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The Peace Corps in Tonga
The Peace Corps in Tonga
The U.S. Peace Corps, an American federal agency promoting technical assistance and cultural exchange in developing countries, has been sending Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) to Tonga since the late 1960s. The Peace Corps established a presence in Tonga only a few years after its inception by President John F. Kennedy. Since then, the focus of the technical assistance provided has shifted from rural, agricultural, tourism-promoting and business development work to its current foci of education, youth work and the environment. About 70 PCVs work in the Kingdom at any given time; roughly 45% of those work in education, 45% are youth workers, and the remaining 10% work in the areas of environment or business. There is often overlap between these areas well.
Service in the Peace Corps is a 2-year commitment for qualified American applicants. Peace Corps does a good job of looking after the safety and security of the PCVs in Tonga, as well as all medical needs. PCVs with urgent medical issues which cannot be solved in Tonga, whether physical or mental, are evacuated to the States, with the possibility to return if the medical condition is completely healed.
Almost all PCVs have a Bachelor's degree, though not necessarily in the field in which they work (I, for example, have a degree in Psychology but was assigned to be an English teacher). Some, especially older volunteers, may not have a Bachelor's degree but have years of experience. PCVs with Masters and Doctoral degrees are not uncommon.
The PCVs in Tonga are mostly in their 20s and 30s, with a few scattered 40- and 50-year-olds, plus a handful in their 60's who have retired. The PCVs come from literally all over the U.S., from California to Maryland, from Texas to Montana and everywhere in between. The vast majority are Caucasian, but there are some African-American, Hispanic-American and Asian-American PCVs, too. Since many Tongans assume that other countries are as racially homogeneous as Tonga, they are often surprised to meet a non-Caucasian PCV. Most of the PCVs are Christian or have no religion, but there are a token few Jews, Hindus and Muslims.
As the longest standing international development organization in Tonga, almost all Tongans under the age of 40 have had a PCV teacher at some point in their education. The term "Pisakoa" (Peace Corps) has become synonymous with "international volunteer" to most Tongans. Therefore, it is not uncommon for a Tongan to say, "There was a Pisakoa here from Japan..." or when I introduce myself as a PCV, people sometimes say, "Oh, you're a Pisakoa? From where?"
The U.S. Peace Corps is the only organization in Tonga -- probably one of the few in the world -- which places a strong emphasis on linguistic and cultural competency among its volunteers. The three-month in-country training prior to the start of service, living with a Tongan family and learning the language and culture as well as technical skills, gives PCVs a huge advantage over other international volunteers (mostly from Australia and Japan) in integrating into the Tongan culture. And in a culture where one's effectiveness at work can potentially be greatly helped or hindered by the personal relationship with one's colleagues, it can be a big advantage in work as well.
Peace Corps Volunteers have a reputation in Tonga for being culturally sensitive and making an effort to integrate into the Tongan communities in which they live. The administration is keen to maintain that reputation, and threatens expulsion to any PCV who displays extreme insensitivity or breaks the Tongan law. On the other hand, I have heard several cases where the Tongan youth prefer the PCVs (usually youth workers) who smoke, drink and curse rather than the goody-two-shoes PCVs. (The older generation, as may be expected, usually prefer the latter.)