Peace Corps Videos

Friday, June 13, 2008

Tongan Cooperation

Earlier this year I was contacted by a woman who runs a web site called AVO AVO. Her site is all about markets around the world. She asked me if I would write a story about markets in Tonga. I did and she now has it posted on her web site. I also gave her a few photographs which can be found under Tonga on the main AVO AVO Page.

Here is the text of what I wrote for her.

The economy in Tonga is often described as a barter economy, but the word barter doesn’t really explain the way things work in the Island Kingdom of Tonga. It might be better described as a cooperative economy, meaning that Tongans cooperate to get what they need. Usually this cooperation is within family groups but it extends to the very large extended Tongan families, to neighbors and to friends. Most Tongans are given a piece of land on which to farm, often referred to as “the bush”. The land is farmed by the family, but depending on where it is located, it may be owned (or controlled) by the nobles of a village or a member of the Royal family. In exchange for the land, the Tongan family is expected to share the crops with the noble or royal family member who controls the land. Again, depending on who has control, the family may share on a regular basis or almost never.


The “cooperative” economy extends into all levels of Tongan society. Several members of the family may work in the bush, while others, usually women may weave or make decorative cloth called tapa to sell at local markets. Another family member may work at what most Westerners would consider “a real job” and a grandmother, aunt or sister may help take care of the children. There is no typical arrangement except that the family unit is strong and both the men and women cooperate to support their families.

And the roles are not always “full-time”. Some Tongan families will take their crops or their handicrafts to the market only when they need something. Others make their living by selling items every day. This culture can make a trip to the market exciting, but perhaps also a little frustrating. On any given day, at any market in Tonga, you will find the regulars but also the part-timers, those with an extra need that day. This can turn a trip to the market into a treasure hunt. But if you see something you like, grab it, because it may not be there the next day. It’s also not uncommon to see a vegetable stand along the road or in front of someone’s house. I once saw a man selling pineapple in what most people would consider the “middle of nowhere” on Vava’u. (The Vava’u pineapples are delicious and if you visit during pineapple season, make sure you try them.)

If you want to try the usually delicious fruits and vegetables grown in Tonga, you will have to buy them either at a market or a roadside stand. The grocery stores don’t sell fresh produce except for the stuff that is imported for sale like garlic and potatoes. This is because most Tongans either grow their own or get it from others.

On the main island of Tongatapu there is one large market in downtown Nuku’alofa where you can buy everything from fresh vegetable to Tongan handicrafts to used clothes. There is also a flea market located outside of town near the Tongan Cultural Center which is open every Saturday. In the village of Fanga, which is on the road from the airport to Nuku’alofa, you will almost always find many roadside vendors selling fruits and vegetables. On Vava’u, there is a market in downtown Neiafu and about two blocks away is a flea market, also open just on Saturday. For both the flea market on Tongatapu and the one on Vava’u you have to get there very early. Tongans are early risers and both are packed well before eight am. If the vendor has made enough money for that day, he or she will just pack up and go home.

Tongans are very eager to please especially to Palangis (Foreigners). Instead of a straight answer, they will often give you the answer they think you want to hear. In a craft store in Neiafu, one of my fellow Peace Corps volunteers asked the clerk if she could ship items to the United States. She said “yes” because she assumed that was the answer he wanted. However, it turns out the store doesn’t ship and has never shipped. When it comes to price, Tongans will usually not negotiate on small items. However, sometimes they will throw in something extra. If you buy a pile of tomatoes and ask for a couple of chili peppers, you may get them free, or you may not. On larger items, price is negotiated but usually only because the Tongan has some expenses to cover. Perhaps school fees are due and he or she doesn’t have enough money to pay them. In that case, you can get a big discount. Other times, the vendor will hold firm on the price because they don’t have anything they need at the moment. The concept of saving is not common in Tongan.

It also may help to put things in perspective. It can take a Tongan woman three weeks to a month to weave a mat. The profit from the mat is probably the only source of money she will have until the next mat is done. The ten dollars you are trying to save will mean a lot more to the Tongan woman and her family than it will to you.

There is one caveat about buying Tongan handicrafts in a market or at a craft store. There are no fumigation chambers in Tonga to kill small insects that may be in the mats or carvings. Because of this, customs officials will sometimes not allow Tongan made handicrafts into another country. This seems especially true for Australia and New Zealand. If you do decide to take something home with you, you might want to spray it thoroughly with bug spray so you can say that it was fumigated before leaving Tonga.

When Captain Cook first arrived in the Tongan Islands in 1773, he dubbed them “The Friendly Islands”. The name is as relevant today as it was in Captain Cook’s day. The Tongans are friendly people who love to laugh and tell jokes. Whether you meet them in a market or while walking through a village, take some time to get to know the Tongans. You will almost always get a friendly response and you might even get invited to their home for dinner. Sharing food with anyone is just another way that Tongans cooperate with each other and perfect strangers.

New Boat for Tonga



This is big news for those of us who live on Vava'u. Of course, I'm guessing it will be a while before we see the new boat. The Olavaha is one of two ships that bring all of our food and supplies to Vava'u from the Capital City of Nuku'alofa each Wednesday.

Posted at 17:50 on 08 June, 2008 UTC

The Japanese Government is giving Tonga an aid grant for a new Olovaha inter-island ferry.

An agreement has been signed for a Japanese aid grant of 16 million US dollars for the construction of a new inter-island vessel for Tonga, replacing the 26 -year-old passengers ferry, MV Olovaha.

The Japanese Government says the new vessel will be capable of carrying 400 passengers and 400 tonnes of cargo, at 53m long and 13.5m wide.

It will be equipped with two six tonne cranes, a modern navigation system, radio apparatus and cargo-handling equipments such as eight reefer containers, 54 dry containers, and two forklifts.

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