Tonga Hygiene

By now frequent readers have probably noticed that food plays a big part in the Tongan culture. Almost every event from church, to meetings, to schools either involves or revolves around food. The food is always plentiful and no one will ever go hungry here. However, there is another side to all this food that may make you cringe. It's the way the food is prepared. There is no hot water here, so everything is prepared and cleaned in cold water. You will often find a bathroom with either no running water or running water and no soap. Yes, you go to the bathroom, you can't wash your hands and then you sit down and eat with your hands. For most Americans, that would be completely unacceptable and it is why you'll see many of the Peace Corps folks with bottles of hand sanitizer or something like the "Wash and Dries" my mom stuck into my suitcase before I left the United States

However, that's just the beginning. Not every house has a refrigerator and even those who do, don't use them like we would in the U.S. Here are a couple of examples. I previously told the story of how my host mother during training sent out to get me jam when I first got here. Here's part two of that story, the jam sat on the counter for my entire home stay and yes, I still ate it. If you don't eat something for lunch, especially on Sunday, expect to find it still sitting on the table for dinner. If someone leaves something on their plate, it could find its way back to the serving dish for the next meal. Eggs are left on the counter until cooked and food waste is thrown into the yard for the dogs, pigs and chickens to eat. One of the volunteers who has been here for a while helped clean out pig intestines for a funeral feast. When everyone was done, they all sat down and eat. There was no hand-washing!!

During my stay at the head office of the bank where I work, they provide bottled water for everyone to drink. However, there was just one communal cup on top of the water bottle. Everyone drinks from the same cup.

As you can imagine, this lack of hygiene has been a topic of discussion. Based on everything we have learned in the United States, the Tongans should all be dead from botulism, suffering from food poisoning all the time or getting diseases from fecal matter. While that probably happens occasionally it's not prevalent. And there is really no way to know for sure because they don't keep statistics on those types of things and Tongans don't go to doctors or hospitals they way we do in America. Our first theory is that the Tongans have built up immunity to many of the germs and/or Americans have lost their immunity from using soap and anti-bacterial products. A more likely theory is that we are simply trying to put Western standards to a country which isn't "Westernized".

Most Tongan homes are open but also very clean. I have never smelled a Tongan with body odor and many Tongans shower multiple times a day. Clothes are washed often and ironed before being worn. Tongans generally look nice when in public and especially in more formal settings like school, business and church.

Because the houses are open, there are bugs and ants inside but families go to great lengths to make sure the bugs stay away from the food and any food left on the table is always covered. Dogs, chickens and pigs are never allowed inside a home and when they try, they are immediately shooed away. Even flies are shooed away during meals. (However, when roaches and lizards are in other parts of the house, they are pretty much ignored.) Even here at my house in Vava'u it is a struggle to keep away the ants. I cleaned out used tin cans, filled them with water and put the legs of my kitchen table into them. It's not the best looking thing in the world, but it keeps the ants from crawling up the legs of table.

I don't think all Tongans understand that some food will spoil if left out. One day during training, I picked up a plate of chicken with something on it wrapped in tin foil. The chicken was nice and hot, but when I open the foil, I found very warm raw fish inside the tin foil. Needless to say, I didn't eat it. The idea that you should keep something like raw fish cold didn't seem to matter to the people who prepared the lunch. I told the story to the head of our training program and suggested that we have buffet style lunches instead of pre-prepared plates. The next day, they brought us a nice buffet and we all served ourselves family style. It was great. However, that was the only day we got the buffet, for the rest of training, we were back to the plates already prepared.

***Other News*** \

Vva'u ran out of gas and diesel fuel this week. That's right, no fuel except for what was already in people's cars. The gas was the first to run out then the diesel. At the bank, we have one diesel car and one gas car. We used the diesel car once the gas was gone. The fuel all comes in on a boat and right now there is only one boat that comes once a week. The second boat apparently lost its license and won't be back in service until next month. Tongans took it in stride. Like everything else here, if you don't have something, you just do without.

We got a new Peace Corps office in Vava'u this week. We previously had shared an office with the Vava'u Youth Congress, but we now have our own building which is closer to town. My friend Justin and I spent Thursday afternoon setting up the computers in the new office and moving in. The big moment was the hanging of the sign outside our new building. Here are two photos, the first of Justin putting in the nails and the second of me nailing the sign in place.

I joked with Justin that I was going to write on my blog that the two of us were selected from all the volunteers for the great honor of hanging the sign, but the truth is, we were the only two volunteers there and we did it on our own.


I hosted a Saturday Easter Brunch at my house. We opted to have it on Saturday instead of Sunday since we thought Tongans might think it was a party. We have a four day weekend for Easter so I don't go back to work until Tuesday.

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  1. Steve, I think you forgot to mention about the mayonaise that will sit on the counter for days, even after it is opened. Apparently it doesn't need refrigeration in Tonga. Funny thing is, I still eat it when served to me.