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April Spotlight: Sonia Muir

Sonia Muir: Australian Volunteer 2013-2014

We are excited to present a special double-feature profile spotlight for April and May, featuring Sonia and Gordon Muir from Australia!


After spending a month in Peru, volunteering in 2009, Gordon and Sonia Muir decided they wanted to embark on a longer term volunteer gig and started looking for opportunities. A posting at ‘Ahopanilolo Technical Institute (ATI) in Nuku’alofa saw them heading for ‘the Friendly Islands’ in 2013, for a 12-month assignment, with the Australian Volunteers Program.


In our April spotlight, we will hear from Sonia about what their lives in Tonga were like, and the challenges she experienced as an Aussie volunteer in Tonga.




The privilege of living as a local, in another country, outside the usual mainstream tourism trail really appealed to me, so volunteering in Tonga ticked a lot of boxes. Our 12 months at ATI provided such a unique window into what life was like living and working on a small, relatively untouched, Pacific kingdom.


As I was a ‘dependent’ I didn’t have an official ‘volunteering role’ ... so on arrival, I wasn’t quite sure how this ‘gap year’ would unfold. I ended up going into ATI everyday doing whatever needed to be done... helping in the office, taking a communications class or assisting the teachers with planning. I became known as ‘the bonus’!


We rented a small house from a Tongan woman who lived a few metres from our home. Saane was always delivering bunches of bananas and inviting us to weddings, funerals and other events that centred around feasting - as Tongans do love to eat! She became integral in assisting with navigating the culture as well as regularly dressing us in appropriate taʻovalas for various occasions.


The biggest challenge was living on an island where just about everything was shipped in. You learned to adapt, based on what you can find. Combing the little falekoloa or local shops for a whiteboard marker or a stapler could take a few hours. However, a trip to the local markets was always a joy and eating seasonally meant the tomatoes tasted like tomatoes!


Living in such a hot and often very wet climate took some getting used to as well. I remember trying to stay cool by sitting under a fan, wearing minimal clothes, listening to a lifeline ABC radio podcast while eating ice-cream out of coffee cups. 


The weekly one day ‘lockdown’ also took a little getting used to. Everything is closed on Sundays apart from church and the bakery. The routine for most families was - head to church, swing by the bakery then head home for the traditional umu feast before sleeping or watching movies. Attending church was like being treated to a concert. Tongan choirs are renowned for their beautiful harmonies.


We were very honoured to be embraced by many locals. We remain very close with one family who named their child after us and gifted us a huge traditional tapa, which was later given to the Tongan High Commission in Canberra, Australia.


Tonga is a beautiful part of the Pacific and we enjoyed exploring outer islands, snorkelling in crystal clear waters and to the amazement of the locals... wanting to swim with whales. 

Once returning to Australia we spent the next few years planning how to sell up everything and escape again. In 2018 we embarked on a new challenge volunteering in Myanmar for 16 months. 


Our wonderful experience in Tonga sowed these overseas volunteering seeds and we hope to continue discovering new ways of giving back once COVID allows.