters, lobsters, and shrimp.  All of which you can imagine are very important to a small island nation that relies of sustainable fishing for survival. Mangroves are also a natural water filter, which helps the coral reef ecosystem.  I honestly thought my several day emphasis of studying the importance of the mangroves was overkill.  I even had a Tongan expert from the Ministry of the Environment come and give a special presentation on the subject.  So when the students took their quiz on the subject, guess what the most common answer was for “Why is it important to protect the mangroves?”  For firewood. Wow.  The response was a bit disheartening to say the least.  I understand people need wood, but I guess I had hoped that maybe all the discussions would have illuminated why some other trees might be a better choice.

The Ministry of Environment then requests for all students to write a research paper on the “Effects of Waste Disposal on the Coral Marine Ecosystem.”  I am not even going to go into detail about the mounds of waste on the beaches and littered on the ground in Tonga.  I know there are cultural reasons that correspond with the litter.  I think some of it has to do with the fact that imported (non-biodegradable) goods are relatively new to Pacific Islands.  Historically, if you threw something on the ground, it was biodegradable.  Tonga is fortunate though, in the current funding and opportunities for waste management.   The Australian Government just built an incredible landfill a few years ago, and there is an island wide (on Tongatapu) weekly trash pick-up service.  Seven years ago, a Tongan family also started an incredibly impressive recycling business (Gio Recycling.)  I worked with my students on this Research Paper for about a month.  I had a guest speaker from Gio Recycling come in and talk extensively about recycling here in Tonga.  The day the projects were due, I expected my students to simply turn them in to me.  Oh no.  When I got to the class, it was massive pandemonium.  Everyone’s papers were circulating around the room, for copying, copying, copying.  They furiously scribbled down notes from old papers, passed down from neighbors or siblings.  I can honestly say after reading them, not one student wrote one authentic thought.  Every single word was copied from someone else’s paper and not one student even mentioned recycling as a way to help with the waste issue.  Seriously, the only thing they seem to care about recycling is one another’s work.

I understand living in a collective, communal society.  Intellectual property is just a foreign concept here.  It just gets really frustrating in an academic setting.  My Senior English students had to write a paper on “My Culture, My Education, My Future.”  I understand getting some help from siblings or friends, but I was just really angry when a Tongan student turned in a paper clearly downloaded straight from the internet about her life as ” A Buddhist Chinese American living in the Bay Area.”  This girl has never left this island and she is most definitely not Buddhist or Chinese.  It is one thing to get a little help, but to not even read the paper you are passing off as your own?!  Ugh.  The same experience happened with my Junior English students.  They are supposed to write and present speeches on a Tongan tradition (ex- kava ceremony, Tongan wedding, traditional dance, Tongan funeral, etc.)  These are topics that are very familiar to them.  I spent weeks, trying to explain and demonstrate writing an outline and rough draft.  When it came time to present the speeches,  I honestly think 2 students out of 35 read something they actually wrote.  The vast majority were clearly written by an older relative or friend.  Many of my students truly hope to study in Fiji, NZ, or Australia next year.  There are EXCELLENT scholarship opportunities for continuing their education overseas.  It just puts me in such a difficult situation, because if they study abroad, I want them to be prepared.  They certainly will not be allowed to blatantly plagiarize in those settings.  Yet culturally, it would not be out of the norm to smile and pretend to not notice plagiarized work and keep promoting students.  I am thankful to have the support of my Principal and Supervisor on this matter.

I did just complete reading a novel with my Form 6 students.  We read an abridged, condensed version of “Cry the Beloved Country,” specifically created for ESL students.  It was the first glimpse many of them have ever had of Africa or apartheid in South Africa.  We had some great conversations about economic injustice.  I have not read the actual, full length novel, and I know it is much more detailed.  It may be very different from the shortened novel we discussed, but I was a bit disappointed that it did not seem to have any strong female characters and all the white characters were depicted as virtually flawless.  Nevertheless, I do think it was a really interesting novel for the students.  I guess like most of my experience here, I am just taking it all day at a time and trying to focus on the few, small “successes” I have.