More about Tonga

The Peace Corps is celebrating 40 years of service to the Island Kingdom of Tonga. The first group of volunteers arrived in October 1967. Since then, more than a thousand volunteers have worked to help the Tongans. While most of the work has been positive, the Peace Corps in Tonga has not been without its share of controversy. Most recently, there was a shake-up in the senior Peace Corps staff in Tonga and the cancellation of the June Business Development program. However, the biggest controversy dates back to 1976 when a Peace Corps volunteer was charged with killing another volunteer. But there was a lot more to it than just the murder. Phillip Weiss wrote a book about the incident called American Taboo and CBS News featured the case in 1994 on its show "48 Hours". (CBS VIDEO)

But that's all recent history and is well documented. Tonga was first discovered by Captain Cook in the 1770's. And it is fairly accepted that it was Captain Cook who first dubbed Tonga "The Friendly Islands", a nick-name still used today. However, there are several versions of how "friendly" the early Tongans really were to Cook and his crews.

Here's what Lonely Planet has to say in its Samoan Island & Tonga guidebook.:

While visiting Lifuke, Cook and his men were treated to lavish feasting and entertainment.....the plan was to gather the Englishmen into a convenient place so they could be quickly killed and their ships looted. There was, however, a dispute (over the time of the attack)...and the operation was abandoned altogether.
However, the Moon Travel Handbook tells it this way in the Tonga-Samoa Handbook:

When Captain Cook visited Tonga....he and his men were received with lavish Friendliness...Some say the islanders intended to roast and eat Cook and his men as part of the feast, but Cook's profuse thanks at his reception prompted them to change their minds.

That description may seem a bit outlandish, but early Tonga did have cannibals. However, eating another person was generally seen as a way to take over their power and not as a way to satisfy a hungry appetite.

Today Tonga is considered one of the safest countries in the region and its people continue to enjoy a friendly reputation. The country is small. There are 176 islands, but the population is about 100 thousand. Worldwide, there are probably less than 200 thousand Tongans, but it's interesting how quickly you can find people who have a connection to this country.

In the past several weeks, I've heard from my first cousin in Texas who says she knows a Methodist Minister from Tonga. Another friend, who is a nurse at a hospital in California had a Tongan patient and I met a woman in Virginia who told me to get ready for some "Great Rugby" once I get to Tonga. And a friend in Kansas who has visited Tonga several times has adopted a family there providing them with school supplies.

I also e-mailed a volunteer who is serving in Tonga right now, who tells me that my Peace Corps group will be a combination of both business and education volunteers and that there will be about 30 of us. (I'm guessing they are trying to recover from the June cancellation). Apparently we will all be training in the Vava'u Islands, which are warmer than Tongatapu where the capital city of Nuku'alofa is located.
I've been reading the online editions of two Tonga newspapers recently and some of the stories are the same issues that people everywhere face: Taxes, low pay, rising prices, crowded roads, private investment and Iraq. That's right, Tonga is part of the Iraq collation and President Bush referred to Tonga as his favorite country when it signed up to send a small contingent to join the US.
Some of the other news is a lot more fun. Rugby is very popular as are the players. (Note: Photos link to original articles)
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And Tonga recently had two beauty pageants. The Miss Heilala Pageant would be considered a typical contest with beautiful women.
The second will be a surprise to those not familiar with Tongan culture. The Miss Galaxy Pageant features fakaleitis who are young Tonga men who dress up as women. This is apparently an accepted part of Tongan society.

As I've been traveling the past couple of months I've gotten lots of questions about what life will be like in Tonga. I have some idea but there is a lot that I don't know. That's part of the excitement of getting to discover new things and to live in a new land. Perhaps the two most asked questions that I get are "will you be living in a grass hut?" and "what will you eat?".

The living situation is wide open. I could be living somewhere without electricity on an outer island but I've read and been told it is more likely that I will be in a city since I'm in business development. That increases the chances that I'll have electricity. One business volunteer right now even has wireless Internet at his house, but that is rare. Here is a photo of a current volunteer's "home" in Tonga.

When it comes to food, the easy answer is "pork, fish and sweet potatoes." However, a more detailed description can be found in the Peace Corps Tonga Welcome Book

Tongan meals consist of staple foods, such as yam, taro, sweet potato, cassava, fish, pork, and canned meats. One of the most common dishes is cooked taro leaves with coconut cream. On Sundays and for special occasions, Tongan families prepare an underground oven called an umu.
The government of Tonga is a constitutional monarchy ruled by King George TUPOU V since the death of his father on September 11th, 2006. A lavish coronation ceremony is tentatively scheduled for August 2008.

Finally, I'll close with some numbers. The main island, Tongatapu is 259 Square Kilometers. That's about 100 square miles. At its longest point, the island is about 20 miles long. The highest point is 82 meters or about 270 feet above sea level. The entire country is about four times the size of Washington, DC.. The literacy rate is 99% and the pa'anga is the national currency which is worth about 51 cents.

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  1. Steve,

    My name is Stan Luker and it looks like we will be in the same group. I received my invitation last week to be a part of Tonga 73. I have enjoyed reading through your blog as your application process has definately mirrored mine, I even had the exact same mixup with the hep tests.

  2. Hi Stan:

    I look forward to meeting you. Congrats on the invitation.

    Pretty funny about the Hep tests. I'm betting we are not the only ones who had that problem either.

    See you soon,


  3. My name is Heather Johnson I am using my friends computer to find other Peace Corps Vol. I will be part of the group that is going to Tonga on Oct. 2. We found your blog and a few others and thought I would introduce myself. I am from Tennessee, 28 years old, and I will be teaching english, health, and enviromental eduction. I will see you in L.A., Ca.


  4. Hi Heather:
    I look forward to meeting you in less than a month. Thanks for saying hello.