Survival of the Weakest

Living on an island is different. Being surrounded by water with no way to get things except for the once weekly boats causes all kinds of social and economic issues. But this is not a story about island fever or even the more obvious advantages or disadvantages of living on an island. It’s actually about livestock? What? That’s right livestock. I recently had the chance to chat with the man who heads up the local office of the Tonga Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries or MAFF for short. We got into a fascinating discussion about pigs and chickens.

In a nutshell, almost all livestock here in Vava’u and throughout Tonga are the results of inbreeding and something I’m calling Survival of the Weakest. Because we are on an island, there are not a lot of choices for livestock breeding. A pig has baby pigs and as those pigs get older, they breed with their brother and sister pigs or their cousin pigs. The bottom line is that most pigs here are from the same gene pool and as we know, all that inbreeding makes for weaker off-spring.

But that is just half of the story. As the man from MAFF pointed out, when a chicken or pig actually out performs its own gene pool, it gets slaughtered. Tongans will take the biggest piglet or the fattest chicken and butcher it to eat, leaving the weaker and smaller animals to breed the next generation. Multiply this by generations and generations of animals and you will start to understand why Tongan chickens and pigs are often a lot smaller than their species in other places.

It’s both an education problem and a breeding problem. MAFF is trying, for the most part unsuccessfully, to convince Tongans to let the big healthy animals live so they can breed, and to slaughter the smaller weak animals. However, MAFF is also trying to introduce some new animals to the gene pool. Right now, they have just imported 20 sheep from New Zealand. Ten are here in Vava’u and ten are on Tongatapu. Once the females are pregnant, MAFF is going to swap the males from each island. That way, they end up with sheep pregnant from different fathers. If successful, they will keep bringing in new sheep to further expand the gene pool.
Right now there are not a lot of sheep raised here. The hope is that if these sheep can grow and develop, sheep production will increase. And there is certainly a market for it. The single biggest Tongan delicacy is something called sipi. Sipi is nothing more than mutton chops made from sheep. It’s very fatty and very bony and terrible for you, but each Sunday, you’ll find the majority of Tongans eating it. The sipi they eat is all imported, primarily from New Zealand. If the sheep project is successful, Tongans might one day be able to make their own sipi.

And even though there are chickens seemingly everywhere here, almost all of the chicken that is eaten is brought in from New Zealand. The Tongan chicken is very small and the meat is tough to eat. (And I’m sure the New Zealand chicken is probably pumped up with all kinds of hormones as well.) Most of the chickens here either are used for eggs or simply to eat garbage. At a recent workshop sponsored by the bank where I work, a group of woman showed up who want to start a chicken farm here. They came looking for information on what they need to start a business and to get financing.

After the workshop, we provided lunch to all of the 27 participants who attended. No sipi on the menu, but we served a huge plate of fresh local fish and chicken imported from New Zealand. Who knows, if the women are successful, in future years, it might be locally grown Tongan chicken on the menu instead.

***Other News***
The house where I live is on a piece of land with two other houses. One house is occupied by James, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer. The other house is our landlord, Kepu. Kepu is a former rugby star who rents out both houses. He is also raising his grandson, Peta, or Peter in English. Peter is in second grade and goes to the Vava’u Side School where James is a teacher. At that school, all lessons are conducted in English. Peter is a great kid and I caught him playing with his dog, Ripple in this photo.

Ripple just had four puppies, three of which survived. They were born under my house. James and I each plan to take one of the puppies as soon as they are old enough and we’ll leave the sole female for Kepu. I’ve already picked out the runt and am probably going to call him “Matataha” which actually means “One Eye” in Tongan. He has two eyes, but has a spot over one of his eyes making him look like a “one-eyed pirate”.

As a Peace Corps volunteer serving overseas, I have until June 15th to pay my taxes. I thought that was great until just a few days ago, when I found out that even though I don't have to file until June 15th, the IRS assesses interest on any amount I owe beginning April 15th. Not such a great deal after all. I quickly filed my taxes online and got them in on time. I had hoped that this year I would be able to avoid the dreaded Alternative Minimum Tax or AMT. No such luck. Even in Tonga there is no escaping it. By the way, my total Peace Corps income for the three months I was here in 2007 was US$450.00. That's right, I lived for three months on four hundred fifty dollars.

Tomorrow, April 18th is my mother's birthday. Happy Birthday Mom!!

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