Peace Corps Videos

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Life in Vava'u

The following was written by Joey 'Afitu Manfredo, who is the longest serving volunteer currently in Tonga. He is also our Volunteer leader. He agreed to allow me to post this article about his recent visit to Vava'u.

Life in Vava'u
by Joey Manfredo

“My Friday afternoon shopping excursions to Neiafu are the equivalent of me riding the train two hours from Connecticut to New York City to buy a roll of toilet paper.”
-Sarah Kate Weaver

They are creative, inquisitive, welcoming and patriotic. They demonstrate perseverance in their work and support one another in their projects. After mixing in regular hilarity, the Peace Corps Volunteers of Vava’u fully encapsulate their island’s motto: Fatafata mafana.

Creative: Since the inception of foreign products to Tonga, PCVs have been facilitating trash pick-ups in Vava’u. Trash is always collected, but typically done half-heartedly and oftentimes the important messaging of proper disposal and recycling is lost. This was not the case at the Vava’u Faka’ofo’ofa Neiafu Clean-Up last month. PCVs Jessie Shepherd, Alex Crabtree, Jessica Bonthius and Sarah LaRosa developed a trash scavenger hunt in which individuals were given a certain number of points, depending on the type of trash they turned in, and were awarded prizes ranging from candy to Chinese cabbage seedlings. Cans that were collected were reused to pot the seedlings. Literature was distributed to parents. The Vava’u officers of the Ministries of Health, Environment, Labor and Tourism spoke to the crowd at the busy Saturday morning market. It was the most complete event of its nature that I’ve seen. Standing there that Saturday taking in the program, I was proud to be a PCV.

Inquisitive: It’s easy to read and ask questions about culture—but it takes a little more to get knee-deep in the stuff…especially in the dark, at 6 am, off the coast of ‘Utungake. Jessica Bonthius is learning how to kupenga—net fish! Sorry to just burst forth with that, but it’s too exciting to waste time with cutesy language. It’s even more impressive because—except for fingota—fishing is a male-dominated field. It’s a testament to Jessica’s integration into her community, language skills, and overall Faka-Tonganess that she was taken under the Kupenga fisherman’s wings, er, fins.

Welcoming: Oftentimes, a PCV’s house is his/her sanctuary. I enjoy conversing and visiting with neighbors, but freely admit that I have always tried to keep my actual home a fortress of solitude. So, I have great respect for volunteers who open their homes to neighbors. Sarah Kate Weaver goes beyond this and essentially has converted her living room into a playroom. During my visit to Hunga, kids were in and out, playing Go Fish, Uno and participating in Skate’s Great Candy Exchange. Skate offers candy in return for fresh Hungan fruit. She even has a little resource library full of kids books and educational materials.

Patriotic: Instead of just eating hot dogs and lighting firecrackers to celebrate the fourth, the Vava’u PCVs acted on the word's of Peace Corps’ founding father, President John F. Kennedy—“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."—and raised the flag on an uninhabited island, claiming it for America.

Perseverance: With Environment Week looming a few days on the horizon, the local Ministry of Environment rep reached out to PCVs Jessica Bonthius, James Barbour and Jessie Shepherd to help him put together a last minute program, with no budget and no direction from the Ministry in Tongatapu. Instead of telling the rep he was too late, they cleared their schedules and planned environment-focused events that included the introduction of a recycling bin to Vava’u Side School, along with a demo on its use.

Support: Senior PCV Alex Crabtree remarked to me how supportive the Vava’u volunteers are of one another. Without request, PCVs offer help to facilitate or just drop by nearly all events their fellow islanders are involved in. Regarding support, I have been most impressed with a simple happening at their monthly All-Vol. meeting. As the meeting came to a close, VAC-rep LaRosa asked if anyone had anything to add. Senoni took the opportunity to ask the more senior CE PCVs for advice on what activities she could do with her students during lulls in the school day. Around the meeting circle, people shared creative suggestions. It was so nice to see PCVs talking work with one another, sharing ideas and experiences.

Hilarity: Rose found herself in kid overload. In addition to teaching at Toula GPS, she runs the town library and helps kids with school work from her house. At some point, everyone needs a break—but at this particular moment, tired from a long school day and longing for alone time, Rose couldn’t think of a way out. Then it happened: DING…DING…DING. Rose politely asked the kids to leave her house so she could change for the weekday evening church service. To the delight of the Toula villagers, she found her respite in the halls of a village church.

All of the Vava’u PCVs are doing exceptional work. Here are just a few more tid bits:
· Amanda Strickler’s morning exercise routine has inspired her neighbor, Lucy, to begin daily fakamalohisino and inspired local Internet guy Sione 4 to exclaim to partner Justin Smith that “Amanda is fitness.”
· Stan Luker has turned the Vava’u Youth Congress Computer Lab free-for-all into an actual, functioning Internet cafĂ© that is sustaining itself.
· I feel as though I should write this line about Amy in Tongan. She’s already speaking more fluent Tongan than I speak English!
· Though Steve was the last of g.73 to arrive, he’s already become the most well-known by advising nearly every business in town. He’s also stumbled upon a seemingly inherent skill at fixing cash registers. Next time you’re at Bounty in Vava’u, admire his work before checking out the view of the tahi.
· Justin continues to manage his time between IT advising at TCC with grassroots work maintaining the CPUs at the Leimatu’a computer center.

Monday, August 25, 2008

And then there were nine!

The number of Peace Corps volunteers assigned to Vava'u continues to drop as more and more of the members of Group 71 finish their service and head home. By this time next month, we will have just 9 volunteers working here compared to the 16 we had at the beginning of the year.We won't get any new volunteers until mid December when the members of group 74, who arrive in October are sworn in as volunteers.

This past week, we've been busy with good-bye parties, camping trips and the wrap up of the King's coronation.

A week ago, the choirs from each of the churches in Vava'u got together to sing for the King. The music was really spectacular and even when the power went out in the middle of the service, the Tongans kept singing their hearts out. Unfortunately, the King was a no show. The Queen and Princess were there but his throne at the front of the church remained empty the entire evening. I thought it was a shame that these choirs had been rehearsing for weeks and then didn't get to sing for the King.

But many had another chance before the week was out. My fellow volunteer, Sarah, and her village were invited to the Palace to perform for the Queen. I came along to watch as she and the people of Leamatu'a danced and sang. Sarah did a great job and except for the color of his skin, probably could have passed for a Tongan.

On Tuesday, there was a formal Kava Ceremony with the King and invited guests. Everyone had to wear white. I was invited to sit behind where they were making Kava and videotaped some of the ceremony. It's a long but very elaborate process to present the Kava to the King, then prepare it and then to serve it to each of the men sitting in the circle. (Only men can drink Kava in Tonga.)
Wednesday was the Coronation Feast and I got invited to go with Fuka, my supervisor at the bank. I've learned to limit my intake at these feasts but was happy to dine on a huge lobster and some fresh octopus. During the feast, several villages performed imcluding the village of Tefisi, who were dressed in traditional Tongan warrior costumes.

Not a lot of work got done last week in Vava'u until the King left on Thursday morning. Everyone it seems was busy catering to the King and Royal Family.

Thursday afternoon, the bank sent me to the island of Hunga to work with the owners of a fishing resort called "Ika Lahi", which means "Many Fish" in Tongan. It was a truly amazing place in a beautiful setting on the Hunga Lagoon. It's probably one of, if not the nicest resorts in all of Tonga. The owner Steve holds many records for big game fish and Caroline, the other owner, is a great cook. I dined on fresh Mahimahi and even had cheese cake for dinner. A real treat in Tonga.

I got back to the main island Saturday and within a few hours was back on another boat, this time, heading to Kenutu with seven fellow Americans. We made camp on top of the cliffs and it was very windy. Even though the water was hundreds of feet below, we could still feel the sea mist being blown up from the foot of the cliffs.
We stayed on Kenutu until late in the afternoon on Sunday before a boat picked us up and took us back to the main island.

But that wasn't the end of the weekend. A couple of hours later, we all went to Jason's house for sushi and to say good-bye to Amanda and Alex who are leaving Tuesday. One of the Japanese volunteers brought some sashimi she had made with onions. It was delicious. Jason, a fellow American who lives here, made traditional sushi rolls from fresh tuna along with Miso soup.

Finally, I got home and slept in my own bed for the first time in four days.

News Stories worth Reading

The Peace Corps is cutting the number of Volunteers worldwide including here in Tonga. I wrote a couple of weeks ago that we were orginally expecting 35 volunteers in the next group, but that number has been trimmed to 24.

I previously mentioned that a ballet from New York City was scheduled to perform at the coronation of the King. It didn't happen.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

There goes the Neighborhood

My neighborhood has changed quite a bit in the past week. Actually not just my neighborhood, but all of Vava'u. King George V, arrives here today (Sunday) to celebrate his recent coronation. And Vava'u is definitely getting ready.

I live across the street from the soldier's barracks in Vava'u. There are normally just a handful of soldiers on duty and they are a pretty quiet bunch. Last week, about 300 hundred soldiers showed up, pitching tents in the field across from my house and moving in.

Every morning around 5am, they all get up and sing. So instead of being awakened each morning by the 5am Church bells I now wake up to the quite loud, but beautiful voices of 300 men.

But that's just a small part of what is happening here. Everyone is cleaning up and decorating for the King's arrival. Litter, which is always prevalent around Vava'u, has disappeared. Every yard has been swept and the debris burned or carted away.

But perhaps the most visible change are the arches that are posted across most of the major (and some of the minor) roads in Vava'u. These arches are called "Matapa" in Tongan, which literally translates as door or entrance way.

For the most part each of the arches is built the same way. Four large coconut trees are put on each side of a road, and then connected across the top. The two trees on each side are then joined together and a small walkway is made over the road.

But beyond that, each arch is a work of art and some people have spent as much as TOP$5000.00, or about US$2700.00 to build and decorate an arch. Some of the arches are pretty high tech with fancy lights and professionally painted messages while others are more simple.

Downtown Neiafu, which is the only town in the Vava'u island group, is also ready for the King. A large fence which protects a construction site has been painted just for the King's arrival and there are balloons and Tongan flags lining many of the roads.

One thing that I have learned about the Tongan people in the past 10 months is that when they want to accomplish something, they find a way to do it. There is no question the Tongans have accomplished a lot getting ready.

However the King's arrival is not without a bit of controversy. In Tonga, it is illegal to do almost anything on Sunday. The fact that the King is arriving on a Sunday when the airport is normally closed has caused some grumbling. Because of that the King cancelled plans for a lavish arrival ceremony. Tonight he is scheduled to attend a church service but there are no official celebrations.

The Queen Mother and the Princess (King's sister) are both already in Vava'u. The Princess was at the 10am Church service this morning where the soldiers who are living in my neighborhood sang the Hallelujah Chorus.

The King is scheduled to be here through Wednesday.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Na'a' ku Femauakena

"Na'a' ku Femauakena" is Tongan for "I was busy" That's the best way I know to describe the incredible activities of the past week. The past seven days have probably been the busiest of my Peace Corps service, but also perhaps the most fun I've had so far.

On Friday, Tonga officially crowned King George V. I was in Nuku'alofa staying with my friends Lara and Trent who live just steps from the Palace, I woke up Friday to the sounds of a marching band, walked a few steps and joined hundreds of young girls from Queen Salote School who were sitting along the tapa covered road waiting for the King to make the short trip from the Palace to the church where the coronation would be held.
It was a regal affair and even though there were dignitaries from all over the world, there was a refreshing lack of security. No guards with guns, no metal detectors and no security fences. I was less than three feet from the King when he passed by in his car with the windows open.

I was surprised at the lack of Tongans who attended the official ceremony. There were a bunch of media representatives and visitors hanging around outside the church, but very few Tongans. Inside were just invited guests. I snuck inside the church after the service to take a few photos of the throne and the church.

A big surprise to many was that just days before the service, the King signed away many of his absolute powers clearing the way for more rule by the people.

Probably the highlight of the day though was John McCain. No, not the Arizona Senator who is running for President, but the U.S.S. John McCain, which is a navy boat named after the Senator's Grandfather. The boat was in Tonga to represent the US during the coronation. Friday evening, the U.S. Navy invited all the Peace Corps volunteers to come on board for food and cocktails.
Quite simply, it was the best food, I've had in 10 months. I ate shrimp, Scallops wrapped in Bacon, Roast Beef, Fried Cheese and Chocolate Chip Cookies. There was an open bar with American Beer and Wine and real American Soft drinks. It was as close to being back in the US as you could ever hope to come in Tonga. It was great to act, eat, drink and talk like Americans again. I had to catch myself at the bar the first time I went to get a glass of wine because I start to say "Thank You" in Tongan instead of English when I was handed my drink. I'm so used to saying "Malo" now it almost seemed un-natural to say it in English.

The Navy also opened its ship to us. My friends Craig, Jessie and I wandered around the ship and eventually ran into a sailor named Eric Miller who offered to show us around. We got a great tour doing everything from sitting in the Commanding Officers chair on the bridge to seeing the very cramped quarters where the men (There are only five women on this boat) sleep at night.

We probably spent close to two hours walking around the boat before rejoining the cocktail party on the helipad. It was a great treat.

Saturday, the village of Fua'amotu, where I lived when I first arrived in Tonga, danced for the newly crowned King along with the King's sister, the Princess. My homestay father, Tau, is the talking chief for Fua'amotu, so he lead the entire village onto the Palace Grounds and my homestay Mom, Sia, who also danced. helped the Princess get dressed for the event. After the performance, Tau came out and bowed to the King.

Sunday was a traditional day of rest across the Kingdom.

On Monday, I started working on a video project for Peace Corps with my friend Scot. The video is being sent to Peace Corps Washington and also to the incoming volunteers of Group 74, who will arrive in October. It was like stepping back into Television again after more than a year of absence. We shot interviews and some footage around Nuku'alofa then headed out to talk with fellow volunteers Patrick and Bobby, who both live in smaller villages.

Monday night, we went to the home of the Country Director where he was was hosting six former Tonga volunteers who had come back for the coronation. We got a chance to talk with them and learn about what life was like in the early years of Peace Corps. For a woman named Tina, this was her first visit to Tonga since she completed her service 37 years ago.
In 1976, a Peace Corps volunteer named Deb Garner was murdered in Tonga by another volunteer who never went to jail for the crime. Deb's boyfriend Emil was one of the former volunteers at the party and I got a chance to talk with him about his involvement in the book "American Taboo" which was written about the murder.

Tuesday we did more shooting including a trip to the head office of the Tonga Development Bank where I worked before moving to the Vava'u branch in February. I was also able to have lunch with Sina, my homestay sister from Fua'amotu, at what may now be the nicest restaurant in Tonga, a place called "Little Italy". It just moved to a new location with a beautiful view of the water.

Wednesday I flew to the island of 'Eua to interview Jason, Heather, Bria and Krystal, four volunteers from my group who live there. It was great to get back to 'Eua, even for just 24 hours and to see the homes and workplaces of the volunteers there. That afternoon I joined the four 'Eua volunteers and three JICA (Japanese) volunteers for coffee and fresh fruit at Bria's house. For dinner, Jason cooked fresh Octopus, one of my favorite Tongan foods.
That evening, Jason and I drank Kava with the men in his village.

Thursday, I got up at 6:30am and walked to the airport. When I got there, I was assigned the co-pilot seat on the plane. Yes, I was sitting in the empty seat next to the pilot. There is no co-pilot on the short 10 minute flight back to Tongatapu. The plane only seats 10 people and it wasn't even full, which is another reason I was surprised to be sitting up front. When we went to take off, I had to sit sideways to keep my legs from bumping into the yoke as the pilot took us up.

After that, the rest of the day pretty much sucked. I landed at the airport around 9am and my flight was not scheduled to leave until 2pm. However, when I went to the Chatham Airlines counter they told me there was room on a flight at 11am and they would put me on it if it was okayed by their head office. They called and got approval (There are no computers in the domestic terminal) and issued me a boarding pass. I even scored an exit row seat. I passed the time reading some Newsweek magazines. At exactly 11am, the flight started boarding and I got in line. The woman from the counter came over and said "Mr. Hunsicker you can't take this flight...the pilot said it is too heavy." She said they had enough seats, but the plane was overweight and since I was the last one to get a seat, I got bumped. Shortly later, I watched the plane take off.

I then sat until 1:45pm when we board my original flight. This time I got on, but then they announced they were going to stop in Ha'apai on the way there. Normally, the flight goes to Vava'u first then stops in Ha'apai on the way back. So we took off, landed in Ha'apai and then waited there about 30 minutes to fly the rest of the way to Vava'u. I finally got home and other than the usual frustrations of flying here, it was a great week.

Another item worth noting. I found out when I was in Nuku'alofa that the number of volunteers who will be coming in the next group has been cut due to budgetary reasons. Instead of 35 new trainees, we will be getting 24. Of those, 10 will be business and 14 education volunteers. We were also told that almost all of them will be on outer islands and not on the main island of Tongatapu, which houses the most volunteers right now.