Travel Report: Lynn Visits Entrepreneurs in Tonga While Sailing
Written by Lynn Van Den Broeck on 30 January 2024
In the summer of 2021, I embarked on a world tour with my partner and our sailboat, Offspring, from our home port of Antwerp. We sailed along the coasts of France, Spain, and Portugal, heading southward until we crossed the Atlantic Ocean from Cape Verde to Suriname.
After a season in the Caribbean, we decided to venture into the Pacific, and thus, in April 2023, we passed through the Panama Canal. Deciding whether to continue sailing was quite a big and important decision. The islands in the Pacific are remote, and many sea miles lie between them. It takes a real commitment to visit the magical cultures and special places of the world's largest ocean, right?
Back in Belgium, I worked as a photographer and graphic designer. Two jobs I truly enjoy and somewhat miss while traveling. Luckily, I was able to keep some design assignments. Besides that, I document our adventures with my camera and post about them on my Instagram. Although it's mainly for myself and our loved ones, I'm always happy when people I don't know also enjoy it.
One day, I received a message from another Lynn, who works at Lendahand. We hadn't met, but as a fellow sailor, she had been following me on Instagram for a while. She asked if I was interested in a photography assignment in Tonga, where we had just arrived. I had never heard of Lendahand or microfinance before, but after some research and emails, it sparked my interest.
My assignment? Taking portraits of Tongans who, through microfinance from financial institution SPBD, had been able to start or expand their business.
We arranged everything very quickly. From a coffee shop in Neiafu, I called a contact person at SPBD in Tongatapu, the capital of Tonga. They arranged for me to meet with two of their employees in the Vava'u office, the northern island group where I was. We were to visit some of their clients that same day, so I immediately went back to our boat to pack my photography gear, clear memory cards, and charge batteries.
We met at 1 PM, but by then, I already knew about the concept of ‘Tonga Time’. Around 2:30 PM, we drove with Unga and Ana from SPBD Pacific to the farm of their client, Lisa. Along with her husband Melie and other family members, they grow pineapple, melon, taro, and kava roots there. When we arrived, we found out Lisa had just traveled to the main island, Tongatapu, to sell a whole harvest of pineapples at the market. Melie happily showed us around.
“Do you see those containers over there? We collect water in everything we can, from buckets to old washing machines. It rains less and less here because of climate change,” Melie told me as we walked onto the land. “With the loan from SPBD, we bought more land and hired workers. It helps us a lot,” he added before proudly posing with his working family in the field.
Next, we visited two women who weave mats from dried pandanus leaves. This is an ancient tradition in Tonga that is still very much alive today. The woven mats come in various shapes and are used in the home for sitting, eating, and sleeping. They are also worn around the waist at weddings, funerals, or other important life events.
This is 40-year-old Lepolo. She weaves with her mother to earn extra income. During the whale-watching season, Lepolo works with one of the whale-watching tours in Neiafu, but that's not enough to get by all year round.
Lepolo explained to me that before you can start weaving, you have to wash the 'Lo'akau' or pandanus leaves (washing them in seawater gives them a lighter color than in freshwater), and then they need about two weeks to dry. The climate makes the work challenging. When it rains a lot, the plant grows well, but at the same time, it prevents the leaves from drying. She finds customers through word-of-mouth or through her sister living in Australia, who sells the mats to emigrated Tongans.
Ilima, 42, also learned weaving from her mother. Depending on the type of mat, it takes her between two days and a week to make one. Joining SPBD has allowed her to buy more materials to stay productive. The hardest part for her is finding customers. Often, they come to her house, or she can sell a mat to Tongans in Australia or New Zealand through Facebook. She dreams of growing her business further and gaining recognition for her beautiful mats.
Our last stop was with a family that cultivates vanilla. Entrepreneur Nafe has been with SPBD since 2012. This allowed them to expand their vanilla plantation and build a house with a small building next to it with the profits from their harvest. They produce kava powder there, as they also have a piece of land with taro, cassava, papaya, and kava root.
My partner also came along. He took some behind-the-scenes photos and also enjoyed experiencing all of this. In the evening, Unga from SPBD invited him to a traditional Kava ceremony. Kava is a drink made from dried and pulverized kava root. The ceremony goes hand in hand with many local rituals and is only drunk by men in Tonga. They gather weekly to play music, sing, and tell old stories while drinking it. He found it to be a unique experience.
Unga and Ana from SPBD Pacific were a huge help, joyfully taking us everywhere and serving as translators when English wasn't enough. It was also nice to be able to ask them more about life and the people in Tonga.
The assignment from Lendahand was a welcome financial boost during our sailing trip, but it also offered us a special local experience. At the plantation, we were given some pineapples, and from the last family, we received some vanilla. I asked them how they cook with it, but they told me most of it is exported, and they don't really know how to use it in Tonga. “If we do use vanilla in a recipe, it comes from a bottle of concentrate you buy in the store.”
The best part of traveling for me is meeting people from other countries and cultures. I love discovering how people live, what they eat, how they reside, and their customs. Since we arrived, I noticed that people in Tonga are shy, but once you make an effort, they usually open up, and you understand why Captain Cook called it 'The Friendly Islands' back in the day.