Paul W. Neville's Time in Tonga

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Paul W. Neville's Time in Tonga as a Peace Corps Volunteer

Paul W. Neville's Time in Tonga as a Peace Corps Volunteer

Letter Home #1 - Becoming a PCV
May 2, 2000

Today, I became a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Three hours ago on this day, May 2nd of the year 2000, I was sworn-in under the government of the United States of America serving His Majesty's Royal Kingdom of Tonga. The excitement indomitable during this morning’s ceremony among the Peace Corps staff, currently-serving volunteers, brand-new volunteers, and our training host families. Major dignitaries of the Kingdom were invited and a strong showing attended. One highlight was the arrival of the King's second (of three) son. While there is some controversy involving tarnished royal ties after he married a commoner many years ago, he remains a prince and is still held in high esteem.

We are the 58th PCV-group in Tonga. We have attached ourselves with the motto, "Group fifty eight is great!" Today our pride was brightly displayed. After the swearing-in oath ("I promise to uphold the principles of the United States constitution, etc. etc.), John Parsel gave a speech of gratitude, and then Irony Sade and I presented a gift of appreciation to our trainers. Jen Slack did a graceful Tau'alunga dance (similar to the Hulas in Hawaii) with Scott Berens and Duy Tran in the background cavorting and slapping their knees (being masculine?) as is tradition with the Tau'fale dance. Next, Kent, Josh, and Irony did a synchronized war dance. The final act, and highlight of the day, was Mike and Scott's performance singing two songs accompanied by guitar and harmonica. One song was Neil Young's "Heart of Gold." This has kind of become our group song. Irony and I transcribed a verse from it underneath the framed group photo, which served as the gift for the trainers. The other song Mike and Scott performed consisted of a medley of Tongan phrases put together the last night during one of our infamous 'Sela's Guest House Parties'. All trainees contributed our favorite Tongan phrases. Mine was "Toto Atu!" which means "Fantastic!" Mike and Scott's songs had a wonderful mix of humor and emotion.

We have taken off our ceremonial garb and are resting until the REAL celebration begins tonight. Actually, some people have not waited. They are back at Sela's and the Royal brand beer has begun to flow. But, I decided to come down to the lone Internet facility in Tonga (which is rumored to be closing soon), and share the exciting news of the completion of our training with all of you.

Now, the adventure really begins! Tomorrow is the first of the three-day, All-Volunteers Conference. All Tongan PCVs, old and new, will converge in the Good Samaritan Resort (which, lies in the village, Kolovai, that happens to be my future home) for sessions of information sharing and, I am told, further celebration. It should be a good time, but it is our last hoorah before we fresh volunteers embark on the incredible journey of being a Peace Corps Volunteer.

We have been shopping the last few days for household items such as dishes, utensils, buckets for washing laundry, Mortien to kill insects, and ketchup to make the ‘ufi (root-crop) edible. We depart to our sites on Monday of next week. Those in outer islands will be flown to their destinations and those of us on the main island will be driven to ours. This is, of course, with the exceptions of Irony and Josh who are going to ultra-remote islands. Irony, going to Nuiafa'o (not accessible by boat because of the coral reef), must wait for the sporadic and rare flight schedules. Josh's island is accessible only by the occasional fishing boat going in the direction of his island, Nomuku.

I have a mental image of being hastily dropped off in Kolovai, standing amidst a pile of luggage as everyone in the entire village pauses their daily activities, turns their heads, and stares at the this new stranger with a dumb look on his face. But, I am guessing my arrival will be a somewhat more planned and a little more welcoming. I hope

I have made a few predictions of what I might be doing as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Tongan village of Kolovai. I see myself gardening outside my modest home utilizing the fertile soil of Tonga and raising western type vegetables (hmm, seeds... a great care package item). I imagine exercising with consistency and creativity: running along the fine sand beaches, swimming in the turquoise waters, climbing coconut trees, and constructing coconut dumbbells. Or maybe, I will ride by bike an hour into Nuku'alofa and go to the gym (of course, not during the king's hours when it is shutdown to the public). I’ve heard it is a decent gym donated by the Australians and aiding in the king's loss of over 200 pounds. Actually, my visits to town will not be common. Which leads me to my third prediction. Immersion. Other PCVs will be a rare sight for me, especially in the first few months when it is suggested that we remain in our village, conquer the language, drink up the culture, and prepare ourselves for work. When I do ride into town, I will most likely be busy purchasing supplies and attending meetings or visiting work-related organizations.

It's strange... three months ago, back home, the idea of what I was getting myself into was so incomprehensible, I was hardly nervous - focusing on preparations and saying goodbyes. Today, however, I have a better understanding of what the future holds, and therefore have substantive anxiety. I feel as if I am about to jump off a giant cliff in the dark. People say the landing is safe and the fall will be quite a rush, but at this moment my knees are shaking a little. This is it...

Paul W. Neville

May 2, 2000

I am miner for a heart of gold.

I've been to Hollywood; I've been to Redwood,

I've crossed the Ocean for a heart of gold.

And in my mind, is such a fine line,

These expressions keep me searching for a heart of gold.

-Neil Young

'Nofo A!' - Farewell to Tonga
March 18, 2002

I listlessly ambled over the rutted dirt road, gazing up at palm leaves rustling in warm summer breeze. I could hear the ubiquitous knocks of mulberry bark being pounded into tapa cloth by an unknown number of village women, each of who were no doubt hidden away under some mango tree or palm leaf hut protected from the vicious tropical sun. I had just come from a post-church Sunday feast where I sat on the floor of my neighbor’s house devouring a spread of Ota Ika, lu moa, and various forms of root crop without wasting effort or time using utensils. As I lazily put one foot in front of the other in absolutely no hurry to reach a destination I did not have, my mind was liberated of thought. I drifted passed the imposing edifice of the local Wesleyan Church with its traditional style rounded roof and made for the intersection of one dirt road that leads into another. Up ahead a small girl no taller than a pineapple bush materialized. She stopped in the middle of the road and stood motionless, her pretty brown eyes watching my approach with circumspection. She wore a tattered blue school uniform and her hair was braided and tied with a yellow ribbon. Still a good distance away, I raised my hand and sent her a gentle and friendly wave. Her head tilted down slightly and after a brief hesitation, she smiled as big as she was capable, threw her hand up and down as some mixture of both greeting and farewell, and ran off giggling with the sounds of naughty jubilation.

I must be in Tonga.

But, not for too much longer. On April 3, 2002 it will be time for me to move on. After two exceptional years serving as a United States Peace Corps Volunteer for the little village of Kolovai in the Kingdom of Tonga, my service will be complete. I look forward to the adventures that my homeward-bound travels will offer, but it will be difficult to leave this place that has become my home and its people who have become my family.

My experience in Tonga has been a roller-coaster ride of the colossal proportions. My best day would be followed by the worst. I recently came across an Email that I sent home in July 2001 which announces the thrilling, yet nerve-racking moment of connecting Kolovai to the Internet for the first time:

We are connected to the World! The moment I logged in to the Internet for the first time at the Western District Youth Hall and Computer Center was one of the greatest feelings of accomplishment I have ever felt. This is understandable since getting to this point was one of the most difficult things I have ever worked towards. But it did happen! I managed to unlock a door that will reveal the entire world to people who hardly know anything exists outside of their own village. It is so exciting. Yet, at the same time its implementation has been consuming to the point where sometimes I feel like I can hardly breathe. I have been faced with problems and challenges from every direction: technological, political, financial, cultural, and more. I leave to vacation in Australia in only twelve days. I am very much looking forward to the trip, but I am greatly concerned that the Center will crumble without me.

While there were some snags while I was away in Australia, the Center did not and has not crumbled. In fact, as I prepare to make my leave, it is going as strong as ever. The powerful new Server is up and running, successfully controlling all seven client computers, each of which, for the first time since the opening of the WDYHCC, seem to be free of problems. The Internet connection has been consistent and strong for over a month, a remarkable feat in a country plagued with infrastructure headaches. Malia Fanua, as head instructor, and her sister Telesia Fakava, as the assistant, are in the process of teaching the 11th class of “Introduction to Computers” owning to a record nine students. Next month’s class registration is nearly full. As the project coordinator I still have significant responsibilities including accounting, scheduling, technical maintenance, and teaching the “Introduction to the Internet” Seminar, but the Center continues to inch its way towards self-sufficiency. One of my favorite things to do lately is to go for an evening ’eva (stroll) around the village passing by the Center, not going in so as to not disturb its autonomy, but just watching it silently in the shadows across the street as students research school projects using the Internet, committee leaders prepare meeting minutes, fathers Email their daughters studying overseas, and youth socialize playing games and making puzzles. A new Peace Corps Volunteer is slated to come to Kolovai at the end of April and spend the next two years continuing to train local supervisors and instructors at the WDYHCC, making expansions, securing sustainability, and starting new projects. She is coming at a good time when the basic foundation has been laid and most details have been ironed out allowing endless opportunities in a hundred new directions.

Another project, with which I assisted, the Masi’ata Beach and Picnic Area, continues to operate well under the leadership of the landowner. Just like everything else, it was a bumpy road to get to the point that it is at now, but it feels good to see that it continues to be well-maintained, especially when recalling that only a year ago, before any work began, the place was a veritable trash dump.

The mangrove re-growth project is still in place. Nearly half of the saplings died from excessive sun or salt water, but that was expected. The sea will continue to rise and eventually it will envelope Kolovai (which, incidentally translates literally to “town of water”), but for the time being the remaining mangrove bushes will thwart erosion, at least temporarily.

I went to the Ako Teu Primary School for the last time yesterday. As usual it was a lot of fun. We worked with pronouns and sentence structure, performed some role-plays and, the favorite, played Simon Says. I also taught them how to say goodbye in seven different languages. As I made my final exit, the kids screamed “Adios,” “Au Revoir” “Sayonara,” and so on long after I was well out of hearing range. I have to say that the children of Tonga made my experience go from being great to being extraordinary.

While I feel the work aspect of my service in Tonga has been greatly rewarding, there is no doubt that the cultural-sharing component has been of equal value. The most well-known raisòn de etre of the Peace Corps is its assistance in physical development where such assistance is requested, but this is only one-third of the Peace Corps three-pronged mission. The other two goals include mutual cultural understanding where Americans gain a clearer and more truthful perspective about the people of their host country, while the people of the host country receive a personal and more accurate picture of Americans.

For example, my Tongan neighbors taught me how patience is one of the main keys to success and happiness. When I had the opportunity I emphasized to them that many people in the world view private time as healthy and something that should be respected. They made me realize that life does not need to be stressful, while I demonstrated that there are rewards as the result of hard work, such as a successful Computer Center and Youth Hall. The Tongan people showed me that it is best not to be selfish with one’s possessions, and I proved that proper maintenance of one’s possessions (using my bicycle as the best example) leads them to a longer lives. My neighbors taught me how to build an underground oven and I taught them how to bake banana bread. Maybe most importantly, we revealed to each other that everyone everywhere of every culture understands the beauty of laughter.

Without hesitation I say that my experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Tonga has been the most amazing of my life. I enjoyed times of euphoric happiness and suffered times of great hardship. I triumphed during moments of great accomplishment and languished in moments of deep loneliness. There were points I witnessed malicious deception and other times where I received the greatest warmth of sincere compassion I never thought was possible. Each experience, whether wonderful or exasperating, culminated to provide me with profound new perspectives on the world and myself. Not to mention these experiences have offered an arsenal of stories sure to entertain a few audiences for years down the road.

Malo ki he kakai ‘o Tonga. Te u ma’u pe manatu’i kiate kimoutolu.

Nofo a!

Paul W. Neville

March 18, 2002

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