29 July 2010

Huge changes, stilt houses

Like an amnesiac patient who suddenly wakes up to a new life, here we are now living in the capital city!

We arrived with our crate of stuff last Saturday, and have been setting up and adjusting to our new life ever since. Our house this time, far from being in a cow pasture, is as high as the second-story windows around us- it's on stilts! We now live in the middle of the capital city, cow cries replaced by the neighborhood brass band that is right now practicing across the street.

It was very hard to leave 'Eua, it's people, gorgeous landscape, and pristine air, but we're pretty excited for the things that we'll be able to do in the city. The long and short of the story is that Peace Corps put me (Elena) at the agriculture school primarily to advise the small businesses of the school, something that after six months, I still had not been allowed to do. Although women in Tonga are well-respected and make up a huge part of the workforce, roles for women are still very well-defined, and men still hold the vast majority of the decision-making positions. Women usually don't specialize in business management, and especially young women usually don't have education higher than high school or a BA. Most of my own difficulty was due to these "norms", and perhaps the occasional bias that one can notice in any part of the world among a small few.

Peace Corps determined that the situation was not going to change, and that the best thing to do was to move us* to different jobs, which so far, is turning out to be a blessing in disguise. Mark is now working for the school board main office (the Free Wesleyan Education Office) as a computer tech consultant and trainer. As we've mentioned in previous posts, computers are just gaining huge ground here, and there is a high demand for people who know how to use and fix them. He's particularly excited to work with all of the schools in the system (making up about 30% of all schools in Tonga) doing a resource analysis of their computer facilities that will then help him and the office get all the schools to a baseline level. He's also working with the computer repair center at one of the technical colleges, helping them improve their workflow and will hold troubleshooting trainings through them with the school system. Next week, in fact, he'll be traveling to the northern island groups of Ha'apai and Vava'u with a small team of consultants, visiting schools to assess their computer needs.

I'm now working with Tonga Development Bank as a Business Advising Officer**, holding trainings for small business owners on record keeping, advising individual business people, and training internal loan staff on business principles all around Tonga. A major goal of TDB is to support business owners in Tonga with business support and fair lending at all scales, from microfinance to large established business loans, but Business Advising where I'm working focuses on the owners of smaller businesses and microenterprises. Along with the daily advising and training preparation, I'll also be working on a needs survey of businesses on this island, helping to redevelop their business training pamphlets (on business planning, record keeping, basic accounting, etc), and developing staff and client awareness on how to prevent and detect fraud. This is really exciting for me, because it is very close to what I want to do in the future in general, and I'm looking forward to being able to contribute something while I learn a lot along the way.

I'm also doing a secondary project with a very new women-in-business association called WISE Tonga, started because an International Finance Corporation report on gender and investment in Tonga (pdf) identified a need for some kind of womens' business association. I'll be helping them create a strategic plan, launch the official opening of the association, and organize business trainings for the association members. Unrelatedly, I'll also be helping Mark out at the school office, helping to develop a business plan for the church produce market and other things here and there.

So after several weeks of uncertainty, heartache, stress, and abrupt change^, we are here with a hugely positive outlook, noticing that overall this has turned out for the best for both of us. We've been four days now at our new jobs and in our new home, and have been very encouraged with the people we've met, the things we've learned, and the projects filling our plates.

* if you're wondering, we brought our little orange kitty, but our sandy colored dog now has a good home with another volunteer on the island
** in fact, the same Tonga Development Bank that former Peace Corps Steve worked for
^ the juicy details of which I will spare readers but which can be obtained by email request

1 comment:

  1. wow, must be frustrating and tiring to have to uproot and move, but I am so glad to hear that so far it looks like a good fit. Elena, I am sorry that you were not able to use your skills and knowledge in the way that you had hoped in 'Eua. It's definitely an interesting dilemma as a woman--how to be oneself and be able to contribute to the world in the ways that you love, while navigating each society's gender constraints. Sometimes as a foreigner you have more power than average, sometimes less.


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