I have spent 46 of my 75 years in Tonga in a love affair that began as a gap year serving as a VSA School leaver volunteer in 1967. I was born a Taranaki farm boy into a family of 10. Upon completing secondary school at Francis Douglas Memorial College, I was not too sure I wanted to continue studying the natural sciences. It was my experience as a volunteer that switched me to the humanities, especially geography, economics, and anthropology and to secondary school teaching after university and teachers’ college.   

There were five of us in what was the second year of the school leaver programme. We were requested by the Catholic Diocese to work in their four single-sex secondary schools in Nuku’alofa, Tonga. Simon O’Conner and I taught English and Social Studies in the intermediate years of St. John’s High School. We had classes of 40-45 boisterous but charming and enthusiastic boys who had limited English and were from many little villages scattered around Tongatapu, as well as some boarders from the northernmost islands of Tonga. The three young women in our team each worked in one of the three girl's colleges. We all were exponents of “chalk and talk” teaching as had often been our own schooling. 

I knew little of Tonga, except that I had a stamp with Queen Salote on it. Queen Salote passed away in 1965 but we were honoured to lead our village of Ma’ufanga in the “soke” war dance troupe of 300 in the Coronation Celebrations of King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV in July.

We were also fortunate to visit the Ha’apai and Vava’u islands on small open boats and a landing craft, such was inter-island transport at the time. Some 30 per cent of housing was of thatched coconut fronds and there were few cars but many bicycles and sore feet.  

At only 18, I met and fell in love with my wife, Tafolosa, from Ha’apai in Tonga.

By 1979 we had three girls aged 7,6, and 4 and although we thoroughly enjoyed teaching and learning Te Reo in Opotiki, we returned to Tonga to give the girls a chance to experience Tonga and gain fluency in Tongan.

Tafolosa and I have remained in Tonga where I have been a teacher, a Director of Catholic Education, 40 years a manager in airlines and airport ground handling, a farmer, a rugby administrator, and even a politician as a Cabinet Minister.  

While volunteering is to give service to others by transferring knowledge and technology, the rewards to the volunteer can sometimes be as great as the cultural sharing being at a level beneath and beyond the professional.  

Having lived for a half-century in Tonga, I see many changes, but these are often what is recognised by sight, sounds, and experiences. At a more profound level are the underlying cultural paradigms of perspective that remain relatively continuous, but which are manifested in changing ways through migration and the greater mobility of peoples. It is in this that returning volunteers may find their experience hugely important in melding a more meaningful multi-cultural society.


Written by Volunteer Paul Karalus

SL Teacher, St. John's High School, Tonga (1967)