Paynesville Press - August 24, 2005

Guest Column

Describing daily life in a Tongan village home

By Dan Starken

Wednesday, Aug. 10
It's been a couple weeks here in my homestay village of Mangia, which is about a 15-minute car ride out of Neiafu (the main town of the Vava'u island group). My homestay family is extremely nice, although it's taken some adjustment on my part to living in their home.

Apparently I got "lucky" when it came to homestay family selections and ended up with a father who insists on not leaving me alone...ever. If I go in my room for more than a minute, he'll start calling out "Taniela!...Taniela!... Taniela!" until I come out, and he'll say nothing in particular, just to get me to come out.

It's basically impossible to read and study my language books in the home because the family is always making a ruckus or trying to talk to me about this or that. So I've been spending some time over at our language teacher's home in Mangia. (There's a language teacher from the Peace Corps staying in our village so we can come over to her house to study and whatnot.)

My homestay father keeps coming over, though, and just hanging out and interrupting me when I study over there, too. My language teacher called him "fakasesele," which basically means crazy. It's alright though; he's really nice for the most part...just a little overbearing.

I was riding in the Paea Express (the locals' name for my homestay father's car). Apparently the Paea Express was a plane that used to fly around Vava'u and was about 50 years old and you could hear it coming miles away, thus the comparison. So anyway, me, my 10-year-old brother 'Ofa, my 17-year-old sister Latai, and my father Ulaavao drove into Neiafu to watch a soccer game last Saturday and got pulled over by the police again (the second time in a couple weeks). I wasn't able to get the exact reason we got pulled over, could have been that the car still doesn't have a license plate, which my father has "fixed" by writing a number with marker where the license plate should be on the back of the car. We'll see if that works.

The kids here are great, and I still haven't seen an ugly one. They play rough, though, and lots of games end up in brawls, regardless of whether it's girls or boys. Tongan kids are tough. Me and another volunteer held a little English class last night at his homestay home and the kids were ridiculously excited, so much so they drove the other volunteer nuts beforehand by asking about 100 times when we were going to teach.

I brought out my gloves and a baseball a couple days ago and starting playing catch with some of the 10-15-year-old boys, and they must dig it because the past two days they've been out playing catch by themselves when I've been studying.

My home is made of wood and a tin roof, which is pretty standard around here. There's a main room with a woven mat on the floor. My family sleeps on the ground out in the main room with a couple blankets and uses a couple wooden blocks with a two by four nailed over the tops as pillows.

There's a little boarded off space in the front corner of the house that's my room. I have a bent nail that I turn to "lock" my door when I'm in it. The "ceiling" in my room is a sheet stapled to the rafters that covers part of my room. At night I can see rats running along the rafters, and they like to climb down the posts of my bed and through a hole in the baseboard area to make their way to the kitchen, where I hear them feasting away at night.

The kitchen is maybe an eight-foot by eight-foot room with a couple food shelves extending the length of one wall. There's a propane two-burner stove that sits on some tin cans, and my mother and sister sit on the ground to cook and do dishes.

There's no running water or sinks in the house, so they use five-gallon pails or small metal tubs to wash dishes. For laundry they use pails or tubs and a long piece of PVC pipe to "agitate" the clothes manually, much like a washing machine would. Then rinse them in another pail of water, wring them out, and hang them on a makeshift clothesline.

Our restroom is a small cement building with knotholes everywhere on the wooden door. A bent nail is used to close the door. Our "shower" is another cement structure right next to the restroom and is a piece of bent pipe running up from the ground to eye level and is dripping constantly. There's a small nut about waist high that acts as a valve, but you need pliers to turn the water on and off. The water is either cool or cold, depending on the temperature at the time, no hot water of course.

The food has been great at my place. I eat 'ufi (which is a yam that tastes like a potato) most every day along with a variety of fish, chicken, or mutton (a very fatty version of it anyway). I also get a lot of fresh mango and bananas, which they pick right off the trees here. For drinks, I usually drink hot cocoa, which seems to be a favorite around here along with coffee and tea.

My family always harasses me for not eating enough; it's all in good nature of course, maybe in a year's time I'll start having a Tongan appetite. Tongans have incredible appetites and can eat like I've never seen before outside of the Old Country Buffet. My time is up so I'd better wrap this up for now. Hope all is well and things are going great here so far!

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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