Sunday, February 01, 2004

An Ode to Empty Youth Centres

an ode to empty youth centres…

If this last week is any indication, our life just became even busier. Our youth centre has already staved off serious financial crisis, started two new programs, and begun pursuing funding for major expansions next year. Not bad considering the New Year started three weeks ago, eh? Here’s some of what’s in store for the upcoming calendar year:

  • Peace Corps is partnering with our Vava’u Youth Congress to develop a microloan program that will offer training, funding, and mentorship for qualified young people interested in starting small businesses here. Of course, the catch is they have to pay the money back…a rather foreign concept around here (no pun intended). Amber is particularly involved in this program’s policy formation, curriculum development, and upcoming implementation.
  • Our youth group has expressed interest in planting a vegetable garden, placing trash cans throughout our community, and eventually building Vava’u’s first gym. We’ll start with smaller projects in the hopes of our group learning the essentials of project design and getting some success before, you know, building an entire gymnasium. This week we’re getting our weekly fundraising kava night started up again, and next week I might be helping some group members write a small project assistance proposal to Peace Corps.
  • Our youth centre remains relatively short on youth; this seems somewhat problematic given our organization’s mission statement. So we’re hoping to level our large lawn, construct some athletic fields, and begin some activity nights that will draw youth from throughout our island. Of course all that requires funding, so we’ll be having a biweekly barbecue at the local market. Sensing any trends yet?
  • My Tongan counterpart and I will be visiting and assessing all 31 member youth groups in Vava’u over the next several months. These site visits will hopefully help us to structure programming around local communities’ needs and empower groups to effectively pursue their development goals. That’s two nights a week of visiting local villages…you guys are writing all this down on a calendar, right? I’d record all scheduled events in pencil, as these visits tend to get cancelled about 90% of the time.
  • Our youth centre is the only organization in Vava’u servicing the needs of people with developmental disabilities. Thus far these services have chiefly involved singing songs with nine individuals whose disabilities are disparate to say the least: cerebral palsy, Downs Syndrome, mental retardation, physical disabilities. We’re hoping to offer our staff training with this population and broaden services to include practical lessons.
  • The drama team that I “help” (my assistance typically consists of watching, offering some critiques, and frantically attempting to keep track of dialogue written entirely in Tongan) will be traveling to ‘Eua, another island in Tonga. This trip will encourage the new drama group in ‘Eua and educate youth there about various issues facing Tongan adolescents. While we’ll also be performing in Vava’u before and after this trip, it’s our travels that constitute the group’s greatest financial needs. So obviously we’ll start a fundraising effort…that way Amber and I have even less free time.
  • Remember all those fundraising activities? Well, Amber’s the lucky one who gets to organize our staff, regularly review our financial status, keep everyone motivated, and prevent constant staff bickering. Oku pule ‘a ‘Emipa…meaning, she’s the boss.

We’ve come to realize that planning these various projects doesn’t necessarily guarantee they’ll occur anytime soon. The Tongan life is slower and more easy-going than non-profit existence in the States. Nonetheless, the time of initial community assessment and relationship building is drawing to a close, and the time for real work is starting. Which is daunting, to say the least. If you thought our domestic job descriptions were vague in terms of success measures, you have no idea what we’re dealing with here. So stay tuned. While our Peace Corps cohorts are basically attending a couple meetings a week, we’re putting in nine hour days. It’s not very fakaTonga of us, but at least we left our palm pilots and cell phones behind.


An Ode to Pasikala a Kilifi

an ode to pasikala a kilifi…

everyday i ride you home
no longer do i moan and groan
you carry my burden, you ease my pain
therefore i will not complain
the helmet’s dorky, the exercise is rough
but my dear bicycle you save my duff

The verse printed above functions at multiple literary levels:

1) light-hearted tribute to E.E. Cummings and his well-known aversion to capital letters
2) self-effacing acknowledgment that I never have been and never will be a poet
3) genuine and heart-felt appreciation for my rusty, two-wheeled savior

Lest you think I’m exaggerating, January’s bicycle purchase has radically altered my experience of Tonga. The hip pains that plagued our first six months in country have slowly grown worse, making constant walking difficult and therefore making daily life slightly complicated. Our lovely little home is a ten minute walk from the Peace Corps office and a fifteen minute walk from the Youth Office. We were walking approximately one hour a day upon first arriving in Vava’u, leaving me sore before the workday even started, negative before even appreciating Tonga’s beauty, and persistently seeking creative methods for avoiding travel. I’m happy to report that things have changed.

Having seen me endure daily pain and hobble occasionally, a nearby Peace Corps volunteer and dear friend concluded that I needed his bike more than he needed his bike. Even though his Peace Corps service ends in March, he’s going bikeless and saving me. What does having a bike for daily commutes and transport mean? It means energy at the outset of every single workday. It means looking for opportunities to explore our island instead of looking for opportunities to avoid physical exertion. It means feeling independent and physically capable again. It means much more than any cheesy poem could ever possibly express.

One of my doctors in Washington D.C. was a young and athletic guy who had recently undergone total hip replacement. He’d run a few too many marathons, and he feared his active lifestyle would suffer following surgery. Quite to the contrary, he assured me there was hope. He now bikes 300 miles a week, and the near-constant pain he formerly endured has disappeared. I’ve got a couple years before that kind of idyllic existence becomes a reality, and for now that means dealing with daily pain. However, thanks to my bicycle I’m enjoying being here more than ever before and I’m seeing things for the first time that I’d walked by everyday. I gotta say this island’s a pretty incredible place to call home, and if you’re interested in visiting we could always take a bike ride together.