Before we arrived in Tonga, Mr. Matheny told us to become aware of “Aha!” moments that would arise during our trip. My “Aha” moment arrived much earlier than I had expected, on the first day. After putting our belongings into our rooms, we went for a short walk.
No words can describe to people who have not walked on Atata how tiny it actually is. On our first day, we were all coming to realize the actual size of the island we were on. Looking out at “tip” of the island, you would have a more than 180-degree view of the beautiful ocean. Not to mention, Atata only has a single dirt path moving down the village. As we walked through the gate that separated the resort and the village itself, I noticed the houses lined up along the path left and right. They certainly did not look fancy; the houses were doorless, paint cracking along the side, pathways made of bottles turned upside down into the ground.
But they had character. Each house had a personality of its own and stories to tell. There were no fences, no security cameras, no alarms. On Atata, everybody is your family. When your neighbour is in need, you help them. When you are in need, there is no doubt that they will help you. We would soon come to learn that as well. Then, running out of the house, the children began waving at us. Some of them were shy and simply poked their head out their windows. Some yelled “Malo e lelei!” from the bottom of their lungs. Yet the one thing they had in common was the smiles lighting up their faces. Every single one of the children was grinning from ear to ear.
It struck me then; this was my first Aha moment of the island. Seeing just how excited the kids were to see us for the made me realize how pure their happiness was. The broken windows of their houses were the least of their problems. As we walked down further, we saw a boy holding a pipe, waving it around and observing us. The Tongan children did not cling to things like toys. Sure, you may find a doll or two lying around, but what I discovered at that moment was that they created the world around them.
Before leaving to Tonga, I had recently read an article against “over-providing” for your child. The argument was that if a child is given too many toys too early, their imaginations become limited to the items they have been given. Children’s toys are structured to cause kids to think a certain way–what if they have their own way of thinking? The article also went on to emphasize the importance of boredom. In the duration of time a child is bored, they are able to become more creative thinkers, as well as thoughtful reflectors. Though there is still insufficient scientific evidence behind this research, I am a strong believer in this theory. It certainly popped into my head when I saw him holding the pipe.
As the days went on and we interacted more and more with the children, my first Aha moment became more prominent. I could not imagine my twelve-year-old sister ever finding interest in what she would call a “lame” game of Stella Stella Oh La. Yet every single child in the school was immersed by a game that required zero pieces of equipment. After we taught them frisbee, I was blown away by the level of basic athleticism the kids all seemed to possess. Clearly, their swift catches and smooth throws came from simply playing outside. The simple act of exposing children to foreign environments and allowing them to roam freely is essential for both physical and mental development. This is something that many countries lack in the developed world. We are so quick to assume that our iPads and technology will relieve boredom in kids. We believe we are educating them; in reality, we are restricting them into the mould we want them to be.
The greatest thing I learned in Tonga is that happiness is not material. To somebody living in the developed world, with social media and societal pressures, this may seem untrue. We are so often told that our wealth is the determining factor in satisfaction and have become accustomed to this concept. We can all learn something from the Tongan kids.
On Atata, happiness is not felt from buying a branded pair of shoes. Happiness is felt from awaiting the “Canadians” they heard about for months, finally walking into their village for the first time. Happiness is felt when seeing a new classroom take form before them. Happiness is felt when spending time with family and friends. Happiness is felt when learning a brand new game. Happiness is felt when walking to school, knowing that hugs and smiles are waiting for them. The Tongans feel joy from the very bottom of their hearts.
Moving forward, I am still bound to face many uncertainties in life. As much as I hate to I will still have to make decisions based on wealth. But there is now one thing for certain, and it is forever. I will never forget the genuine happiness I felt while I was in Tonga. In eleven short days, we were able to accomplish what most people could never even dream of, and for that, I am incredibly grateful.
Maybe the younger Tongan kids won’t remember us if we return. Some of them were very young. What they will see is the legacy we’ve left behind. In return, I will always picture the smiles on their faces when we first entered–my Aha moment. That alone is enough to keep me happy.
With lots of love,