31 August 2010

How to eat in Tonga

As we were sharing an evening meal with an Australian trainer couple several nights ago, the president of the Free Wesleyan Education office stopped in to say hello to them. He is enigmatically quiet with a deadpan sense of humour, and started joking about his obligation to eat all the food set before him at a feast, despite the possibility of his health reacting negatively to it.

Heavily laden feast table
His pastoral skills are in huge demand, and so he had recently attended a feast after one of the many times he had been invited to preach. Because he had eaten quickly, an older gentleman next to him had started jokingly giving him a hard time, saying that since he was the guest pastor at the event, everyone was looking to him to indicate when to start and stop eating, and that if he stopped eating now, the slower eaters would leave hungry.

“You must take a little piece from each dish because you never know how hard someone has worked to put it in front of you,” the older man said to him. “They could have been sitting up all night to catch that fish, coming back at four in the morning. Because of this, you must touch all the food around you, because as the guest of honour, you are blessing it!” his seat neighbor joked. What is a guest pastor to do? He just had to eat all the delicious food in front of him.

The story made me think yet again about all of our cultural, family, and individual quirks about food, and everything we’ve learned since our first time eating in Tonga. Many of our initial inclinations are in fact the opposite of what Tongan culture dictates!

How to eat in Tonga:
  • When you are eating with a large group informally (not at a feast), my first reaction is to stay until everyone is finished eating, but in fact, it is quite acceptable to leave when you are done, even if you are the first to finish.
  • If someone is eating near you, I would never go over for the sole purpose of asking them to share their food with me unless I had something to contribute in turn, but in fact, it is normal and fine to go share someone's meal.
  • When bringing food to eat during the day, my first inclination is to pack just enough for me to eat, expecting that no one will want to share my food, but in fact, one should always bring extra to share with others around you.
  • When someone offers to share their lunch with you, my first reaction to break off a small portion so as not to be greedy, but instead, it is rude not to take the whole piece of food.
  • When there’s nowhere to sit, my first reaction is to just stand and eat, but it is much more polite to sit even if it’s on the ground.
  • When we are invited to someone’s house for a meal, my first reaction is to bring a dessert to share, but in fact, bringing food would subtly imply that your host does not have enough to feed you.
  • When trying to get to know neighbors, my first inclination is to invite them for a meal, expecting they will later do the same in return. In fact, Volunteers are usually invited only to Sunday dinner, because the rest of the week’s meals are not special enough to share with an invited guest.
  • When you are a guest at an event or feast, my first reaction is to chose an out-of-the-way spot to sit as the newcomer who does not know the group, but in fact as a guest, you will likely be put in a position of honour up front, and will be served first.
  • As an invited guest, my first inclination is to wait to eat from a buffet/snack table so as to not look over-eager, but in fact, if you are the guest of honour, everyone will wait to get their food until you start eating.
  • As an invited guest, most foreigners feel comfortable choosing a dish or two and eating until they are satisfied, but in fact, it is more polite to eat a little from everything in front of you, and keep slowly eating until the next part of the feast starts. I don’t have trouble with this because I love to try things too much, which does make it more culturally appropriate, but inevitably ends with abdominal distress.
  • As a guest at a feast, hosts will tell you to finish all your food, which I am inclined to try to do, but actually, most people will just eat a little of their feast food, and then take home the rest to enjoy later.
  • At a buffet meal, my first inclination is to take a modest-sized plate, finish it, and then if I’m still hungry, go back for more. However, going back for seconds is seen as “fa’akai” (lit. “always eating”) or greedy, so most people take a huge plate the first, and only, time around. A plate piled high is not seen as greedy, as long as it’s your only plate.
  • Sometimes, at informal meals, some people eat and talk with their mouths open (both in Tonga and in the US). This is considered bad manners in both cultures.
  • At any meal, some foreigner’s first inclination is to use eating utensils, in an effort to be polite, but actually, it is fine to eat with your hands- a cultural value that especially comes in useful when you are ripping large chunks of pork off of a roast pig at a feast.

25 August 2010

2 Ways to Rock out in Tongan Style

Woven belt = kiekie
Do you want to show off to everyone that you know where and what Tonga is?

You could:

1. Order a kiekie from Tonga and wait 8 months until it's made and shipped, or
2. Click on the link below to choose and buy a t-shirt that arrives in one week.

The designs are for fun, by Elena, adapted from traditional Tongan bark cloth drawings. Shirts come in all types and colors.

 We get roughly 20% of each sale: 3/4 of that goes to the Tongan Womens and Childrens Crisis Center in Nuku'alofa, Tonga. 1/4 we use for our own volunteer projects.

So you can sport Tongan pride, and do good at the same time.

Click this button:

I'll be adding even more designs as time goes by, so keep checking.

18 August 2010

Where has Mark Been?

Shortly after Elena and I moved to town in Nuku'alofa, I was asked by the Education Office of the Free Wesleyan Church if I could come with the officers on their big annual review of the schools in Ha'apai and Vava'u. Being of the adventuresome sort, I said yes, and so began my 10-day sojourn through the computer systems of Taufa'ahau Pilolevu and Mailefihi Siu'ilikutapu Colleges in Ha'apai and Vava'u, respectively. I encountered some of the challenges of using computers in Tonga, and hopefully started laying the groundwork for some of my projects with the FWC here in the future.

We took off from Tongatapu on a day much like the one pictured to the left...dull, cloudy, cool. But we were quickly out of it and speeding towards the Ha'apai group where Elena and I did training. Flying has the distinct advantage of letting you see how interconnected the islands in Tonga are, and why they are grouped into the three main regions, not to mention giving you a beautiful view of tropical islands and their extensive barrier reef systems. In the picture below, you can see the Ha'apai barrier reef and the islands that stretch along it and behind it. The large one covered by clouds is 'Uiha, where the first modern king of Tonga, Tupou I, was from.

To preface the next part of my story, distinctions between biodegradable waste and non-biodegradables such as plastics and cars in Tonga are still a bit hazy, because non-biodegradable waste only started showing up here in the past 30 years. The answer to waste has always been:
  • hide it
  • burn it
  • throw it in the bush
  • throw it in the ocean
As you can imagine, with toxic non-biodegradable trash, all of these options can and do pose a major health risk for the natural environment and the people who live here.

So, with this in mind, we arrived in Ha'apai after a beautiful, non-eventful, scenic trip. We were immediately taken to the principal's house to enjoy a post-journey sumptuous tea (and by tea, I mean, heaps of crackers covered in shredded cheese, small cakes, other crackers with butter and tomatoes, copious quantities of tea and coffee, and a small bowl of fruit). At this tea, the principal almost immediately informs us that the school had had a huge pile of computers and monitors cluttering one of the classrooms, but that just that morning, they had taken care of the problem by loading it up into a dump-truck (yes, the load was that big) and dumped it in a remote part of the island's bushland. He literally beamed while telling us this, and was clearly so proud of this accomplishment that I didn't have the heart to immediately break down crying for Mother Earth. There was kind of a stunned moment of silence as the three palangis and four Tongan Education Officers took in this little morsel and digested it; everyone knew this was a mistake, but were a bit unsure of how to respond. Despite all of us talking with him about how dangerous that was and how many problems it will cause in the future, I'm still not sure if that equipment will ever move from the bush.

In the two days after this welcome, I worked on removing viruses, updating computers, and seeing if I could put back together the myriad of broken equipment. The computer lab at Taufa'ahau was in pretty bad shape and they only had 6 computers, but I hope that the work I did with computer teacher will help maintain it for a while longer. All of this was punctuated by regular feasts, an unfortunate bout with food poisoning, evening kava, and excellent conversations with another of the volunteers living in Pangai at one of the other schools. Once the Education Officers I was traveling with were finished with their observations, it was time to continue on to the next island group, Vava'u.

Upon arriving in Vava'u, we were ushered away to the school to enjoy a welcome feast, but things weren't quite ready yet, so we were given a brief tour of Neiafu, the main city. Because we arrived during the weekend, we didn't start work until two days later. In the meantime, I joined one of the Education Officers in his home village for church and a feast to celebrate the first Sunday sermon of the new minister. After an afternoon rest and walk around town, I went and joined the others in my group for an sumptuous evening meal.

 After another week of immersion in computers, it was starting to sink in just how hard our hosts at the school were working to make us feel welcome. Every lunch and dinner featured a richly set table, and the quantity of food seemed to increase with every meal. It was absolutely fantastic food too, and it was quite the challenge not to overeat with each meal. In addition, because our group was mixed palangi and Tongan, they worked very hard to make food that both tastes would enjoy. I came away from Vava'u with a renewed respect and a certain degree of awe for Tongan hospitality. To reinforce the point, when I was taken out for a beach picnic on my last day there, the quantity and quality of the food was possibly even more generous than some of the meals before.

Vava'u was gorgeous and is the premier tourist destination in Tonga, but it was only on my last day there that I truly got to see the rest of the island beyond Neiafu. We had been talking for a couple of days amongst my travel companions and I about taking a driving tour around the island, and on the morning before I left, we finally managed to get away. We took a long drive around the northeast end of the island and ended up at Ene'io Beach. There's a small restaurant and botanical garden there, but the real attraction is the beach and the view. It was quite the enjoyable escape after the long week of work.

I'm now back in Tongatapu and reporting on my trip to the Education Office. The hope is that based partly on this trip and subsequent trips to other schools, I'll be able to help them with finding the right setup of computer equipment that they'll be able to send out to all the schools. This is likely something that I'll be working on for the rest of my time in Tonga, but it's a fun challenge, and most certainly a need. Most of the schools have far fewer workstations than students in their computer classes, so hopefully this process will help solve that problem, while not creating an additional electronic waste problem. Undoubtedly I'll have more to report on this effort as the year goes on.

17 August 2010

There's no such place as Tonga: When it's somewhere in South Africa

Tonga, South Africa

In order to stay up to date on the news, I check Google News, saved keyword Tonga regularly for any Tonga news that makes it online. The stories usually change about once a week. You can imagine my surprise when I came across this article from News 24 online:
Family in court on murder charges
2010-08-17 21:21
Mandla Khoza

Tonga - Five family members from Mpumalanga who were arrested for murder on Monday have appeared in the Tonga Magistrate's Court. Eliot, Matito, Rebecca and Thomas Mdaka, and Alice Mathanse, did not plead to a charge of murdering Philip Mabotha, 21, and Oupa Ngomane, 20.
Tonga police said Mabotha and Ngomane had allegedly....(etc. Full version in link)

I read it, getting more and more confused as I read the clearly African names, until I got to the bottom, and the light clicked on. It wasn't referring to a country, it was referring to a town. Not the Kingdom of Tonga, not the country of Togo, an actual place called Tonga in Africa. There is even a Tonga Hospital, South Africa.

But our one satisfaction is this: Tonga, South Africa gets significantly less internet hits than Tonga, South Pacific. They're in even less well known place than we are.

16 August 2010

Are you offending your Tongan female friends?

In the US, if a friend at work comes in with a new stylishly short haircut, it is only natural to comment on how much you like the new style. In Tonga, no one says a word.

Black and white funeral ta'ovala
Tongan women usually have gorgeously thick, long, wavy black hair that most keep pinned in a tight bun at the back of the head. The only reason anyone would cut it shorter than shoulder-length is when they are obligated to -- that is, as a sign of mourning for the death of a close relative.

Today when I came in to work, I almost blurted out to my coworker "I love your new haircut!" until I sheepishly remembered that she had just been away from work because of a death in the family -- and kept my mouth shut. Unfortunately, I had learned through experience, when I made a similar comment to a colleague at my old school several months ago. I was mortified when she graciously reminded me that her relative had just passed away- something I should have noticed from her black clothes and large ornate ta'ovala. It isn't outright offensive to give comment, but just horribly inappropriate; as if, after a colleague undergoes painful body-altering medical surgery, you jubilantly remark on how much you like their new look.

Ta'ovala for mourning father's side
Bark-stained ta'ovala
Some women choose to cut their hair of their own accord, but also frequently, are required to by their fahu, or aunt on their father's side. The aunt can require almost anything of her nieces and nephews; frequently children get adopted by relatives because the fahu asks the woman to allow her to adopt the woman's new son or daughter. They can't refuse. In turn, the fahu usually takes special care of her nieces and nephews, giving them gifts, financial support, and keeping track of them far more than any other relative.

Procession in front of our house- the brass band
Mourner with his cell phone

When I was walking home from work today, Mark was already on the porch taking these pictures of a funeral procession going by. The hearse (and the deceased's house) is almost always draped in purple and black, and most processions stop all traffic until their slow walk takes them by.  Mourners wear huge ta'ovalas, and close family will wear black for an entire year. This will be followed by days of sitting up with the body and singing, and of course a lot of feasting. Most of the relatives, friends, and community members will come to the putu, taking turns singing and eating, usually around the clock. It is a huge, expensive affair for the family, and many times, they are lucky if the extravagant funeral gifts they receive from their guests cover the cost of the funeral itself.

Procession in front of our house- the hearse, mourners, and car procession after the brass band

The day after I posted this, my manger Leta read the article and helped me understand even more about the nuances of the imagery in funerals. The fahu of the deceased is one of the most important members of the funeral party, and usually walks in front of the hearse, or with the processional party, wearing a flower in her hair. Among the brass band pictured above, the men with the lighter colored ta'ovalas are of higher status in relation to the deceased, followed by the wearers of darker ta'ovalas indicating slightly less close in relation. The lowest status are the tattered ta'ovalas you can see in the man on the left side of the picture, second from the front.
During the year of mourning after the funeral, mourners wearing "rags" or a grass-skirt wrap over their long funeral ta'ovala indicate that a close member of their father's side has passed away (see second picture on the left). Occasionally, we see mourners in huge head-to-toe mats that are tattered and dirty, often in a hood over their head. This indicates that either their father, fahu (oldest paternal aunt), or other paternal aunt has just passed away. As time passes, they switch to the shorter, colorful bark-dyed ta'ovalas. In contrast, a mourner whose mother or mother's side has just passed away usually wears the short colorful ta'ovala at the beginning of mourning instead of the huge mat, and continues to wear the shorter gear for the rest of the mourning period.

Peace Corps Tonga Group 76

All of the volunteers are excited to welcome the new group of volunteers that are due to arrive on October 7th; a little under two months. Many of the invitations have been sent out to fill 24 volunteer spots: 8 primary teachers, 3 secondary English teachers, 3 secondary economics teachers, 3 tertiary English teachers, 3 industrial arts teachers, and 4 business education volunteers.

The volunteers, like we did a year ago, will arrive after a day of flying, spend the weekend and two days in the capital city, and then fly to Ha'apai for roughly 9 weeks of homestay, language, and technical training.

I am particularly excited for this group to come, because I'm part of a team responsible for giving the new volunteers a basic exposure to schools before they leave for Ha'apai. Our team leader and several of the other education volunteers are organizing the majority of it, and I'm organizing the much smaller business visit part of it for the 4-7 business-oriented volunteers potentially coming.

08 August 2010

See Through Sound

Sounds of the city in Nuku'alofa...

6:30 The air is cool, breezy and peacefully silent. From far away two roosters crow in a contest of bravado, but from home it only sounds distant and home-like. Most homes in the city have pigs and chickens in their yard, but we’re close enough to downtown that no one around keeps any.

8:00 Car noise gradually escalates as everyone drives to work, and this really does mean everyone. Some take busses from further out, but the only adults to be seen walking or biking are foreigners. Driving is also a status symbol and convenience much like in the US, so where any one can drive, walking is out of the question. We start to hear kids leaving for school, calling dispirited good-byes and sleepily walking to school or boarding busses.
11:00 I’m at work, and the cell phone company has set out their promotional booth yet again, blaring the same soundtrack in repeat consisting Shakira, Akon, and other pop songs throughout the day. The music cuts off and a wailing karaoke singer takes over the loudspeaker, belting out what can partially be identified as Cher. Setting up a booth with loud music is the two cell phone companies’ main advertising technique. Akon is particularly popular, along with repetitive polka-beat Tongan dance songs, always good choices for blaring from cars, blasting at clubs, broadcasting from speakers at feasts, or roaring from sound systems at fundraiser concerts. Our personal insidious favorite repetitively sings a phrase that sounds like "Go next to my choo-choo." Maybe the composer was a fan of trains?
16:00 At home, it is the loudest hour of the day; cars idle and stall outside, trucks motor by, and jubilant kids coming home from school stroll along to their bus stops, shouting to each other and laughing. Many families from outer islands send their kids in to Nuku’alofa to live with relatives in order to attend a good school, so the kid population in town is huge. They stroll along in their coloured jumpers and tupenu formal male wrap skirts, each different according to the school. If all the kids in Tonga got mixed up in a giant stadium, they could be put back in their rightful school within minutes because of what colour they were wearing. The brass band across the street starts warming up.
17:00 The brass band group, practicing on fold out chairs behind a shipping container, is now in full swing, playing familiar classics, which we truly enjoy as we read, write, cook, and play on the computer. Bands are more common than we expected, and are mostly groups of young male musicians who play at feasts and perform to raise money for their school or community. The picture at left is a school band on 'Eua who raised a considerable sum of money with their playing at the beginning of the school year. They're wearing royal blue, the Wesleyan school system colour.
18:00 Dusk begins to fall and young adult voices float up from the street as they ‘eva, or “wander,” a time for strolling and socializing that most often is done at twilight when the sun is fading. Most young women try to avoid walking alone at any time, as it is generally viewed to be inviting and improper, but with a friend, she can walk all she wants.
20:00 The street is silent, devoid of cars or people, as the city dogs start roaming about, challenging each other and barking at the local fauna. Along with pigs, the dogs everywhere in Tonga serve as a natural composting system; we never throw organic waste in the trash. Their far-away barks echo as night falls and the city sleeps.

Anniversary of the Princess Ashika sinking

Exactly a year and three days ago, 74 people perished when an old and poorly maintained ferry boat, the Princess Ashika, sank in Ha'apai, the middle island group of Tonga. The people responsible for approving the seaworthiness of an obviously faulty craft will be on trial starting September 8th. Although there was no official remembrance of the victims, whose deaths were felt intensely by their families all across Tonga, there was a ceremony on the anniversary day in memory of the Japanese volunteer who was on the sunk boat, and a large memorial today in the afternoon after church.

Two of our fellow volunteers spent the first part of their Peace Corps service on a small island in the same middle island group where the boat sank, and experienced the loss first-hand, being with friends as they discovered who had made it and who hadn't. Their story of the event is posted on Tonga Tangos, another great volunteer blog, and it is a moving account. Read it by clicking here.

05 August 2010

Is Globalization Good for Tonga?

Is globalization good for Tonga? Dr Isidor Walliman, author of On the Edge of Scarcity and Globalization and Third World Women, gave a lecture on the subject on Wednesday at Atenisi, Tonga’s only university. It’s a question that is in constant discussion in Tonga, as more and more Tongans work abroad and as it becomes harder and harder to ignore the foreign goods and influences creeping their way into every day life.

A constant conflict in Tonga is the difference between traditional Tongan culture and the new westernized forms of organization that Tonga has recently adopted in connection with the rest of the world. Business organization as the West knows it is a very recent development in Tonga, a country which does not have a cultural history that is familiar with professional accountability, strict deadlines, performance measures, and incentives. We see a lot of this conflict in the multiple private and public organizations who have wonderful policies written down that are never enforced, and therefore not followed. The form is there, but the function is absent. The most successful organizations in Tonga have been able to adapt the Western model to Tongan sensibilities (and vice versa) at their very core, “choosing their battles” proverbially, rather than relying on a Western veneer over a disorganized lump that is neither efficiently, beautifully, culturally Tongan (like a community organization), nor reliably, predictably foreign (like foreign-owned local businesses).

Dr Walliman gave a very interesting talk, arguing that increased industrialization in Tonga would run against what he described as “input problems, output problems, and land use.” Everyone jokes that Tonga’s main export is its people and it’s main import is remittances, and they’re not too far off. Exporting a main industrial product from Tonga, according to Walliman, would face the input problems of not being able to get enough resources on small, geographically remote islands, and the output problems of what to do with the waste created by the production. Even if industrialization took off, the increased population it would encourage would have nowhere to go on such small islands, and the land would not be able to support the food needs of the larger population. He cited the classic economic illustration that industrialization has to start with increased agricultural production, because to support every person not producing food, the farmer has to double his own food production. He concluded by saying that industrial society in Tonga is either too damaging or too impossible to sustain, and that Tonga should scale back industrialization to focus on becoming more self-sufficient.

After he finished, a delightfully heated discussion broke out, with “protectionism,” “anti free-trade,” and “western elitism,” thrown around, and I was laughing to myself, remembering a similar heated debate in business school in which a friend in jubilant favor of fair trade jokingly cried out, “The WTO [World Trade Organization] kills babies!!” to a shocked and then uproarious room, which then promptly became a school-wide joke.

Atenisi university itself is far from what you’d think of if you’d just stepped off of the lush lawns and brick buildings of most small institutions in the USA. A cluster of low buildings around a sparse grass and dirt field, it resembles the government primary schools across the islands in its simplicity and small size. The institution has no more than 30 students and currently has one fully-functioning classroom, in which Wednesday’s lecture was held. Despite its physical limitations, it attracts illustrious Tongan and foreign lecturers from around the world, and the tiny louver-windowed cement-walled classroom was packed with brains, business, and PhDs. Among the attendees were the NZ Aid head of the Tongan office, the King’s pilot, and 5 or 6 prominent foreign business people, some who have been in Tonga for more than 20 years, hailing from the Netherlands, the USA, Australia, and New Zealand.

Regardless of my own opinions on globalization in Tonga, about which I will keep diplomatically mum, the question is an important and relevant one for Tonga, one that we all need to keep wrestling with.

picture credit: http://www.sailingdownthemoonbeam.com/Site/Photos______files/Tonga%20Market.jpg
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