…for such a time as this

Stories about the adventure that is Peace Corps Tonga


At the end of January, my group of islands (the Ha’apai group) was hit by Cyclone Wilma. It was a strong storm, registering at a category 4 with winds gusting up to 155 mph. Peace Corps put us into consolidation which means all volunteers on my island went to one pre-designated house and waited out the storm there.

The storm did do damage to my island. Several buildings collapsed and many trees blew down. We were without running water and electricity for a day or two after until workers were able to repair broken wires and busted water lines. While there was damage to some homes, the major worry was the damage to the crops. It is estimated that 40% of the root crops were damaged.

Much of the food that Tongans eat comes from their government allotted bush plot (farm). Each male is given a plot of land when they are 18 where they are to plant varieties of root crops, fruits and tend to their cattle and horses. It is their responsibility to farm the land to provide for their families. While this sounds well and good, the reality is that only a fraction of the population of Ha’apai actually cultivates their land. Much of the land stands overgrown and unused.

The concern is that during the cyclone, many of the leaves of the root crops were destroyed. If the leaf is torn off of the plant, it can affect the root, so much so that it is not eatable. The grower won’t know the extent of the damage until it is time to pull the roots out of the ground. At that time, about 3 months from the time the crop was planted, there could be a shortage of root crops in Ha’apai. That would be at the end of April.

I got a call from my outer island volunteer friend Blair yesterday explaining that the Tongan Navy had come to her island and given each person (not each family) the following rationings of food:

-3 kilos (6.6 lbs) of flour
-1 kilo (2.2 lbs) of sugar
-1 kilo (2.2 lbs) of rice
-3 cans of corned beef
-3 cans of tin fish

I didn’t understand what was going on, until another volunteer filled me in. Apparently, after every large natural disaster, aid agencies come in and provide food rationings to Tongan citizens affected. Many school and church halls are full of food for Ha’apai as citizens file through to get their food.

Here’s my problem. The people of Ha’apai aren’t hungry. They have a bountiful sea all around them and plenty of bush land full of root crops. So far, I have not heard of a lack of food. Yes, many of the bananas on the trees fell and were destroyed, most of the bread fruit fell, but I have not heard people complaining about a lack of food. My neighbors just brought me and abundance of bananas and papayas, so much of it that some of it went bad before I could eat it all. I asked my students today if any of them are lacking root crops in their daily meals. They said they were not. I then went to one of the halls and asked friends what they thought of the free food. 4 out of 5 were just happy that they didn’t have to buy food for the week.

So here’s my question? Why is the flour, sugar, rice, corned beef and tin fish provided now? Why don’t they wait until there is a real food shortage (if there even will be in Ha’apai)? And better yet, why don’t they encourage families to cultivate the land that’s been allotted to them so that they can avoid a shortage in the future? Or provide seeds or seedlings to families so that they can re-grow what they’ve lost? I also know that this “help” came from aid money. It’s difficult to see aid money spend on things like this where the giver of aid probably doesn’t know what their money is being used for. I know this sounds critical, but there are real needs in Ha’apai. Textbooks, sex education, domestic violence prevention and health education, food just isn’t one of them.



  Abigail Joy wrote @

Grrrr… that’s frustrating. What can be done?

  juleigh wrote @

Well, this is one of the problems with aid. We have to take a hard look at these countries excepting aid and ask if it is doing them any good. Tonga’s government would collapse without it. Should we really be propping up a government? When does it end? Countries become dependent on it and in my opinion, stop working to live without it.

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