Mandy and the World

Find out what I've been up to on my overseas adventure!

Every Friday is Christmas Day

on June 12, 2016

So it’s been a while since my last post, and I have been in Tonga around 3 months now. I guess it’s time to tell you a bit more about the reason I am here – my volunteer role at the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, Forests and Fisheries (what a mouthful! So it’s usually referred to as MAFFF). For the full spiel on what I am doing you can see the profile on the Scope Global site (but you will have to be really committed as you need to enter Intake: February 2016 Mobilisation, and Country: Tonga)

To recap for those who can’t be bothered following the link or can’t remember, I am helping the Women’s Development Section at MAFFF to develop their health promotion and nutrition program. You may wonder why the Ministry of Agriculture has anything to do with health promotion and nutrition, but it is quite progressive of Tonga incorporating a multisectorial approach to the national prevention of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like heart disease and diabetes.


Local snack of papaya topped with fresh grated coconut 


NCDs are the biggest contributor to premature deaths and disability in Tonga so are a huge issue for the country. Health and nutrition actually fits quite nicely with other Women’s Section agricultural activities, such as promoting home vegetable gardens for community women, which includes running training in vegetable growing and distributing seedlings. This enhances food security as well as providing nutritious produce for the family. They also support a small loans program with one of the banks which promotes income generating projects for women in traditional handicrafts, sewing and cooking. As part of this they promote replanting of the raw material required for handicrafts (paper mulberry to make the traditional tapa cloths, as well as pandanus for mat weaving). The health program at the moment involves healthy cooking demonstrations as well as nutrition awareness training for groups of women in the community.


Written like that it all sounds quite impressive! However, the reality is there is a massive lack of funding and resources and these programs run far less regularly than is ideal. There has been no funding for vegetable seedlings since I arrived and no seed saving happening to reduce the reliance on external funding for imported seeds. There has been one cooking demonstration since I arrived (and it didn’t feature any vegetables) and also only one vegetable growing training session for a women’s group who purchased their own seedlings.

The Women’s Section sits under the Extension division of MAFFF (this section is responsible for most of the on the ground community outreach work). The section has 8 female staff- there is one officer for each of Tongatapu’s districts, the head of the section (my supervisor, Vaimoana) and the nutrition officer (my counterpart, Taha). The district officers are based in their respective district offices, and Vaimoana, Taha and myself are based in town at the main Extension Division office with the Admin and Information Sections. The Information section develops and distributes leaflets and bulletins on agricultural techniques, Admin basically look after the day to day stuff of the Division, eg. IT access, vehicles, leave, staff training, etc.

Despite the fact that the extension division’s main role is to get out to the communities, there are only 2 vehicles for the whole division and both are located in town! This is one of the factors that restricts how frequently programs can be run. Sometimes staff need to use their own vehicles but I don’t think there is any compensation/reimbursement from the ministry, so understandably they are often reluctant to do this. Additionally, the ministry’s cars aren’t in the best nick…  one of them needs one hand holding the battery terminal with pliers while the other hand turns the key in the ignition!


Starting the car requires some multitasking…

The main thing I have been working on so far is a training program for the Women’s Section staff and developing some locally relevant health and nutrition education resources that they can use with their women’s groups. Currently they rely on Taha, our nutrition officer, to deliver the cooking/nutrition training in each district together with the district officer, so they need a vehicle to get Taha (and the gas stove) to the district. We have just been successful in getting some funding to set up each district with a cooking demonstration kit (including the gas stove and kitchen utensils) as well as a set of the health and nutrition education resources. The idea is to train up all the district staff in health and nutrition and set them up so they can run their own sessions in their districts with their own set of equipment which reduces their reliance on the Division vehicle availability, and if they do need to use their own vehicle to travel to another village at least the distances are shorter than coming into town and back. Taha would be able to go and support if there was a vehicle available, but would not have to be there for the session to run. Hopefully she would be able to take on the monitoring and evaluation as well as program development and ongoing nutrition training and updates for all staff.

I have only run one training session so far in mid-April, and have been waiting about 8 weeks now to run the next one. There have been a few hold ups, like multiple staff being on leave and our entire office moving buildings. The office move was pretty hilarious. I was told when I first arrived in February that we would be moving office in the next few weeks, but it ended up happening in May! We used to be based in a building right on the waterfront and right next to town which was a great location, but our office was nothing fancy. We were on the bottom floor of a 3 storey building shared with the Ministry of Education, there was no flywire, no fans and the place was filled with mozzies! We had the mankiest toilet which only had one key between all staff. If by chance you had to go to the bathroom badly enough, you often had to search through every office for the key to finally get you access to this…

Anyway, apparently it was decided the Ministry of Ed needed the space of the whole building there, so MAFFF’s Extension Division had to re-locate. Sad to leave the waterfront location but not the gross bathroom… The move took about 2 weeks all together, during which time the ladies mostly sat under a tree and talked and the men shifted furniture bit by bit across town using a couple of utes! Then there was a lot of cleaning, and then finally putting the furniture inside the buildings. I was sent home by 11am on several of these days, being told we were “finished” for the day!

We have now moved to what used to be a training facility for the Women’s section built by Japanese aid – a great little “Masterchef” style kitchen with individual little benches and sinks and a couple of big ovens. They used to have a bus which they would use to transport women from their village to the centre for training, but when the bus broke the centre sadly stopped being used. Now the entire Extension main office is located inside the kitchen! There are computers and printers and desks as well as millions of dusty documents from the 90s piled in amongst the benches and ovens. This will apparently be temporary, but they are waiting for a new building to be constructed on site before that happens, so realistically, I think I will be in the kitchen-office for most of my assignment!

The good thing about the new office is it has a slightly better toilet (but still only 1 toilet for about 15-20 staff!) and it also has fly wire. However, the annoying thing is because there are so many of us in the kitchen-office, people get hot and so prop the doors wide open so I still get murdered by mosquitoes! I have my own desk, but there is only one computer between my supervisor and my counterpart (which is filled with viruses), so I BYO laptop. The wireless internet is intermittent, which makes things a bit challenging. It usually often gets switched off less than 2 weeks into a month when the entire data limit is used (probably because sites like Facebook and YouTube are not blocked in the office, and they are very popular here!).

In terms of the work environment, it is a very casual and relaxed atmosphere compared to any job I’ve worked in Australia. We get a lot of holidays – with my volunteering role, I accrue 4 weeks of annual leave over my 12 months of work, just like in Australia. But in Tonga, the ministries also have ‘casual days’, 7 extra days you can take off each year which don’t need to be accrued from what I understand. In addition to this, the ministries all shut down over the Christmas/New Year period, so you get another week or so off. We also get all of Tonga’s public holidays (which I think there are roughly the same amount as in Australia). And on Fridays, it is usually a lazy day, everyone says Friday is “Christmas Day” so the theory is you should relax and not work too hard!

The work day usually starts at 8.30 and finishes at 4.30 and you are entitled to a one-hour lunch break, though there is quite a lot of flexibility around this, eg. For dropping kids off to school, picking up family members, going to the bank, if it is raining, etc. At lunchtime, many people don’t leave the office- it’s quite common that Tongans don’t typically eat a lunch time meal. I think this is partly due to the unspoken rule of sharing any food that is brought into the office. You need to bring a fair bit of grub to satisfy a room of hungry Tongans and get a decent feed yourself! Sometimes everyone will get together though and cook something up on a fire outside or on an electric frypan that’s floating around the office, or buy something to share. Often boiled root crops brought in from someone’s plantation, occasionally with some meat or greens, sometimes a giant bag of keke (a ball of deep fried dough, kind of like a doughnut, but not sweet) or a bunch of white bread and tinned corned beef (to make a tongan style sandwich, you pull out the middle of the bread loaf and stuff it with corned beef)!

I often go home for lunch for a number of reasons- 1) the sharing food thing- my volunteer allowance doesn’t really cover me for catering for 20 people a day 2) there is no fridge at work, and its usually a bit warm to have perishable food sitting around for several hours, 3) my job here is super sedentary so at least I can go for a ride at lunch, and 4) so I can see my trusty dependant Ben! I do sometimes hang around for lunch if there is a shared event going on, but my tendency to get hangry means I usually need to make sure I eat a decent meal before 1pm!

In the office, there is always a lot of chatter and laughter- everyone here seems to get along quite well and women are well respected in my workplace. That said, all of the casual conversations at work are in Tongan, so it is sometimes hard to know what everyone is talking (or shrieking with laughter!) about. I am gradually picking up more words I hear, but the speed of the average conversation at work is still beyond my very basic Tongan! In some ways the fact that everyone speaks English is probably a bit of a hindrance to learning and practicing Tongan, because if I don’t know a word or can’t think of a sentence fast enough in Tongan I can just say it in English and be understood so I am not really forced to use it. But I guess it is also a plus that everyone speaks good English as I can generally communicate quite well in the workplace and there is no significant language barrier with the staff.

Meetings in Tonga are usually endurance events, sometimes lasting 3-4 hours. In this very Christian nation, meetings always start and end with a prayer, occasionally it will be a hymn which someone will just start to sing and everyone knows the words so joins in with amazing harmonies! One difficult thing is that meetings are usually conducted in Tongan too, so I often understand very little besides some random words, which can be tough for a multiple-hour stretch! My workmates are pretty diligent at taking notes in meetings and often write in English, so sometimes I can pick up a little more by peeking at those, otherwise sometimes people’s PowerPoint slides are in English so I can follow that way. Occasionally someone will translate bits for me during the meeting, but most often I just have to ask someone afterward what it was all about!

All my workmates have been very friendly and welcoming though. I have been given many gifts of home-grown produce from my colleagues, including guavas, bananas, oranges, coconut, Tahitian chestnuts, breadfruit, a giant yam, bitter melon, tomatoes…

It has been interesting for me to get some insight into agriculture and gardening being from a nutrition background, and I’ve enjoyed visiting the Research farm, demonstration plots in the districts, vanilla plantations and seeing home vegetable gardens in the community.

Despite the challenges of Tonga-time and trying to promote health as a priority (even though it is a ‘non-core’ activity for the ministry), I am hopeful that we’ll be able to get through the nutrition training program for the women’s staff this year, and with our funding grant, we’ll at least be able to set up the districts with the equipment and resources needed to run nutrition and health education sessions as well as cooking demonstrations in the communities. 12 months sounds like a long time, but in development, it really isn’t! Fingers crossed I’ll have more to report in the next 3 months 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: