Traveling Across the Pacific

In January 1983 Lyn Mathews, the wife of the Dean of the Institute of Cultural Affairs asks me to go to the Kingdom of Tonga in the Pacific to participate in the Pacific Training School. I pause for a minute, ask her a couple of questions and then say, “Yes.”

I want to die. Seasickness incapacitates me.

150 miles of open ocean exists between me and the island of Vava’u in the Kingdom of Tonga. As the ferryboat Olavaha tosses and pitches, I concentrate on keeping my stomach calm for the next eighteen-hours

My destination is the Pacific Training School, a community leadership school at Siu’lkutapa College on Vava’u. I am one of the non-Tongan staff who will work with the local staff to share methods of community development. We will teach the participants how to lead conversations and workshops so they can go lead islanders in Town Meetings.

I missed the Tonga Air flight from the main island of Tongatapu to the northern island of Vava’u, so the turbulent ocean is my only alternative. The open deck is packed with men, women and children sprawled on their bundles. A few benches crowded with the elderly leave little space for an American who doesn’t want to be on the ocean.

As we finally sail into the Port of Refuge Harbor, the coral reefs and crystal-clear waters astound me with their unsurpassed beauty. I draw a deep breath and go ashore.

“The Pacific Way” is the theme for this human development school. The hosts of the school, Methodist District Superintendent and his wife, Kakala welcome all. The Governor of Vava’u praises the participants who have come to plan for their villages. At one point in the evening singing breaks out and the Tongan singing electrifies the room. The close harmonies captivate me.

Three of the Tongan staff guide the thinking. Tito pronounces a warm welcome. Paula addresses the future of this community that is built on their pride of being the only island nation never conquered by a European power.

Then the participants have an opportunity to share their hopes and dreams in a workshop led by Mali. All cluster in small groups and share their thoughts as Mali writes their input on a large black board. The group is awed by seeing their common thoughts.

The men wear the traditional wrap-around tupenus, a skirt-like cloth that indicate this is a formal occasion.The village women wear colorful blouses and long tupenus that reach to their ankles. Their belts made of strands of pandanus leaves add a touch of gracious femininity.

Though they speak in Tongan I discern an under-current of tension. I notice a growing uncomfortableness in the participants. They seem to breath tightly and glance back and forth. The older-rural participants frown at the western school clothes of the younger Tongan staff and seem somewhat hesitant as they respond in the workshop.

Later that evening as the staff debriefs in English, I pay attention as the Tongan college kids wrestle with how to honor the elders. They struggle with their Christian response of love and care in this situation. Several of them pace around the room as they talk about how they can make the elders more comfortable. Their concern is the participation in the work of the school.

The next morning to signify respect the Tongan staff wears traditional Tongan garb and they dress in traditional clothes throughout the school. I ponder this response to their rich heritage, “How might I have reacted in such a situation?”

Attending church on Sunday is fascinating. I could have spent all day watching the choir director and listening to the choir and congregation sing. But later, after church our staff attends a Tongan feast in a neighboring yard. This is a regular, every Sunday event with the location changing each week. An amazing feast spread out on Tapa cloth in the yard consists of mounds of fish, vegetables and fruit. After the feast Christina, a staff person from the USA and I take off for an hour and walk to the hotel for a swim.

Each day, we explore practical community development issues. After an opening presentation, we meet in small groups that result in walls covered with sheets of butcher paper sharing the villagers dreams. Primarily we focus on methods for holding village meetings and starting educational, health and agricultural programs in their villages. Then we end the day with theological issues with RS-1, talking about God, Christ and the Church.

Twenty Tongan staff creatively facilitate the school sessions by leading conversations and workshops on particular issues such as health and education. Non-Tongans working with the school are from the U.S.A., Australia, Philippines, New Guinea, Indonesia, Japan and Taiwan. It is my first experience working with translation and I often feel inadequate and unsure. Questions about what I might have said bounce around in my head when I pause for translation. The non-Tongan staff assists, always working with a translator.

As a whole body they participate in a conversation about the history and needs of education for the children. Then in smaller groups they each take one aspect of that work and articulate their vision for that area, the contradictions that will block progress and the many steps that need to be taken.

Training the participants how to lead their village meetings is a central task. I work with a small group to create a leadership methods manual. Encouraging input from the Tongan team members is part of the training process. We talk about why the different method steps are important and why soliciting the villager’s ideas is crucial.

Paula, one of the Tongan staff men and I work as a team. He translates the work so the Methods Manual is written in both languages. The manual is a plan for conducting a village meeting with a conversation, a talk, and a participatory workshop.

Mid-point in the training school, we set up village meetings. Teams of three or four villagers with a couple of staff members will go to Vava’u’s thirty-seven villages. Early on Friday, we hand out assignments for the meetings on Saturday. Fear strikes as the participants realize they are responsible for leading these meetings. They want to talk about transport issues rather than how to lead the meetings.

All is finally sorted out about who is going where and with whom. Preparation evolves in the slow, conversational Tongan way. Learning patience is key for me. Paula writes in my notebook, “Oua-te-ke-Tokanga-ki-ai“ (don’t worry!!).

The non-Tongan staff presence symbolizes to the local villagers that others outside of Tonga care for this corner of the globe. Most of the teams travel in small open boats to their villages. Kakala takes our team in her red pick-up truck to a village of three thousand not far from the school.

Our team meets with villagers in the headman’s living room. We sit on the floor around the periphery of the room on a large, finely woven mat; we discuss education, health, agriculture, transportation, and decision-making. Most of the villagers have never been asked what they hope for their future and their excitement is contagious. The headman’s eleven-year-old daughter whispers translation in my ear so I keep track of what is being said.

Many Tongans hoped the Pacific Training School would supply projects and extra money, but they soon realize that projects unfold through local efforts. As the villagers experience being honored for their ideas, they start to imagine what can happen. Ideas catch fire as they see the world through a new prism. Within the next few weeks, village preschools pop up all over Vava’u. Only four preschools had been in session before the village meetings. With no bureaucracy slowing the process, villagers easily move ahead to set up the schools by finding a location and talking wirh the families who have preschool age children.

During the six weeks, relationships develop as I work with another of the Tongan staff. Kato and I lead a seminar on care and tell stories to make sense of what it means to care for others. Paulo and I work as a team on the methods manual and his maverick ways teach me patience. His mix of laughter and serious work intrique me.

At the end of each day, I go for a walk and listen to the singing pouring from the truckloads of agricultural workers returning from the fields. Sacredness pervades the air as music floats down the street. I imagine that Tongan’s emerge from their mother’s womb singing lustily in harmony.

At the school’s completion, we celebrate with a traditional buffet dinner for participants and staff. The room is decorated beautifully with tapa cloths on all the tables, mats on the floor, and flowers everywhere. Singing and dancing ensure a great evening. Vegetables, fruits and fish provide mountains of food.As the participants receive their school certificates, their wide smiles and erect postures express their pride.

A staff celebration the next day at one of the island’s beaches provides a time of snorkeling, singing and reflection. Delicious food wrapped in pandan leaves prepared by the Tongan men simmers on a wood fire in the underground ‘umu’ pit in the sand.  Relaxed beach walks and story telling cap our time together.

I connect like a sister with the two older Tongan women on the staff, Tuifua and Kakala. When we talk our thoughts and ideas seem to walk down the same path. When we part my heart aches. They both live on Vava’u so don’t travel with us to Nuku’olofa. Tearful hugs accompany our goodbyes.

The next day the guys load the ferry, the Olavaha, with the supplies, furniture, bags and people for the return trip to Nukualofa, the capitol on the island of Tongatapu. With relief, I fly back on Air Tonga, I did not look forward to another sea voyage.

Back in Nuku’olofa, after worship on Sunday morning, the school staff and church leadership attend a Tongan feast. Families in the congregation entertain the clergy and the important folks in the congregation each Sunday. Speeches of appreciation for the future of Tonga pour forth after an incredible consumption of food such as fish, vegetables and fruit always prepared in different ways.

For a sightseeing moment before leaving Tonga, Muli a rural development officer for the government drives several of us to witness the spectacular blowholes along the terraced coastline of southwest Tongatapu. The power of the sea saturates the air with an overwhelming sense of mystery. Hundreds of blowholes along a four-mile stretch of wild windswept coastline roar and whish as the water pounds the cliffs and rises through holes in the rock. I gasp in wonder as I watch and listen to the sights and sounds of seawater being thrown 100 feet into the air.

This month of grace-filled moments thunders through me like the blowholes. Awe spills over my being just as the seawater showers high above the rocks.

I cry as the plane leaves that tiny island nation. The Pacific Training School has been a two-way street. Rural villagers and Tongan staff grasp new levels of confidence and possibility. I perceive a pristine power of care that I will carry with me the rest of my life.

How did Tonga, that tiny island nation, confront me so profoundly? The Tongans taking charge in their own traditional ways, the inter-generational dialogue of honor and respect, or local people having unbelievable wisdom?  I don’t know. But as I fly home across the Pacific Ocean, I know the holy has touched me. Time and again I have been jolted out of my comfortableness. I know a new level of care for isolated people has penetrated my being.