What I learned by sending school supplies to Tonga

Tonga: Directly south of Samoa and about 2/3 of the way from Hawaii to New Zealand.

Where’s Tonga? That’s a question I had never before asked, until a young woman I know joined the Peace Corps, was assigned to the Kingdom of Tonga, and sent home desperate requests for basic school supplies for the children she is charged with teaching.

“I often have kids showing up to class or private tutoring without a writing utensil. Anything arts and crafts related is non-existent,” she wrote in an email soon after arriving in her assigned village. “There are no flashcards available on my island, but I think those would be helpful. Also, a world map!…The closest thing I’ve seen at my school is a torn-up globe.”

“My school has had half days for the past three days because there is no water (without tapping into the rainwater tanks of the teachers who live on the school campus. The teachers and their families use the rain water for cooking, bathing, etc., because our water supply is completely reliant on solar energy and the rainwater tanks),” she wrote in another email. “I find it difficult [though important] to explain to people in my village that there are large conflicts occurring in the international sphere, as well as unprecedented technological advancements, when the local villagers here are still concerned about finding a regular water supply.”

I now know that the U.S. Postal Services charges $123 to ship a 20-lb. box—filled with pencils, crayons, markers, a ream of office paper, pads of construction paper, a [we hope] two-year supply of pencil sharpeners, plus balloons and balls from St. Louis to Nuku’alofa, the capital city of Tonga. [As compared to more than $400 to send the same package by FedEx or UPS.] I do not know how long it will take that package to get to its destination—one of the 169 islands that make up the archipelago that, collectively, constitutes the Kingdom of Tonga.

One thing I also don’t know is how that package will actually get into the hands of our Peace Corps volunteer. The only address we have is her name, a post-office box number, and the address, “Nuku’alofa, Tonga.” She’s working on a different island, living in a solar-powered hut. Is Tonga so small that everyone knows where the Peace Corps volunteer is, without a specific address? We’ll probably get an email thank-you note when it arrives, but with the communications issues that plague Tonga [see below], who knows when?

My new-found interest in Tonga has also led me to learn that this tiny-dot[s]-on-the-map nation of 90,000 people is imperiled by the rising waters of climate change. Some Tongans have already become climate refugees, relocating from some of the most minuscule islands in the archipelago to others that are only slightly less tiny—but still endangered. [Tonga’s northernmost island — Niuafo’ou — covers an area of just 5.8 square miles.]

Tonga, I have learned, has a very weak economy, based to a large extent on remittances from expatriates, and on foreign aid. Agriculture is mainly at subsistence level, and people fish using  spears. Tourism? It’s almost non-existent on the main island of Tongatapu, which is home to 70,000 of Tonga’s residents, and where most land is owned by the King and the nobility (33 families), says a news report from BBC.

In addition, I now know that Tonga relies on a 500-mile-long undersea communications cable for its contact to the world beyond its sandy borders. It runs from Tonga to Fiji. That lone link broke late in January 2019 [possibly severed by a ship’s anchor], cutting Tonga off completely for a week.

Reuters reports that “the outage knocked out overseas phone calls, hampered transfers, airline bookings, university enrollments, as well as Facebook and internet connections to family and friends.”  While waiting for a repair ship to arrive, “…officials hastily put up a satellite dish to provide “limited and slow backup connectivity, prompting hundreds of people to line up outside a government telecom office, where the signal is most reliable.”

I’ve also learned that the cable is owned by a private company—a fact that makes me think about the perils, everywhere, of privatizing essential services.

I also know that, given evidence of kids in need, other kids will rise to the occasion—although this is not new information, if you hang around some of the teenagers who attend Civitas programs here in St. Louis — or if you just watch the news about teenagers fighting for climate-change and gun-control legislation. More specifically, I know about this particular instance of kid-to-kid caring because a group of St. Louis-area high school students has adopted that tiny Tonga village school as part of an endeavor called Magnify, which uses social-media-like connections to enlarge the reach of civic-engagement projects.

Only a few months ago, Tonga was invisible to me, and now I know a few things about it—my new, but limited, scope of understanding sparked by a personal connection.Isn’t that how it often works? It’s not a “problem” until it’s our problem. But what I know now makes me wonder: How many other things don’t I know because, in the absence of a perceived personal link, I just haven’t bothered to find out yet?