Ha’apai is one of the most rural island groups in Tonga. We are farther away from the capitol, we have less jobs available and tourism tends to be slow. Another PCV and I, Blair Gilbert, set out to more than double the size of Camp Glow Ha’apai from 12 participants last year to 25 this year. This was going to be difficult considering our geographical position in the Kingdom. We had to purchase our supplies from the main island, fly almost all of our speakers in and order vegetables and fruit to be brought from other islands for our healthy meals.
As you are aware, Camp Glow is a week-long sleep away camp that is designed to encourage young girls to be change-makers in their community. The camp focuses on teaching form 3/grade 10 girls sensitive and valuable information on decision making, goal setting, women’s health, study skills, domestic violence, drugs and alcohol and anger management. This year, we reached out to all 5 middle/high schools on the island in an effort to invite all form 3 girls to apply.
For over two months we recruited girls, booked speakers and their travel from around the Kingdom, fundraised locally and internationally and secured the venue and caterer for the camp. At one point, we almost lost our venue to a traveling Samoan circus, but that’s a story for another time. The process was grueling. Tongans want to help you, the genuinely do, but sometimes they say yes to something when they really have no intention of following through. For example, for an afternoon during the camp, we sent the girls to “shadow” various woman in their government jobs. It was suppose to be a time for the girls to see what jobs are available in the community. My planning team and I spent hours talking to all of the women we asked to take girls, they signed contracts and were even given reminder calls the day before the camp started. We had 16 “model mammas” in all, each one taking 2 or 3 girls. About one hour into the 4 hour activity, many of our girls were reported simply walking around town or going home to get a bite to eat. The planning team hit the streets, trying to round up the girls and find out what happened. It turns out that the model mamma’s let the girls go, not understanding the purpose of the activity. This was frustrating seeing as we had gotten written and verbal confirmation of their understanding and participation. We know for next year not to include this activity in the camp.
Despite some small setbacks, the camp was a huge success. Based on our notes from last year, we decided that instead of having the girls dropped off by their parents, we would pick them up. By 9:00am on the first day of the camp, we had 21 girls. For the rest of the morning, our tireless host country national counterparts rounded girls up and got us to our goal of 25. Some more highlights of the camp included:
-Woman’s Health session lead by our fantastic Teisa Fakateni where the girls asked numerous questions. So many that we delayed the next session to make sure every question was answered.
-Anger Management lead by Saviolio from the Salvation Army of Tonga. His hilarious antics and creative presentation style kept the girls laughing the entire time!
-Camp Fire: Just like camps we used to go to, we treated the girls to a good ‘ole camp fire on the beach. Our fellow PCVs Todd and John built the fire that we sang and danced around for hours.
-Jobs: One of the goals of the camp was to show the girls what jobs are available outside of the home on our small islands of Ha’apai. 95% of our girls reported learning about a job they didn’t know about before the camp.
-Journaling: Every night, Blair and I met with the girls to hold a guided journal writing exercise based on questions from the days sessions. Some of the girls looked forward to this time activity so much that they journaled before we came together. One night, after the session on drugs and alcohol from the Salvation army, a few of the girls shared their thoughts on alcoholism in their families.
-Unification: more than half of the girls at the camp reported meeting a new friend from a different church or school. We hope that this is the beginning of support group for this generation of Ha’apaians.
-Swimming: Last year we took the girls swimming but it was difficult to keep track of them. This year we scratched it. But, when the girls got to the camp, last year’s campers had raved so much about swimming that we added it back in! What a blast that was!
-“When there’s a problem….”: Tongan students generally don’t speak up when there’s a problem. At school, the faucet may be broken in the boy’s restroom but no one will try to turn it off or report that there’s a problem until a teacher walks by and sees water streaming down the sidewalk. This happened during our camp. Our toilets kept backing up. No one told us, so the problem would get progressively worse throughout the day. On the second night, we explained to the girls that this was their camp and we wanted to make sure THEY were happy. In order for us to do that though, we had to know about any problems. It took another day, but by the end of the camp, the girls were letting us know exactly how they felt! They even got us to buy them some snacks because they said they were hungry before bed! Now how’s that for confidence?!
During our meeting with the girl’s parents before the camp, after listening to us introduce Camp Glow, one of the father’s lifted his hand and asked, “This is all great, but don’t men lead in Tonga?” The answer is yes. There is only one woman parliamentarian, one woman minister (like secretary of state) and very few woman managers. We believe that the woman of Tonga are a great asset to the country and that with more of them becoming educated and joining leadership positions, they will lead Tonga into further stages of development where the rights of woman and children will be upheld and fought for. We also believe that with more women in leadership, communities will be built stronger with emphasis placed on community programs and services. Camp Glow Ha’apai was just one more step in the fight for equality in Tonga and I am honored to have been a part of it.