Sunday, November 17, 2013

About Life on a Small Tropical Island

I realise that I haven't posted much about our everyday life here in Tonga. After nearly two years, I often forget to remember that life is a far cry from what it used to be in Australia, which is why many will find it fascinating...

So, here goes!

Where We Live:

I've mentioned before that we are living with my husband's family, while we wait to build our own house. 

There are currently 14 people living in this house, including 6 young children, however that number often swells to include extended family members from other villages who come to work on the family plantation, plus other random people who occasionally turn up for random reasons.

For these "fringe-dwellers" (as I think of them), it's a case of finding some room on the floor and bunkering down for the night. If you have a blanket or a pillow, you're really living the high life. 

Our family of 5 shares one room, which is quite large - thankfully - because it has to house all our clothes, beds, bedding, our fridge, our food supplies, our washing, our buckets and bottles for collecting water, medicinal supplies, my computer and printer, plus a few toys, books and tools that were deemed too valuable to be kept elsewhere.

This is what our room looks like on a good day:

As you can imagine, with three children, it doesn't stay tidy for very long.

With so little space, we have to constantly cull anything we don't need. We've been living out of suitcases for two years now, and when my suitcase starts to bulge at the seams, I know it's time to give away some clothes.

Cockroaches and mice are regular visitors. Thankfully we have mosquito screens on the windows, or we'd have to contend with them, too...

We have running water (sometimes!) in our home but no hot water. There is one person in charge of the village water supply, and if they've forgotten to turn the generator on, then the village water supply dribbles to a halt.

This has a peculiar habit of happening:
a.) At about 6 or 7 in the morning, when all 14 of us are trying to use the toilet/have showers...
b.) before the village church services, when everyone is waiting to have a shower or
c.) anytime I go to wash the dishes.

If you want the luxury of hot water, you have to boil the water on the stove.

The water supply is supposedly treated, but doesn't seem to be filtered very well, so we don't use it for drinking. Every few days, we take our buckets and bottles to the tank at the church hall, and fill them up. Or if there's rain, we collect water from the gutter overflow on the roof.

We do have electricity and a large TV, so whenever something exciting is being broadcast on TV, random people begin showing up. This is what the "living-room" looked like during one of the recent rugby World Cup games that Tonga was playing in...

(Note the people sitting under the verandah, watching through the windows)

During the day, the men usually go off to work at their jobs (if they have one - most don't), or to work in the family plantation, weeding or planting or digging up root crops. (OR, they are busy sleeping off last night's kava-drinking session...This seems to be more common among the younger men, while the older men are up at dawn, no matter what time they go to bed the night before).

The women usually stay at home and look after the children, clean the house and prepare the food, or do the traditional weaving or making brooms etc.

The main meal is usually eaten about mid-afternoon, when the men come home from the plantation. It's usually a big pot of soup, eaten with root vegetables, such as taro or yam or cassava.

I usually prepare our food separately, since I don't eat meat (and meat is central to most Tongan meals). We learnt very quickly that it was necessary to have our own fridge, to store our vegetables/butter/cold water etc. In a large household, these things have usually disappeared by the time you go to cook your next meal - a rather frustrating experience! 

We now keep all our food supplies in our own room, but there is quite a bit of "lending" and "borrowing" and "requesting", which I can normally manage with good grace, but sometimes I confess to smothering a sigh of annoyance. 

The requests range from matches (the most common request. A box of matches costs 10c at the local Chinese store, but no-one ever seems to buy them...except me!), some sugar, onions, to borrow a knife (another much coveted item - we've had a few go missing), to borrow a phone-charger, salt...

We also have a washing-machine in our house - a highly desired item, indeed!! As well as the 14 people living in our house, there are others who come to use the washing machine, occasionally. Another brother and his wife, a cousin, someone's auntie's brother....

But this washing machine is not like one in Australia, where you put the clothes and detergent in, press a button, then forget about it. Oh no!! This is a special Chinese one, which has a washing drum and a separate wringer. It says "15kgs" on the machine, but I think that might be a stretch of the imagination, just quietly...

Anyway, there is no special water hose to connect the machine to, so in order to fill the machine with water, you either have to fill up bucket-loads from outside, or bring in the hose from out the back. Once the water is in, you turn the timer and it swirls it around for 15 minutes. After that you fill a separate bucket with clean water, wring out each item and rinse in the clean water, then you wring it out again and either put into the wringer (in batches, since it can only handle a few items at a time), or you wring it out as thoroughly as possible by hand, and go hang it out on the line.

As you can well imagine, doing washing, turns into a messy, sloppy, slippery affair, which is usually interspersed with curious kids who want to splash in the water or "help" in their own special way...

Still, it's a small improvement on last year's situation, which was washing everything by hand.

Life as a Child: 

Children in Tonga are treated with a lot of affection and are usually surrounded by relatives and cousins. In the Tongan language, there is no name for "auntie" or "uncle" or "cousin". There is only "mother" and "father" and "brother" and "sister". This means that children have a lot of "mothers" and "fathers" who love them, but also discipline them, and "cousins" who are regarded as brothers and sisters. 

This means large, generally close-knit families. Once a child reaches the age of about 5, he is expected to help out with the family chores, and keep an eye on the younger children. Our 8-year-old son is often asked to run to the village store to get items for adult members of the house.

Discipline can be harsh and often involves physical punishment, such as smacking or hitting with a stick.

The little village school that our son attends is a fairly casual affair. No shoes are necessary. Plenty of students and teachers alike, don't turn up on time. When it rains heavily or there's a cyclone warning current, the children are sent home. There is no such thing as excursions, permission slips, newsletters, computers, reading programs etc. The school year is about 8 weeks shorter than the school year in Australia, and yet, I believe my son is ahead of where he would be in Australia, especially in Mathematics. 

The children are allowed to leave the school grounds for recess or lunch breaks, so they often run to the local Chinese store to buy noodles, or run home for a cooked lunch.

There are very few toys, and the toys that are for sale in Tonga are cheap, plastic Chinese ones, that only last a day or two before they're broken. So generally, kids create their own fun, which may include: climbing trees, chasing each other, wrestling, playing with sticks, climbing on other random objects, throwing a ball, or playing marbles (if they have some).

Playing in an old wheel-barrow.

Having a rest from running and wrestling on the lawn...

Climbing the lychee tree...

Or just hanging out...and dreaming up new forms of mischief ;-)

Because the "village raises the child", everybody knows who belongs to who, and even if you're away from home and getting into mischief, you can be sure that your parents will hear about it eventually. The person who sees you getting into mischief might even give you a smack too, whether he's related to you or not.

If you're with another family, and they're eating, you'll always be invited to join in. That's just the way things are done, here. Traditionally, food was the sign of wealth, and because there was no electricity or way of keeping the food from spoiling, well, the natural thing to do was share your wealth...a custom that continues to this day, although the arrival of money may have confused things a little bit.

If you're hungry, and you hear the neighbour starting to break open the coconuts to feed his pigs, you can always run along and ask for a sprouted coconut ("uto") to eat...Our long-suffering neighbour has many visits like these, and always obliges with a big smile - bless his heart.

Going Shopping:

A couple of times a week, we drive into Nuku'alofa (the capital of Tonga), to get supplies and fresh fruits and vegetables at the market.

In Australia, it is quite possible to go shopping on a rainy day and not get a drop of rain on your head. You can walk into your garage, get in your car and drive to the underground car-park of the shopping mall, do all your shopping and drive back to your garage...

Not so in Tonga!! There is no built-in garage. There is no such thing as a mall - shops are here and there. There is no such thing as an underground car-park. Drainage is often poor, due to being such a low-lying island, so streets and side-walks (if there is one - sometimes there is not) are often flooded in times of heavy rain. So a shopping trip is just one more opportunity to deal with the elements, whether it's a blazing tropical sun, or a sudden tropical downpour - it's all taken in good humor (mostly). If you look like a drowned rat, it's comforting to know that everybody else does, too

Mind you, being at the mercy of the elements is the reason that Tongans retain the connection and sense of respect for Nature, that so many Westerners have lost....

Along the roads, there's often little stalls selling vegetables, home-baked goods or second-hand clothes (often sent by relatives overseas), and we sometimes stop to buy from these if they have what we are looking for.

Locally grown fruit and vegetables are quite cheap, and are sometimes organic, although the distinction is not advertised, and organic produce is sold for the same price as conventional. A bunch of finger bananas can be as cheap as $1TOP ($1 Tongan Pa'anga, the equivalent of about AUD60c), one full head of cabbage is $1TOP, a bag of tomatoes is $3TOP, so it's cheap to have lots of vegetables in the diet, although many Tongan's don't buy vegetables, except for special occasions.

On Sunday:

Sunday in the Tongan language is "Sapate" (or Sabbath). I'm not sure how that came about, since the original Sabbath is Saturday, but anyway...Let's not get side-tracked by mere technicalities!!

Sapate is a holy day, the entire country basically shuts down, except for those businesses deemed necessary. This means the hospital, and the bakery stay open. Because no other shops are open, Saturday is a busy day for stores, and many of the Chinese stores stay open until midnight, so many people are out and about on Saturday night, getting supplies for the following day.

Church is the order of the day for most people, beginning at 5:30am with the early morning service. Then, it's home to start preparing the lunch meal - grating the coconut meat and squeezing out the milk/cream, preparing the underground oven, and chopping up meat. Even if you can't afford meat during the week, one must find the money for meat on Sunday, otherwise it's truly a shameful state of affairs!

Then it's time to get ready for morning church at 10am. Before every church service, there are three bells rang from the church. One is an hour before church starts, then half an hour, then when the service is about to begin - this is a throwback to the old days when nobody had watches or mobile phones, so it was necessary to remind people when it was time to get ready for church.

After morning church, it's time to come home for a big feed. On the way home from church, it is normal to hear people calling out to each other "Te mou kai lelei?", meaning "Will you eat well?" (roughly translated to: did you afford to buy the meat?!). After eating, it's sleep-time (of course!). Children making a noise or playing outside is highly frowned upon during Sunday, so this time of day is very quiet, and there is hardly any traffic on the roads.

Then it's time to get ready for the afternoon service, which is about 3:30pm...I think (I'm usually asleep, reading a book or working on my goals for the week, by this point). When that's done, many people come home to eat leftovers from lunch, and watch the church services being broadcast on TV, before retiring early to bed.

Ironically, the "day of rest" is busier and more stressful than all the other days of the week, for many people. All that getting dressed in the best clothes, preparing food, trying to keep the kids quiet and stop them from playing in the dirt in their good clothes...

In the beginning, I went along to the church services - even though I didn't understand most of what was being said, since church language is quite different to the everyday language that I've learnt. Nowadays, I don't bother, preferring to stay at home and prepare the food, or spend some quiet time with my children. I have a rather different understanding of God than the average Tongan, and I believe that my life is my worship and my being is the temple - I'm in it 24/7...

That being said, at least ONE visit to a Tongan church service is mandatory, if you wish to hear some of the best singing in the world - Tongans are born with a natural talent for music and harmony.

So, that's a little glimpse into everyday life in Tonga - our new "normal".

The Tongan People:

Despite the inconvenience and difficulties of life in an undeveloped country, it's a relaxed and peaceful life, and I believe it's the reason why Tongan's are some of the most generous, gracious and humble people on the planet.

They have a "we" mindset, not a "me" mindset. The village looks after their own, and if a Tongan found himself on the other side of the world, and ran into another Tongan, they are immediately brothers and will offer hospitality/accommodation/food/money to the other.

Sometimes the sharing and caring attitude works against them. The majority of Tongan businesses do not succeed, because the products and profits are expected to be shared among the extended family, and when you have an extended family as large as a Tongan one, the requests and the funerals and the weddings and the birthdays are endless. I believe this is the reason why nearly all the shops in Tonga are now owned and run by either Chinese or Indian people, who operate by a very different set of customs.

Many Tongans can trace back their ancestry for many generations, and upon meeting another Tongan for the first time, will discuss each others family tree to see if/where they are related.

Tongans are quick to laugh and joke, and have a wonderful sense of fun. Public events are a great excuse for the extroverts to get up and dance and to make the crowd laugh at one's own expense. I was with my husband for 8 years...before I realised that Tongans love to joke and rib each other in a cryptic manner, so if you don't know the language well, you're often on the outside of the joke.

For example: His mother's husband was driving away from the house in the old van, it was sputtering and roaring noisily. My husband called out the window (in Tongan): "May as well cut the neighbour's lawn on your way past..." I thought this was hilariously funny - but then again, sputtering cars always make me laugh - and it was the first time I realised that the Tongan sense of humor is a lot more subtle and clever than the more obvious Western style of humor.

They also have a deep sense of respect for those in positions of status - royalty or nobility, or those with well-paid positions, educated overseas, such as doctors, and of course, church ministers - and for their elders.

For the most part, it's a fairly uneventful life, everybody knows everybody else, so gossip is practiced enthusiastically (my friend jokingly refers to it as the "Coconut Telegraph"...).

Despite being a "Christian" nation (some 98% of people regard themselves as Christians), the old, pre-missionary taboos and black magic still pervade the thinking - more than they dare to admit, and many have a deep-rooted fear of offending the dead or being possessed by a vengeful spirit.

Tonga is at a crossroads, looking towards a brave new future in a globalised, digitalised world, and trying to figure out how to incorporate the old ways with the new ways, while preserving the positive aspects of both.

It's a difficult process, a tug-of-war between the youth, who are restless and hungry for the glamorous lifestyle they see in the movies and (increasingly) on the Internet, and the elders who are fearful and resistant of losing the values and customs they were raised with...

Only time will tell how Tonga weathers the waves of change...


Tonga Man said...

great job kate, this is written well and a good description! i'm sharing this on my wall!

Kylie Ofiu said...

I really want to come to Tonga one day with my daughters. I think your experience and that of others I know is amazing. It makes me both appreciate what I have, but also want to live with less.