Monday, November 01, 2004

On the Misuse of Plastic Bags: A short discussion about sex and the Kingdom of Tonga

Two dozen youth, mostly male, line the outskirts of our meeting room, looking at me with disengaged stares that threaten to cross the fine line from politeness to impudence. I am trying, with a battered form of Tonglish (the unnatural combination of the Tongan and English languages) to bring our workshop for youth group presidents to a close. So far the forty-minute discussion and sharing time has degenerated into forty seconds of me waiting impatiently for any sign of awareness from the audience.

Given the blank looks on the audience members’ faces, I do what any good public speaker would: I rephrase the question. “What would you like the youth center to do?” I ask in jumbled Tongan.

This gets a response: snickers. I have inadvertently stumbled into an almost unpardonable error: using the word “do.” As in “to do,” as in a euphemism for “sex.” I lament the strange, adolescent trifles that cross language and cultural barriers.
Tongan sexual ethics seem to have lodged themselves firmly in a place similar to the American 1950s. Everyone is doing it, nobody will talk about it, and next to general horniness, guilt seems to be the dominant emotion involved.

A friend of ours who teaches psychology at a teacher’s training college looses half her class whenever sexuality is discussed: men and women cannot discuss the topic together, especially if a relative (and everyone is related here) is present.

The Vava’u Youth Congress (where Cliff and I work) is trying to be a reliable source of information about this tapu (forbidden) topic. We have a team of educators who can talk about sexuality with a straight face, we have a closet full of condoms that could be distributed if anyone asked for them (though they are past their expiration date), and our drama team has written and performed several short skits that highlight the consequences of sex without protection.

The VYC is equipped to talk about the topic, but the community isn’t ready for it. In Tongan, the most commonly used word for condom is milemila, or plastic bag, but even this unique term is rarely used. “Maybe its okay to not talk about the condom,” said Afu, our director of the drama team and the adolescent reproductive health program. “There may be old people who don’t like it.”

Even if a Tongan wanted to use a condom (or another form of birth control) to prevent disease or limit family size, few opportunities are available. Medical care is free, but state controlled, and confidentiality is not a popular concept. Asking for a condom from the doctor would signal inappropriate sexual activity: either premarital horseplay or extramarital infidelity. Why else would you want to prevent a pregnancy?

And many Tongans just don’t know their options. A few months ago I was alone in the youth center office when the phone rang. It was a successful local businessman, but I could recognize embarrassment in his voice. “My wife and I already have five children,” he said, “and we don’t want anymore. I know there is a way to stop this, but I don’t know how. Someone told me your office can help.” If a country’s leaders are uninformed, what can we expect of the general population?

Of course, sometimes having the right information and access to the right equipment doesn’t help. We’ve learned through the coconut grapevine that one member of our drama team, who gets his girlfriend pregnant in one of the skits, has found out the hard way that life sometimes imitates art.

As an American who was raised with conservative values but a liberal ability to discuss sexuality, I often find myself wanting to force the issue upon the groups of adolescents we work with. I want the next generation of Tongans to remove the tapu of talking about sexuality, and be able to honestly address their desires, the risks and pleasures inherit in them, and the guidelines for behavior that their shared faith encourages. Only then will they be equipped to make wise choices.

Sometimes, though, I just find myself wanting to laugh. As a married couple without children, Cliff and I are often accused of being lazy. Other volunteers have tried to explain that you can’t serve in Peace Corps if you have dependent children. Their Tongan neighbors understood this to mean married volunteers can’t have sex during their two years of service. “Fakaofa,” the neighbors say, What a pity. Indeed.