Sunday, May 30, 2010

I don't smell very good right now...

chalk dust
night school with class 6

victory!after-school hangout
decorating :)

It's been brought to my attention recently that I haven't been including "It's Tonga" moments very regularly in my blog these days; a friend mentioned to me that I'm probably just becoming so used to these things happening every day that they don't shock me anymore, which I suppose makes sense. I decided that for all my "It's Tonga" Moments my neighbors and villagers probably have ten "It's Senifa" Moments, where I did something that was utterly incomprehensible to them. Here are a few that I know leave my neighbors dumbfounded, written from their point-of-view, in a round table discussion format:

-"She lives alone...and she seems to like it! We even offered to let our kids sleep in her house and she declined. Furthermore, she goes to bed and wakes up at the same time every day! And she seems to get annoyed when we wake her up in the middle of the night to borrow salt or oil to cook...I just don't get her!"

-"Well, have you seen her walking about in the sun all the time? Can you just imagine? If she keeps on like that her skin will get dark! But she doesn't like to walk in the rain, oh no, as soon as it starts to rain she runs for cover. Doesn't she know that by walking in the rain you not only get to where you are going, you also get a shower and washed clothes?!"

-"What's more- she refuses to hit our kids! I don't know how many times I've told her she should hit my kid, even if he's not misbehaving, but she just smiles and shakes her head! I'll tell you what I did. I even told her how to pinch the kids to maximize pain and minimize a visible bruise, and still! Her classroom must be downright chaotic!"

-"Get this- one day I saw her talking to one of the boys in the village, then the next day I saw her talking to a DIFFERENT one! Then again, she is an American...." (knowing nods all around)

-"Well here's the kicker then. I walked past her house one Sunday and she was playing music inside...and it wasn't about JESUS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" (At this I imagine all the women letting out a collective gasp, then shaking their heads in pity)

So with that I will close out the "It's Tonga" Moments section of this blog. It's been a good run, but I realized last week, when a chicken walked through my library and it didn't phase me, that maybe, finally, I'm becoming impervious to the unique eccentricities that Tonga presents me with on a daily basis.

Now for some updates:

While I still hold the reservations about the library that I expressed in my last post, I have to say, having the library running and seeing the kids using it and benefiting from it has been amazing. The kids are not only reading like fiends, they are now checking out books and taking them home to read with their siblings and parents. (Although one boy came to my house at six-thirty this morning because he wanted to return a book and check a different one out- I told him to go home and go back to sleep)

The library has become a popular after school hang out where the kids come to do their homework, play cards, read, or do puzzles. I just want to say that, and I know this is on a purely selfish level, watching them be excited about being in the library and reading and learning has been incredibly fun for me. Last week some of the high school girls completed a complex, spherical puzzle and a few other kids have taken a keen interest in origami. I've also been holding my night study classes in there, which has been nice to get the class six kids out of the classroom a few nights a week. With some (mostly) friendly reminders, the kids have been taking great care of the library and the books. When we first started getting in books and they started reading on their own I had to sit them all down and teach a mini-lesson on how to turn the pages without bending them!

Last week one of Peace Corps' program leaders came out to 'Eua to lead a workshop for school principals interested in receiving a volunteer next year. I was invited to be a part of that meeting and speak about the role of a volunteer in a school and community. It was a great opportunity to let future counterparts know what Peace Corps is about and what they should, and should not, expect from a volunteer. As it turns out, the program manager did a wonderful job explaining the goals of Peace Corps and what we are in Tonga for. She ended the presentation with this quote:

"The only form of assistance which is unending is that which we can provide for ourselves. We in Tonga, must not forget that the progress of this country, be it fast, be it slow, or be it non-existent, depends on us...Any major step in the advancements of the in the hands of the men and women of our country and it is with them that the ultimate progress depends."

-King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV
June 8, 1967

Golden. Sitting in on this meeting went a long way towards alleviating the worries I have been having about the expectations of volunteers and counterparts not being well-aligned. I think everyone left that meeting with a good idea of what Peace Corps Volunteers are here for and how they should be utilized. It was made clear that we come in with a set of skills, that usually don't include grant-writing, and that we are meant to be capacity-builders and not "thing-getters" (not a word, I know, but the best I could come up with right now).

In other news, I will shortly be saying farewell to my infamous faleTonga (palm-leaf hut). It will be uprooted from its current residency by my house, carried across the school yard, and re-rooted in place of my neighbors' old faleTonga, which got devastated this past cyclone season. (I'm pretty sure he's been sleeping in my classroom since) I hadn't been sleeping in the faleTonga much anyway since it started getting pretty chilly and windy at night. In fact I've been mostly sleeping in my bed, which I'm becoming more comfortable with despite a few frightening spider, rat and molokau incidents.

I guess the biggest thing going on here is that I'm considering extending my service here in Tonga for a third year. I'm confident there's enough work in the library to keep me busy for another year, and I really want to see this project through and not leave it halfway done. As I mentioned earlier in the post, I am (finally) becoming really comfortable here and feeling like I'm integrated into the community and understand the culture well enough to do valuable work. I'm part of something I believe in (Peace Corps) and part of a group of people I feel privileged to be considered a part of. My work here is fulfilling and fun, and yes, challenging at times, but isn't everything that's meaningful sometimes challenging? Teaching here is awesome, the kids are enthusiastic, bright, resourceful, respectful and happy. Oh, and have you seen my pictures? The scenery here's not bad either :) After church Sunday I walked to my favorite beach on the island and spent the afternoon reading a book in the shade of a tree. It was hard for me to justify leaving in that moment.

On the other hand, I know I cannot, nor do I want to, stay here forever. As you can certainly tell from the "It's Senifa" Moments, I have not, nor will I ever, become Tongan. I've learned a lot about myself here, my perceptions about a lot of things have changed, and I've fulfilled my commitment. Maybe it's time to move on. I hear the job market in America is terrific right now (joke!). And I'm certainly not getting any younger (I'm only half-joking about that). My house flooded again last week, worse than it ever has before, so that was a bit frustrating and something I won't miss.

It's a difficult decision, and one that I will have to make soon to meet the application deadline if I want to apply to stay another year! 'Oiaue! (A Tongan expression of grief, excitement, or concern- in this case all three!)

If you're thinking...hey, I'm quickly coming to the end of this post and that title has nothing to do with anything!?! Well, I sat here for ten minutes trying to come up with a good title, and in that time realized that, really, I do stink. Good writers try to appeal to all the senses, right? It was between that and "May." Smell ya later.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Hecticity, n. (heck-tis-sit-ee)- The state of being in which life has become so busy you begin to create new words to explain it

painting....or playing?
fakamae church service
Mark reading with Lopeti and Siale

Hello friends! I know it's been too long, but my life has been filled with hecticity the last few months, which I'm well aware is not actually a word, but maybe if you start using it it will catch on.

The library opened last month with a huge feast in the schoolyard. There was plenty of music, dancing, and roasted pig! Unfortunately for me it was a day of mixed emotions, I sat down afterwards to write an article for the Peace Corps newsletter about it and this is what came out:

I would like to share my thoughts about a community library project I was involved in that was recently completed at my site. This project began when my counterparts started talking to me about writing grants and getting "stuff" for the school (which incidentally came up at our very first teachers' meeting). This put me in a bit of an uncomfortable spot; besides the fact that that's not what I'm here for, I really didn't want to perpetuate an already heavy dependence on foreign aid, an already widespread misperception about what Peace Corps Volunteers do, and I didn't want to create expectations for future volunteers at my site to "get stuff" as well. On the other hand it was what my counterparts and community expected of me and seemingly the only thing I could do to make them happy (aside from marrying someone from the village and bringing them to America).

I have had conversations with other volunteers about this problem and know I am not the first to have faced it.

After many circular conversations with my counterparts on the subject we concluded that if they need something we will look at all the options to finance the project, then if we need to write a grant I would help them. "Help"being the operative term in that agreement.

A few months later the idea for a library came up. Our school is very new and doesn't yet have many resources and no place to put a library. I worked with my counterparts and we came up with a plan that if they want a library I would help write the grant and they would be in charge of the building and I could probably find books for it. At first I wasn't sure how serious they were about it, but when I told my counterpart we would need to turn in building plans and a cost estimate with our grant application he went out and got them within the week. When I told him we needed to sit down and write the grant together he came early and with ideas of what we should write. At the next PTA meeting the idea was brought up, and the PTA offered to contribute all the labor for the construction of the library as their community contribution. I made it a point to say from the beginning that this was their project, not mine, and they would be responsible for and involved in each step of the process so that in the future they could do a project on their own. It became clear very early in the project that the village was supportive and willing to put in the work necessary to complete the library.

We completed the grant application and a few months later someone from the grant agency came out to the school to do an interview and decide whether to fund the project. I was in Australia when they came out, so I wasn't involved in that process at all, but my counterpart said it went really well.

A few weeks later we received notice that out application had been approved. That week the PTA met and worked out a schedule for the labor and a family to cook food for the workers every day. They appointed a head builder who did a great job of organizing and executing the construction, and about a month after receiving the fund the library was beautifully completed.

After the construction was completed I, with lots of help from other PCV's, the youth and even a few women from the village, painted the world map mural on one wall. I consider this my contribution to the library.

The week leading up to the grand opening was a bustle of activity and the entire village helped prepare for the celebration. The women planted flowers and bushes around the library and made a cement path from the school to the library and the kids weeded and cleaned up the entire yard.
Everyone helped.

Unfortunately, I realized at the grand opening, that I am being given way more credit than I deserve for this project. The opening was attended by many of the school officials and principals from around the island, as well as the Peace Corps Country director. Every speech that was given credited the project to me and talked about the work that Peace Corps does here. In hindsight I realized that this may be due to the fact that The Country Director for Peace Corps was there and considered the guest of honor, but the other school principals and Ministry of Education officers heard that this was my project.

Since the library's completion the other volunteers on the island and I have been inundated with requests to write grants for everything from a lawn mower to a bathroom at the church to a new town hall.

This project has raised a slew of questions for me, among them: Where does need end and want begin (In Tonga there is no distinction between the two words, both are fiema'u)? Are we here to "get stuff" for our communities? If not, what are we here for? I came here as a trained teacher and am proud of the work I have done and the progress my students have made; that has gone all but unrecognized. What do we do when our expectation don't meet up with those of our community or counterparts? Or even when Peace Corps' goals and purpose do not meet up with the expectations of an entire host country? Are we working our way out of here and towards a self-sufficient Tonga or creating more dependence on the massive amount of foreign aid that already comes into this country? Or are we just here to refute the "Ugly American" stigma?

In the end I consider this a successful project that my village and counterparts completed. The whole village came together and worked really hard to build this library that will be a great resource to all the students of the village and anyone interested in improving their English literacy. Unfortunately, they consider it a really great and successful project I completed.

This misplaced credit will make life for future volunteers placed in 'Eua infinitely more frustrating. They will not be considered successful by their counterpart or village unless they "get stuff" no matter how well they do their actual assignment, and two years is a long time to disappoint everyone around you.

Despite all that, now that the library has been open for a month it has been awesome to see it in use. The kids are so enthusiastic about reading new books (some seem to be more enthusiastic about smelling the new books, but I can't blame them for that- who doesn't love the smell of new books?!) The High School kids are coming in and using the library as well which is cool to see. Also it's created a ton of work for me to keep busy with after I finish teaching for the day. At the time of the library opening we didn't have very many books, but donations have been coming in from many different sources and the library is slowly starting to fill up! I've been busy sorting, organizing and cataloging the books, setting up a program to have each class in the library once a week, setting up a remedial reading program with some students from classes 4,5, and 6, opening the library after school for the kids, and figuring out a system for letting the kids borrow the books. I've been pretty much living in the library, but fortunately it's a nice place to live because it smells like books. Receiving books has been a treat for the kids, and also for me as well. I've come across many books that I remember loving when I was a kid and haven't seen for fifteen years. Looking through some of these books I was stunned at how beautiful children's books can be- Robert McCloskey's Blueberries for Sal and Peter Spier's People and Rain for example (Thanks Gary!), I just want to frame the pages and hang them on my walls!

The other reason I've been so busy lately is that my counterpart, the principal at my school suddenly and unexpectedly retired. Ideally the school should have three full-time Tongan teachers; we started the year with two, and now we're down to one teacher and myself. The Ministry is supposed to be sending out a new teacher, but they also said it could take months. The first week the class 4,5,6 teacher and I did our best to make it work, then last week the ministry sent out someone to help until they find a new teacher.

Being this busy has actually been a nice change of pace, and I'm really excited about the things I've been busy with, so I'm not minding falling into bed exhausted each night one bit; I wake up every morning excited and with a purpose for the day.