Paynesville Press - September 14, 2005

Guest Column

Volunteer reflects on homestay in Tonga

By Dan Starken

(Dan Starken lived in a village homestay in Tonga as part of his Peace Corps training. These are excerpts from his journal during his homestay experience.)

Fina There was a little girl named Sosefina, who was about two years old and probably the cutest kid I've ever seen. She was always smiling and running around, happy as can be.

She lived in the home of Sifa, one of my fellow Peace Corps trainees. At first she was scared of Sifa and wouldn't go near him, then after a week or so she would want to play with him constantly.

She also loved to box (Tongan kids grow up tough from an early age). Every once in a while she would come near me and play for a minute or two but then would get scared and run off to her sisters or Sifa.

It went on like this for the five weeks we were living in the village of Mangia. Then our last evening in the village came and the youth decided to have a big barbeque in our honor so they fired up the music in the small town hall.

The whole village turned out as usual and the kids all started dancing along with a few of us Peace Corps folks plus the women. I had constant dance requests from the women of the village, including one of the matriarchs, a 75-year-old woman named Poila.

Then amongst dancing with countless kids, Sosefina finally decided I wasn't a threat any longer and came up and grabbed my hand to dance. She only likes to take one of your fingers in her hand and then she starts dancing up a storm.

She likes to play this game while we're dancing where we'll dance for a bit, then she'll sit down and expect you to sit as well. Then she'll stand and start dancing againŠthen sitŠ then standŠit's the cutest thing ever. At any rate, she refused to let me go the whole night save for a minute here and there to run to her mom. I'd go and sit down to rest every once in a while, and she'd run over and sit on my lap and hang on me until I got back up to start dancing again.

It was probably the happiest time I've had here in Tonga. I'm not one to dance a whole lot, but it's an absolutely great time dancing with the kids who love whenever the crazy palangi (Tongan's name for white people/foreigners) does anything, especially dancing to rap music. The kids were always jostling for position to dance with us (Peace Corps trainees) and even the men of the village would sit in the corner of the hall and enjoy our antics fervently.

Ulaavao My homestay father, Ulaavao, grew quite famous among the Peace Corps trainees and staff because it quickly got around how odd his behavior was. Ula would basically not leave me alone, save for nights when he went to drink kava and even then he'd repeatedly try and cajole me into coming along, which I politely declined more than anything because I needed a little break from his constant attention.

He was likely the most colorful character in the village. One of Ula's favorite pastimes was making sure I spent no time in my room alone. It started on the first day I got there and continued to the last.

The fourth to last day I was in Mangia, I went into my room during the morning and was sorting through some clothes for a minute or two, and I heard the ever present voice of Ula yelling, "Taniela! Ha'u!" which means to come. So I went out into the main room, and Ula proceeds to tell me that a little basket made of a coconut sitting on the table should be taken in my room and sent home to my mother in America. This in and of itself isn't all that unreasonable, except for the fact that he had told me the same thing about taking the basket home to my mom at least 10 times before.

Usually it'd only take a minute or so after going in my room for Ula to yell out my name and get me to come out and he'd tell me something he'd already told me many times before. Some of his favorites were: When I got to Tongatapu, call him and his relatives who live here will bring me some 'ufi, since it's my favorite Tongan food and I ate it all the time; or that I needed to tell my Peace Corps boss that I want to work in Vava'u; and then there was the constant imploring to come back to Vava'u after I was done with my two years of service so I could play the banjo while my homestay sister did a tau'olunga (Tongan dance).

These are only a few examples, but I must have heard them each ten plus times along with many more.

Dancing I've never been a dancer before, but when you come to Tonga it's pretty much expected that you will dance often, whether you are good or so inclined. This turned out to be a blessing, because they don't care if you're good or not, just that you dance.

The village youth in Mangia performed several traditional Tongan dances for us when we got to the village and proceeded to teach us many of them for our big 'Aho FakaTonga celebration that us Peace Corps folks put on in the last week. We proceeded to learn about four different choreographed Tongan dances, and despite the initial angst it turned out to be a really good cultural experience.

Never having been a dancer, much less done a choreographed dance, it seemed like a hopeless endeavor at first. By the time our 'Aho FakaTonga day came though, I got fairly decent at them with a lot of help from my family and some of the village youth. We did our dances, and they went very well in front of a fairly big crowd.

We did a men/boy dance where they painted up our faces and we wore sisi's, which are basically like grass skirts, and we jumped and stomped around to a song called Toli Lousiale. It was one of the many opportunities to cast off self-consciousness and losing that may be one of the most lasting changes I personally experience here.

The cultural experience has also been invaluable since the Tongan culture is alive and well here and has rejected many of the Western influences.

Another of the many big differences I noticed in my Tongan village was the fact that the older women in the village were not wallflowers by any means. They participated in most every village activity, including dancing. I danced several times with Poila and MeleMateloi, who are two of the matriarchs of Mangia. Poila is 75 years young, and Mele is at least 70. They constantly sought out the male Peace Corps trainees to "cut a rug" whenever we gathered in the town or church to dance, which happened fairly frequently.

The matriarchs also were by no means sedentary. Poila, Mele, and Insetta (at least 70 years old as well) worked very hard weaving and other things. I walked out of my house one morning to see Insetta taking an axe and swinging it easily over her head and slamming it down on some coconuts, which is how Tongans feed their pigs. Pigs are all basically fed by coconuts here.

During the Misionale, which is basically a series of skits put on by the women of the village to get people ready to make their donations to the church, the matriarchs were very active participants. They dressed up in crazy clothes and acted out skits, which elicited roars of laughter from the crowd, especially when they started fake boxing. They were climbing up on church benches and jumping around with no hesitationŠan incredible sight indeed.

Coconut Wireless I got home from language training one day, and my whole family was gone off somewhere, which was a very rare occurence. I decided to take the opportunity to go off on a walk alone, since that's basically impossible 99 percent of the time. I got out of the village without picking up any tag-alongs and started walking in the direction of Neiafu, which is the main town on the Vava'u island.

It's about a 15-minute car ride from Neiafu to Mangia, but I'd never walked to Neiafu until that day.

During the course of my walk I had about five cars stop and offer me a ride into town without my even flagging them down. It took about an hour to walk into Neiafu, so I took the chance to visit an Internet cafe before walking back to Mangia.

I only had about three cars offer me rides on the way back, but I have no doubt that if I'd have beckoned anyone heading my direction would have stopped right away. Hitchhik-ing is common here and is pretty safe so long as the vehicle is road-worthy, which isn't always the case.

So I finished my walk back to Mangia and stopped back at home and my family already knew that I had walked to Neiafu without me telling them or telling anyone in the village where I was going. (I had only planned on going for a walk, not walking to Neiafu.)

The coconut wireless is strong here in Tonga. People have relatives and friends everywhere, so it's very difficult, at least in a small village, to do anything without people finding out. Apparently a cousin of my homestay sister had seen me walking in Neiafu and telephoned to my family that I was there.

It's still taking some adjusting to get used to having my actions, no matter how mundane and unexciting, being taken note of so carefully.

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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