Monday, December 3, 2012

Goodbye Tonga

In just a few short hours I will be leaving Tonga. I'm not going to attempt to squeeze two year's worth of memories in a single blog post nor will I attempt to articulate how I am feeling right now. I just want to say thank you to all my friends and family in Tonga and in America for unending support, love, and kindness during my Peace Corps service. I am so blessed.

Alu 'a Tonga!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Third Thanksgiving

Today is my third Thanksgiving in Tonga. Every year we (the Peace Corps volunteers and staff) spend an outrageous amount of money on a turkey, scrap together some side dishes, and search the island for cranberry sauce. Yet even though I am in a time zone 19 hours away, the temperature is about 50 degrees warmer, and there is no pumpkin roll, I am still able to celebrate Thanksgiving. And for that I am very thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving to those in Tonga, Transfer, and everywhere in between!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Hardship in Tonga

*The following is an article I wrote for work highlighting the hardships that our members face*

The Kingdom of Tonga is a Pacific paradise. Gorgeous beaches, excellent diving and snorkeling, and friendly people define this tiny island nation. However beneath the picture perfect exterior is a weak economy, lack of career opportunities, divided government, high cost of living, and daily financial struggles. Tongan women in particular face many hardships in their daily lives. Providing food for their families, paying children’s school fees, finding reliable transportation, and caring for elderly family members are just a few of the challenges they face each and every day.

One of the greatest hardships Tongan women face is the high cost of living in Tonga. Tonga relies heavily on imports, which drives up the cost of consumer goods. This means that everything from diapers to shampoo is more expensive to purchase. The cost of electricity is also very high in Tonga. The country uses diesel generation to provide power. This results in high costs for Tongan consumers. Lastly, imported petrol is very expensive which makes transportation difficult to afford.

Another challenge is the lack of jobs in Tonga. With few resources to spark economic growth, the country has very little job creation. Even in industries with high potential, such as the tourism and hospitality industry, Tonga lags behind many other nations in the Pacific. Tongan women work hard running small business in order to provide income for their families. In addition to the time spent caring for their children and running the household, Tongan women dedicate many hours in a day to various businesses such as weaving, farming, running shops, sewing and baking.

Lastly, Tongan women face many hardships in their homes. Tongan families are usually very large. An average household has 6 members. Most families have many children and live with extended family members. There is a lot of pressure on women to take care of children and elderly relatives. It is hard for women to provide nutritious meals for so many people. It is also challenging to find adequate medical care, especially on the remote islands. Keeping a family healthy and happy is not an easy task.

Despite the idyllic images Tonga produces there are a variety of hardships. Poverty in Tonga is very real, and the women in Tonga experience it every day.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Kava Culture

Kava is a drink commonly found in the Pacific. It is made from the ground root of the kava plant, which is similar to the pepper plan. The taste is slightly bitter, but mostly it tastes like gritty water. People drinking kava do become intoxicated. However, the effect is not the same as alcohol. Kava numbs the mouth and tongue and produces a calm and relaxed feeling. The day after, kava drinkers often sleep excessively, or if they do wake up, often spend the entire day in a state of lethargy.

In Tonga, men drink kava and women serve kava. At first, my feminist side was appalled by this gender segregation. But more and more I suspect that women don't want to drink kava anyway. It tastes bad, makes you lazy, and it can be really boring. I don't foresee Tongan women to joining kava circles anytime soon.

The woman serving kava is called a to'ua. She sits in front of the kava bowl (kumete) and stirs the kava whenever the men signal they are ready to drink. She then spoons the kava into cups made of coconut shells which are first passed to the men at the head of the circle (the most important people, like nobles, chiefs, and ministers) and then to the men closer to the to'ua.

Traditionally in Tonga, kava circles were the time for single boys and girls to meet, flirt, and even arrange marriages. If a boy found a girl  he liked, he would go to her house and ask permission to hold a kava circle there. Later he would come with male friends and family members to drink kava and talk to the girl. If everything went well, eventually the two would be married.

I have served kava countless times now. Usually I will agree to to'ua if there is a kalapu, a fundraising event. At these fundraisers they collect money for schools, churches, sports teams, and more. I have had lots of great experiences. I enjoy listening to the music, flirting with cute Tongan boys, and receiving endless compliments. Usually it is pretty fun. The downside is sitting on the hard floor for up to 6 hours in a row, legs cramping and falling asleep, and men making rude comments.

Kava is a unique part of Polynesian culture. Whether drinking kava or serving kava, it is something I recommend as an interesting experience for anyone living or working in Tonga.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Year Two Highlights

Dancing a tau'olunga to welcome the new teachers to MSC

Delivering building supplies to Matamaka GPS

Rachel came to visit Tonga!

'Eua with Rachel

March for the opening of Parliament

Singing with the Royal Maopa Choir

4th of July

Royal Wedding

Mr. Tonga competition

Arrival of Group 77

Close of service conference for Group 76

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Close of Service Conference

Fotua - we all made it!

Tongatapu volunteers

Vava'u volunteers

Group 76

I did it!

Last week was the Close of Service Conference for Group 76. We spent the week at Vakaloa resort enjoying our last time to be together as a group...reflecting, remembering, laughing, swimming, dancing and preparing for what comes next. It was a fabulous celebration of the past two years.

Tu'a 'ofa atu Kulupu 76!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Musings on Microfinance

In the month or so that I have worked in microfinance I have learned so much. I am still no expert, but here are some of the things I have found interesting.

Microfinance is a variety of financial services

Microfinance is not simply providing credit for low income individuals, it is many different financial services. Each microfinance organization is unique, but some of the offerings include loans, savings accounts, and insurance policies. Most successful microfinance institutions offer a mix of services tailored to fit the financial needs of clients.

Microfinance is not a magic solution for poverty reduction

In recent years, there has been a lot of hype surrounding microfinance. Many believed microfinance was the solution to the woes of the developing world. This is not the case. What microfinance does do is provide reliable financial services to low income individuals.

Microfinance stabilizes finances

Microfinance products are most helpful for those with fluctuating income levels. The very poor are extremely vulnerable to expenses associated with things like hospitalization, funerals, and natural disasters. Microfinance offerings like savings and insurance help to protect the poor from financial disaster in these instances.

Many microfinance institutions operate with a double bottom line

Many microfinance institutions are for-profit organizations, but most operate with a double bottom line; a financial bottom line and a social bottom line. The social bottom line emphasizes things such as educating children, home improvements, financial literacy, and more. These social goals often set microfinance organizations apart from other financial organizations.

I could probably ramble on some more, but these are just a few things I have picked up. I think it is a fascinating field, and I am grateful for the opportunity to work in the industry. Hopefully I can learn even more in the next couple months!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Hello Group 77!

When preparing to come to Tonga, I was able to read several volunteer blogs offering advice and suggestions for Group 76. With just over a month until the arrival of Group 77, I would like to take some time to do the same.

Don't stress about packing

It is true that shopping in Tonga isn't quite up to American standards, but there are plenty of things to buy here. Clothes, toiletries, will be fine with the things that are available. However, here are a few things I recommend that you can't find in Tonga:

  • Your favorite clothes - if you have a favorite t-shirt or jeans or sweatshirt, bring it. Two years is a long time to go without.
  • Hammock - who doesn't want a hammock on an island?
  • Hanging basket - great for keeping rodents and bugs away from food.
  • Dress sandals - a nice pair of shoes for formal occasions (church, weddings, swearing-in) is great to have.
  • Make-up - I know that it is Peace Corps, but lots of Tongans wear make-up and it is fun to wear every once in a while.
  • Tampons - stock up in the States.
If you have any extra space, pack some food or candy. You can share it with your host family or save some snacks for yourself. After a couple weeks of Tongan food, you will appreciate it!

Be prepared to give up some freedoms

You will hear from many volunteers that pre-service training is the hardest part of Peace Corps, and I agree. I found that the biggest challenge was giving up my independence. There are many Peace Corps rules to follow and expectations from your host family. Girls especially are expected to stay home, and usually cannot go anywhere alone. It can be frustrating, but homestay is also a wonderful experience. If you come into it with a good attitude, you will learn so much from your Tongan family and community. 

Get to know the others in your group

The people in your group are the ones who you will rely on for the next two years...make some friends! Other PCVs are an invaluable resource during your service. They are the people who will be your best support system and keep you sane. Be nice to them.

Learn the language

Pre-service training is the best time to learn Tongan. Take advantage of your language lessons and practice with your host family. It will definitely pay off once you begin your service.

Tonga is an awesome place

Tonga is a fantastic place to live, so get excited! As with any Peace Corps country, there are challenges, but Tonga is a great country. The people are lovely, the islands are beautiful, and there are so many new things to experience. We are so excited to meet you, and I hope you are excited about joining Peace Corps Tonga Group 77.

Tu'a 'ofa atu!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

South Pacific Business Development

Last week I started a new job volunteering at South Pacific Business Development. SPBD is a microfinance organization that provides loans to low income women. Check  out their website for more information about what SPBD does...

I have several projects to work on at SPBD. First, I will be working to update the employee job descriptions, performance evaluations, incentive plan, and HR policy manual. Another project is to provide customer service trainings for the SPBD staff.  Lastly, I will be working to address the problem of low center meeting attendance.

I now have a real job, meaningful projects, and a desk. It is a strange. I have grown accustomed to the relaxed school environment here in Tonga, so working in a business setting is a bit overwhelming. However, I am excited about the work I will be doing, and it will be a great transition time for me right before I go back to America.

Now time to get to work!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Royal Wedding

Last week was one of the biggest events in the recent history of the Kingdom, the royal wedding! HRH Crown Prince Tupouto'a Ulukalala and Hon. Sinaitakala Fakafanua married last Thursday at the Centenary Church in Nuku'alofa. The couple followed the Tongan tradition of marrying within the royal family although they are second cousins. This created some controversy surrounding the wedding, but overall it was a beautiful event.

There were many different events scheduled as part of the wedding festivities. The first was a ball at the Dateline hotel in Nuku'alofa. Despite my best efforts, I was unable to get an invitation. However, I was able to attend the ma'utohi ceremony at the palace on Tuesday. On this day the couple signed their legal marriage license. My choir sang at the event and we were invited to stay for the luncheon. The lunch was a three-course meal, with the main course being steak. Steak and wine at the palace? I'll take it! There were also several Tongan dances, my favorite being the lakalaka from Vava'u.

The main event was on Thursday afternoon. Colorfully attired guests filled the church in anxious anticipation of the bride and groom. As per usual in Tonga, the ceremony started a half an hour late. When bride finally arrived she made a beautiful entrance. The wedding party wore palangi-style dresses and tuxedos and the ceremony was exactly like weddings I have attended in America, minus the fact that it was in Tongan. The following reception hosted about 2,000 people on the palace grounds.

Friday night was another ball (still no invite...I need to make friends with some royals) and Sunday was the final day of the wedding week. The couple attended their first church service as husband and wife, which is a very important part of Tongan weddings, sometimes more important than the wedding itself. There was one last feast, and that concluded the festivities. Congratulations to the Prince and Princess!

Monday, July 9, 2012


Church, singing, feasting, meetings, church, singing, feasting, meetings...

That about sums up the Free Wesleyan Church conference that finished last week. This conference, held every year around the end of June, is a huge event in Tonga. The Free Wesleyan Church is the largest in the Kingdom, and thousands of people attend this event. Representatives come from all the island groups and even some from overseas.

Tuesday, June 26th was the opening of the conference. There was a ceremony at the new church offices in Nuku'alofa followed by a feast at Queen Salote College Hall. The hall looked so beautiful! Following the feast, there was a po hiva (night singing) with 15 different choirs including groups from Vava'u and even New Zealand.

Wednesday was a service at the main church where the schools performed various musical pieces and dramas. My friend and fellow volunteer, Kaitlin, was Jesus as part of her school's performance. It was fantastic. Afterwards we went to a feast. Naturally.

The rest of the week was more of the same. I went to two more po hiva's, at one of those we performed Haydn's "Creation". It was fabulous. My choir also sang at the Sunday morning church service where we performed a Bach mass. The music in Tonga still amazes me. The final evening there was one more po hiva and the announcement of where the ministers will be serving during the coming year. Then there was the last feast, which began around 11:30 p.m. Kaitlin and I went one last time to fill up on fried chicken, root crop, ota ika, sweet and sour, crab salad, and cakes.

Next big event...royal wedding! Two more days!!!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

'Eua Is.

One of the highlights of Rachel's trip to Tonga was our visit to the island of 'Eua. This island is located to the east of the main island, Tongatapu. It is about a 4 hour boat ride, but only 7 minutes in a plane. Rachel and I took the plane, and it was awesome. A 7 minute flight in a 7 seater. A short, but memorable trip.

When we arrived on the island, we rode to our guesthouse, dropped off our bags and went out exploring. We started on the southern tip of the island. We saw a natural rock garden, dramatic oceanside cliffs, wild horses and a natural land bridge. Our hike back took us through the bush, where we saw many examples of Tongan farming including kape (giant taro), banana trees and lots of cows. Our last stop of the day was a beach.

On our second day, we again went out hiking. We started at a giant banyan tree overlooking a huge sinkhole. We then attempted to find a cave, but got deterred by the caution signs in the middle of the path warning of a logging operation. Instead, we went back to the guesthouse and took off for the beach. After a hike through some really overgrown bush, we ended up on a beautiful, islolated beach. 

In the evening, we spent some time at our guesthouse. We met other travellers from the U.K. and Germany who were very entertaining company. We left early Monday morning to head back to Tongatapu where we promptly went to another beach for the day. It was a fantastic weekend and fun memories with my sister!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

New Address

Since I have now moved permanently to Tongatapu, I have a new address. Here it is:

Charity McDonald
P.O. Box 147
South Pacific

I would love to get some mail =)

Saturday, June 9, 2012

10 Things You Should Know About Tonga

Guest blog post by Rachel...enjoy!

1. There are animals everywhere

Even here in the main city there is an abundance of dogs, cats, pigs, chickens, and goats. Out hiking, you might run into a cow or horse if you're not careful. My favorite Tongan animal is the pigeon. Apparently one of the kings decided the city was lacking pigeons. He had them shipped in and now they are everywhere.

2. Tongan singing is incredible

All Tongans appear to be naturally talented musicians. Singing is very much a part of their culture. I had the chance to go to a po hiva, or night singing, where local choirs showed off their talent. It was amazing, especially considering that these were the normal Tongan choirs that are found all over the island.

3. Airport security is completely different than the States

When Charity and I flew on a domestic flight to the island 'Eua we arrived with plenty of time to deal with typical airport hassles. As it turns out, this was unnecessary, as not only were we not asked for identification, but the employee at check-in told us our names before we could say anything. 

4. The royals are easy to find

From an American perspective, seeing royalty is quite exciting. However, in Tonga, the royals are out at the same restaurants and bars anyone else would be at. When I saw the princess I was quite excited but it was clear the Tongans were unfazed.

5. Everyone is a Christian

Tongan culture has been completely influenced by Christianity. Nothing is open on Sundays and it's a common question to ask what church you go to. The only religious diversity I found was a small group of Baha'i.

6. Tongan portions are huge

Charity and I were lucky enough to have some friends bring us some traditional Tongan food one Sunday afternoon. Despite that it was just the two of us they brought bananas, coconuts, fish, crab salad, root crop, potato salad, sausage, and lu. It was overwhelming. Thankfully, Tongans are also great at sharing and happily pass around extra food left over from these giant portions, so we were able to share food with our security guard.

7. Tonga is like one giant thrift store

In Tonga, almost everything is second hand. Cars, appliances, and clothes are all passed around. When you do go out to buy something at the market or fair, what you find is a delightful assortment of odds and ends that have somehow ended up in Tonga. This at least partially explains eclectic Tongan fashion.

8. Gold teeth and rat tails are fashion statements

Although it would look bizarre to an American, Tongans often display their status by flashing you a smile of gold teeth. Also bizarre is the prevalence of rat tails among boys. To each their own.

9. Tonga really is the Friendly Islands

Walking around town at first was almost unnerving because it seemed like everyone was saying hello. From the cheerful, "good morning" to small children yelling, "palangi!" (the word for white person) everyone is bound to say something to you. My favorite was the inevitable group of young guys shouting out, "You're beautiful!" or "I love you!" Thanks, Tongan boys.

10. Charity and I are now famous

After attending a church service that was televised, Charity and I are even more recognizable than usual. People will say "I saw you on tv!" All the Tongans (okay, at least some) now know Lose and Lesieli.

Tu'a 'ofa atu!


Friday, May 11, 2012

New Island, New Adventures

Sorry for the lack of posts lately, but hopefully this one will make up for it. Due to some unfortunate circumstances, I recently had to leave my island in Vava’u. I absolutely loved Vava’u, but moving was the right thing to do. I’m still not sure if this will be a temporary move or if I will permanently move until the end of my service in December.  But for now, I am living on the main island, Tongatapu.

Tongatapu has lots of great things to offer. For one, I started working at the Catering & Hospitality School at Queen Salote College. It is the exact program I taught in Vava’u, so it has been a fairly easy transition. Another benefit of living on Tongatapu is the food. There is a fabulous market and Saturday fair with quite the selection of food. There is good peanut butter, black beans, heaps of vegetables and even American cereal. Also, the restaurants are really yummy. There is an awesome pizza place and several good cafes. Lastly (although the list could go on), I recently joined the royal choir. They are the choir that performs at the King’s church and at royal events. They are a really talented group, and I am very lucky to have the opportunity to sing with them. Currently, we are rehearsing for the Wesleyan conference that will be held at the end of June.

I’ve also had the opportunity to attend some really cool events since I’ve moved. Last weekend, I went to an art show in town. A group called “On the Spot” organized the event which showcased local artists. There was some beautiful artwork! Another event last weekend was the children’s Sunday. I went to church with my friend Kaitlin in her village, Utulau. My favorite was listening to the preschool kids read the hymns and scripture, they are adorable!

Lastly, the most exciting news of all, Rachel will be here to visit next week!!! I can’t wait to see her, I’m sure we will have some fabulous adventures. More updates on that soon!

Monday, March 26, 2012

Camp GLOW Vava'u needs your help!

Camp GLOW is a wonderful opportunity for the young girls of Vava'u to learn about leadership, career opportunities, and healthy lifestyles. Please support this project with a donation, even a small donation will help. Malo 'aupito...thank you very much!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Death of King George Tupou V

photo from

Tonga's King George Tupou V died last Sunday at age 63 in a hospital in Hong Kong. So what does that mean for Tonga?

Well, for starters there is going to be a three month mourning period ending on June 19th. Several things will occur during this period:
  • everyone will be wearing black
  • no loud music
  • no bars
  • no sporting events
  • only church songs on the radio
  • no celebrations
The hardest part for me will be wearing black...thankfully I have several black shirts and skirts to get me through the three months, but it will require laundry at least a couple times a week. I am also disappointed about the cancellation of sports. The all-island track and field competition has already been cancelled and it looks like rugby and netball will be cancelled as well.

When the king's body comes back to Tonga on Monday, people living on the main island will line the road from the airport to pay their respects to the king. The funeral will be held on Tuesday and he will be buried at the royal burial grounds. The nobles and their respective villages are responsible for sending gifts of ngatu (tapa cloth), pigs, yams, and money. These are traditional gifts for any funeral, but will be even more extravagant for the king's funeral. Monday and Tuesday are both public holidays for the whole country, so there will be no school and businesses will be closed.

Here's to three months of mourning and a monochromatic wardrobe....looking forward to June 19th.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Matamaka GPS

Last year, one of my Peace Corps friends was working at a government primary school on one of the outer islands. His village, Matamaka, is about an hour boat ride from the main island of Vava'u where I live. My friend started a project to repair the school wall and build new benches. When he left last year, the project was ongoing so he passed it on to me. We recently received all the funding and just started purchasing supplies. Yesterday was the big shipment out to the island. We rented one of the biggest boats in Vava'u and loaded it up with bags of cement, concrete blocks, timber, metal rods and gravel. When we arrived at Matamaka, lots of people turned up to help us unload, even the school children! Construction should begin soon, which is very exciting. Look for future blog posts about the finished project!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

100 and counting...

I have read 100 books since coming to Peace Corps! Here are some of my favorites (in no particular order):

A Room with a View - E.M. Forster

The Sunday Philosophy Club - Alexander McCall Smith

Eat, Pray, Love - Elizabeth Gilbert

A People's History of the United States - Howard Zinn

White Teeth - Zadie Smith

Ishmael - Daniel Quinn

The Tuesday Night Club - Agatha Christie

The Help - Kathryn Stockett

This Side of Paradise - F. Scott Fitzgerald

The World is Flat - Thomas Friedman

And still plenty of time this year for more reading!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Sun and Sports

This week was the inter-house sports competition at Mailefihi. The students and teachers are divided into 4 houses for competitions throughout the year, including this one; I am a part of #3 this school year. On Thursday and Friday of this week, the students competed in track and field events. My favorite events to watch were javelin and the 400m relay. Javelin is entertaining because Tongan boys are really, really good at it. They can throw so far! I like the relay because they are really, really bad at it. I didn't see a single good hand-off. There were some really talented athletes, and I'm sure the students will do great at the inter-school competition in March. Go blue!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A Cyclone and a Sunburn

6:00 am - woken up by heavy rains and strong wind

6:30 am - power goes out

7:00 am - watched a banana tree blow over

7:30 am - rearranged living room so furniture wouldn't get soaked

9:00 am - storm is finished

9:30 am - swept out leaves and water from my house

10:00 am - started reading a book about a Peace Corps volunteer in Mongolia, mood is lifted

11:30 am - neighbors bring me breadfruit from a tree that blew over

1:00 pm - walked around town with some friends

5:00 pm - returned home with a sunburn. oiaue.

7:30 pm - dinner by candlelight

8:00 pm - continued to read Mongolia book using headlamp

9:00 pm - bedtime

the end.