Paynesville Press - July 13, 2005

Guest Column

PAHS grad joins Peace Corps, goes to Tonga

By Dan Starken

As a native son of Paynesville who's spent the past four and a half years living in downtown St. Paul, I feel as though I'll soon be moving to a place that's about as far from home as conceivable.

On Tuesday, July 5, I left for the Kingdom of Tonga in the South Pacific with the Peace Corps. I'll be writing periodic articles based on my experiences in "The Friendly Islands" of Tonga. Unfortunately the frequency that I'll be able to communicate back to Minnesota may be limited depending on how rural of a site I'm placed at for the duration of my two years in Tonga.

I graduated from Paynesville Area High School in 1996 and attended the University of Minnesota-Morris, where I graduated with a degree in history in 2000. The past five years I've been working as a software developer for the St. Paul Companies, an insurance company.

The desire for a career change, as well as for an adventure, led me to consider the Peace Corps and after going through the long application process, which I began in January, I was officially accepted in May.

Peace Corps service generally involves a 27-month tour, three months of which are spent in training and the remaining 24 months are spent at a specific site. During my three months of training, I joined a group of nine other volunteers in Tonga where we'll be instructed in a variety of language, cultural, and safety topics.

After training each of us will be assigned to our respective sites, most likely a village, where we'll be one of the few if not the only Americans in the immediate vicinity. Occasionally Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) will be assigned to the same locale, but it's the exception rather than the rule, from what I understand.

The Kingdom of Tonga is made up of some 170 islands, approximately 40 of which are inhabited. The total land mass of Tonga is akin to the size of Memphis, Tenn., and it's located just west of the international dateline and just north of the Tropic of Capricorn in the Southern Hemisphere. Relatively speaking, it's about two-thirds of the way from Hawaii to New Zealand and is in the same neighborhood in the South Pacific as Fiji and Samoa.

Tongan culture is rich in its Polynesian origins, yet has incorporated Western beliefs due primarily to missionary influence. Christianity is ubiquitous in Tonga with the major denominations being Methodist, protestant, and Catholicism; there is also a strong Mormon presence on the islands. Strict observance of Sunday as a day of rest is the norm in Tonga from what I've learned and extends to restrictions even on leisure activities such as swimming and sporting activities.

Peace Corps literature described Tonga as the most conservative society in the Pacific Islands with familial and church obligations dominating the average Tongan's life.

The people of Tonga generally live in a subsistence fashion with the primary occupations being farming and fishing. Starvation is not something that most Tongans experience however as one can readily see by their large statures. Being heavy has traditionally been considered desirable in the Tongan culture, though I believe this may have tempered a bit after the King of Tonga, who once could boast being the heaviest world leader, went on a diet and as a show of solidarity much of the nation joined him.

Tonga is officially a constitutional monarchy, though my research suggests that it's still very much run by the Tongan royal family, who can trace their lineage back some 2,000 years.

Starken is a 1996 PAHS graduate who joined the Peace Corps in July and went to Tonga in the South Pacific. He sent this column via e-mail from Nuku'alofa, the capital of Tonga, after arriving in the island nation and starting his training. He will write periodic columns about his Peace Corps experiences for the Press.

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