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.