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.

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