During training before being sworn in as a volunteer we were told that if you told a Tongan you liked their shirt, they would take it off of their back and give it to you. I believed it but never had the need for a new shirt. That all changed when walking from my island Lifuka to our neighboring island ‘Uoleva this weekend.
John, Todd and I left our island at 2:30pm on Friday afternoon, low tide in our neck of the woods. The walk is about 1 mile between islands with a small narrow sandbar to rest on in the middle. Due to horses making the trek, there is a small sand path for most of the way. Water doesn’t reach past your ankles if you time your journey at the right time. The sand is easy to follow for about 80% of the way; there are a few areas of slippery rocks that you have to hop across. Though the water is shallow, it does rush in parts. About 15 minutes into the walk, one of my Reef sandals broke. I could still wear it by clenching it between my toes. I knew that if I lost that shoe, I’d have problems getting over the rocks coming up.
I reached down to strengthen the shoe, unclenched my toe and lost my balance. In trying to stay upright and not drench my bag, I stepped down and the shoe was taken away from me in the current. Now, I had one shoe and about ½ the way to go still. I tried to hop from rock to rock with my pack on my back and “food bag” on my shoulder. (John and Todd had much heavier bags, J deciding to bring along a watermelon for breakfast, not to mention our tents). My balancing act was fruitless as the food bag was completely submerged at one point, here’s to salty bread! John offered his shoes but they proved too big. What else could I do?
At about the same time my bag became soaking wet, I saw across the channel 3 men walking towards us. Two were older and one was much shorter, perhaps a high school student. Chances are that between J, T and I, we would know this kid! As we got closer, I noticed a net and that one of the men was wearing tall beige rain boots, something that had to have come from Australia or New Zealand, I’ve seen nothing like that for sale in Tonga. I then realized that I recognized the boy with them, he was one of my students…and that he was wearing shoes! He was sporting some big blue gardening clogs. As I approached him, I thought about all of the times someone had asked me for something and I gave it to them.
In Tongan culture, you share everything. I had given pounds of flour and salt to my neighbors, hundreds of pens to my students, DVDs to my fellow teachers, cutlery and baking tins to the home economics room, books to the governor’s secretary and clothes to my close girl Tongan friends. Growing up in Western society, we are taught that we are independent and providing for ourselves is what makes an adult. In Tonga, it’s completely opposite. You rely on the community around you for just about everything. Having been here for two years and knowing that I couldn’t get another pair of shoes once I got across to ‘Uoleva, I asked my student for his gardening clogs. His father lit up and nudged his son to take off his shoes and give them to me. The whole exchange was done in about 10 seconds. I had shoes to continue the trek and my student had to fare the path without any.
Have I enjoyed constantly giving my things out when they are asked for? No. But do I appreciate the gesture of my 14 year old student? Yes. My weekend was much more enjoyable with the borrowed shoes which I returned to him this morning at school.