18 June 2011

Invading 'Eua

Our full 'Eua flight
Last Tuesday, I received an urgent phone call, "Mark, we need to get to the airport soon because it is very crowded, and if we miss our flight, we will miss our opportunity to go to `Eua!" We had to catch one of the five flights that day to a small island that normally only gets two flights at most. There were so many people on standby for other flights that the airline continued to schedule additional flights for the next few days and still could not keep up with the demand. The normal one ferry-a-day was bumped up to two standing room only trips with three times the number of passengers they normally carry. So what was suddenly drawing an additional thousand people to the tiny island of `Eua?

This year marks the 50th Anniversary Jubilee of Hofangahau College, the only Wesleyan secondary school on `Eua. For four days last week, former teachers, students, and anyone who had ever had anything to do with the school flooded back to `Eua for three days of feasting, ceremony, dancing, marching, donating money, and generally catching up. For that week, the tiny island of normally 4,000 inhabitants doubled in size.

The Jubilee Gate
We arrived in `Eua on the wings of rain, and as we were landing, a rainbow formed over the runway, promising an excellent visit. We arrived at the school just as the first feast was getting rolling, and were digging into the roast pig in the centre of the tables just as the Hofangahau students filed onto the field to do a collective dance. As we moved on to the octopus and other little delicacies, the boys joined in and did their very active side of the dance to counter the girls' fluid, graceful movements. By the time the dancers were finished, the crowd was ecstatic and was jumping up to stick money on the dancers to show their appreciation of the performance. The whole evening then began to wrap up as the sun dropped to the horizon, but the day wasn't over yet! That evening, everyone gathered together for a choir night that ran most of the night.
The Tau'olunga by a visiting New Zealander

Hofangahau Volunteers
Throughout the celebration days, I enjoyed catching up with the three other Peace Corps volunteers connected with the school that had come to celebrate the anniversary. When Elena and I were moved to the main island from `Eua last year, another volunteer, Ashley, was able to move to my site at the school and take over from me. When finished her service at the end of last year, she was promptly replaced by Paul and Bre who live there now. Everyone loved that Ashley, Paul, and I were all there to take part in the festivities.

People give money in appreciation of the Tau'olunga

After the mad rush of arriving on that first day, everything picked up speed and intensity even more. The second day started with "The March of the Alumni," a time-honoured tradition at every school anniversary in Tonga. Important events here often feature marches. There was a festive mood as everyone trooped up the main road in `Eua to the village across from Hofangahau school in little groups to start the parade, and after waiting for everyone to assemble, we were off! The 1960 group headed the line, proudly waving their placard, and the following groups performed for the crowds that had gathered  to watch. The march wound its serpentine way through the village and back to the school before breaking to allow the alumni to have a ceremony with the main dignitaries of the Wesleyan Church.

March of the Alumni
Queen Halaevalu Mata'aho
After another feast that probably fed half of the island, it began to rain. Undeterred, the performances blithely pushed on and tents were hurriedly erected over the drums and musicians. The students started with individual dances representing their own villages, with girls performing varieties of the tau'olunga standing dance. We three volunteers unashamedly captured the whole event on film and had the best view as the students danced. As things wound down, everyone made their way up to the largest village on the island for a singing competition including not only singing groups, but all the best dancers from `Eua and beyond.

On the last day of the celebration, the Queen of Tonga arrived. In a chair bedecked with tapa and Tongan mats, she sat through the entire ceremony of the unveiling of a new school monument, received gifts, gave gifts, and regally presided over the event. Hofangahau is one of the smallest secondary schools in Tonga, and although she just celebrated her 85th anniversary, the Queen made sure to be there. It was an enormous honour to have her attend, and was truly appreciated by all the guests.

A 40-meter tapa cloth for the school
Tables for the feasts
Those who prepared the event hadn't slept for four days. Home chefs were up throughout each night making food for the next feast, and so in the aftermath, everyone was dead on their feet. The school rugby field was churned into mud and there were hundreds of tables, benches, chairs, and tents to return to the various communities on the island.

But despite the colosal amount of work, the rainy weather, the lack of sleep, and the immense co-ordination of visitors, the Hofangahau team and local villages pulled off a great event. It brought together alumni from all over Tonga, Australia, New Zealand, and the US, was specially presided over by the queen, and raised enough funds for the school to build a home economics room, technical building, and much-needed staff housing. What a success.
The Wild Joy of Eating Pork (with a small friend and an 'Eua volunteer)

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