16 May 2010

Eat til you die!

Eat until you die! Kai ke mate! is a popular, joking phrase said at feasts that is somewhat similar to bon apetit.

This last Saturday, we went to the anniversary celebration of Mark's school, Hofangahau College, although we didn't eat til we died. Sometimes, too much roast pork makes us feel that way, though.

The day was centered around the noontime feast, but the real event started at 10am with a morning worship service underneath big red pavilion tents in front of the school. The guests of honour were all there, framed by braids of leaves and buckets of multicolored birds-of-paradise and bright pink waxy tropical flowers. The service was exactly the same format as any other church service, and when it was done, trucks started pulling up, laden with trays of food for the feast.


Many feasts are organized so that each family supplies a certain amount of food- in this case certain families were assigned "tables" of food, while others supplied five "trays" for each student in their family that attended the school. Prefects' families had to prepare the gift baskets for the guests of honour- large woven baskets filled with even more gourmet food- whole pigs, roast fish, and plenty of root crop.

The crowd, now four times bigger than it had been for the church service, sat down after all the food was laid out, and after the food blessing, dug in.


The hierarchy so prevalent in Tonga is especially noticeable at feasts; during the celebration, the guests of honour sat at one long table facing everyone else (think bride and groom's table at a traditional wedding) and had huge roast pig, fish soaked in coconut milk, lobster- all the most special foods at the feast. We were especially jealous of the bowls of ice cream they received after the main meal.






The rest of the tables were set up perpendicular to the head table, and the first of each table was set up with piles of food much like the guests of honour. Except, the food was just a little less special- we had roast pig, chop suey, curried noodles, and fried chicken. And, no ice cream.


Then, the farther tables, instead of being decorated and piled up with food, were bare, and each person sitting received an individual tray of food with primarily root crop and fried chicken.

There was busy silence for a while, and then the long, formulaic thank-you speeches started, thanking the guests of honour, the pastor, the principal, the head tutor, and expressing happiness at another year completed in the high school. The sound of the speeches barely masked the busy activity that was slowly clearing each table of food.



After the eating, the dancing started. At first, several older women went crazy in the middle of the "u" of tables, making up new words to the songs played by the school band, capering around, and generally drawing laughs from everyone.

At one point, I can't figure out what I was seeing, but I think one woman was rubbing cake over her face and dumping a bottle of juice over her head, to the great amusement of all.

The school band played song after song, each for a separate town on the island. Some towns dressed up some of the younger women and had them do the tau'olunga dance, and for each town's dance, the crowd ran up and tucked money into the dancers' clothing. In a sort of fundraising competition, at the end of each song, the MC would announce how much that town had earned for the school.

The final dances were the best ones; those practiced extensively by the school, and they were the most "traditional" and least impromptu. Two of Mark's students did a beautiful ta'olunga dance with heavily oiled arms and legs, and everyone ran up and stuck money to their oiled limbs.

The old joke is that if the money sticks, the girl's a virgin; an exercise in futility because the better dancer she is, more money she receives, and the less it sticks! Needless to say, only unmarried women are allowed to do the tau'olunga dance.

After the feast was officially closed by one of the guests of honour's thank you speech and prayer, everyone got out of there as fast as they could. Like every feast, as soon as the eating and show are done, there is absolutely positively no lingering. We were glad of the fact, because by this time it was cold and raining hard, so we gratefully rode back with the Hango staff.

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02 May 2010

Not your average American service

As we've written before, church is incredibly important in Tonga, a deeply Christian country since Methodist missionaries came in 1822. Among the handful of
denominations, the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga is the oldest, and the root of the newer Free Church of Tonga and Church of Tonga, hearkening back to the days of the first missionaries. We both teach in Free Wesleyan (FWC) schools, and so naturally, we go to the agriculture school's little FWC chapel every Sunday.

Every Sunday is almost exactly the same, not only across time, but across locations as well. Every church in the FWC denomination follows a liturgy that extends even to during-the-week bible studies and school assembly messages. Also, almost everyone in our town and school goes to one FWC church or another, so you can always say 'hey how about that message this morning' and even if they went to a different church, they'll know exactly what you're talking about.

So, every Sunday morning, we usually sleep through the 5AM bell (for 5:30AM service), have breakfast, and then at 9 and 9:30, we hear the bell ring for the 10AM service.

Church dress is the most formal out of every-day dress, so men wear a collared, button up shirt with a ta'ovala (the woven strip tied around the waist) and a tupenu (a tailored man-skirt that looks like someone took a pair of slacks and fused the legs together).









We walk across the cow field from our house, and turn around to look back at it from across the field.












Then, we continue through a corridor of pines that strangely always reminds us of Oregon. Women wear a puletaha (a matching skirt and top with elbow-length, puffed sleeves), and a longer tupenu (the woven wrap). This is the only time that women wear a tupenu other than when they attend funerals or are in mourning for the death of a loved one. Otherwise, you wear a kind of decorated belt called a kiekie.










We walk up to the little chapel just as the last bell is ringing. Contrary to popular stereotype of "Tonga time", Tongans are always on time to church, and if we walk in right at 10, we are already "late"- the last ones in!

During the week, the chapel is used for anything from school-wide assemblies to school singing practice. It gets well-loved.






The bell might look familiar- it's an old cooking gas canister! Very few churches have traditional gonging bells; most use a metal stick on an echoing empty gas canister. The smaller, squat canisters are always hung up near school buildings- a mystery to us when we first came to Tonga until we realized that those were the school bells- to ring the switching of periods.

The ringing goes on for two- three minutes, and at the last ring, church starts. Everyone pays attention from chatting with their neighbor, sits up, and the minister comes in to announce the first song.





The kids always get dressed up very smartly. The girl in this picture is wearing a kiekie, appropriate for younger women and older girls. Kiekies are also worn throughout the week to work by everyone, young and old women alike. Especially to work, it doesn't have to match your outfit, and it doesn't have to look new, as long as you are clean and modestly dressed.

In church, however, everyone looks their best.

We sing standing up, singing from little Methodist hymn books with tunes that sound strangely familiar but have Tongan words and rhythms. She's singing from one in her hand. Behind her is the song director, the head Prefect of the school, who conducts the congregation.




After each verse, the song leader reads out the words of the next verse, and someone in the back starts the tune again. This causes a very interesting auditory rhythm of song - speech - one person singing - everyone singing - speech etc.














All the kids sit through the service, keeping mostly quiet and good. Several of the young ones always break loose and run around the building until an older sibling is sent out to quiet them.











Tonga has a truly surprising number of ministers, and we were surprised to find out at the beginning that one minister does not do all of the sermons a church. Although each church usually has a minister, any number of ordained people from the community may be asked to preach at any time. We have never heard the same person preach twice in a row.

At the agriculture school, the principal, deputy principal, head tutor, and machinery manager are all ordained, and take turns giving the message.



Church ends promptly one hour after it begins.

After church, everyone streams out and slowly makes their way home to eat the most important meal of the week- Sunday dinner. Every other family on our campus spends the first few hours of Sunday morning preparing the 'umu, or underground oven.





First, they heat up stones in a fire pit with a fire while the sweet potatoes are skinned and the lu (meat wrapped in taro leaves with coconut milk) is prepared in foil packets. Then when the stones are hot enough, everything is piled into the hole, and covered with banana leaves and old blankets.

By the time church is out, everything has been cooking in the umu for an hour or two, and everyone is hungry, the kids especially.

We go over to the principal's house with his wife while he finishes drinking kava with several of the other men, and hang out with them and their two kids.






Even though everyone almost always has the same thing- lu (taro leaves + meat + coconut milk) and sweet potato or some other root crop, everyone always exchanges a plate of food with their immediate neighbors. The principal's wife always receives two or three plates of food, slides the food onto another platter, and places- often the same thing- on to the plate and returns the plate full with the kid who brought it. (this is the entrance to their house)

Several students also come to eat at their house, so we always have a fun time around the table, laughing, talking, and eating good food. Finally, stuffed, we roll home, and sometimes, drag ourselves up from afternoon laziness to attend the next service at 4pm.

You keep using this word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

The first term of school for me (Elena) is almost done, and I've been thinking a lot about what I've learned from my first several months of actual, continuous teaching. (Disclaimer: "continuous" refers to a term-long course and bears no reflection on the continuity of the actual classes)

Today, when I finished writing an article for the Peace Corps Tonga teaching newsletter, I realized that what I had written was just about the biggest thing I had learned from teaching this semester - predictably, learning it from my own mistakes.

So, here it is.

Bridging the knowledge gap, not falling into it
Elena Noyes

As I surveyed the eleven upturned faces in my classroom, I was feeling pretty good about myself. The classroom was a paragon of orderliness, my teaching was met with nods, and even some of my antics were rewarded with the occasional laugh or smile. And I had no idea that I was utterly, completely, failing.

I had fallen into the trap so easily that I didn’t even realize it until I saw their assignments; like a bout of tropical indigestion, I felt fine until everything exploded. As I read my students work, it became clearer and clearer: My students weren’t learning anything. This scenario happens over and over: the students can spit back your lists of tips and tricks during class, and yet when you ask them to apply the knowledge, they are suddenly lost and you cry out “but you did it with me in class!”

The hidden curse of learning is the knowledge gap: the irrevocable fact that as soon as you have learned something, you promptly forget what it was like before you knew it. In “Made to Stick,” the authors describe a classic test of the knowledge gap: half of the participants in a study were asked to “tap” out simple songs like “happy birthday,” and the other half were asked to guess the tune. When asked, the “tappers” predicted that the “listeners” would identify 1 out of every 2 songs. They were simple, after all, right? But out of all the songs tapped, the listeners identified 1 out of 40.  The huge disparity between what the tappers thought they were communicating and what they actually were communicating was because while their finger drummed the table, the tune was humming along in their head. The listeners just heard a collection of random taps.

In our classrooms, we are often “tappers,” with the tune already in our heads, wondering why the listeners can’t hear the song. This is something to think about: how can we back up, stop tapping, and start really communicating?

Is this happening to you without you knowing it?

To keep watch for the gap, ask the students to apply the learning in a different way during class, without wasting time waiting for homework or projects. Give them time to think and apply, find out immediately how they did, and adjust the rest of your class to helping them learn what they still need to know. Encouraging question-asking in class has its place, but often fails to alert you to what they don’t know to ask, even among the least shy.

Finally, examples often get around the issue of the gap entirely, filling in information you didn’t even think to communicate. In a business-teaching situation, you could define gross margin as “the difference between the sales and production costs including overhead,” (Wikipedia) or you could tell about a farmer needing to know how valuable his tomato crop is. He adds up all the money the tomatoes will bring him at the market and then subtracts everything their growing will cost him, and gets gross margin. Which do you think the students will remember?

In one example, you define what gross margin is used for (how valuable a product can be to you), give the equation (sales - production costs), and even introduce a rudimentary introduction to variable costs (how much he spends growing the tomatoes). In one introductory example, you can cover multiple concepts, all in a way that the students will easily digest.

Don’t be a tapper and lose your students across the knowledge gap. With the right instruction, when you tap out “happy birthday,” they’ll start humming along with you.
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