…for such a time as this

Stories about the adventure that is Peace Corps Tonga

Democracy for Tonga

It wasn’t until I started working with the governor’s secretary, that I discovered what’s really happening on Tonga’s political scene. Tongatapu (main island) volunteers mentioned that September 2010’s elections were a move towards democracy for Tonga. Since I live in one of the more rural areas, correct information about the government rarely makes it to me.

Here’s how Kepu broke it down for me:

Tonga is a constitutional monarchy. From what I understand, this is where there is a king but his power is limited by a constitution. As with other constitutional monarchies, Tonga has a parliament which has duties afforded it by the constitution. One of the duties of the Tongan parliament is to elect a Prime Minister. The PM does most of the day to day governing, especially in Tonga where our King is rarely in the country.

Tonga’s Parliament has 26 seats. Before the September 2010 election, 9 of the seats were held by nobles who are a part of the royal family; the king appointed 8 seats and the people of Tonga elected the remaining 9 seats. So with the nobles and the king’s appointees, the monarchy had the majority. Last year, the numbers changed. The nobles were awarded 9 seats and the people elected 17 seats. The people now elect the representatives who have the majority when choosing the next PM among other responsibilities.

Why the push towards democracy?

Like any good English teacher would, I asked the “why” question. Why would Tonga make this change? In Ha’apai, it doesn’t seem like people have a problem with the way things are. From further research, that seems to be a Ha’apai sentiment.

New Zealand and Australia send a considerable amount of aid to Tonga (NZ gave about $65 million for the 2010-2011 financial year) mostly for government and educational reform. Coincidentally, both of those countries also take in the most Tongans seeking to go abroad. The push towards democracy is twofold. One, it is in the best interest of NZ and Aus. (and the rest of the Pacific) if Tonga stays relatively stable politically. In 2006, much of the capitol was burned down after the Legislative Assembly of Tonga closed for the year after promising to talk about moving the country towards democracy and not doing so.

Secondly, aid organizations have had a hard time tracking where their money goes. The thought is that if more of the parliamentarians are elected by the people (and therefore the PM), they would be more accountable to their constituents and spend aid/ tax money on things that the people want.

There also seems to be a discontent with elected officials on the part of the educated/involved Tongans. In the past, there has been little transparency and accountability. With aid organizations encouraging more representation and the people looking into the work and spending habits of their leaders, change is inevitable.

So what now?

I can’t get a clear answer on this but it seemed to me that eventhough the people had the choice to elect anyone they wanted to; they elected nobles for the “representative” positions. This would then give the nobles the majority again. I think this is due to a lack of understanding. Until this change and why it is important for Tonga can be explained at the village level, you will probably see the nobility get elected again and again. It’s cultural.

It’s an important time in Tonga’s history.  NZAid spent millions last year to educate people about democracy; I support them continuing to do this. With more education, Tonga is surly on its way to electing good leaders for the future.






Cribs: Ha’apai

Ever wonder what Peace Corps Volunteers’ houses look like in Tonga? Check us out!


A New Job….with 3 months to go

Since I live on a remote island away from the capitol, the Peace Corps office and therefore my Peace Corps Program manager aren’t intimately involved in my day to day work. I like it. I have the freedom to choose what I do, the projects I take on and don’t have to worry about the bureaucracy that sometimes comes with living down the street from the main office.

But this week, Peace Corps did a good thing.

I have been teaching for two long years and spending my afternoons finding projects and work that better fits me. I started by working for a lower level government official and found very quickly that finishing what is started is not a priority. I tried to build a play-ground, but there was no money to sustain it. I worked with a woman’s group to sell their handicrafts overseas; they didn’t see the earning potential. I tried to have an afterschool girls’ program but sports schedules were too sporadic to allow for it. I did plan for and direct a very successful Camp Glow with another volunteer (!), but that was a one-time event. And most recently, I tried to work with the woman’s branch of the Ministry of Agriculture but the woman I was suppose to work with never showed up to work.

One thing that has been consistent this year is my work with the Governor’s Office of Ha’apai and specifically with Kepu, the Governor’s Secretary. Since the Governors are also Parliamentarians, I have never actually met ours. Kepu essentially runs Ha’apai. He would call me about once a week to come edit a project proposal. This went on for a few months until our 1 or 2 hour meetings turned into 3 or 4 hour ones. One week we wrote the Annual Management Plan for the island group. We poured over disaster management and training plans, talked about effective governance and wrote a recommendation to the prime minister. After that whirlwind of a week, Kepu asked me to come work for him on a more permanent basis.

When my PM from Peace Corps came on Monday, I didn’t take her to my school. We came to the governor’s office instead. Kepu talked about the grants we had written and won, the disaster plans we’d talked about and wrote over weekends, and law opinions we had written. He stressed his need for a volunteer, mentioning that he had worked with many in the past and had learned so much. Those were the magic words, he had learned something from volunteers, Peace Corps’ favorite thing….capacity building.

After the meeting, my PM asked if I wanted to come work full time with the Governor’s Office. I figure since I’d been teaching for 2 years, with only 9 weeks to go, I should finish it out. Then she asked if I’d wanted to work afternoons in the office until I leave in 3 months. Yes, I would.

In the last two days at the office, I’ve been put in charge of writing a training program for Town Officers to improve the core competencies of governance in Ha’apai, develop and implement a document control system, update the centralization plan, and write a few recommendations for visa applications. I’ve learned about the complicated ins and outs of land matters and heard a couple people whine about this and that.

The days go faster as I learn about small government and politics. Who knows, maybe this will be a jumping off point for some California political work soon.

Bureaucracy and the never ending need for forms

Peace Corps, being a part of the US government, does have its fair share of bureaucracy. There is a form and procedure for everything. You may not know the procedure or actually have the form, but they’re there, they’re always there.
Here’s an example of what us Ha’apai volunteers face:

Our upcoming Close of Service Conference is coming up on the main island. It’s a chance for my group, Tonga Group 75 to get together to celebrate our accomplishments and see eachother one last time before we all start leaving later this year.

Usually, when Peace Corps is flying us to another island, it’s a good chance to catch up with PCVs you haven’t seen in a while. I like to take a little vacation time before or after to take full advantage of the break. But, there are forms to be filled out.

Recently, our “office” printer broke during the Camp Glow festivities. There isn’t someone in Ha’apai that can fix printers, so on my way up to Vava’u for a workshop I brought it to the airport to be shipped to the main island to be fixed. We don’t expect to see that printer again.

Without a printer in the office, my next stop would be my school. But, that printer is out of toner.

Luckily, I work in a Ministry with a very capable office manager. If it’s up to her, she has everything stocked and running smoothly. I feel bad asking to use their printer for PC business because I really shouldn’t. Of course they allow me to do it, but it’s the principal of the matter. Here’s what I have to do to get a form to the PC main office.

1. Ask to use the printer at the ministry.
2. Log on to email to print the form.
3. Bike to school to get the form signed.
4. Find camera
5. Take picture of said form
6. Find camera wire
7. Upload picture to computer
8. Go to office to connect to the internet
9. Upload picture of form to email
10. Email to program manager for approval

….all to request a Saturday and Sunday “off” as vacation days. To TTap I come!

More Visitors to the Kingdom

My days in Ha’apai are ordinarily the same day in and day out. I wake up, go to school, go to a ministry to write, eat, take a bucket bath and repeat. This is not necessarily a complaint, you know what’s coming when you wake up but the monotony of it all can get to you.
My Aunt Cindy and Nana had been planning a trip to The Friendly Islands for almost a year. Ask any volunteer, since we’ve experienced so many ups and downs, a trip like this means a big up for at least a month. I wanted this so badly, with only 5 months to go, I needed a push to get me to the end.
But, knowing Tonga, the unreliability of it all, I have taught myself not to get too excited about anything before it actually happens. Aunt Cindy was so kind to fly me from my island to the main island to meet them but in the back of my mind, I was still thinking,
“What if they can’t land because of strike…cyclone…pig on the runway…?”
The excuses only go on and on.
But, as I waited at the outdoor viewing area of the Nuku’alofa International Airport, I saw the Air New Zealand flight land. I waited patiently to see them de-boarding the plane. Finally (they were last for goodness sakes!) they came down the stairs onto the tarmac and waved and smiled! I took in a long sigh of relief, they were finally here.
What a trip it was. We began by driving into the capital with Tai my favorite taxi driver. We stayed at Loumalie Lodge right in the center. We caught up, opened my huge rolling duffle bag of stuff from home including CHEESE, hot sauce, pictures, sandals, goodies for friends and snacks. We spent the next day walking around, enjoying coffee, meeting other PCVs and touring the Peace Corps Office. Then it was off to FaFa Resort for a few days of relaxation.
The birds enjoyed sitting with us as we laughed about family stories (Yes, Uncle Dave…the same ones! Some things just never change). With Nana, I always get to enjoy fine wine and dining. I had braised octopus one evening with a Chardonnay from New Zealand. We walked through the bush, saw the parrots, collected shells and took lots of naps.
Next stop….Ha’apai! Motofonua Lodge of course took great care of my family and I. Aunt Cindy and I enjoyed snorkeling with the blue starfish and Nimo. Nana especially liked visiting my classroom. I had prepped the students that this was the family that sent our set of Island of the Blue Dolphins. Without me having to say a thing, they thanked my Nana, all in English! We read a chapter together with me doing my normal theatrics to make sure they understand what’s going on in the story.

The Long Beach Press Telegram encourages you to take pictures with the front page of the newspaper and then they will publish it. Of coarse we did it, as my mom says,
“We’ve always flirted with show business”
The kids aren’t used to smiling in pictures, so I reminded them that they would get to be in a newspaper if they smiled nicely, they did, as you can see.
We walked around sleepy Ha’apai and met all the characters. The secretary of the governor, the post office staff that so faithfully gets me my packages, my principal, went into the bookstore and enjoyed a pizza lunch at the one restaurant. It all went by so fast.
This was a much easier good-bye then when my parents came. I get to see everyone in 5 short months! But, I am so thankful for their trip.

no worries

Because you are a native English speaker in Tonga, that seems to qualify you as an “expert” in just about everything. Since I have band-aids and antibiotic cream, I am a doctor, and since I own a computer, I am a computer technician. One of my many jobs is assisting the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Food with projects and computer problems.

Computer problems in Tonga are abundant. The high humidity, the bees that like to nest in CPUs, the electrical surges, the lack of understanding of what a computer is and the ever present flash drive. Tongans love flash drives, everyone has them. They love these remixes, kind of like mash-ups from the tv show Glee and they share them (just like everything else in Tonga). The problem with this is viruses. I don’t know why there are so many viruses here, but there are. I have been telling my co-workers since day 1 that emailing their documents/songs/pictures from one computer to another is the only way to safely transfer files between computers. This is not an easy feat, internet is sporadic here and getting high school kids to create a gmail account then remember the password is next to impossible. (See http://johnoutsidethelines.blogspot.com/2011/05/common-sense-isnt-always-common-sense.html ) But that’s high school, it’s expected.

My boss at the Ministry has a brand new computer from the European Union. They came to Ha’apai, built a nursery so we can sell more vegetables and worked with farmers to establish vanilla exports. Anyway, the computer has been here for about 4 months. It’s a nice Dell one, with a scanner/fax/copy machine. When I started working here in February (after moving out of the convent and into government housing) I did a short tutorial on basic computer maintenance and protection. I said over and over again that flash drives were never to be used. They are full of viruses.

Lolohea, one of the ladies in the office understood this. She had gotten a virus on her computer and had to send it to the main island to be fixed. Because this is Tonga, it took 6 months for her to get it back. This greatly affected her work, she got it.

Last Tuesday while running around for Camp Glow I kept getting phone calls. I was busy and couldn’t pick up. Since I live next door to my boss, he came over that night and asked if I could look at his computer. “It keeps shutting down unannounced” he says. I knew exactly what it was. I asked him if he’d used a flash drive, he said his kids did to work on their reports over the weekend. I told him that there was nothing I could do; the computer had a virus, he’d need to send it to Tongatapu to get fixed. He shrugged his shoulders, got his personal laptop and asked me to make it work. I downloaded all the necessary updates and now he uses that.

He broke a $3600 pa’anga ($2500 USD) computer and didn’t think twice about it. And it wasn’t out of ignorance, it was out of laziness. What kills me is that he’ll get another new computer the next time some aid organization comes through. He didn’t buy the computer he broke and he won’t ever have to.  I remember a time at Flatiron when I left my company provided Sprint aircard on an airplane. I was fully prepared to pay for the replacement myself, that’s just what you do.

Maybe there are developing countries that need foreign aid, and maybe some of them are truly thankful when they receive it but I am afraid that most countries treat it the way Tonga does……break something? Don’t worry, another free one will be on its way soon.

Camp Glow Ha’apai Update

My Peace Corps Partnership Proposal (PCCP) has been taken off of the Peace Corps website! Thank you for all of the support! We raised 2,597.50 USD! We are still about $600 short. So, if you’d like to donate, please get in contact with me and we’ll get the money to to the camp.

With the budget shortfall, we are adjusting our camp plans. But, I am happy to report that we will still have 25 girls come to the camp!

This week we are meeting all of the form 3 girls and helping them to fill out the application. They are asked for personal information and to write an essay. The essay questions are: “If you were the town officer of your village, what would you do differently?” and “If you were the principal of your school, what would you do differently?” I can’t wait to read their responses. Then we’ll meet with the principals to choose the girls. We’ll know all of our campers by Friday!

We will be having a Kalapu next Friday night (a kava fundraiser) where my counselors, some girl Japanese volunteers, Blair and I will serve kava until the wee hours of the morning. Not my favorite way to spend a Friday evening….all for the camp!!! We should be able to raise a significant amount of money and hopefully close the gap a bit on our shortfall.

We will be choosing our “Model Mammas” soon. These are women in the community who have jobs and are role-models. We ask them to take one or two of the campers for a few hours to explain what they do. We ask them to allow the girls to see what a normal day in their office looks like. The manager of the bank has already agreed, as well as one of the secretaries at the governor’s office. It’s coming together nicely.

Again, thank you for all of your support. There are going to soon be a lot of happy campers.