Paynesville Press - July 6, 2005

Guest Editorial

Learning Tongan culture via village homestays

By Dan Starken

I'm sitting here in the Peace Corps Office in Nuku'alofa, Tongatapu (the main island of Tonga). We just left our first homestay village, Haveluliku, this morning (Tuesday, July 26) at 7:30 a.m.

We'd been there for 12 days, but it seemed like much longer. Everyone in the village of about 100 knew all nine of us volunteers by name after about a day. It was impossible to walk down the road without having at least a few people (mostly kids) yell out our names from their houses or yards. There was another volunteer in our group, but she decided to go home before we went to the homestay.

Me and another volunteer stayed with a 54-year-old woman, her son, her son's wife, and their four-month-old baby. Their names are 'Elisiva, Samu, Kolove, and Sateki.

They were extremely kind to us, which made the stay very pleasant for the most part. The house we stayed in had electricity in the main living room, where all four of the family slept since they gave up their rooms for me and the other volunteer. We didn't have electricity in our rooms or in the bathroom.

It was pretty gritty and grimy for the most part, but I enjoyed it...just takes a little getting used to in the beginning.

'Elisiva and Kolove both spoke some English, so we weren't completely reliant on our shoddy Tongan language skills just yet.

The baby, Sateki, was great though...hardly ever cried, save for when he was hungry.

Our homestay brother Samu was the biggest Tongan I've seen so far; he played rugby in New Zealand for a few years I guess. I'd estimate he was around 6' 8" and 325 pounds, and not obese by any means. He spent his days working "in the bush," which basically means he was out farming, mostly by hand.

He had a variety of things growing, such as the local root crop staples manioke (tapioca), kumala (sweet potato), and 'Ufi (yam).

Our home had several mango trees in the yard, and there are coconut trees growing everywhere here.

I was sitting in our backyard a week ago reading, and Samu had a local kid scale this 40-foot-high coconut tree and get some Samu took his big machete and cracked them open, and I had my first fresh coconut juice. It was wunderbar!

Haveluliku consists of one road going through it with houses on either side. The men primarily work in the bush, and the women work on making tapa cloth, looking after the children, or working around the house and yard.

'Elisiva was an exception; she took a bus into Nuku'alofa (a 30-minute ride) and taught at a primary school there. On Saturdays, 'Elisiva would work the whole day cleaning the yard, preparing food, doing laundry, or watching her grandson, Sateki. She was extremely hard-working as were many Tongans that I witnessed.

From what I'd read Tongans take a more laid-back approach to work, which may well be but I certainly didn't see that in Haveluliku.

I basically wear a man skirt (tupenu) every day of the week now, save for Saturdays and in the evenings, when I wear shorts. It's the customary dress here for men, and most men will also wear a woven tapa mat (ta'ovala) over their tupenu. The dress here is conservative for anyone over about 10, and it's extremely rare to see any man walking around without a shirt...not exactly what I'd pictured a South Pacific culture would be like.

It's been "cold" here the past week I guess. We arrived here in the heart of winter so the temps have been varying from mid 60s to low 70s and not really beyond that. It was actually long-sleeve shirt weather the past couple days since it was cloudy, breezy (20-30 mph winds), and only mid 60s.

Tongatapu (the island I'm on now) is one of the southern most in Tonga, so the climate is slightly cooler than where we'll be arriving tomorrow. It's amusing to watch the Tongans walking around in their winter coats in 65-degree'd think it was January in Minnesota the way some of them dress.

Tonight us nine volunteers are getting ready to head to our second homestay on the island of Vava'u, which is one of the northern most in Tonga. It's supposed to be several degrees warmer up there, which should be least now that it's wintertime here.

In this forthcoming homestay, each volunteer will be placed with a separate family, so there's no "doubling up" like the first homestay. English-speakers in the home are also not guaranteed from what I understand, so communication could be pretty Tongan better start coming along quickly if that's the case.

We'll be at our homestay in Vava'u for about five weeks, and we'll continue training during the day, primarily in language as I understand it. The nine of us will be split between two villages, Mangia and something else that I don't remember. I'm staying in Mangia with three other volunteers and one language teacher.

We're traveling to Vava'u by boat, which departs at 12 midnight tonight. The boat ride takes anywhere from 15-24 hours, or more, I guess, depending on any number of factors including the weather, the length of any stop we may make, and the competency of the captain...should be interesting.

I'm not sure when I'll be able to write again; I guess the village I'll be in is pretty rural, but I may be able to sneak into Neiafu - the main town (5,000 people) on Vava'u - and get to a computer some time.

It's hard to summarize a couple weeks here into a concise update. It feels like I could write a book about just these couple weeks. Hopefully, the narratives make a little sense at least.

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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