Sunday, February 28, 2010

Saving lives one breath at a time, the Tonga Red Cross and Matamaka.

(PHOTO: Group photo of all the participants at the TONGA RED CROSS workshop in Matamaka.)

CPR or puhi manava (in Tongan) and First Aid have been the main topics in Matamaka during this past week as the Tonga Red Cross and I worked together to certify twenty-four men and women from Matamaka and neighboring outer-island villages. The event was part of a four day workshop that took place at three separate outer-island villages around the Vava’u island groups. The villages of Matamaka, Otea, and Hunga were the villages that hosted this event. Members from the outer-island communities were invited to attend the free community first aid and CPR workshop. At the end of the workshop, every participant received a certificate for the successful completion of the Red Cross training.

I was very lucky to have been involved with the Red Cross. A woman by the name of Kato, a Tonga Red Cross community outreach coordinator of 34 years, approached me in Matamaka and asked if I would like to help out. I could not believe she would even ask, of course I would love to help out! It just happened to turn out that I had a CPR dummy from Peace Corps with me at my house. What awesome luck eh? As a result, I assisted Kato with the CPR training portion of the workshop.

(PHOTO: Doing my thing...)

The entire CPR training was very informative to all of the participants. They asked many questions and had the opportunity to practice CPR on one of the three CPR dolls at the event. Surprisingly enough, the Tongans made the entire CPR practice comical with their rambunctious (however sometimes inappropriate) jokes ("sio mahaki?"). Furthermore, I found it very amusing when we had problems removing the lipstick stains off the CPR dolls. All the participants dressed up at their best for certificate ceremony, which included bright red lipstick with most of the women.


(PHOTOS: Both men and women took turns practicing CPR on the dummies.)

After a couple rounds with the CPR dummies and a review of all the topics covered that week, the presentation of certificates commenced. All of the participants were very proud of their new certificates, as well as the completion of the workshop. The event ended with a kai pola (feast) with everyone involved. The food was delicious and we all had a great time. The community members were very appreciative with the entire program. I would consider the event as a complete success. About an equal amount of men and women attended the event. It has been a comfort to know that important lifesaving skills have been shared to the people on the outer-islands, where modern health care has been non-existent.

I look forward to be involved with future Tonga Red Cross community initiatives on the outer-islands of Vava’u. In addition, I hope to be an excellent resource for first aid and CPR for all those interested in my community until the end of my Peace Corps service. My next objective will be to work with GPS Matamaka students and staff with first aid/CPR and to continue addressing various healthcare issues on the outer-islands.

(PHOTO: Kato and I after the presentation of certificates. She was off to the village of Hunga next with her workshops.)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

CYCLONE RENE = Sleepover at Mormon Church for four days and three nights…

(PHOTO: The kava/church hall of the Church of Tonga in Talau.)

My first real tribulation in Peace Corps Tonga has been the infamous Cyclone Rene. Cyclone Rene, a category-four cyclone, first made its presence in Tonga over the Niuas late Saturday evening on the 13th of February. It later made its appearance on Valentine’s Day in Vava’u after continuing its southerly path towards Ha’apai, Tongatapu, and ‘Eua late Monday. The cyclone made substantial damage throughout the Kingdom as power, water, and other essential services have been knocked out for days. However, power and other amenities have been slowly getting back online since the brunt of the storm passed last weekend. In Tongatapu, air travel was suspended for Monday and the most part of Tuesday as the main power grid that connected the international airport was severely damaged from the storm. Similar situations have been apparent with the rest of Tonga’s island groups.

(PHOTO: Down power lines, a very common scene throughout Neiafu.)

In relation to the situation in Vava’u, as of Wednesday evening the 17th of February, most of the power in central Neiafu and its neighboring villages have been restored. Tonga Power Limited has been overhauling extra hours to quickly restore power to the rest of the main city as well as the outer villages in the main island. Cyclone Rene knocked down hundreds of trees and power lines. In addition, several buildings suffered significant damages; particularly those who did not take extra precautions prior to the arrival of the storm. For the most part, the majority of the population boarded up their windows and received minimal damage to their property. Fallen trees and raised roofs have been a very common sight around Vava’u. Luckily, there have been no reported deaths in the Vava’u island groups.

**** ****

As for myself, the entire ordeal began Friday when I arrived by boat to Neiafu around noon. I had the intention to purchase some fresh vegetables from the market and then catching an afternoon boat back to Matamaka. Everything was going as planned until I received a phone call from PC headquarters in Nuko’alofa warning me of the approaching cyclone and the prohibition of anymore sea travel until further notice. In awe with the new revelation, I realized I was in no way prepared for an event such as a “consolidation” right at that moment. I only had the clothes that I had on with no opportunity to go back to my island grab my sleeping bag, some extra clothes, and other essential items. Luckily, I always carry my important documents and laptop with me every time I leave the island in case something like this was to happen. I did not even thing about closing my windows since I was only going to be gone for three hours! Fortunately, I ran into my principal who was returning to the island and I asked to please prepare my house for an imminent cyclone which was madly approaching Tonga.

Anyway, the official “consolidation” orders came in mid-afternoon Saturday. All the PCVs met at the Mormon Church near Mormon high school in Kameli. Surprisingly enough, it was a beautiful sunny day. I was very appreciative that my Tongan family supplied me with a small foam mattress, sheets, and a pillow for the entire consolidation party. They were very sympathetic when I told them that I would just sleep with a lavalava (sarong-ish cloth) and my bag as a pillow for the next couple of days. Remember I did not have the opportunity to bring anything?! Regardless, I was very grateful for their thoughtfulness. They even went as far as to bring me food when the storm was not at its peak. I was never more excited to see lu sipi (taro leaves with sheep, baked in an ‘umu) after eating peanut butter and jelly crackers days. My Tongan family definitely made our little house arrest at the Mormon Church a bit more relaxing for me.

(PHOTO: The scene outside the Mormon Church before Cyclone Rene made her appearance.)

The weather finally started to turn sour late Sunday afternoon. It started with the sun setting and filling the skies with a bright yellow/orange tint (something that would not be seen for a couple of days) before the dark eerie clouds penetrated the mountains surrounding Vava’u with a mean wind that only amplified as the night progressed. Electricity was short-lived after the initial storm bans of Rene made its presence loud and clear. I had a few decent laughs with some of my PC friends in Ha’apai via Digicel until the towers went offline. The “No Network” message seemed to have plagued everyone’s cell phone.

There were many concerns about our safety with our consolidation point for the Vava’u group. The room where we were placed had windows in two sides of the room. To make matter worse, a line of coconut trees with hundreds of coconut projectiles had a perfect aim on our wall of glass windows. We were lucky the windows held up for the entire duration of the Cyclone. Furthermore, we had a perception that our consolidation point would have access to drinking water, a kitchen/cooking facility, and showers. Guess what? Nothing! Someone really should pick a better spot next time. I ended up showering using a small fire hose over a drainage pipe. I was desperate for a shower after wearing the same clothes for almost four full days.

(PHOTO: An outdoor kitchen damaged in Talau.)

Cyclone Rene left Vava’u Monday morning. We were shocked we still had to stay at the Mormon Church for an extra night. It may have been windy in Tongatapu, but Vava’u had clear skies for once. In spite of everyone running short on water, we technically did not have clearance to leave the building. It was a bit frustrating, but we tried to make the best of it. Later that Monday evening, we played hide and seek and some other games around the Mormon compound. The electricity was still out so the entire place was honestly quite creepy. Joseph Smith, is that you hiding in the corner? (Fakakata pe). Tuesday morning finally came around and we were given the clearance to leave the Mormon compound. Finally! We were all getting very restless after being in a confined room for so long.

(PHOTO: The house of the church leader from the Church of Tonga in Talau)

Cyclone Rene left with trail of destruction in certain parts of Vava’u, but it could have been worse. For the most part, the more modern buildings weathered pretty well. Only the most decrepit buildings fell-ill with Rene’s winds. In Talau, the kava/social hall for the Church of Tonga was completely destroyed. Unfortunately, the faifakau’s (church minister) house had a similar fate. In addition, my family’s peito (outdoor kitchen) roof was blown off completely. The same thing happened around the area. In relation to Matamaka, I only got cleared to take a boat back Wednesday afternoon; however, there were no boats at the wharf. I hope to go back as soon as possible and check on my house. I have been told that overall my house has survived the storm, but my pit toilet has blown away. In addition, a section of the school wall had supposedly collapsed. I will see for myself as soon as I get back. I will write an update the next time I can use the internet again.

Until next time, ‘ofa atu!


SMILE GPS Matamaka!

PHOTO: GPS Matamaka students getting ready to brush their teeth!

On behalf of GPS Matamaka and Peace Corps Tonga, I would like to send a big thank you to Broadway Dental and Rich and Cheri Bockelmann of Denison, Iowa for their generous donations of twenty-five children toothbrushes and six toothpaste tubes to the children of GPS Matamaka. The children were super excited to get their new toothbrushes for the 2010 school year. As a high school graduate of the class 2005 of Manning High School, it has been great to receive some support from others in Western Iowa during my twenty-seven months Peace Corps service in the Kingdom of Tonga.

I emphasized the importance of dental hygiene with the twenty students of GPS Matamaka. Each student brought a plastic bottle to keep their toothbrush in for the whole year. The students all wrote their names on the bottle to make sure no one uses another student’s toothbrush. I started the morning lesson with questioning students who actually brushed their teeth that morning. Only two students raised their hand. Consequently, I asked them all if they know why it was important to brush their teeth every day. After explaining what candies can do to your teeth if you do not brush regularly, most of the students were very eager to brush their teeth and fight cavities!

(PHOTO: Class 1 to 3 students)

The rest of the lesson took place outside where students filled their water bottles with water and rinsed their new toothbrush. Before giving each student some toothpaste, I told them all that they should sing the ABCs in their head while they are brushing their teeth. So, we all practiced humming the ABCs while pretending to brush our teeth. After a couple rounds of the ABCs, they were finally ready to brush their teeth!

It was very amusing to watch the students in class one to three brush their teeth. As each student sung their ABCs, toothpaste was getting all over their little faces and their newly washed school uniforms. OAIUE! (Tongan phrase for “Oh, man!” in English). Following a couple of candid photos, we all rinsed our mouth and headed back to the classroom. I ended up sending three to five of the younger students to the bathroom since toothpaste was still all over their faces.

(PHOTO: A picture after humming our ABCs)

In the end, we all had a good time and the students all loved their new toothbrushes! We will continue the “SMILE GPS MATAMAKA” program everyday for the rest of the school year. Students will brush their teeth in the morning before the flag ceremony and also after lunch. My principal and co-teacher were very impressed with the outcome of the successful event. Once again, I want to give a BIG thank you to all of those to help make this happen in our very small outer island school. Thanks to their contribution, there are more healthy smiles in Tonga! The children all send a huge MALO ‘AUPITO!

(PHOTO: GPS Matamaka 2010, all the class one students went home already by the time we took this photo.)

***If any readers want to help contribute/support to any current and future projects at GPS Matamaka, please feel free to contact me. We are always looking for more philanthropists to help improve the overall well-being of the students and the community of Matamaka and Tonga. ‘Ofa atu!

Friday, February 5, 2010

For real what are you? Piliphine? Pisikoa? mei Amelika? Mo’oni?

Photo: My host brother from Ha'apai and I before culture day at Faleloa

If I could only get a pa’anga for every time someone would ask me if I am really an American, I would be a very rich person here in Tonga. Since my arrival here in the Kingdom, I have had an internal struggle to keep my cool every time my identity/ethnicity is questioned. As anyone can imagine, a very small country like Tonga has a very limited amount of exposure with diversity from around the world. You are either a Tongan or a white palangi (foreigner), but a brown palangi? What is that?

The truth is that I was born in the Philippines and I grew up pretty much my entire life in America (hence, how I am a Peace Corps Volunteer). One of the Peace Corps goals is to “share the American culture to the people of other cultures,” (or at least something like that). Well, as the only “colored” person in Peace Corps Tonga Group 75, I have the lone duty to share America’s diversity here in Tonga.

Some of my encounters with people in Tonga (both palangi(s) and Tongans) have had their ups and downs. Most of them have accepted my “dual” identity; while others cannot get over the fact that I am not a white pisikoa from America; therefore, I must be a JICA (Japanese) volunteer. On the other hand, some recognizes me as a Filipino who lives in America, but not American? I am often introduced as, “this is the pisikoa from the Philippines.” Anyway, thanks to the numerous famous Filipino soap operas, I have not been perceived as a negative thing in Tonga (at least I hope to think so). After introducing myself to new people, I am automatically tested for the authenticity of my “Filipino-ness” by questions such as “Piliphine eh? How do you say ‘hello’ in the Philippines?” or my favorite “Do you have any Piliphine faiva(s) (movies)?” It is such a bummer that I did not think to bring some with me; because I have SO MANY at home (sense my sarcasm?). Peace Corps should have written “Filipino soap operas” with my packing list for Tonga. I would have been much more prepared and be well integrated to the Tongan culture sooner.

Since it is not a perfect world and I did not bring any Filipino soap operas with me, I have been busy explaining who I am and where I come from with everyone I meet. It has been quite exhausting, but I feel that my small village has accepted me and get it. I have definitely been sharing Goal #3 of the Peace Corps. Believe it or not, there are brown people from America! Wow, really?! In addition, we have Obama as president and he is black. Technically he is half black and half white, regardless he IS AMERICAN. Who would have thought there are colored people from America? That is so weird…

In the end, I have learned to feel more confident and comfortable with myself and my “unique” background/ethnicity here in Tonga. I do not blame the curiosity of Tongans for their awkward questions or assumptions about me. It is good that they know the truth or the mo’oni. The more it happens, the less it continues to bother me. It is partly why I am here right, to share the American culture of today? On the contrary, I do not tolerate ignorance from other palangi(s). Is it alright for me to be upset after a palangi from another western country to come towards me and ask me “what are you?” without even saying a “hello” or “hi, how’s it going?” I forthrightly find it rude and not the best way to start a conversation with a stranger. Do I have to be from a certain place to have the privilege to have conversation with these people? IKAI MALO PE OR NO THANK YOU in English. I can say it in Spanish, French or my natal tongue too if they prefer? I am a proud Filipino-American. If you cannot accept that, please do me a favor and kiss my @ss. I am here to stay.