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January/ February 2022 Member Spotlight: Evan and Kate (Buban) Mangino

Evan and Kate (Buban) Mangino

Please meet our first monthly spotlights for January and February of 2022: Evan and Kate (Buban) Mangino!

Evan and Kate were invited to serve in the Kingdom of Tonga as a part of Group 65, from 2003-2005. They initially met in Los Angeles, in Staging, as they prepared to depart for the Friendly Islands with their fellow 11 Peace Corps Trainees. However, this was just the beginning sentence to their story that has persisted for the past 15 years. From their initial introduction in Los Angeles they became fast friends, they then traveled to Tonga, where they had their welcoming training on the western-side of the main island of Tongatapu, spent three months in in the same village, in Vava’u, for their pre-service training, and then were finally stationed on the island of Niuafo’ou for their Peace Corps service, where they found both grapefruit and love and got engaged before they finished their service (Evan carved a wedding band out of a coconut shell and popped the question).

For context, Niuafo'ou is probably one of the most isolated postings in Tonga, if not all of the Peace Corps.  It is an active volcano and is so remote that volunteers are no longer placed in the Niuas (as of 2021 Evan and Kate were some of the last volunteers to serve there). In fact, Niuafo’ou was nicknamed Tin Can Island because it is a reefless-active-volcanic island and boats could not land to pick up or deliver mail, so in the nineteenth century traders came up with the clever idea to fill biscuit tins with with mail, seal it, and throw it overboard.  Someone from the island (preferably a strong swimmer) would swim out to the jettisoned packages and retrieve them; this is how they would get their mail. 

Prior to joining the Peace Corps, they each grew up in different parts of the United States (Evan in New Jersey and Kate in Ohio), but each had studied international development in college. When asked why they decided to join the Peace Corps, they each had different reasons: Evan had just completed his bachelors degree and needed to take a step back before jumping into the workforce. He was also unsure about what he wanted to do professionally and he thought the Peace Corps could help sharpen his career path. Kate, on the other hand, came for both altruistic reasons and her love for travel.  She was 27 at the time of her Peace Corps service and had already worked and lived overseas and was looking for a more meaningful overseas experience.

Kate knew she wanted to work in development and really wanted to understand development, so she lobbied her APCD, Drew Havea, to be on Niuafo’ou. Evan, on the other hand, was originally supposed to be placed on a remote island in Ha’apai; however, the Peace Corps Medical Officer lobbied against it because a previous volunteer, who was on a remote island in Ha’apai, contracted blood borne meningitis and it was difficult to evacuate them, so based on that scare the Peace Corps chose a place more accessible. At the time, Niuafo’ou had more regular traffic and every Tuesday there were regularly scheduled flights.  (Ironically, the local airlines went bankrupt within their first three months of service and their regular connection to other parts of Tonga were severed.)

Their service, like with many PCVs, was unstructured and amorphous, which requires the volunteer to stitch together a string of projects and programs that are community-driven.  As youth and community volunteers they believe they came in with both a “helpful mindset'' and a “do no harm mindset.” Good development begins by knowing how to get community buy-in, by putting in the effort to learn the language, and being respectful of the local culture; throughout their service, they adhered to those values as best they could. 

At Kate's site, there was a building/structure for youth programming but no programming or group, so that was where she spent the bulk of her time.  She also taught kindergarten in her house a couple times a week as a side project and she still remembers kindergarten nursery rhymes from her time teaching.  “I like ripe bananas.”  She says, “One of the most rewarding experiences of my service was working with the youth from my village to write a grant. At  the time the NZ high commission accepted grants written in Tongan, so we sat together over a few weeks and wrote the grant in Tongan; going through the questions and thinking through the plan. We ended up getting turned down because the youth asked for more money than what the maximum amount was; they thought they would change the rules. But despite getting turned down, going through that process felt like a success for me.”

Evan, on the other hand, worked on a Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) telefoods project. He recounts, “As a kid from New Jersey, I never had farm exposure or an agricultural background. Coming out of the Peace Corps, I was totally committed to the idea that the best way to promote sustainable and inclusive economic development was through agriculture; the best way to promote ag[ricultural] development was through international trade.”

Their time in Tonga is replete with indelible memories and experiences. When asked to share a few, they recounted the sensation of bucket baths and reading by kerosene lamplight, the joy of seeing piglets being born and growing up to be adults, and the connection they felt with nature.  Kate recalls how attuned she became to the cycles of the moon: “When it was a full moon, the sky was so bright that you could walk around after dark without the need of a flashlight. It was fun, but that got exhausting after a few days - everyone was up so late - and I would get tired of people visiting me after dark. But then the new moon would come, and it was so dark that people wouldn't come out of their houses after sundown. And I appreciated that privacy. I just liked nature dictating our schedule - not the other way around.” 

Their time in Niuafo’ou also had their challenges: infrequent connection with other volunteers, two-day ferry rides to get to Vava’u, and lack of nutrition in their day-to-day diet. The lack of nutrition (especially protein) was especially challenging and at one point Kate was diagnosed with scurvy! She had a lingering sickness and no scheduled boat for the foreseeable future. She recounts how the Peace Corps Medical Officer instructed her to find citrus and consume as much of it as she could.  They laughingly told about sneaking out into the bush in search of citrus - but without luck. Until the grapefruit tree on the Catholic church compound grew fruit. Since Tongans wouldn't eat them without sugar, and the boat wasn’t scheduled to come anytime soon to replenish the island’s sugar supply, the Catholic Pateli gifted Kate the grapefruits! Kate and Evan carried armloads of grapefruits to her house, and in a few days she was all better. 

Their time in Tonga has fit into the arc of their lives and has guided them to where they are today. While in the Peace Corps, Kate completed the Peace Corps International Program at Rutgers University and earned her Masters in Public Administration, with a focus on development. When reflecting on how her Peace Corps experience impacted her, she says, “I fully admit that I got more from Tonga than Tonga got from me. And I am thankful that time on Niuafo’ou prepared me for other projects in the future.” Kate continues to work in development today as a gender expert. She has also written her first book about household gender balance, and Equal Partners comes out in June 2022.  

Evan’s Peace Corps service did help him figure out what he wanted to do as a career: to work to promote international agricultural trade. After Tonga, he went to grad school at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, which led him to the Department of Agriculture, where he has been a Foreign Service Officer since 2010. His agency works to promote international agricultural trade on behalf of U.S. farmers and ranchers as well as helping developing countries integrate into the international trade system.  

They currently live overseas where they raise their two children.