Volunteering in Tonga
Discover volunteering opportunities in Tonga, a Polynesian country with magnificent natural beauty rarely matched elsewhere in the world.
The Kingdom of Tonga is a stunning nation with a variety of landscapes, from rugged volcanic slopes, to low-lying coral islands. Pristine sandy beaches colour Tonga’s 169 islands, 36 of which are inhabited by the population of 104,000. The majority of people live on the main island, Tongatapu, which is home to the capital city of Nuku’alofa.
Tonga is the only Pacific nation never to have been colonised by a foreign power. It has always maintained its sovereignty, and its constitution was established in 1875.
While Tonga is a constitutional monarchy, there is a pro-democracy movement that promotes reforms, including better representation in parliament for Tongans, and better accountability in matters of state. The institution of monarchy continues to hold popular support, even while reforms are advocated for.
In 2012 Tonga graduated to upper-middle income status. The country continues to face development challenges related to its geographic isolation, exposure to natural hazards, and its limited resource production and export base.
Tonga’s literacy rate is estimated at 98%, and education is highly valued.
Australian volunteers in Tonga
Australian volunteers have supported a wide range of Tongan partner organisations to achieve their development goals since 1965.
Volunteering opportunities in Tonga support communities across a range of development priorities, including:
- Improving health services
- Disaster management and risk reduction
- Empowerment and protection of women and girls
- Public health and health promotion
- Economic / private sector development
- Environment / climate change
- Skills training
After an unforgettable year volunteering as an economic policy analyst with the Tongan Government, Madeleine Legge kept her volunteering experience alive after she returned home.
Life as a volunteer in Tonga
Culture, religion and dress
The Tongan archipelago has been inhabited since it was first settled by the Lapita people 3000 years ago.
After the arrival of the Western traders and missionaries which began iu, Tongan culture changed dramatically. Some old beliefs and habits were discarded and new ones adopted.
Sunday in Tonga is celebrated as a day of rest and worship. The church supports both the spiritual needs of the population, and also functions as the primary social hub.
Tongans wear modest clothes on all occasions. Men and women wear a tupenu, a cloth that is similar to a sarong, which is wrapped around the waist. On formal occasions, Tongans wear a ta’ovala, a string skirt attached to a waistband.
Tongan is the first language in Tonga with English as the second language. Tongans make use of different Tongan words and expressions when addressing, referring to, or speaking in the presence of persons of different social standing.
Volunteers are encouraged to learn Tongan. Most Tongans know how to speak in English but can sometimes be shy using it.
Tonga's climate is tropical maritime and can be divided into two distinct seasons: a cooler and less rainy season between May and November, and a warmer and rainier season between December and April. Cyclone season is generally from November to March.
Internet and telephone/mobile services are generally reliable. There are two networks: UCALL and DIGICEL. Both networks have their advantages and disadvantages, and each offers cheaper rates to calls within the same network. Both networks have different internet packages and have high speed broadband.
Volunteers can communicate with partner organisation colleagues via email and social media.
As with most South Pacific nations, food in Tonga is heavy in protein and carbohydrates. Traditional foods include raw fish marinated in lemon juice (‘ota), lobster, fish, steamed pork and tropical fruits.
Food can be bought at markets and supermarkets, and prices can vary. Limited gluten free products are available.
Alcohol is available, and illegal drugs are not tolerated.
The price of accommodation varies, and urban areas may be more expensive than villages. Volunteers are encouraged to share a house with others in order to afford appropriate accommodation.
Cycling is common in small, flat Tongatapu – it is about an hour’s bike ride to some beaches. The island group of Vava’u is very hilly so a bike is less practical there.
The main forms of public transport are bus and taxi. Buses do not have a timetable and go when they are full. If catching a bus to an outer village allow plenty of time to get a bus back.
Some volunteers buy a car from one of a number of car dealers.
Travel to the outer islands involves either a long boat ride, or flights on Tonga Airlines. Flights are often unreliable due to weather and maintenance disruptions.
Ongoing police operations target drug dealers and suppliers.
Stray dogs can pose a threat to volunteers, and side streets pose the greatest risk. Volunteers are encouraged to carry rocks or sticks to throw at them.
Volunteers are asked not to walk alone at night.
If applying to take up volunteering opportunities in Tonga, it is a requirement that you research your assignment location. Successful applicants will discuss expected living and working arrangements with their recruitment officer.
Relationships are central to Tongan culture, and when watermelons are in season you are guaranteed to be generously offered a cup of ‘Otai, a favourite of volunteers and our Tonga team.
Download the recipe for 'Otai