VSA has had a programme in the Kingdom of Tonga since 1965. We sent over 346 volunteers to work in the education, health, economic development and agriculture sectors, completing our education work in 2005, leaving local people running programmes. Following a request to revisit our Tongan programme in November 2010, VSA has now started to recruit again with a focus on short and longer term assignments in the economic development sector. We are looking at placing volunteers with relevant partner organisations from mid July 2011. VSA’s Tonga programme is managed from our Wellington office.
Alan Struckman is a Post-Harvest Specialist with Tonga Export Quality Management Ltd. He is accompanied by his wife, Maureen. He finishes his assignment in February 2014.
The Kingdom of Tonga is unique in the South Pacific in being the only country never colonised by a foreign power. It is also the only surviving monarchy in the Pacific with a royal family whose lineage dates back as far as 875AD. The population of 106,000 is over 95% Polynesian with 70% living on the main island of Tongatapu.
Tongans are ardent church goers and religion plays a very large part in day to day life. For the largely Christian population, Sunday is celebrated as a strict Sabbath, enshrined so in the constitution. There is a Sunday trading ban with only essential services exempt.
The country enjoys a more comfortable climate than others in the region with temperatures ranging from 18 to 35 degrees Celsius and is blessed with an abundance of remote white sand beaches, all protected by reefs.
Agriculture is the primary industry for most Tongans with coconut products, vanilla, squash, kava, peppers, tomatoes, watermelons and limes the significant exports. This is supplemented often by fishing, tourism and overseas family remittances. Tonga is heavily dependent on aid programmes.
A number of challenges face Tonga’s economic development, including Tonga’s small domestic market, skill shortages, high cost of power and variable domestic transport services, low savings rates, high costs of doing business and high youth unemployment.
Tonga’s geographical location also makes it very vulnerable to natural disasters and frequently experiences cyclone activity. In March 2000 tropical cyclone Mona caused an estimated $US3 million damage to houses and infrastructure and a similar amount in agricultural losses.
Despite universal access to basic education, inequities still exist in the quality of education. This is particularly prevalent in the secondary system where there is a distinct disparity between government and non-government providers.
VSA assignments usually last two years, so local language training is important. VSA provides basic language training at the start of assignments with follow-ups if necessary during the assignment.
Secure accommodation is provided for volunteers with basic furnishings, running water, a kitchen with gas or electric cooking as well as indoor bathroom facilities with a flush toilet. Volunteers have access to telephones, internet, restaurants, public transport systems, 24-hour power (although power outages are a regular occurrence). A ‘surge breaker’ or ‘spike buster’ is advisable to protect sensitive appliances from Tonga’s erratic power supply. Tonga has the same electrical plug socket and voltage as New Zealand. We advise our volunteers to boil drinking water, use a purifier or drink bottled water.
Tonga has a big expatriate community and most are used to seeing western ways of dressing, with some locals dressing very similarly. However, it is important to remember that you are a volunteer with a different motivation for living and working in Tonga than most expatriates. We encourage our volunteers to dress conservatively. Loose fitting, light, cotton clothing is best. Dresses, skirts and t-shirts are commonly worn – sleeveless is acceptable. Traditionally Woman must cover knees and elbows and men are usually dressed in pants or tupenu (cloth wrap skirt). Tongans generally swim fully clothed.
The ta'ovala is a traditional woven mat worn by men and women over the tupenu (a single coloured wrap). It is formal attire and all Tongan government workers must wear one as it shows respect and authority. There are different kinds of ta'ovala for different occasions. But the most common are made from the leaves of the pandanus tree.
Kafa is a braided rope, used as a belt to hold up the ta'ovala worn by both men and women. Traditionally it is made from the inner fibre of the coconut husk braided together strand by strand. Some kafa is made from human hair from a dead relative. This type of kafa is held in very high regard and treasured by the family.
Kiekie is worn around the waist by women only and can be very decorative. It is often made from the pandanus tree and can be best described as a belt with strands that hang down below the knee.
Precautionary measures are recommended, such as insect repellent and long sleeves/ trousers in the evening if outside and a mosquito net. Skin infections can develop quickly so have a good supply of plasters, antibiotic cream and antibiotics. Medical care is limited in Tonga, with Tonga’s main hospital (Vaiola Hospital) being a 10 minute ride from the capital, Nuku’alofa. While hospital staff are well trained, the equipment and facilities are limited.
All volunteers are covered under VSA’s medical insurance policy, and are required to undertake a medical examination (or complete a medical questionnaire for short-term volunteers) and have necessary inoculations before being approved to depart for the field.
VSA provides all selected volunteers with a thorough security briefing that covers specific local issues prior to departure. In general, there are no problems moving around Tonga although you will be given a more detailed security briefing upon arrival. Take care when walking alone and avoid this at night.
There are three banks in Tonga, ANZ, Bank of Tonga and MBF. You can open a local bank account once you arrive in Tonga where monthly living allowances are paid into. You will find ATM/ Quickcash machines in town with an increasing number of shops also having EFTPOS machines. Some hotels/guest houses accept foreign credit cards. Local currency is TOP - Tongan Pa'anga. Visit XE.com for current exchange rates.
There is a post office, travel agents, local businesses, small shops selling imported food and a vegetable market with competitive prices. The NZ High Commission is also in the centre of town.
Tonga has two cellular providers, Digicel (Tonga) Limited and Tonga Communications Corporation (UCALL). Coverage is generally good in urban areas but fades quickly as you move to rural locations. Internet connection is very fast. Internet cafes are available in town with wireless ‘hotspots’ around businesses and hospitality complexes.