Monday, November 21, 2011

Pele's Favo(u)rite Things

When it comes to getting rid of two years of accumulated belongings, there are several PCV examples to follow. Some PCVs decide to give everything to just one local friend and let them redistribute as desired (or not distribute anything and keep it all). Some leave everything inside the house for the next PCV to take over. Some slowly acquire other PCVs’ belongings to sell to new incoming Volunteers. One in Africa, that I learned of from my dad, invited community members to come to her house at X time to claim what they’d like. (I think it turned out to be a madhouse. She said they even took the coffee cup that she was using; I could have seen that coming.)

I will take the “try to divvy things up among families” approach. There are certainly some families who have helped me more than others throughout the two years. I’m closer to some people than others – that’s just inevitable. So as I looked at my belongings and the three Big Ticket Items – the stove/oven combo, the dorm-sized fridge, and the washing machine – I tried to think of how I can thank those who have helped me by giving them one of these more expensive items if they don’t already have them.

There were really four households that I was particularly close with, but two of them already had a stove/oven, fridge (or better, a deep freezer), and washing machine. One house is only an unmarried man now that his sister, her adopted kids, and his mom moved to the main island. Living alone he hardly keeps house and doesn’t need any of these things – or at least he would never use them.

That left one family. It’s a couple whose kids have married and moved away, and they’re perhaps the nicest people in my village. Since they don’t have any of these things, I thought how great that I could show them my appreciation by giving them a couple of things. Sione, the man, fishes, so I asked if he would like the little fridge to keep the fish cold. And for Loutoa, I thought she could use the washing machine instead of scrubbing by hand.

Great, they were so happy to hear that I wanted to give them those things, and, true to Tongan form, they’re giving me a gift to thank me for giving them this gift.

That left the stove. There were very few families that didn’t have a stove. One is the family that spends half their time here in Ha’ano and half the time in another island group. Or the family where people in town say the husband and wife are splitting up, and the wife is moving away, so where would the stove go? Or the family that I don’t really know as well that lives in the village (read: little community of 5 houses) nearby.

Considering the family in the other village, I thought about how, the day I was loading my belongings off the inter-island ferry, the wife was there asking what I’ll do with my things when I leave. Oh, brother.

Perhaps I could have looked around more, but I was sick of everyone asking what I was doing with every belonging, I just wanted to know who was getting what. Enough of this casual stroll over to my house to peek in and see if this article was claimed by anyone yet. Enough of the people talking, when I’m right in the room, about who is getting what of mine.

I decided to give the stove to Tanita’s family, the one in the other village.

I thought of how they have five kids and that’s a lot of cooking on an open fire. And I thought of how nice they were when I first got here. When I got locked out of my house on day 1, Tanita came with a hammer to help me break in the house. (And, we’ll remember, she also gave me a raw fish to eat. I felt like Gollum.) And the dad always helps when the electricity is out in my house, and I love the kids, and so on and so on. So I just said, “I’ll give it to them, and that’s that. No more village talk.”

If living in a Tongan town for two years has taught me anything, it’s that you can never stem the gossip; you can only change the focus. After giving Tanita claims to the stove for after I left, I heard new talk around town.

No longer were they rumoring about who I would give what to, I heard through the “coconut wireless” (we don’t have “grapevines” in Tonga) that at least one person was saying I was being biased about who was getting what. Let’s get some things straight, Ha’ano people who will never read this blog:

1. Of course I’m biased! There are definitely some people who helped me more than others through my service, so I’d want to support them and their families, just like they helped me.
2. I’m specifically trying to share my things around town to give many families something to help them rather than just giving it all to a couple of people.
3. It’s my stuff, so I can do what I want with it. So meh.

To be fair, that was through at least a second-hand source, and gossip can get distorted beyond recognition here. Also, the woman who mentioned that tidbit defended me saying, “If you give anything to anyone, they should just say ‘thank you’ and that’s it.”

By the time I post this, I’ll have already given away everything down to the extra batteries and deodorants and left Ha’ano. Perhaps some people will be disappointed with the bundle their family received, but I already gave you two years of work, and that wasn’t enough?

Update: Gave things away. I gave bundles of things to about a dozen families around town. The things I was happiest to give away were the toys, puzzles, and dress up the kids played with every day at my house. The kids having something fun to do makes me not care about the gossip. Sorry, parents, if you didn’t get that floor mat you were eyeing – but your kids got toy cars and a shapes game!

Saturday, October 1, 2011


Nearing the end of my Peace Corps service is full of emotions: excitement, sadness, apprehension, and so on. It can be difficult to keep working when the end is so near. I think to myself, what will happen to the projects after I leave? Will anyone keep up the work I've been doing for two years? To be sure I keep enjoying the work I’m doing while I’m here and to stay motivated, I try to think about daily successes. Here are a few from a week or so ago:

- The women’s group I’m working with in Ha’ano finally started the tourism program and welcomed a group of visitors to the island. Then, three days later, they welcomed a second group. (That one gets extra success points!)
- I found the dead thing that was giving off that smell in my bedroom. (It was a little lizard.)
- From my porch I watched whales jumping.
- I baked the equivalent of 12 cakes with a friend’s family to serve at a Tongan-sized tea.
- Papi and I ran with him on a leash.
- The kids and I made origami whales to wrap up a week talking about whales.
- I finished my last biannual Peace Corps report detailing my work in Tonga.
- Kids who come over after school are making cute bracelets from the beads I was sent.
- A friend and I have done an abs workout and stuck with it for a whole… week.
- I finished knitting two scarves that will be gifts to friends here.
- Almost everyone in town turned out at the kava hall to watch a Rugby World Cup Tonga vs. Anyone game.

Small successes, but there’ll surely be more as my countdown to America approaches 50 days…

Peace Corps Playlist

While still in Pre-Service Training, some Peace Corps Tonga Volunteers gave us all a CD of Tongan music, videos of Tonga, and playlists for the major events of our Peace Corps service. One playlist would be for Pre-Service Training, another for Early Termination, Close of Service, and so on. Songs correspond to the mood you're in for the event, such as the Early Termination (for people who quit and go home) playlist's “Take This Job and Shove It” or “We're Not Gonna Take It.”

Perusing my iPod, I've got my own playlist for Peace Corps Tonga. Sometimes it's just the title that says it, but other times it's in the song itself. Here's the list:

“All By Myself” - Celine Dion
“Cheeseburger in Paradise” - Jimmy Buffet (minus the lettuce, tomato, Heinz 57 and French fried potatoes)
“Earthquakes and Sharks” - Brandston
“I'm Going Slightly Mad” - Queen
“Island in the Sun” - Weezer
“Mayberry” - Rascal Flats
“Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da” - The Beatles
“Ocean Front Property” - George Strait
“Satan Gave Me a Taco” - Beck
“Shark in the Water” - VV Brown
“Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” - Otis Redding
“Small Town Saturday Night” - Hal Ketchum
“Southern Cross” - Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young
“That Kind of Day” - Sarah Buxton
“Thousand Miles from Nowhere” - Dwight Yoakam
“Waiting on the World to Change” - John Mayer
“We Sleep in the Ocean” - The Cloud Room
“Wide Open Spaces” - Dixie Chicks
“You Can't Always Get What You Want” - Rolling Stones

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Rugby Games

The Rugby World Cup will be starting soon, kicking off with the New Zealand All-Blacks playing the Tongan 'Ikale Tahi. The most famous rugby team in the world will be playing the Tongan Sea Eagles. For the opening game. Though I think we could all place safe bets on that game, Tongans are gearing up to see their kin start the tournament off. With local rugby leagues starting this time of year too, it's a favorite way to liken good players from villages to those who resemble oceanic birds of prey.

The perfect opportunity for that happened today: the opening games of Ha'apai Rugby League 2011. I, as a PCV, joined with the Tonga Red Cross to ensure the players' safety. I had seen rugby games last year. I was asked my Ha'ano's team to be the team doctor - I was the only one on the island with bandaids. The games were brutal. I would hear crunching bones upon collision, channel my mother, and whisper to myself, "That is so dangerous." So when Teisa, a woman from Tonga Red Cross, asked for my help with first aid, I thought it would be a worthwhile endeavor.

Armed with gauze, medical tape, bags of ice, and nothing more, we went to the rugby field to watch the four games of the day. Soon after the first game started, there was a hit, and a player was on the ground. I was on the edge of my seat. "Do we run in now, Teisa?" She told me to wait. Sure enough a few moments later he was up and back to playing. The same thing happened again. And again. I quickly took this lingering on the ground as if near death to be a ploy to rest.

About 15 minutes into the first half, whenever anyone stayed down for a minute, the rest of the team collapsed on the ground too, calling for water from the sidelines. Young eager boys would dash onto the field to revive the enervated players, who would then struggle to their feet. Yet, rather than tag out for one of the substitutes waiting on the sidelines, they would stay in the game. What sacrifice they make! These youth can hardly stand on their own feet they are so exhausted, but they stay in the game for their team!

The couple of times I did run onto the field for players who took longer than the standard rest period, it was for players who were lying, disoriented after a hit. All my past medical training tells me to not move someone who has been smacked by 3 or so rugby players and can't sit up on his own, yet, when I tell his teammates to stop jiggling his legs in an effort to awaken him, I'm ignored. So what is the point of the Red Cross being there?

Perhaps it's to give the audience something to talk about: a palangi or "foreigner". "Ooh, look at the palangi go onto the field!" "Hey, stay down, and the palangi will come help!"

Or maybe it's to give some honor to the league. "Professional First Aid from the U.S. Peace Corps."

To be sure, had something really gone wrong, it's probably better to have Red Cross there than just anyone. (Though the one island group's doctor was a coach of a team, so he was there too...)

I don't know what my real role was there. But, like so many Tongan events I don't understand, I got a costume and some food: a neon Tonga Red Cross vest and a plate of cookies. Gosh, I hope that's how they run the World Cup.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Camp GLOW Kalapu

In preparation for our girls leadership camp, Camp GLOW, the whole Ha’apai planning team has worked to get local donations to supplement the international funding we’ve received from our generous family and friends. One of the traditional Tongan fundraisers is a kalapu, a kava-drinking event where all the money is contributed to a cause. Though the “causes” are usually school scholarships or electricity for the town hall, the cause at a kalapu a few weeks ago was Ha’apai’s upcoming Camp GLOW.

Kava drinking is a strictly male affair. Unmarried girls and women can participate, but their role is to serve the kava and banter with the menfolk. The men reply with flirting and often more obscene remarks to the tou’a. This was the primary context for courting in the Tongan days of yore, but now there are few Tongan youth girls who enjoy tou’aing. No surprise there; it’s easy for the kava circle to be a sexist event.

That’s why it’s ironic that, in preparation for a girls leadership camp, we organized a huge kalapu, complete with tou’as.

To advertise our kalapu, we placed an ad to be read over the local radio station. The ad described the camp and what the money was for, but the part that got people interested in supporting us was the line that said, “Camp GLOW’s kalapu will have international tou’as coming!” International tou’as – from America and Japan (a Japanese volunteer friend). The phone number given in the commercial was ringing off the hook with interested kava drinkers. “International tou’as? Really? Will one be at my kava circle?”

As the kalapu was held in the main town, I went in after school on Friday to help Juleigh prepare. The Tongan camp counselors and our Japanese friend came to Juleigh’s for dinner, and then we headed to the kava hall together.

By 8:15, when we arrived, there were already 5 kava circles, each from a different village, and each with its own kava bowl. Each tou’a went to a different circle; mine was from a town right next to Pangai. There were about 20 men, and, by the looks of them, most of them were over 40. But kava drinkers don’t age well. The drink makes the skin wrinkly, scaly, and dry. And as they drink and smoke in the kalapu, men’s faces seem to slow; they can’t move as fast, open their eyes as wide, or speak as coherently. Perhaps these men were only 30, but from years of drinking, they looked like no spring chickens.

Especially one man. He could have had other reasons for his dishevelment, but I like to pretend it was the curse of the kava. When I first saw him, falling out a van, already drunk at 9pm, he resembled a hairy bushman. Swaddled in a huge fur coat. I think he had some kind of a staff. Lucky me, he was from the village I was tou’aing for. He sat behind me, but he would poke me to get my attention, and then shake my hand or make some unintelligible comment. At one point he gave me an orange. Then he disappeared, and I didn’t miss him.

After hours of this – trying to carry on conversation with increasingly poor conversationalists, shifting my legs to keep them from falling asleep, and of course ladling out the muddy drink – the money was collected from each group and counted. We had raised over $600 USD in one night.

Just after 1am, the tou’as retired. We were going to Juleigh’s house to sleep, but there wasn’t enough room in the car. Because nothing would have happened if we didn’t make a decision and act, Juleigh and I decided to walk the 15 minute walk back to her house. The only problem was, she was carrying some of the money we’d raised. “Ok,” we thought, “we’ll take the lit roads, walk quickly, and not talk to anyone. Besides, we know everyone in town. How could they rob us?”

We walked only 100 paces outside the hall, when a man stopped us. When the light hit him, we realized it was Maka (“Rock”), the guy who, months ago, had borrowed Juleigh’s speakers and lost part of them, thus rendering the speakers unusable. He drunkenly attempted to apologize for the speaker incident with one of the few phrases he knows in English, “Sorry for the misunderstanding.” (Yes, that was quite a misunderstanding. Juleigh thought he would return working speakers, whereas he thought she wanted nonworking speakers.)

We continued on. Close to Juleigh’s house there is a section of road without good lighting. As we approached this area, we saw another large, slow-moving man in the shadows. I whispered to Juleigh, “Ok, let’s not talk so maybe he won’t realize we’re foreigners.” As we passed him, he jumped in front of us and shouted, “Hey, I know these girls!” Sure enough, it was a lewd, oafy minister I didn’t particularly care for from my island. We hurried on to Juleigh’s house.

We all spent the night, using Juleigh’s sparse furnishings and emergency relief blankets borrowed from the Ha’apai Red Cross, the coordinator for which is helping with Camp GLOW. In the morning everyone faded away to their homes, and Juleigh and I reexamined the budget in light of our fundraising.

That was about 3 weeks ago. Now, Camp GLOW is happening! Tomorrow! The work is never over (but I took the time to post this blog anyway…), but we’re in the final phases of preparation!

Ready, set, GLOW!

Friday, May 27, 2011

What's Ha'appening in Ha'ano

With my end date in December looming, I’ve been trying to makes sure I take advantage of the rest of my time here. I made a list of things I’ve wanted to accomplish and projects I want to try (or keep trying!). Here are a few things of that list, and how they worked out:

- Start an after school program with the kids. Status: Score! At one of our PTA meetings, I asked the parents if they would like their kids to participate in an after school program twice a week to do art, music, and PE – classes that easily get overlooked as the teachers focus on the core subjects. We’ve played with Play-Doh, created mosaics, learned “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands” (it’s a Christian country…), played volleyball and soccer, and had a great time!

- Organize a program to bring money into the town from tourists. Status: So far so good. I may be jinxing it by getting excited about it, but it could be a good, long-lasting program. This is a two-fold project: first, to get a day-trip organized for tourists from the main island in the island group to see the “traditional Tonga” – see the sights of Ha’ano, learn about the culture, have a traditional meal. One of the resorts on the next island over has even expressed interest in offering the “Ha’ano experience” to customers. Second, to promote selling vegetables and fresh fish to sailboat travelers who often anchor near the island. Last year, during sailing season, several tourists asked about buying vegetables of the island. Though there aren’t many vegetables on the island that Americans would recognize, there are several leafy vegetables that already grow in Tongans’ backyards, and they could easily be sold for a few pa’anga. I’ve talked to the two women’s groups in the community, and both sound interested in doing these things, but they’re busy doing a community clean up this month. Hopefully they’ll still be interested in a few weeks…

- Grow a garden. Status: Fail, but I haven’t given up. Yet. Everything just eats the seeds. First it was the pigs. Then we got a lock for the gate so they can’t come in. But the chickens still come and eat everything I put in the ground. I’ve tried starting things inside, planting in a window box, using different kinds of seeds, and so on and so on. I need to try to get some kind of netting to cover the area, but of course, there’s nothing like that on my island. When I go into town next time…

- Go with the women at low tide to collect shellfish. Status: Not yet. Though I’ve asked the women to tell me when they’re going, they never seem to. Hopefully I’ll be able to go before I finish here – maybe I could pick up my very own sea urchin! Delicious!

- Make/Use a solar oven. Status: Half-way there. The solar oven is built according to instructions I found online (using a cardboard box, foil, black construction paper), but it rains off and on so much that I haven’t been free for 4 hours (it’s supposedly very slow cooking) to set up and watch the oven, lest it suddenly rain and ruin the oven.

- Knit something that takes some skill. Status: I’m getting there! With all this time on my hands, I’ve decided to re-take up knitting. Though I’ve tried several times in the past, I’ve usually been confined to squares completed in the same stitch. Now, after receiving a how-to book called “Ready, Set, Knit,” I’ve been able to make a couple of scarves that have patterns. Of course, I should have been taking diligent notes when I tried to learn knitting from my grandmother and aunt, but I guess this book will have to do in Tonga! I haven’t made anything that exciting, but I gave one scarf to a friend here, and she says she loves it. Next up, hats.

- Make my own pasta. Status: Haven’t yet tried. I’ve still got time.

- Work with the island’s clinic to do a community health project. Status: Fail, and I’ve got other things to do anyway. Since the clinic is a 40-minute walk away and I don’t ever just “run into” the nurse, I haven’t been able to find her. I mean, she is working, right?

- Prepare applications for law school. Status: A work in progress. While home for Christmas, I was able to do some research for law schools, find applications, read guides about writing personal statements, and look up financial aid forms. Since I’ll be applying in August/September, from Ha’ano, I’m trying to get everything in order as best I can. I’ve finished the LSAT, letters of recommendations, and a few other things, so I’m on my way, but it certainly won’t be easy to complete!

Those are only a few of the things on my to-do list. I try to keep them in mind especially on those days that seem to just drag on. Those days and weeks when nothing changes but my school lesson, I try to work on something different. I haven’t been successful in projects every time, obviously, but for every frustration I have, I just remind myself to keep on trying here, since in just over 6 months, it’ll all be memories. Phew.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Camp GLOW Ha'apai

Campers at last year's Camp GLOW Ha'apai

My friend Juleigh and I are planning Camp GLOW in our island group, Ha’apai. Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) is a week-long sleep-away camp for girls and young women that empowers its participants by:

- advocating a healthy lifestyle,
- providing vital information on sensitive topics,
- teaching leadership and team-building skills,
- encouraging critical thinking and logical decision-making,
- building a network of motivated girls and women,
- and fostering self-confidence and creative expression in a fun, safe, judgment-free environment.

Last year’s Ha’apai camp was a success with 15 campers, and this year we’re expanding to 25 campers. Campers will participate in sessions and classes about everything from money management, goal-setting, and sexual health to tie-dying, healthy cooking, and aerobics.

In Tonga, Camp GLOW is a unique experience. Especially in Ha’apai, there is nothing else like Camp GLOW for girls to participate in. Rarely, if ever, are girls from different schools and churches joined in a fun, community-building environment that encourages and motivates girls specifically. With all-Tongan camp counselors and Tongan-led sessions, the girls get a new perspective and way of decision-making in the Tongan culture.

Juleigh and I are currently working with a Tongan counterpart at the Ha’apai Youth Congress to arrange speakers, camp counselors, catering, and venues. We’re lucky to have these dedicated counterparts to help make this year’s camp a success, and also, hopefully, carry on Camp GLOW after we leave.

And now that you know how great Camp GLOW is, I’ll ask for money.

Though the Tongan community is supporting Camp GLOW through free lodging and community fundraisers, we still need help from our family, friends, and Camp GLOW supporters. To donate to Camp GLOW, please...

Paste the following URL in your browser and click “Donate”


1. Go to
2. Click "Donate to Volunteer Projects" on the left side of the page
3. Type "Burke" into the search field and click "Search"

Note: J. Burke is my co-director for Camp GLOW Ha’apai. There are several camps in Tonga, so please be sure to find ours!

Malo 'aupito for supporting Camp GLOW and all the girls of Tonga!