“When I say run, you run,” my newly adopted mother says.
“Yes, run again. Now!”
I run. Again. I’m being chased by little boys (and not so little boys) covered in red mud holding spears, screaming at the top of their lungs. I’m one of the few remaining women who stayed behind to take photographs. I run as fast as I can to catch up to the other women and I lose my new mother quickly in the crowd.
It’s hour 26 of the Wogosia festival and I’ve slapped the ground, had flaming coconut husks thrown at me, stayed up all night in the rain and the wind on the beach, sung songs in a language I can’t understand, shared beetlenut, cuddled up for warmth with my friends, climbed up and down and up and down a hill with 20 kilos of pana on my head…
So let me give you a bit of background re: adoption into the Santa Catalina villages. In order for us expats to be included in this year’s Wogosia’s festival had been adopted into the Amwea tribe, in the Aigatatari line. As my new Melanesian mom explained, the Aigatatari comes from a legend about a large, old shark that fell in love with a woman who was fishing. The woman was deeply scared of the shark, so the shark (having mystical powers) turned himself into a stripy reef fish, the Aigatatari. The woman caught the fish and brought it home, where the fish became a man. The man made her his wife and swam with her from Kira Kira (the capital of Makira) to Santa Catalina; a small island south of the big island of Makira.
They made a life there together, starting a family until one day; the shark was called back to the deep blue ocean. He was never seen again, but is said to always keep an eye on his family.
Now the shark’s protective eye would always be watching me out on the ocean. Awesome.
I have to admit, I feel pretty honoured to be adopted into the tribe and I was very well looked after during my stay. The family clearly can’t afford a lot for food (many of my breakfasts consisted of a packet of hard navy biscuits and bananas) and lunch isn’t something that is common. But it made me think about the luxury and variety of food that aren’t available to my host family.
Anyway, the ground slapathon, we walked to the beach. We stay up through the night, singing at the beach. The kids are singing to bring the dawn and start the spear fighting. It begins to pour down raining. And then the wind picked up.
I try to snuggle on a blanket with my friends when my Melanesian mum orders me to “give beetlenut to olketa”. I tell her I want to sleep but she insists. Clearly, I come from a strict Melanesian family. I get up, bleary eyed and open the basket she gave me. The basket contains beetlenut, fruit tree leaves, a kind of mustard leaf and ground lyme. The process of chewing beetlenut is a time honoured tradition in the Solomons. Beetlenut acts as a stimulant and an appetite suppressant, which is why it is used during festival times. Everyone walks around with red lips and red beetlenut spit bleeds all over the ground.
The men come forward and eat the beetlenut I offer them. Hunks of tobacco are also rolled up in white lined paper, like candy. The whole process takes about five or ten minutes, after which I grumpily make it back to my lava lava on the beach. I tell my friends about my pushy Melanesian mum and they can’t stop laughing. Clearly, I can go without food but sleep is another matter entirely.
Around 4 a.m., it begins to rain again and most of my adventurous friends leave for bed. I almost leave after my bottom starts itching and I find what I suspect to be a sand shrimp in the back of my underwear.
I stay, until my friend Paul (who used to be in army and is, possibly, one of the craziest bastards I know), said he was over it. I leave the beach, soaking wet, cold, grumpy, and feeling angry about the beetlenut at around 6 a.m.
Just in time to go to bed. Long enough to miss the first spear fight. Bugger.
I find this out because on my way back from the loo, thinking that the spear fighting lasted until noon, only to see a group of people coming back from the spear fighting. Now, I’m grumpy but I have no one but myself to blame.
The rest of the day is spent, well, resting. I hang out at the beach, and help my mother prepare a costume of banana leaves. I am bound and determined to not miss the last, big finale spear fight.
My Melanesian dad tells me that the last one is the most impressive; everyone dresses up in the full regalia and it’s all on.
As we wander down to the meeting place, I see a bunch of small boys covered in ochre coloured mud, screaming with spears.
“Now we run,” my mother says.
And we do; into the ocean. I meet the Greek Doctor at the ocean, who is dressed in what one woman described as a “banana leaf burka”. From head to toe, the girls are dressed and wrapped in banana leaves. You can’t figure out who is who, except by the accents. Elsa’s (my Italian neighbor) red glasses identify her slightly. The whole process is that you have to have mud slathered on your body and then “packaged” into banana leaves. Unfortunately, I can’t do it; those who dress up miss the last spear fight. I run over to view the spear fun.
The men are indeed dressed up with banana leaves and fronds, with the appropriate war paint. Two separate sides of about fifty men face each other, looking fiercer by the moment. There are so many men that about twenty are ready to fight in the ocean because there is not enough space.
Now, I wasn’t sure what to expect from a spear festival. Maybe I thought there might be some workshops on the pros and cons of different spear heads e.g. spiked verses smooth or maybe a spear plenary speaker. But here I was, about ready to view a traditional older than television, older than nylon stockings or assembly lines. This tradition is how conflicts were settled for many, many years. For one year, grudges had been compiled and now were the time to let it all go.
The field becomes silent as the warriors take their places, approximately 20 metres from each other. A conch shell blows and its game on. I watch my dad, the Amwea sheriff; hurl the spear the whole distance between him and his foe. I guess it looks like the most dangerous game of dodge ball anyone can imagine.
The fight continues as people shout and scream at each other. Even in the foreign language, I can tell a lot of smack talk is going down on the field. Spears fly, warriors lose their leaves and one man gets a bashed up knee. Before I know it, the fight is over; a police officer walks casually on the ground and the two sheriffs meet indicating it’s over.
I feel exhilarated but slightly disappointed. I wanted the fight to go on longer; I was just getting used to the visual and auditory assault. I run away to be with my banana burka crew. The women stand is a line and look like a bunch of black magic lawn clippings. Seriously, Disney could not have animated a weirder sight than 40 women in a row dressed entirely in banana leaves.
Elsa looks nervous as her mother stands next to her, holding her hand. I help with last minute alterations to the banana burka. I promise to run with her and the Greek Doctor, should anything go wrong.
“Now, Sara, when I say run…” my mom begins.
“Yes, I know, I run!” I say.
The women throw a stone at the men and then run in the direction of the sea. The Greek Doctor gets a good early start on Elsa. But suddenly, the Greek Doctor’s banana leaf pants are completely missing; I’m chasing a half naked/half banana frond covered greek lady into an ocean. The scene is absurd as Elsa screams loudly with her mother while they are holding hands. I take photos, really blurry photos.
Suddenly we are at the sea and the girls hop into the water. My friends are pinned down and helped out of the banana leaf burkas and suddenly I realize that they are actually fairly naked under the burkas.
Now modesty is really important in the village; one cannot show thighs. Skirts are a must. But now my friends are mostly naked, in the ocean, covered in banana leaves. So I attempt to search for their clothes, which they find eventually.
The men, who have taken their sweet time to get to the ocean (I see no point in running now, the boys weren’t chasing us). They blow their conch shells and then hand the women the shells. The women get in a group and blow the shells. I decided to join them, not wanting to miss out. I hope into the water and blow. A sound like a wet fart comes out the conch shell. The women laugh at me. Then I realize that you have to make a sound with your lips and suddenly the shell sings for me.
My Melanesian mother looks on, proud. When it is over, she takes my hand and leads me out of the water.
Wogasia is over. The feasts can begin.
Women and men feast separately. Plates of fried fish of different shapes and sizes appear. Under the fish is the traditional pudding made of coconut cream and nuts. We sit and eat. Speeches are made.
My friends and I make it to the beach afterwards, happy to sit and share. A little crew of kids follow us. They sing songs and laugh before their mothers come out and tell us to go to bed.
Paul produces a bottle of red wine, which we all drink from. Alcohol is forbidden during Wogosia but we figure that the festival was now over, there was no hard in a few gulps of Australia’s finest red blend.
When we go back to our house, the village is completely silent. The houses are dark; people are tired from the festival.
My head hits the pillow and I go to sleep instantly, dreaming of banana leaf burkas, sand shrimp and spears.