Peace Corps Videos

Monday, March 30, 2009

A Tongan Funeral (and kissing the dead)

It was a sad week at the Vava’u Branch of the Tongan Development Bank where I work.   Last week, two of the men I worked with each lost their mother.  The first woman was buried on Saturday and the other on Monday.

Monday’s funeral was for the mother of ‘Ofa.  “Ofa and his wife Hangale  have always been great to me.   On my first day at the bank, ‘Ofa was one of the first to come in just to talk and to introduce himself.  He always seems to have a smile on his face and enjoys a great laugh.

The other funeral was for Fakava’s real mother.  He was raised by adopted parents, which is very common in Tonga.   I was not able to attend the funeral on Saturday, but I did go to the funeral on Monday.  It was the first Tongan funeral I’ve attended, which is surprising since I’ve been here for 18 months.  

In Tonga, there are no funeral parlors.  When someone dies, they are loaded into a vehicle and put in a freezer  at the hospital where the body is kept frozen until it is time for the funeral.  There are no embalming facilities in Vava’u and the families are responsible for preparing their loved one’s body for the public viewing.

Because there are many Tongans overseas and on other islands, it is not uncommon for a funeral to be a week or longer after a person dies.  That was the case with ‘Ofa’s mother.  She passed away last Tuesday and the funeral was six days later on Monday.

On the day of the funeral, the body is taken to the family house and hundreds of people gather to mourn with the family.   When there is a putu (funeral), the bakeries will often sell out of bread and the stores will end up with empty shelves because it is the job of the family to feed all of the people who gather to spend the day with them.

As we arrived at ‘Ofa and Hangale’s home on Monday, the first thing I noticed were all the people sitting around.  As is tradition, the men were sitting together drinking kava while the woman sang and congregated on mats in the shade around the house.

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When you arrive at the house, it is traditional to present a gift to the family in honor of the deceased.  The bank presented ‘Ofa and Hangale with cash, a mat, a Tongan tapa and numerous other gifts.   Before entering the house, we lined up in a fashion similar to the women in the photo below.

IMG_1953 One we had our gifts in hand, we paraded single file into the house.

IMG_1955 Once inside we laid down our gifts then walked forward to see the body of ‘Of'a’s mother. 

Kissing the Dead

It is tradition that each person kiss the deceased on the forehead to pay their respects.  I knew about this tradition and had lots of time to think about it before the funeral.  I knew it would be expected for me to kiss the corpse and I was prepared for it.  Or at least I thought I was.  As I gently pressed my lips to her forehead, I was not appalled or even bothered by it.    What I hadn’t been prepared for was how cold she would be.  It made sense that she would be cold since she had been on ice for almost a full week, but the cold was a surprise.

As I was leaving the house, I was then presented with a beautiful piece of silk.   This is another Tongan tradition.  When you come to pay your respects, a family member gives you a gift from the many gifts that have been accumulated.   Unfortunately, the grieving family never comes out ahead because they end up giving away more than they receive. I tried to give the silk back to ‘Ofa but he refused saying it was the Tongan way. 

It was sad to see ‘Ofa so clearly upset by the loss of his mother.  He is a really wonderful man.

The good news is that he and Hangale are about to have a baby which I’m sure will bring a smile back to his face.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Speech Worth Reading

 

The following is a portion of a speech made on the Senate Floor this week by Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia.  He was speaking in support of the National Service Act.

I thought his speech was worth sharing.

This past Saturday, I attended one of the most moving ceremonies of my life--moving in a sad way but also in an uplifting way.

Unfortunately, a wonderful young lady, 24 years old, from Cumming, GA, Kate Puzey, was killed in Benin, Africa, on March 11. She was a Peace Corps worker who graduated first in her class in high school, was an honors graduate from William and Mary, and she studied French in Paris to learn the language that led her to be able to go to this part of the world and teach this poor African nation about agriculture and other skills. She served since July of 2007 and was in the last 2 months of her service in Benin.

I went to this service because I felt moved. I am ranking member of the African Subcommittee on Foreign Relations. Paul Coverdell, who served in the seat I now hold, was a director of the Peace Corps . I felt moved that morning when I got to go to the service and sit in the back of the room and pay my respects to a great American. I left having listened to 12 eulogies by young people whose lives were changed by Kate. The acting director of the Peace Corps , Ms. Jody Olsen, delivered a beautiful eulogy.

I realized how much voluntarism means to the United States, not just on our shores but in Africa and on continents around the world. I commend people such as Senator Dodd who have given time in the Peace Corps . I ask the Senate to give its unanimous support to this legislation. I dedicate this speech in honor of Kate Puzey, to her life, and what she did as a Georgian and as a volunteer. She joined the Peace Corps and changed the plight, the lives, the hopes, and in fact the future of children in that small country on the west coast of Africa.

God bless the Peace Corps and the life of Kate Puzey. And thanks to those who have volunteered and to the committee that has brought this National Service Act reauthorization to the floor of the Senate.

I have found volunteering in the Peace Corps to be a wonderful experience for me. I hope that many more Americans in the future have the opportunity to serve both at home and abroad.

 

News Release with more information about Kate Puzey

Friday, March 20, 2009

Volcanoes and Earthquakes

If you pay attention to news about Tonga, you probably know by now that an Volcano has erupted not far from the main island of Tongatapu and we have felt a number of earthquakes because of the eruption.

The volcano is on Hunga Tonga which is located about 150 miles or so away from me in Vava’u. 

Some of the first photos of the eruption were taken by Leta Havea Kami, who is the Deputy Managing Director of the Tonga Development Bank where I work.  She was on her way here to Vava’;u when she snapped these photos from the plane.

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There are a number of stories online about what is happening here.  These sites have photos and some video.

Underwater volcano erupts off Tonga – BBC

Inspectors Head to Undersea Volcano – New York Times

Inspectors head to undersea volcano in Tonga – MSNBC (AP)

I felt the earthquake early this morning.  It lasted for a while, but didn’t rattle the dishes and didn’t have any noticeable impact other than the normal shaking.

A Tsunami warning was issued for all of Tonga after the quake.   Peace Corps put us under a “Code White” which is the lowest level of emergency activation that they issue.  It simply means to pay attention to the radio and be alert.   Once the warning was cancelled, so was our “Code White”.

My friend Scot traveled by boat to the volcano yesterday.  You can read about his experience on his blog.

For those of us in Vava’u, it has pretty much been business as normal.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Whole New (Underwater) World

There are more dive shops in Vava’u than there are gas stations or bakeries.  It’s not hard to figure out why since divers from all over the world come here to enjoy the warm crystal blue Pacific and the colorful coral and marine life that live beneath the surface.

And because not a lot of divers make it here, the coral is pretty much undamaged from human contact and the different species of fish are amazing.

Since I have been in Tonga, I’ve been snorkeling a number of times and have immensely enjoyed the view from the surface, but I finally decided I wanted to go a bit deeper so I’ve been taking classes to get my PADI Open Water Scuba Certification.

Saturday, I took my last class and walked away with my certificate, but also a lot of great memories of life underwater.

Steve Swimming with the Fishes

For all of our classes, the ocean has been incredibly clear, but that was not the case for the last class.  We’ve had lots of rain here in the past week and the water was murky limiting the visibility underwater and the quality of our photos and video.

Stan and Steve diving in Vava'u

 

I look the class with my fellow volunteer Stan and an Australian friend named Emma.   Our instruction, Riki, who runs the Riki Tiki dive shop snapped these photos of us underwater.  (You can reach Riki at 70975.)

Stan, Emma and Steve pose underwater

 

Emma and Steve swim on the ocean floor

I have to confess I was nervous about taking diving lessons.   There are no recompression chambers in Tonga and it can be scary to think about being so far underwater and running out of air.

However, Riki is a great teacher and always made us feel at ease.    As part of our training, he had to turn off our air underwater, make us share air with a buddy and we had to take off our masks and air supplies while underwater.   At every step, Riki first explained at the surface what was going to happen and then once underwater, he demonstrated what we were supposed to do before he asked us to do the exercise.  It was a great confidence builder and none of us ever felt uncomfortable doing anything we were asked.

Stan gets some last minute instructions from Riki

That doesn’t mean there weren’t some problems. (Perhaps challenges would be a better word).  I had trouble getting equalized to the underwater pressure a couple of times and learned that I needed to dive down a bit slower than my friends.   

I also struggled a bit learning to take off my weight belt on the ocean floor and then putting it back on the correct way.  For the record, I always got it back on, but it took me a while to be as graceful doing it as Riki wanted.

Steve, Emma and Stan after finishing their dive

I feel very fortunate to have found an instructor as skilled as Riki here in Vava’u.  I had to miss our very first class because I was sick and Riki was great about giving me a private make-up lesson so that I could catch back up.

Now that I’m certified, I am already looking forward to my next dive.   There are so many great places to go here, the hardest part will be figuring out which one to explore first.

In case you were wondering, there are four dives shops in Vava’u, three bakeries and two gas stations.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Peace Corps Wages and Benefits

By definition, the word volunteer implies that you are doing something for free and are not paid for the work you provide.  Dictionary.com defines a volunteer as:

a person who performs a service willingly and without pay.

As a Peace Corps volunteer, I am prohibited from accepting money for any services that I provide, but it would not be true to say that I work for free.  

While I don’t receive a salary, my basic needs are met.  I am provided with a house and enough money to buy food and other necessities.  The stipend I receive is supposed to allow me to live at approximately the same level as a typical Host Country National and I live comfortably, though certainly not at the level to which most Americans are accustomed.

Since I just finished doing my taxes and since I’m often asked “How much money to you get?”, I thought I would detail exactly what I do get.   I’ve converted all amounts to US Dollars.

Housing Arrangements

In Tonga, each organization that hosts a Peace Corps volunteer is responsible for providing a house for that volunteer.  The house must have locking doors and windows, a bed, a table with at least two chairs and fresh water must be available within a reasonable distance of the house.

Sometimes, this means the volunteer will live on a school campus or in a house owned by the organization or by someone who works for the organization.  In my case, my organization, The Tonga Development Bank, pays to rent a house for me.   (And by Peace Corps standards, I have a really nice house).   The bank pays my landlord $177 per month for my house.  Since December, the bank also is paying $97.00 a month for my utilities.  Previously, I was paying those bills myself.   That means the bank pays about $3200 dollars a year to have me work for them.  

Living Stipend

In addition to having my housing provided, Peace Corps pays me a monthly stipend of $310 to cover all of my expenses.  That works out to just over $10 a day for all my food and expenses.  If you are counting, that means I get about $3700 dollars a year from the US Government for my volunteer service.   That total also includes $24.00 a month that is classified as a vacation leave allowance.  We get $12.00 a day for each of the 24 days of vacation we are allowed each year.      That amount is fixed by Peace Corps headquarters for all volunteers worldwide.  The amount of the stipend varies in each Peace Corps country.

The vacation leave allowance and a portion of our stipend are considered taxable income.  For all of 2008, my taxable income for my work as a volunteer was about  $800.

Readjustment Allowance

For each month you serve as a volunteer, you also earn $225.00 that is held by Peace Corps and then paid to you in a lump sum when you complete your service.  This amount is 100% taxable.  In 2008, just like every other Peace Corps volunteer in the World, I earned a readjustment allowance of $2700..  

The Bottom Line

I had earned taxable income of approximately $3500 from Peace Corps in 2008.  And this year it came with an extra surprise.  Since I was not eligible for the Stimulus Program last year when I was still working for a good portion of the year, I found out I can get it this year.  That means I’ll be getting a tax credit of $300.00.

Since I’ve been in Tonga, I’ve been able to live on my stipend.   I have not tapped into any money from home to use in Tonga, even though I have ordered a few things and had them shipped to me.   And certainly my stipend didn’t pay for my trip to the USA at Christmas.

Vava’u, the island where I live in the most expensive in all of Tonga.  We pay more for everything here than anywhere else in Tonga.  To be fair, we also don’t have the same choices or temptations as the volunteers on the main island.  But part of being a volunteer is living with and like the Tongans.  That means if you don’t have something or you can’t afford something, you just do without it.

Peace Corps Volunteers meet the King

Six Peace Corps volunteers who live on the main island of Tongatapu had a chance to meet and talk with the King of Tonga this week.   You might think that in a country the size of Tonga, that would not be uncommon.  However, the King is well “King” and he can pretty much pick and choose with whom he wants to visit.

The occasion was a visit by the new US Ambassador to Fiji, who is also responsible for Tonga.  My friend Scot was one of the volunteers who got invited to meet the King and I encourage you to read the description of the visit that he has posted on his blog

Peace Corps Volunteers Meet the King

The King, George Tupou V, is wearing the light colored gray pants and black vest.  Scot is pictured on the far left in the red tie. The other volunteers in the photo are Carol, who is next to Scot,  Bethany is to the right of the King and Emily is over the King’s left shoulder.   Heather and Blake are on the far right of the photo.