Paynesville Press - March 15, 2006

Guest Column

Weeklong services mourn Peace Corps death

By Dan Starken

On Wednesday, Feb. 1, the Peace Corps family in Tonga lost one of our members through tragic circumstances. Tessa Horan from Santa Fe, N.M., passed away after being attacked by a shark in the vicinity of her village of Tu'anuku on the island of Vava'u.

She had gone out swimming with some Tongans from her village after a game of soccer, when she was bitten by a shark, and despite the heroic efforts of her Tongan counterparts to save her, she passed shortly afterwards.

Tessa was 24 years old and had just begun her work in early January at her site of Tu'anuku, Vava'u after completing two months of training. Tessa joined 13 of us volunteers here on the island of Vava'u in January and immediately endeared herself to everyone with her kind demeanor, and it was immediately apparent how eager she was to do whatever she could to help the people of Tonga.

I had only the opportunity to have a handful of conversations with Tessa, but I was amazed by the ease with which she had adapted to the difficulties of living in a foreign culture in so short a time.

The funeral services here in Vava'u and further on the island of Tongatapu were incredible to experience and witness the outpouring of love and support from the Tongan people.

That tragic Wednesday night the villagers of Tu'anuku and the rest of us Peace Corps volunteers on the island of Vava'u stayed outside the hospital morgue until we were told to leave. (It's not allowed to spend the night outside the hospital morgue here). People reconvened outside the morgue at 5 a.m. for the first prayer service the next day, Thursday. Prayer services were then held throughout the morning by different groups, Tu'anuku, Taoa (Tessa's homestay village during training, not far from Tu'anuku), and the Ministry of Education.

People stayed outside the morgue for hoursŠwhen the prayer services ended, people stayed and continued to sing church hymns as is customary here.

The people of Tu'anuku also took care of decorating the room where Tessa's body lay in traditional Tongan fashion. They lined the floor and walls with mats that are woven from the leaves of the pandanus tree. These mats are about 15' by 20' in width and length.

Also, the vehicle, which will transport the body, was lined with the woven mats over the top of the vehicle. The inside of the truck was lined with tapa, which is made by pounding the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree into a papyrus-type consistency. The pieces are then glued together to make the appropriate size of tapa.

The tapa they pulled out to line the inside of the truck where the body was to be placed was somewhere around 15' by 30'. These mats and tapa take innumerable hours to make and are perceived as a traditional sign of wealth for Tongan families. For example, if a Tongan house is broken into, tapa and mats are far more likely to be stolen than money or other goods.

Tessa's body was to be transported on Thursday afternoon to the main island of Tongatapu. The vigil at the morgue continued until the plane arrived; there were hundreds of people sitting outside the morgue singing and praying.

Once the plane was heard flying overhead, the procession to the airport began. The coffin was loaded into the truck decorated with tapa, mats, and purple and black streamers along the side. Everyone boarded vehicles and we began the procession to the airport, which is about a 30-minute drive away.

When we arrived at the road running up to the airport, the youth of Tu'anuku were sitting spaced out lining the road up to the terminal, though it was pouring rain at this point. They sat solemn with no umbrellas, sitting in puddles as the rain cascaded down while wearing their putu (funeral) attire.

The Tongan custom when people pass away is to wear black for a length of time depending on the closeness of the relation to the deceased. Everyone at the vigil on Thursday was wearing black along with putu ta'ovalas, which are special woven mats that are worn only when someone has passed away. These are worn by men, women, and children alike. The putu ta'ovalas are mats that are wrapped around the body about one and a half times and held up by a kafa (usually a braided-type rope of some kind which is wrapped around the body three or four times and tied).

The size of the putu ta'ovalas, though there are variations, usually start just above the navel and go down to the knees.

After Tessa's body had been loaded on the plane people dispersed, though they still continued to wear black for days and weeks afterwards. We received word that all Peace Corps volunteers were to return to the main island on the following Monday as there would be further funeral services and memorials held until Tessa was to be returned to the United States on Tuesday evening.

We arrived on the main island of Tongatapu on Monday afternoon and myself and some other volunteers headed over to the mortuary. More prayer services were being held when we arrived there, attended by the Tongan Minister of Justice, the Tongan Minister of Education, and other ministers. They would run their prayer service one by one, and these continued from the time we got there at about 5 p.m. on Monday until after 10 p.m.

Then some of the youth from Kolomotu'a, a village nearby to the mortuary, came and sat for over two hours singing church hymns as several of us volunteers joined them. The Peace Corps staff of Tonga is almost completely comprised of Tongan nationals, and they were at the mortuary continuously throughout this process.

Some time after midnight, the Kolomotu'a youth dispersed which left only the Peace Corps staff and some of us volunteers at the mortuary. We stayed up the entire night, singing church hymns until the sun came up on Tuesday, when the Free Church of Tonga folks came to run the prayer service on Tuesday morning.

After this prayer service, preparations were made for the funeral type church service at the largest church in Tongatapu, which was to be held at 3 p.m. We went home at this point and got a couple hours sleep before reconvening at the mortuary where we met to ride over to the church.

The king's son, the prime minister, was in attendance at the church service, which lasted two hours. After the church service ended, the church choir remained, as well as many other people, to sing for the next two hours until about 6 p.m.

At 6 p.m., the king's daughter, Princess Pilolevu, arrived and attended for a couple hours. A group of girls from the Queen Salote College arrived shortly after the choir departed around 6 p.m., and the girls sang for the next three hours as well as several of us volunteers and other Tongans in attendance.

Shortly after 9 p.m., preparations were made to transport Tessa to the airport, where an Air New Zealand flight would be arriving to take her back to the United States. We arrived at the airport some time around 10 p.m., and the Tongan military band was there playing. We all gathered at a tented area just off the tarmac at the international airport and waited for the next two and a half hours until the plane arrived.

Approximately 1:30 a.m. on Wednesday, the flight departed and the ceremony came to a close.

Starken is a 1996 PAHS graduate who joined the Peace Corps in July and went to Tonga in the South Pacific.

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