Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Tonga
- 1 Communications
- 2 Housing and Site Location
- 3 Living Allowance and Money Management
- 4 Food and Diet
- 5 Transportation
- 6 Geography and Climate
- 7 Social Activities
- 8 Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
- 9 Personal Safety
- 10 Rewards and Frustrations
Few countries in the world offer the level of mail service considered normal in the United States. Mail usually takes a minimum of two weeks to arrive in Tonga. Some mail may simply not arrive (fortunately this is not a frequent occurrence, but it does happen). This is not meant to discourage you, but to prepare you for the realities of international mail service in the South Pacific. Despite the delays, we encourage you to write to your family regularly and to develop a way of tracking letters—such as numbering them. Family members typically become worried when they do not hear from you, so it is a good idea to advise them that mail service is sporadic and that they should not worry if they do not receive your letters regularly.
Volunteers who serve on Tongatapu, Tonga’s main island, collect their mail from the Peace Corps office. Mail to Volunteers on outer islands is mailed directly to an address on that island. Sometimes volunteers will need to leave their island and travel to a larger island in order to pick-up mail. During your first six months of service, you will be able to receive mail without paying customs duties.
Your specific address during service will depend on your site location, which is determined during the training process. The main Peace Corps office in Nuku’alofa has a P.O. box for Volunteer mail, and P.O. boxes have been established on certain outer island groupings. Once you know your site location, you can advise your family and friends about the appropriate address to use.
Calling the United States from Tonga is complicated and expensive. No U.S. telephone cards work in Tonga. To call the U.S. from Tonga, Volunteers must purchase Tongan telephone cards.
Friends and family in the U.S. may call Volunteers. Most Volunteers do not have land-line phones, but several who work within the area covered by Tonga's cellphone network purchase local mobile phones. There is no charge for incoming calls on mobile phones and there is no monthly fee.
Computer, Internet, and E-mail Access
If your sponsoring agency owns a computer, you may be able to arrange Internet access for work-related or personal use.
We discourage Volunteers from bringing computers to Tonga for several reasons. Phone hookup and service are expensive, and the power supply experiences frequent surges. You may or may not have electricity in your home. Tonga’s humid climate is not friendly to electronics. Finally, Peace Corps/Tonga cannot guarantee the safety of your computer or replace it if it is damaged or stolen. If you choose to bring a computer, the safest way to transport it is as carry-on luggage, but remember if you do bring one, you do so at your own risk. Many volunteers do bring computers and love having them. They often assist in the work being done and allow for some much needed entertainment.
There are two computers with Internet access at Peace Corps/ Tonga's main office in the capital city of Nuku’alofa. Outer islands have e-mail access (through a shared account), but do not have access to the Internet.
Many of you might be thinking of creating website or blogs as a way to communicate to your family and friends. If you are thinking of using this type of communication, you must speak with your country director first as there is some very specific information that you need to know.
Housing and Site Location
Volunteers’ host organizations are responsible for identifying and providing safe and suitable housing in accordance with the Peace Corps’ criteria. Housing ranges from a one-room fale Tonga (traditional hut) with a thatched roof to a two-or three-bedroom wooden or brick house with very basic furniture. Peace Corps/Tonga asks host agencies to provide private bath and toilet facilities; however, some Volunteers may have to share facilities with a neighbor.
As access to electricity and running water varies widely, you will need to be flexible. Some Volunteers have electric lights and outlets, flush toilets, and running water in their homes. Others spend evenings reading by kerosene lamp or candle, use a pit latrine, and collect water from a tank near their home.
The Peace Corps will provide you with a kerosene lamp, a life vest, a bike helmet (if necessary); and an AM/FM radio. Once you become a Volunteer, you will receive a settling-in allowance to purchase additional household necessities.
Peace Corps staff and Volunteer leaders make site visits to Volunteers to provide ongoing support and to follow up on any housing or safety issues that arise. However, Volunteers are encouraged to contact staff if there are any improvements needed for their homes—especially if it is safety-related.
Living Allowance and Money Management
As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Tonga, you will receive four types of allowances. The living allowance is intended to cover the cost of food, utilities, household supplies, clothing, recreation and entertainment, transportation, reading materials, and other incidentals. It is reviewed at least once a year through a market survey to ensure that it is adequate. Currently, the living allowance is $570 pa’anga (TOP), equivalent to $280 (U.S.). The living allowance is deposited monthly into your bank account in local currency. This allowance covers basic living expenses, and also communication, transportation, and utilities. You are likely to find that you receive more remuneration than your Tongan counterpart or supervisor.
A vacation allowance of $24 per month, paid in U.S. dollars, is added to your living allowance periodically. Also, toward the end of pre-service training, a one-time settling-in allowance of T$1,050, roughly equivalent to $516 (U.S.), will be deposited into your account to buy basic household items when you move to your site.
If the Peace Corps requests you to travel, you will be given additional money for transportation and meals. The amount is established by the administrative officer based on the local cost of transportation and lodging.
Most Volunteers find that they can live comfortably in Tonga with these four allowances. While many Volunteers bring their own funds to Tonga for travel during vacations, we strongly discourage you from supplementing your income with money from home. You are expected to live at the same economic level as your neighbors and colleagues.
Credit cards can be used in a few establishments in the capital and are useful for vacations and travel. Traveler’s checks can be cashed at the Bank of Tonga for a small fee, but there are few retail establishments in Tonga that accept them. Volunteers can store U.S. dollars or traveler’s checks in the Peace Corps’ safe. Peace Corps/Tonga will assist you in establishing a local bank account.
Food and Diet
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.
Tongan food is generally considered bland by American standards. Root crops are boiled, baked, or fried and served with salt at every meal. Onions, garlic, curry powder, soy sauce, and chili peppers are usually available, but are only occasionally used in food preparation.
Your diet will vary depending on your site and personal preferences. In the capital and the few other city centers and ports, you will find a reasonable variety of imported foods at grocery stores and a good assortment of locally grown foods at the market. Bread, rolls, pastries, and ice cream are readily available through commercial operations and family-run shops in the city centers, but often unavailable in outlying villages and outer islands. Noodles, flour, sugar, rice, eggs, butter, milk, canned fish, meat, fruits, and vegetables are available in most small shops on the main islands. The living allowance is sufficient to buy some imported fresh and canned fruits and vegetables to take to outlying sites.
The main meats are pork, chicken, and mutton, but shops in the capital also sell beef, hamburgers, sausages, and hot dogs. Fresh fish can be purchased from markets and local fishermen throughout Tonga. Tropical fruits grow on most islands, but availability of particular items varies by the season. Tongans do not eat many vegetables, so Volunteers often plant and maintain vegetable gardens in their communities. Canned foods, such as fish, corned beef, and snacks, are readily available and both locals and Volunteers eat these regularly.
Although it is possible to maintain a vegetarian diet in Tonga, it can be challenging because of the lack of fruits and vegetables at certain times of the year. Also, when living with or visiting Tongan families, you will be offered and expected to accept traditional foods, so you will have to be flexible in respecting local customs. Visitors usually eat only with selected members of the family, with children eating in a different place. Although Tongans usually do not converse during meals, they enjoy hearing about a visitor’s home country and travel experiences. Eating and drinking while standing is not considered appropriate, even though you may see others doing this. Note that some Tongans eat with their hands as it is not considered rude.
Volunteers may bring bicycles from home or buy them locally. Distances are not great in Tonga, and the low traffic density is conducive to travel by bike. Peace Corps/Tonga issues helmets to Volunteers who own bicycles or you may bring your own.
Local buses run on the main island of Tongatapu and Vava'u and taxis are available and affordable on both. Depending on the day, there may be bus service on the other main islands. However, this changes regularly. Volunteers often catch rides with members of their community. Travel among islands is by air, boat, or both. Peau Vava’u and Airline Tonga have regular flights from the main island to Vava'u and Ha'apai, with some flights to other islands. The three inter-island ferries provide service throughout Tonga and are used more often (and more reliably) by volunteers.
For safety reasons, Peace Corps/Tonga prohibits Volunteers from owning, driving, or riding on motorcycles and from owning or driving private cars for any reason. Violation of these policies may result in the termination of your Volunteer service.
Geography and Climate
The Kingdom of Tonga consists of 171 islands, 36 of which are inhabited, and is spread over 144,000 square miles (360,000 square kilometers) of ocean. The total land area is only 268 square miles (670 square kilometers), about the size of Memphis, Tennessee. About 77 percent of the total land area is arable—the highest percentage in the world. The highest point in the island groups is Tofua, which rises to over 3,300 feet (1,000 meters).
Tonga lies three degrees east of the international date line, which was bent to include Tonga in the same time zone as its neighbors. For this reason, Tonga is the first country in the world to welcome each new day.
The islands of Tonga were formed on top of two parallel submarine ridges. Between the two ridges is the shallow Tofua Trough, which is 31 miles (50 kilometers) wide. Along the western ridge are many volcanoes, most of which are dormant. Kao, Late, Fonualei, and Tafahi are the remains of cones formed after violent volcanic eruptions millions of years ago. Also along this ridge are two other active volcanic cones, Tofua and Niuafo’ou, which are now inhabited islands. Violent eruptions caused the volcanoes to collapse, and the resulting huge craters have become beautiful lakes. Along the eastern ridge, many coral islands have formed.
The ocean west of these ridges is 1.86 miles (three kilometers) deep, but the ocean east of them is over five miles (eight kilometers) deep. This deep water is known as the Tonga Trench; 1,860 miles (3,000 kilometers) long and 62 miles (100 kilometers) wide, it extends from Samoa to the southeast of New Zealand. At one point the trench descends to 35,617 feet (10,793 meters), the second deepest trench in the Pacific Ocean.
’Eua, on the eastern ridge, is one of the oldest islands in the Pacific. ’Eua has steep cliffs on its eastern side and is home to the last remaining rain forests in Tonga.
Tonga’s climate is mild to warm, humid, and moderately wet. Although the temperature varies little, there are distinct wet and dry seasons. The wet season, which also brings cyclones, is from November to April, with average temperatures of 77 to 81 degrees Fahrenheit. The dry season is from May to October, with temperatures of 71 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit (at night, it can get as cool as 60 degrees). The climate of northern Tonga (e.g., Niuatoputapu) is about five degrees hotter than the rest of Tonga and has more rainfall.
Tongans are very social and enjoy team sports. Rugby is the national sport, and most villages also have competitions in volleyball, basketball, table tennis, soccer, and tennis, which are almost exclusively male sports. Women play games including netball and field hockey. Movies, videos, and dances are also major forms of recreation in larger villages. Young boys play with marbles and slingshots. Men gather to drink kava root juice, converse, and sing late into the night. Families have picnics on the beach for special occasions.
Men traditionally build boats, canoes, and houses and are proficient in woodcarving. Women traditionally weave mats and baskets and make tapa (cloth made of bark), dolls, and leis.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
Modesty is very important in Tonga, and people take pride in their appearance. By law, Tongan men over age 16 must wear shirts in public places, and many do not even take off their shirts in their own homes. Tongan women do not wear short skirts, sleeveless tops, or low-necked dresses outside their homes. Pants are not considered appropriate for women in certain areas. Except when worn as athletic wear or while working in the garden, shorts are considered improper on women, especially outside the capital. However, shorts may be appropriate as swimwear, and women do wear them at home and in public under wraparound skirts.
Please review the packing list carefully. Volunteers often bring clothes to Tonga that are too casual for their work assignment. Men are expected to dress similarly to their male counterparts at school, in the office where they are assigned, or in the village. This often means wearing ironed shirts with collars and ties. Sometimes, even wearing a suit jacket is appropriate. Likewise, women are expected to dress similarly to their female counterparts at the schools, in the offices where they are assigned, or in the villages. This typically means wearing long dresses, skirts (that come down to at least mid-calf), and appropriate tops. Short dresses are never appropriate, nor are sleeveless shirts. Wearing dirty, old, torn T-shirts is never appropriate for your work assignment, though you may certainly wear T-shirts inside your houses.
You also will need black clothing during your service in Tonga. Black is generally the prevailing color and is always appropriate. Black clothing is especially important if there is a funeral you must attend. Black tupenus, a traditional wraparound skirt, or pants for men and black collared shirts are appropriate. All male Volunteers will purchase tupenus here in Tonga. Long, solid black dresses or skirts with a black blouse or jacket are appropriate for women.
To gain the acceptance, respect, and confidence of community members and colleagues, it is essential that you dress and conduct yourself professionally. The Peace Corps expects you to behave in a way that will foster respect toward you in your community and reflect well on the Peace Corps and on the United States. You will receive an orientation about appropriate behavior and cultural sensitivity during pre-service training. As a Volunteer, you have the status of an invited guest and thus must be sensitive to the habits, tastes, and taboos of your hosts. Behavior that jeopardizes the Peace Corps’ mission in Tonga or your personal safety may lead to a decision by the Peace Corps to terminate your service. Refer to the Volunteer Handbook for more information about the grounds for administrative separation. In the words of a Volunteer, "you must dress and speak Tongan to get anything accomplished here."
More detailed information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is contained in the Health Care and Safety chapter, but it is an important issue and cannot be overemphasized. As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer involves certain safety risks. Living and traveling alone in an unfamiliar environment, having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Many Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon, and incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, although most Tonga Volunteers complete their two years of service without any personal security incidents.
The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help you reduce your risks and enhance your safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive in Tonga. At the same time, you are expected to take responsibility for your safety and well-being.
Rewards and Frustrations
Although the potential for job satisfaction in Tonga is quite high, like all Volunteers, you will encounter numerous frustrations. Because of limited resources, co-workers and community members do not always provide the support they promised. In addition, the pace of work and life is slower than what most Americans are accustomed to, and some people you work with may be hesitant to change practices and traditions that are centuries old. For these reasons, the Peace Corps experience of adapting to a new culture and environment is often described as a series of emotional peaks and valleys.
You will be given a high degree of responsibility and independence in your work—perhaps more than in any other job you have had or will have. You will often find yourself in situations that require an ability to motivate yourself and your co-workers with little guidance from supervisors. You might work for months without seeing any visible impact from your work. Development is a slow process. Positive progress most often comes only after the combined efforts of several Volunteers over the course of many years. You may also face periods of isolation. While you are likely to be placed in a community or on an island within an hour’s walk, bike ride, or boat ride from another Volunteer, there will be limited opportunities to gather with the majority of your fellow Volunteers. You must possess the self-confidence, patience, and vision to continue working toward long-term goals without receiving extensive peer support.
Another source of frustration to Peace Corps Volunteers is the use of corporal punishment in schools. Even though corporal punishment is forbidden in the Tonga education system, it still happens. Some parents oppose this strongly; others consider it an effective way of discipline.
To overcome these difficulties and differences, you will need maturity, flexibility, open-mindedness, and resourcefulness. Tongans are warm, friendly, and hospitable, and the Peace Corps staff, your co-workers, and fellow Volunteers will support you during times of challenge as well as in moments of success. Judging by the experiences of former Volunteers, the peaks are well worth the difficult times, and most Volunteers leave Tonga feeling that they have gained much more than they sacrificed during their service. If you are able to make the commitment to integrate into your community and work hard, you will be a successful Volunteer and develop meaningful, long-lasting friendships.