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September Monthly Spotlight: Amanda Roelle

September Monthly Spotlight: Amanda Roelle

Friends of Tonga is excited to share this month's spotlight- Amanda Roelle, Tonga RPCV from 2001-2003 and Thailand RPCV. Amanda was gracious enough to tell us about herself and her experience in Tonga!

1. Tell us about yourself!

I am from Columbus Ohio but was most recently living in Chicago, Illinois before moving to Puglia, southern Italy, ten years ago. I still have one foot in the US though as I return to Chicago every summer for work at the height of construction season. I'm a restoration architect, passionate about vernacular architecture and generally what people have built throughout the ages without the need of architects. This interest has sent me all over the world seeking out volunteer building and restoration projects involving local and sustainable materials.  

In Chicago I work on high-rise facade restoration, so my day to day is often on scaffolds on the outside of the buildings, inspecting the exterior walls, a little more adventurous than drawing at a computer. I get great views of the city and the opportunity to see ornamental details in stone and terra cotta that few people get to see up close! In Puglia the architecture is on the completely other end of the spectrum. The vernacular architecture where I live consists of 1-2 story, dry-stone (without mortar) buildings called "trulli". I organize stone restoration and drawing workshops based around this type of unique, rustic, architecture. For these workshops much of my PC training comes in handy regarding culture and language, even for short term experiences. I pass out little language cheat sheets to the workshop participants, encouraging them to use even just a few words of Italian during the workshops. I repeat something said to us during training from the extraordinary language coordinator 'Elenoa Kauvaka: "If you speak to me in a language I understand it goes to my head. But speak to me in my own language and it goes to my heart". 

In Tonga I discovered that I wanted to live a life that allowed me to be outside more than inside, and to use my body more than being sedentary in front of a computer, so I seek out ways of living that allows that. I guess living a bit faka-peacecorps. In Puglia I live in a trullo nestled among Mediterranean fruit, nut, and olive trees. My family and I make olive oil, wine, and have a big vegetable garden. It sounds exotic to a midwesterner like myself but actually it's just what people do here and how they have been living for centuries. 

2. Tell us about your time in Tonga

 I was a PCV in Tonga, Group 60 from 2001-2003. I taught Industrial Arts (Indus) at Tupou High School-Tapuni Siliva campus in the village of Mu'a on Tongatapu. Peace Corps didn't seem to know what to do with architects so I ended up teaching Indus and doing miscellaneous building projects on the campus with the students and other teachers and volunteers. When I arrived at my school the principal showed me my house. It was in pieces under a big mango tree and it was to be assembled on the campus, moved there from some other location! Although I had been to architecture school I didn't actually have experience in real life building. Luckily there was another experienced PCV who, along with the other Tupou High Indus teacher, brought their students to learn construction with my students as they built my house. I learned a lot too! And to this day I'm passionate about sustainable design and material reuse so who knows, maybe this interest began right there. 

During my first year of teaching girls didn't take Indus and boys didn't take Home Economics, they weren't permitted to, so it was a bit strange to have a woman teaching! At the beginning of the second year three girls came to me and asked if they could take the class. I talked to the principal and he allowed it, but only if the girls came to the workshop after school, not during normal teaching hours. By the end of my second year I was part of a curriculum development team in Nuku'alofa that was rewriting curriculum that included all students taking both Indus and Home Ec. So it was a period of change.  

I served again as a Peace Corps Response volunteer for six months in Thailand after the Asian tsunami. There I worked more clearly as an architect, designing new houses with Habitat for Humanity, as well as building furniture for people in the displaced persons camp with two other PCV volunteers. 

A favorite Tonga memory I have is of hosting art night at my house. A Tonga RPCV donated boxes and boxes of art supplies that showed up one day at the PC office for distribution to any PCV that wanted them. (Actually I think the story was that her mom was retiring. And for her retirement party request she asked that art supplies be collected and sent to Tonga). I took stuff back to my village and on Wednesday nights invited anyone who wanted to come to spread out on my floor and use the supplies. I remember being encouraged by the school to use that time to teach english but I also felt it was useful for the students to feel free to express themselves with art during those hours. And it was fun! Other favorite memories would be a week long excursion to Tofua, completely unforgettable, and those rare moments when the walls of being a palangi softened and I was invited to the kitchen to prepare food or be in the last group to eat at a feast. 

3. What is something you would share to those travelling to Tonga for the first time?

To go with the flow of the slow island rhythm. There is a joy to letting a day unfold as it will and not getting too stressed about time. As one of the coordinators said to us during training: "It's an island. Where are you gonna go?"

4. What made you choose to support Friends of Tonga?

After the volcanic explosion and subsequent tsunami I was looking for a way to support Tonga. I didn't know FoT existed but I'm so happy they do! Thank you for all your work!