Sunday, June 20, 2010

A Balanced Meal with the Mormon Women

A few months ago, I went to Pangai with people from my village to perform a square dance organized by the Mormon women’s group. These women, the Fine ‘Ofa, have quarterly activities – the square dance being one. Last Friday was the next quarterly activity: a discussion on health, enjoying a balanced meal, and then exercising.

Though this activity, the Balanced Meal they called it, was for only the Mormon women in my village, I was still invited to participate. (Any time there’s food, I’m always invited. And this one involved a balanced meal! How could I refuse?)

I went to the Mormon church that night and listen to a very brief lesson on healthy foods and why healthy foods are important, then it was time to eat.

I had doubted the healthfulness of the food I would see. At Tongan eating events, there are usually root crops the size of my leg and pigs glistening with fat. What would Tongans do to a healthy meal?

The eating was on the basketball court. Each family would sit together around a little piece of fabric and eat whatever food they brought themselves. As I walked to my friend to eat with her, I saw plastic to-go boxes of, honestly, quite healthy foods. I saw bananas, apples, papayas, chicken, and modest size chunks of root crops. Though I’m sure it was prepared by one family for themselves, someone still gave me a box.

It was delicious! The chicken was cooked flavorfully with peppers; the traditional Tongan foods were lacking their usually dehydrating amounts of salt; and everything was in moderation.

As I enjoyed one the box of food, other people from other families brought me some of their food too. I got baked papaya, whole baked coconut, octopus, shellfish, and all kinds of other things. They were all pretty healthy it seemed to me, though now I felt obligated to eat a lot of each one of them, which threw portion control out the window.

I should have known that, even if the food would be healthy, it wouldn’t be in modest amounts: I saw one family bringing their food in by wheelbarrow.

I was sitting with a friend who had cooked her own food too, though. Of course, she shared this with me. But, I don’t think my friend really appreciated the healthy aspects of the meal, since she brought basically all the regular food I see in Tonga: fatty pork, fried chicken, sapsui, and those limb-sized root crops.

After eating enough to make even a healthy meal unhealthy, it was time for exercise. All the women (all 10 of us) stood in a circle ready to begin. The group leader then said, “Ok, Pele, go in the middle and lead exercises.” I had a look of horror on my face, I’m sure, but I got in the middle and did a couple of things before gradually slipping back to the outside of the circle.

Another woman took charge and led the women in toe-touches, jumping jacks, and a kind of body-twist that I’ve never seen Jane Fonda do. The music was blasting, and I noticed that our entire workout lasted less than a song. That was probably about all the women could take; they were huffing, puffing, and “oiaue”-ing within 3 minutes. (Oiaue is a Tongan exclamation for just about anything: excitement, surprise, sadness, and, as was the case here, general exhaustion.)

I got sent home with my to-go box and other bits of food I’d acquired throughout the dinner. After that it was time to lie down. That was the healthiest Tongan-prepared meal I’ve probably ever had in Tonga, but I still felt like I had just eaten Thanksgiving dinner.

Baby Oil, Money, and Disco: My Ta'olunga

I’d performed a ta’olunga, the traditional Tongan standing dance, during my homestay last October, but that was with another Peace Corps Trainee on the stage with me, and a bunch of Peace Corps friends in the audience. Then I performed the traditional sitting dance, the ma’ulu’ulu, for our Swearing-In Ceremony, but again, that was on a stage with other palangis and in a room filled with a sympathetic audience.

Though I knew the audience at my school’s concert wouldn’t be critical, it was the first time I was on the stage by myself with dozens of people watching just me. Moreover, they were all great at this kind of dance, whereas I was far from decent.

My principal and neighbor, Pauline, taught me the dance over a course of two weeks. I practiced all the time – by myself during the day and with the music when there was electricity. I’d borrowed the dancing costume from the only girl in town who is about my size. I’d bought the baby oil that ta’olunga dancers slather on their bodies so money sticks to them. I was as prepared as I could be.

The best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry. I began my dance. All was going acceptably well through about two and a half verses of the song. Then, following Tongan tradition, people started coming up to stick money on my baby-oiled body.

It all fell apart from there. I got so distracted by the people who donate money by crowding around me and slapping bills on my oily skin that I forgot the moves. I must have had a look of “oh no! What comes next?” since there was a little chuckle through the audience.

Pauline, the principal-neighbor-dance instructor, was on stage too, so I look to her for help. Her reply: “Oh, just disikou.” Yep, that’s a cognate for disco, and, to Tongans, that means just dance however you want. No way! I had practiced this dance and I’d worked hard at this dance, and I wanted to be able to perform it.

Pauline eventually got me back on track. I finished the dance. I was somewhat embarrassed that I forgot half of the moves, but no one in the village seemed to care. The rest of the night and the next day, everyone who saw me told me how wonderful my ta’olunga was. Surely they were lying, but having a palangi try to do a Tongan dance must have been pretty amusing.

I always hear stories about the Peace Corps Volunteer who was here before me. “Kalani once did this.” “Kalani once did that.” Maybe in a few years they’ll be saying, “Pele once did a ta’olunga for the school koniseti.” And then maybe they’ll laugh and say, “And she forgot half of it.”

June - School Koniseti

Raising Money in Tonga

A koniseti, or concert, is a traditional way to raise money in Tonga. Schools have concerts every semester or so, and my school’s concert was last week. This was the first Tongan concert I’ve been to, and even more, I was going to be dancing in it! (More about my personal ta’olunga adventures in a separate post.)

A good general glimpse of a koniseti is: loud music blaring, a kid standing on the stage swaying somewhat to the music, and people from the audience come to tuck bills (usually 1 or 2 pa’anga, but maybe a parent donates 10 pa’anga or more) into the kid’s clothes. And then it’s repeated with the next kid.

There are 22 kids in my school. This is what happened for each one of them. My principal had a different idea a few years ago, and while it was the same basic “come give money to the kid moving to the music,” she enhanced it a bit. The kid on stage would call to someone in the audience to come and “buy” his necklace to ticket to a dance. Then the person would come up and tuck a few pa’anga in the kid’s shirt and maybe take the necklace or ticket. Then the rest of the audience would come up and give a few pa’anga too.

Most kids called to their parents, but some kids would call to someone else, and the more creative, unexpected calls (to the shopkeeper, the crazy old lady, the whole Ha’ano youth group) usually got laughs.

After each kid, the PTA money collectors announce how much money was raised from that kid.

The classes 4-6 also did a ballroom dancing-like dance. There are 8 kids in that combined class, and they’re all boys. That meant that half of them had to be girls for the dance. As I’ve said before, Tongan’s love to cross-dress. There were wigs, panty hose, and make-up. The pictures I put up don’t do them justice.

After several hours, the koniseti was over. The PTA announced that we had raised almost 2,000 pa’anga. Not bad for an evening’s work.

How to Teach a Computer Class with One Computer and Minimal Electricity

After many setbacks in projects I’ve tried to get started in my village (a school garden, a map of the world, a regular library class), I’ve finally begun a computer class. I had planned on giving the class to Class 6 (grade 6), but the principal suggested those students focus only on the Secondary School Entrance Exam which happens in October.

Unwilling to let all my preparation for this class go to waste, I suggested starting the class with Class 5. I got the green light, so the principal announced the start of the class at the latest PTA meeting. The parents seemed to like the idea, and one of them even asked if I’d do the class with adults too. I said sure, of course.

The first class would begin at 10am on Saturday. There’s only electricity at night and on Saturday, but every school night, the kids have class to prepare for the Secondary School Entrance Exam, so I decided Saturday was the best bet.

My class of two arrived at my house at 8:15am, ready to start. I reminded them that class started at 10, and they said they knew. They hung out at my house, every 15 minutes saying something like, “It’s still not 10 yet!” Finally, 10 o’clock arrived like Christmas morning for these boys, and we started class.

They were more enthusiastic than I’ve ever seen them in anything else. We did simple things, like talked about the rules for the computer, naming the parts of the computer, and turning the computer on, but they got excited for every part of it.

After class, when I walked around town, a couple of adults asked me if they could join too, and could I teach them how to use the internet and set up a Bebo account. I said I’d do my best, but without internet, it might be difficult to explain how a social networking site works.

So now, how does one set up a computer class without, you know, computers, plural?

I found a sample keyboard online and printed copies for anyone who came to class. Since my class will be mostly focused on typing, we’ll use the paper sheets to practice from a book I made.

The school has one computer, printer, photocopier, an extra keyboard, and an extra mouse. If there are only the two kids in my class, they can both use real keyboards, but if there are more people, we’ll use those sheets.

All the parents thought it was hilarious when they heard that I’d found the paper keyboards to use; they all said they want to use the real thing if they came to the class. They’re worse than the kids!

A Tale of Two Bicycles

Many Peace Corps Volunteers in Tonga have bicycles. They seem like a ton of fun. One basket, one Peace Corps-mandated helmet, two wheels, and a whole lot of freedom.

I decided not to get a bike, though. My island is perhaps two miles long, and there are few instances when I need to go to a village that might merit a bike ride.

A month or so ago, one such instance arose. The store in my village ran out of phone credit, and the only other place to buy credit is about a 20 minute walk away. My school principal also wanted to buy credit, so she suggested we get bikes and ride over.

We walked around our village. Pauline pointed to a bike she saw in someone’s yard and said, “Hey, ask him if you can borrow that bike.” This is the way to get things in Tonga, it seems. You see something someone else has, and if they’re not using it (and even if they are using it, but you really want it), you just ask for it. So Tomasi gave me his bike. “The seat is broken, though,” he warned.

Sure enough, that seat was broken. All the cushioning that is so essential for protecting one’s backside on a bike was gone. Tomasi’s solution was to stuff coconut husks between the pole and the seat cover. I can’t say it worked well, but I surely didn’t want to try the bike just on the pole. We rode on that rocky road to the next village and back, and my rear end felt sore for the next few days.

A few weekends ago, the second instance arose. I was sitting in my yard, enjoying the view and reading my book, when a couple of high school girls who came back for the weekend stopped by. As we were chatting, they asked me whose bike that was, propped up over by the fence. I said I didn’t know, but I joked that I was going to steal it and go ride around. We laughed, but after the girls left, I thought that might be a fun thing to do on a lazy Saturday – go on a bike ride. I’d have the wind in my hair and my dog chasing as I blew down the island. The fact that I didn’t know the owner of the bike didn’t seem so important.

I asked my neighbor if he knew who the bike owner was. Did my neighbor think the owner would mind if I took his bike? I got the same answer I get every time I ask for something here in Tonga: Sure, no problem.

Just as I was heaving the bike over the stone wall and onto the road, a guy passed by on a bike. He suggested I take the bike he’s on. “It’s much better than that bike,” he said. I said the bike I had was fine, but thank you and I mounted my bike for my freedom ride.

Tour de France it was not. I felt like I was on the first bicycle ever built in the history of bicycles. The gears were so stripped they hardly gripped the chain, but when they did grip the chain, they would lock up. It was impossible to get any speed, but that’s probably a good thing, since the brakes didn’t work either.

I laughed to myself (and perhaps a little aloud too) as I clunked down the road. A brisk speed walker could have probably passed me, but I was enjoying the ridiculousness of the situation too much to not continue on my adventure.

As I rode through the bush, I passed a handful of people. Two people from different groups made fun of the state of my bike. I told them it was brand new and cru-cru-crunged on my way. I’d never felt more Tongan.

I returned that bike too, of course. I never saw the owner, so hopefully he wasn’t worried about the theft of his precious antique. Of course he wasn’t worried. It’s never really stealing in Tonga; it’s just borrowing for a shorter or longer period of time. And my borrowing took all of about an hour, but it was still my little hour of freedom.

The Day That Everyone Dressed in Drag

One Friday this month, the primary schools celebrated some kind of multicultural day. The school radio program had told everyone in school to dress up in the traditional clothes of some culture. Rather than dressing in the obvious Tongan traditional attire, many, if not most, students came dressed as girls. Of the 22 students in the school, 17 of them are boys, so there was a lot of wig/lipstick/dress-wearing.

As for the girls, they wore other ridiculously matched clothes. And there’s Tongan multiculturalism.

Here are pictures from that day. My principal and one of two other teachers, Pauline, asked me to take a couple of pictures of her too.

At the end of the album are a couple of pictures of what the kids do during the hour-long radio broadcast for teacher every Friday: nothing. The younger kids sit in their desks while the older kids keep them quiet. It's a productive hour, as you can see.

May Ha'ano