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.