Paynesville Press - December 7, 2005

Guest Column

Volunteer assigned to his two-year site

By Dan Starken

September 9, 2005
We've just found out our site placements for the next two years, and four people from my group are going to Vava'u, four are staying here on the island of Tongatapu, and one is going to the Ha'apai island group.

I'm going to be stationed on Vava'u in the village of Ha'akioŠwhich just happens to be one of the two villages we did our homestays at. Five of us stayed in Mangia, while the other four stayed in the village of Ha'akio, which is maybe a mile away. So I'm going to be very near my old village and I am pretty excited about it, not least of which because I can't wait to see what happens with my old homestay father, Ula.

Seems like every time Ula is around, something weird happens so if nothing else I'll have some great stories to show for my next two years in Ha'akio.

I used to have language class over in Ha'akio some days, and Ula would show up and hang around, so we'll see if he starts showing up at my new home. I might have to get a dog to keep him away, but then again he eats dog (as do a lot of Tongans). There's definitely not a stigma about eating dogs here maybe because the dogs are mostly strays and very few if any at all are pets in an American sense. I haven't eaten dog yet, to my knowledge, but I'm guessing some time in the next two years I'll be treated to the delicacy.

I'm not sure the exact date we're set to leave for Vava'u, but I think it will be just under two weeks time. Ha'akio is a ways out of Neiafu (the main town in Vava'u), but I should at least be able to get to the Internet in Neiafu every now and again, which is nice.

I don't really know what my home is going to be like. From what I understand, an outdoor bathroom is still in the process of being built for my home.

My assignment is going to be working with the Ha'akio youth and assisting them in starting any sort of business ventures or moneymaking schemes they like. I'm also set to work in a neighboring village, Houma, a couple days a week working with an agroforestry project that's funded by an agency from New Zealand and also assist a women's group in Houma with their handicraft financial endeavor.

It's all pretty abstract right now. I guess I'll have to figure it out when I get there because they don't give us much of any info on what we're supposed to be doing other than broad general guidelines. Basically, they gave us a one-page printout with our assignments, Tongan counterparts for our projects, and a brief description of what we're supposed to do. That's about it. Should be interesting.

September 26, 2005
I'm in the main town of Neiafu right now on the island of Vava'u. My village Ha'akio is a little farther away from Neiafu then my old village of Mangia, but not too far. It's maybe an hour and half walk into town, but I was able to hitchhike into Neiafu today.

Hitchhiking is pretty easy around here fortunately, so I shouldn't have to walk the entire way to Neiafu when I want to get here. There's one main road that goes out near my village and several other villages in the immediate vicinity, so I should be able to catch a ride with some familiar folks most of the time.

It's commonplace to see trucks going down the road with anywhere from 1-20 people riding in the back. I've had several rides in the back of said trucks so far, basically most people sit on the rails of the truck bed and hold on to avoid falling off, which amazingly doesn't happen hardly at all.

I moved to my new village of Ha'akio last Wednesday and have been trying to meet and remember as many people as possible. Remembering names is always a challenge, especially since names here are much different than American ones. Some of my favorite names so far are Falemaama (which means house light in Tongan), Lotu (which means church or to pray), and my personal favorite, Komipiuta (which means computer).

The youth of Ha'akio have been helpful and kind so far as well as the adults. Last Sunday I was invited to eat at one of the families' post-church dinners and ate very well.

Last Friday I did some of my own laundry and upon seeing this I was harangued by the lady next door to not do so, rather to give my laundry to her and she would do it. So I guess I won't have to do laundry much the next two years. My homestay mom in Mangia found out too that I'd done my own laundry and she insisted that I bring my clothes to her until I told her that a lady in Ha'akio would do my laundry.

If they insist, I can hardly refuse!

The family next door has been bringing me food as well, so I haven't been starving. A few days ago, one of the youth rolled up with a wheelbarrow carrying a huge bunch of bananas and hung it outside my house, so I've been eating lots of fresh bananas. My family from Mangia brought me four big papayas, freshly plucked off the tree as well, along with some other food.

Yesterday, I took a drive with my Mangia family to one of their relatives' homes in a nearby village and that family handed me a plastic bag with a crab fresh out of the ocean, so maybe I'll eat crab this evening.

My home in Ha'akio is a little cinderblock house with a bathroom, bedroom, and main room, part of which contains a kitchen area. It's a tiny house by American standards but is more than I expected. I even have a sink in the kitchen and running water some of the time.

The water in my village runs sporadically, so I end up running to the big cement rainwater tank a lot.

I've grown accustomed to drinking the water here now and have been for some time. The first week or so was a little unpleasant drinking the water, but now it's fine.

I went to visit another Peace Corps volunteer from my group yesterday and upon walking through a yard right near her house, several dogs started going berserk. One of them jumped at me and ended up biting me in the leg before the homeowners could stop it. Usually around here that means the offending dog gets the death penalty, but the owner didn't seem overly concerned so I guess he'll live to bite another day.

If I see that dog again though, I'm going to come armed with a bigstick. Batter up!

Dan 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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