Under the Tongan sun

under the tongan sun
By Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools
June 1, 2013

I lived in a tiny hut made of bamboo and coconut leaves, and lined with dozens of mats, pieces of tapa cloth — and wall-to-wall children.

When I sat on the floor with my back against the back door, my feet almost touched the front door. There was no electricity or running water, so I used a kerosene lamp and drew water from the well. There were breadfruit trees and avocado trees around my hut, and if I wanted a coconut, the children climbed a tree for me.

The kids I taught were always with me, and I loved them even more than I once loved my privacy. I always wanted to have children, but I never thought I'd have so many and so soon. These were the children I would like to see back home — children who had never even seen a television set and didn't depend upon "things" for their entertainment because they didn't have any things. For fun, they taught each other dances and songs, and they juggled oranges. 

They woke me up in the morning, calling through my bamboo poles. They took my five seniti and got me freshly baked bread from the shop across the lawn, and they helped me eat it. Some of them watched the ritual of my morning bathwater drawn from the well and heated on my kerosene stove and poured into a tin, then over a pre-soaped me. They sometimes braided my hair and helped me get dressed for school. Then they walked me there, where I used the oral English method we learned in training—acting out the language so there's no need for translation. 

"I'm running! I'm running!" I said as I ran in front of the class. "I'm running. I'm running!" I took a child by the hand. 

"Run!" I said, and eventually he did. The goal was to have a running paradigm, which usually ended, "I running, you running, he/she/it running." 

We did this for all verbs. English was the link between Tonga and other landmasses. And English was the exercise that kept me scrawny, the worst physical defect a body could have in the Tongan culture, where big was beautiful. I tried to compensate for my lack of bulk by being very anga lelei (good-natured), which was their most cherished personality trait. 

After school the children would come home with me and stay, singing Tongan songs and the English ones I'd taught them. 

Then I tried to help them prepare for the sixth-grade exam that would determine their scholastic future. They helped me prepare whichever vegetable was to be my dinner. 

The children never left until I was safely tucked into bed under my canopy of mosquito net on top of tapa cloth, under the Tongan sun. 

This is an excerpt from a personal essay written by returned Peace Corps Volunteer Tina Martin, Tonga 1969-71. It was collected by Peace Corps’  Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools program, which provides a variety of resources for educators to integrate global issues and cultural awareness into the classroom.