Paynesville Press - December 21, 2005

Guest Column

Volunteer continues to describe life at Peace Corps site

By Dan Starken

(Editor's Note: Starken has been assigned to work with youth in the village of Ha'akio on the island of Vava'u in Tonga.)

October 12, 2005
I'm doing alright here. This place has its times of absolute serenity and surreality, but it also has times that are quite difficult, though most of them have some redeeming quality after the fact.

The difficult times usually revolve around church here. Living in a small village (150 people) in Tonga basically means everything revolves around church. The Free Wesleyan missionaries did well in Tonga and much of the country is Free Wesleyan. Interestingly enough, the Mormon missionaries also had significant success here, and somewhere around 15-20 percent of Tonga is Mormon. Which makes Tonga the country with the highest percentage of Mormons in the world, as I understand it.

Most everyone in my village goes to church several times on Sunday and in the evenings on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, along with several other random church services during the week. I'm constantly implored by most everyone to go to church.

The worst is when my supervisor (a 40-something-year-old guy who also supervises the youth group) implores me to do church things all the time. I can't really afford to upset the man since he lives about 15 yards from my home, runs the youth group I work with, and has been generally helpful with several things including having his wife do my laundry and feeding me some nights. He's a good guy, just a little overbearing when it comes to imploring me to church up all the time.

It would be a little easier to bear if I was in a Catholic community, since I am Catholic, but attending multiple weekly church services at non-Catholic churches grows a little tiresome. Especially since the services are all in Tongan and they speak very fast, so I'm hard pressed to understand much of anything that's said.

It's been a little hard in my village to get to know everyone and get involved with the people because most are content to do their own thing, and the village isn't near as communal as my homestay village of Mangia, who did almost everything together. The one nice thing is I do get a little privacy now and then.

This place is extremely beautiful, which helps ease some of the social pressures here. The social aspect is certainly very difficult to deal with much of the time. I'm sort of caught in between two sets of expectations in the village. I'm expected to dress and act the same as Tongan adults do, which is more strict than the youth are allowed, yet I'm still considered a "youth" in Tongan culture because I'm unmarried. Being unmarried, basically means you're still a "youth" here, so I'm still treated by some of the adults as a "youth" which basically means that you get told what to do and you do it.

The only time this really becomes an issue is with my supervisor, who treats me as though I'm a son of his. Of course being used to autonomy, it is a little hard when someone tells me I have to go to church or it's time to eat or it's time to shower and the like. It wouldn't be so bad if it was every once in awhile, but it's usually a daily occurence.

I've taken on a teaching position at the University of the South Pacific branch of Vava'u. They basically had nobody to teach Java programming, so I'm going to do that as well as work in my village and with the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. It feels good to work at USP though because I know I can help the students immediately whereas in my village of Ha'akio, any tangible results may be a long time away if at all.

October 25, 2005
Things here are pretty busy. Aside from working to get a vegetable garden going with my youth in my village, we're also doing some fundraising in order to buy some fencing to put around our land plot.

As I might have mentioned before, there are pigs roaming everywhere here so if we don't have our plot fenced in, then the pigs will surely destroy it. I've come to almost loathe the pigs around here because they are such a nuisance.

I'm sure they would be eradicated here if the Tongans didn't enjoy eating puaka (pig) so much; every feast they have here, the highlight is eating puaka. Which basically means, they gut a pig, remove its hair by either boiling it or using a blowtorch, stick a big stick through it, and roast it on an open fire and then plop it on the table.

A decent size feast will have somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 pigs (medium-sized) spread out on the tables. I've gone to feasts the past two weekends in my village, and there's another one this coming Sunday. Eating is probably the biggest enjoyment/pastime here as you might have guessed.

So for our fundraising, we're making this dish called faikakai, which involves picking a bunch of papayas, grating them up, then mixing with flour, sugar, and fresh ground-up coconut. The result is about one-inch cubes that are then put in banana leaves and baked in an 'umu (description to follow).

The 'umu is basically an underground oven, Tongan-style. You dig a hole in the ground, then put rocks or coral at the bottom of it, then take coconut husks or some big pieces of wood, and put them over the rocks or coral. Then start the fire and the husks and wood will burn for a while until the rocks turn black and then back to whiteŠthen you take out the wood that hasn't burned (the husks burn very well so they are usually gone by the time the rocks or coral is ready). All that's left is the heated rocks and coral; then you take the food you want to cook and put it on the rocks (usually in banana leaves). Then you put some banana leaves or coconut fronds and cover the 'umu; then put a blanket or a tarp over everything and shovel some dirt on top of that to seal up the "oven." Wait an hour or two and everything is baked, Tongan-style.

We're also doing a kalapu, which basically consists of a bunch of men sitting around drinking kava (a sort of sedative-type drink that seems to have a lot of cultural significance here). These things usually start around 8 p.m. and go until maybe 4 or 5 a.m. The men apparently like to see who can stay awake the longest, so by the end of these things, most of the guys will be asleep or basically comatose. The other joy of kava is that it makes you incredibly sleepy for the next day or two, so even though some guys will drink kava until the early hours of the morning and get up and go and farm for a few hours in the morning, most just sleep the next day away.

Personally, I decided I had no interest in the day-after hangovers from kava, so I told them I don't drink it (of course in as polite a way as possible).

Most of them seem to accept that since I am palangi (their name for a white person), but I'd probably be more "respected" or whatnot if I were to partake in the kava affairs. I go and sit with them when they drink some nights for a few hours and then go home. Most of them seem to be assuaged when I tell them that I won't drink any alcohol here in Tonga as well as kava at least.

Drinking alcohol here is one of the main topics of every church service here since a lot of the Tongan youth (mostly the guys) drink a home-made alcohol and then go and make nuisances of themselves in the villages and in Neiafu.

Tonga culture is very Christianity-centric, and this pervades most of their society. In my village, for instance, it's probably 95 percent Free Wesleyan and five percent Mormon, but even the Mormons in my village will often go to the Wesleyan church just because the expectations are very heavy here that everyone ought to go to church.

Last week I went to church five times I thinkŠMonday, Wednesday, Friday, and twice on Sunday. Just going is basically enough, because I still understand next to nothing that they say in church. When I tell people that I'm Catholic (there is a decent Catholic population here), the standard response I get from the villagers is that Wesleyan is the same as the Catholic church.

At least every Sunday, I go over to a different home in my village to eat, usually a pretty nice Tongan spread of food.

I'm also teaching/tutoring a class on computer programming at the branch of the University of the South Pacific here in Vava'u. That's where I'm at now. Unfortunately the students' test is coming up in two weeks and most of them are still clueless. They had the misfortune of not having a teacher/tutor for this class for most of the semester until I started a couple weeks ago.

For example, I gave them the following statement and had them identify the type and the variable "int age = 27"; and most of them struggled to pick out what was the variable, d'oh!

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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