At a Paddle's Pace

(This article is from a 2007 visit to the Solomons)

In East Kwaio, in the Solomon Islands, even traditional village chiefs welcome change. But for some people, it is too slow in coming

Me garem no plans.”

Adam Riddley, 58, sits on hewn pometia beneath his house that rises above us on stilts. He slips into Pidgin as easily as he slips into his yards of orange and white printed lavalava wrapped tightly around his washtub waistline.

The timber is left over from the construction of his large, airy house two years ago that now accommodates his and the families of his three sons.

If his agenda is empty today, Adam insists the weeks are much more filled with activities than in his childhood. He does not have a Palm organizer or even a cell phone. But in Nunubilau (the name means “new vision”), with his church and school obligations, Adam’s days have gotten busier.

Yes, change is afoot in this small village in Sinaranngu district, sandwiched between Uru to the north and Olomburi to the south. The three districts comprise East Kwaio (pronounced “ko-yo”) on the island of Malaita, in the Solomon Islands. Its people are known for their adherence to traditional culture.

But many of them are anxious for development.

“We want change,” says Diki Kolosu, 43, who married Adam’s niece, Elizabeth. “But it is not happening fast enough.”

If reports from around the globe often tell of indigenous people fighting against the encroachment of modernity, in East Kwaio many villagers welcome it.

The clang of pipe against a rusty acetylene tank hanging from a tree by the sea wall beckons villagers to the South Seas Evangelical Church for the daily prayer service. It is 5:30 in the morning, and not many attend. Pastor Andrew leads the service.

Though Christian missionaries entered the region in 1906, according to Chris Nemaia at the Visitor’s Bureau in the country’s capital, Honiara, the Kwaio are one of two groups who have preserved much of their traditional culture (the other is the Moro Movement in the southeastern region of Guadalcanal).

The more traditional Kwaio villages, where people are said to live naked and engage in ancestor worship, are found further inland, in the hills of Malaita, accessed by bush paths worn through the bush.

It is in those hills, in the village of Nanakinimae, that Diki grew up as a member of the Talanilau tribe, whose name means “the road to happening.”

Diki is on the road to making things happen. But it has been a long, circuitous road. The first locally schooled person to graduate from college, Diki spent seven years working for the Ministry of Agriculture before resigning from his post.

“I was disillusioned. I realized nothing was going to change, so I started looking for other ways to develop this area.”

During the last 15 years, since the second of his failed campaigns for national office, he feels he has been spinning his wheels. He has little to show for his attempts at organizing the tribal chiefs.

Next year, however, a logging concession he secured may start to pay dividends for the Olomburi region. Included in the contract is a fund to finance the area’s infrastructure.

Logging is one of the country’s main exports, but environmental concerns are real. The current government discourages logging.

“Soil run-off pollutes the rivers,” says Alfred Francis, who has been working with the Village Eco-timber Exporters for ten years. “The fish die and you can’t drink the water. Even after the logging has stopped, the river might not recover.”

Village Eco-timber Exporters is a subdivision of the Solomon Island Development Trust, funded by non-governmental sources. Working closely with Greenpeace, the agency has been educating villagers about sustainable harvesting.

But even though over 100 people per year become certified after the four week course, they often lack the machinery to do the logging. That may explain why Diki turned to a Malaysian company, Havilah, for the concession.

“This contract in Olomburi is for selective harvesting,” Diki explains, which may help reduce soil run-off.

If Diki is concerned about the future of his people, his grandfather, Fuamae – so he says – once predicted it.

Decades ago Fuamae is to have said to his people: In eight days time an American will come here. When the time had passed, the villagers went to the shore to await the visitor.

On that day, in 1962, the anthropologist Roger Keesing arrived. Working together with Fuamae, he spent much of his career studying the traditional culture of the Kwaio and comprising a dictionary of the local language. Today, his ashes are buried in the village and his spirit is revered as that of an ancestor.

In coastal Nunubilau, however, the century of contact with missionaries from the South Seas Evangelical Church has left the population with a host of western influences, including Christianity, English, and the wearing of clothes.

The church’s charity organisation, the Sunshine Team, assists the needy. Due to the death of a parent or physical incapacity, some villagers are not able to care for themselves. The Sunshine Team collects and distributes donations of food to five or six families.

But the church has not brought electricity or sanitation. A section of mangroves for males, another for females, serve as latrines, flushed by the tides.

Thirty years ago, with Nunubilau’s population at about 40, the pollution of the water was not such a concern. Today, with several hundred villagers, the issue of sanitation is more urgent. Tidal flows that flush the mangroves also submerge the central portion of the village which the children use as a soccer field.

In the near future, the construction of sanitation facilities is a real possibility. AusAid, an Australian governmental organization, is working to bring advancement to the area.

During a village meeting to discuss which projects they want funded, people are asked to select their priorities from a list of projects. In addition to a toilet, the list includes solar power, water supply, and a sea wall.

But David Riddley, 87, Adam’s father and the village patriarch, says the latter two are priorities for him. “We need a sea wall before we can reclaim the land. And the PVC water pipes are always breaking.”

Through frequent but short downpours the children splash in the tidal sweep, chasing after the under-inflated ball in the hope of scoring a goal.

This week is a national school break. Besides playing soccer, children busy themselves with swimming or canoeing, cards or hopscotch. In the after dinner hours, someone strums a guitar.

Older youths, with a small boy acting as lookout, play in-and-out, a gambling card game, near the women’s mangroves. Pigs, snouts planted in the mud, hunt sand crabs.

In a few days, school will begin again. In order to enlarge it, the school building was recently torn down and rebuilt in the neighboring village of Talaniriu, up on a hill where more land was available. In the last few years, two primary schools have been expanded to include secondary education.

Diki hopes education will bring more employment. In this village of subsistence farmers, where nearly no one is gainfully employed, remittances to Nunubilau could, for example, bring about improvements in housing construction.

As quaint as thatched roofs may appear to the Western eye, due to its durability, tin roofing is viewed as progress. The lifespan of a thatched roof, sewn together from sago palm fronds, is only a few years. Though susceptible to rust due to ocean air, tin roofing lasts much longer.

Slowly, the local barter economy is giving way to one based on cash, which is needed to purchase, among other items, gasoline. Priced at S$12 per liter (S$1 is about US$0.15), it is used to run outboard motors on fiberglass “canoes,” needed for fishing and long distance transport.

From Sinaranngu, most traffic flows north. The village of Atori is about an hour away by boat. There, the road begins that traverses the island to Auki, the provincial capital of Malaita.

Equidistant between Atori and Sinaranngu is Atoifi, the hub of the region. A hospital, founded in 1966 by the Seventh Day Adventist Church, is located here, which serves as an informal gathering place. It also has banking services and the region’s only public telephones.

Furthermore, a nearby airstrip is serviced by Solomon Airlines, which may hold potential for tourism development, a growing interest for Diki.

He speaks of guiding tourists through the bush, from village to traditional village. Envisioning a local form of eco-tourism, he thinks this would help preserve the traditional culture, while at the same time bring jobs to the area.

If Diki welcomes the change to a cash economy, he and his wife, Elizabeth, 37, would like to preserve the traditional shell currency, known as bata. It is used in traditional transactions, such as paying bride price.

“Bride price keeps men from leaving one woman and taking another and another,” says Elizabeth.

“Using cash to pay for a bride would be like buying bread at a store,” Diki adds, implying a devaluation of the transaction.

A bride may cost, including several pigs, around 60 baniau. These are made from small beads of shell strung together on five or six strands reaching the length of 12 feet or more. One baniau of six feet costs about S$500.

Kwaio fadanga, or councils, sometimes adjudicate the amount of the bride price. They also serve to resolve compensation for minor transgressions, like theft, or settle land disputes. It is with such fadanga that Diki hopes to negotiate his plans for tourism in the region.

Me garem plans.” My scheduled foray inland to a traditional village has been postponed. Diki must return to Atoifi to wait for a telephone call. So Adam gives me permission to take his dugout canoe for a trip around the bay.

Hand-carved from the trunk of an arakoko tree, the vessel is about 5 yards long. Tom, 8, joins me. A second canoe, carrying five more boys, glides along side.

Lush hillsides, palm trees and mangroves, blue hues of bay waters with contrasting white beaches have all been stripped from the travel poster in my mind and now unfold in three dimensions.

But this area has no coral reef. The estimated 4,000 tourists who come to the Solomons annually head mostly to Western Province, to the island of Ghizo or Marovo Lagoon for some of the world’s finest snorkeling and scuba diving.

Two weeks before I arrived in Nunubilau, a group from Switzerland came to visit. But before that, no tourists had come to this area for over a year.

We paddle past a historical site on the bank of the bay. Every child learns of the “Mr. Bell” incident, when in 1927 local villagers massacred 18 tax officials working for the British colonial powers. The excessive force used in retaliation by the British left a deep sense of animosity towards the government.

Independence in 1978 did not ease the relationship. Ten years later the region boycotted the national election.

And an incident during the ethnic tension that flared up between the Malaitans and Gware on Guadalcanal at the end of the millennium underscored the people’s distrust of the national government, which had recruited 10 Kwaio mercenaries.

All ten died, and the suspicion spread that they had knowingly been sent to their death.

Sitting astern, I steer the canoe. The physics of paddling are simple: paddle left, turn right. Then switch. But I fail to switch sides with the oar at the right time. The bow swings past midway; momentum carries it further. We make a full circle, bringing jeers from the boys.

“For us, it is like riding a bicycle,” says Diki. Indeed, I spot a girl no older than five paddling a short canoe in the calm bay water - with an infant perched on the bow.

Diki will need a few canoes of his own soon. He and his family are in the process of moving to Atoifi, across the bay from the hospital to enter the retail gasoline business. Through his matrilineal ties to the region, he has received permission to use tribal land, on which he is planning to build his house.

This is the benefit of obligatory inter-tribal marriage. One has birthright to use land of any tribe in one’s line of ancestry.

But it is precisely these land claims that are the biggest cause of crime, according to one police officer. A recent stabbing in Honiara left a man in critical condition.

Moreover, land disputes hinder development. The planting of cash crops or building of roads cannot proceed without resolution to these claims.

During an impromptu meeting in front of the hospital, a handful of local chiefs discuss the mounting land disputes. Diki joins them, nurturing his network of influence. The chiefs suggest making a written record of the genealogy of the region. With over 70 tribes and 15,000 members, it seems an impossible task.

Like Diki, these traditional village chiefs are in favor of development. Foremost on their list of priorities: agriculture, medicine, education. The construction of a road, says one chief, is the key to everything else.

The road the chief envisions may be a while in coming. But two shorter roads are budgeted for 2008, according to Stanley Festus Sofu, 40, East Kwaio’s Member of Parliament and the Minister of Infrastructure in the current government of Prime Minister Manase Soqavare, elected in 2006.

Sofu sees the need to balance the development of the region with traditional values.

“Taboo sites are sacrificial places, where the priests perform their rituals. I would like to preserve these taboo sites, which identify land ownership and have historical value.”

This year three markets are under construction in East Kwaio, financed with part of the S$1 million allocated each of the 50 members of parliament to be spent in their constituencies, under a system known as direct financing.

The Minister has also secured S$650,000 from Taiwan for the development of cocoa, cattle, and fishing projects this year. Solomon Islands is one of the few countries to recognize Taiwan as an independent state.

It is 2 a.m. and Chillian, a nurse at the SDA hospital, is at my bedside taking my vitals. The sudden onset of diarrhea and fever in the evening after my canoe trip caused me to be rushed by boat to Atoifi. A blood test for malaria proves negative.

Chillian is Christian, but he says many people combine traditional shark worship with the western religion. How can you give it up, when you have experienced its truth?

“You’ve experienced the power of the shark?” I ask.

He narrates. One night his boat was swamped by rough seas. He and his three friends feared for their lives. But soon all four were spirited to shore on the back of a shark.

Shark worship is a form of ancestral worship, the traditional religion of the Kwaio. Ancestors can be reincarnated as sharks. In the mountains above the coastal village of Kwalakwala, Uru, the villagers of Lagolago practice ancestor worship.

To reach this village we paddle from Atoifi to Kwalakwala, where we meet Sam, the chief’s son, at the local soccer tournament.

Bare feet are best for walking in the bush. The trail, an hour to Lagolago, is muddy and steep. Shoes do not grip like the locals’ broad feet and wide-spread toes, the result of years spent barefoot in the bush.

Chief Lobonifooa sits in his fanua, an open shelter which serves as the focal point of the village. Surrounding it is just a handful of huts. Many of the 20 related family members are present. Three marijuana plants rise from the verdant landscape.

“Just decoration,” says the chief. They smoke the tobacco growing nearby.

He is not sure of his age, which he estimates by using historical events. He was not yet born when the “Mr. Bell” incident occurred. During World War II, though, he was about the size of a girl sitting with us, who is about five, making the chief about 70 years old.

He speaks of change. During his lifetime he has witnessed people’s increased reliance on the government in their bid to avenge a wrong committed by a member of another tribe. Instead of dealing out retribution by themselves, often resulting in tribal warfare, they have come to call upon the police to intervene.

The proximity of the missionaries does not bother him. He ignores them, and sees their churches as an escape for those villages with dwindling numbers, no longer able to support themselves.

But over the years the existence of missionaries has led to his people wearing clothes. For the chief, this is problematic.

Due to customary beliefs concerning cleanliness, during her period (and childbirth), a woman must go to live in the menstrual house, a small hut behind the pig sties.

If a woman fails to do this, a pig must be sacrificed and the menstrual house torn down and rebuilt. The wearing of clothes enables women to conceal their periods, says the chief.

But this chief wants some change, too. He wants it so much, in fact, that he has made an unprecedented move. He has sent two of his sons to Honiara to speak with Sofu.

His pigs often break out of their wooden pens and roam the hillside freely. The chief wants wire fencing for the sty.

“The government helps only the mission villages,” the chief complains. But Sofu says he is willing to finance the wire fencing.

Sam, about 30, has also come to recognize the importance of change. The older ones have missed out on their education, but he will send his youngest to school.

He has seen the benefit education has brought to those he grew up with. They have found employment and have gained a modicum of financial security.

Sam is not keen on buying any material goods at the moment, but he wants to be able afford bride price for his sons and have fewer worries in old age.

Going to school, however, brings problems. People at school say words relating to their ancestors that are taboo for these villagers.

Normally, a pig would have to be sacrificed for each verbal transgression. But this taboo is being relaxed, so as to preserve the pig stock.

Now, whenever they sacrifice a pig for any other reason, they take a pro-active approach to the taboo words, and ask for appeasement from their ancestors should, in the future, any taboo be broken.

After an hour’s chat, the chief sings some warrior songs, with his son humming a bass line. Both slap pieces of bamboo together for rhythm. Upon finishing the song, the chief grins broadly, enjoying the opportunity to entertain guests.

Afternoon showers pass before we head back down the path. The rains will have made the going all the more treacherous, so Sam cuts me a walking stick. A child from the village joins us for amusement, though she will have to return at night.

“People walk this distance for a matchstick,” says Diki.

As dusk falls we near the trailhead at Kwalakwala. I stop to consider how to negotiate the ten foot drop in front of me. Locals scurry up, headed home in the dark. One woman, carrying a child, waits below.

She calls out to Diki. “What’s wrong with your friend? Why is he carrying that stick? Is he blind, or what?”

Cultural chasms divide us personally. Yet her words, imprinting the moment with a reminder of all we share, bring us both to laugh.

In the canoe back to Atoifi, the woman’s wit swirls in my mind. The maelstrom of the experience pulls towards a commonality, as Diki and I silently dip our paddles into the dark, moonless waters of the bay.