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Sunday, June 19, 2011

Chicken Run

After going to the three previous villages, I gotta be honest; I wasn’t impressed with anything about the Weathercoast.  The villagers seemed unwelcoming, the seas were rough, the food was poor and I was generally still in a grumpy mood.

The travel is adventurous in the banana boat.  Our engine dies multiple times mid journey and we have to push the two small boats together and move to the boat that has a working engine.  In high seas.  It is loads of fun.  Also, in the morning, the boat driver tells me that there is a large crack in the hull, right down the centre part of keel.  But don’t worry, it was patched up last night and should work fine.  I ask if we should wait for the patch to set longer and if it will work.  He shrugs and says we should just give it go.  The prospect of the boat cracking in half is not a fun for me and I cringe as we start slapping the waves heavily.  But the patch holds.

One of our crew members gets terribly sick; I think this is the first time I’ve even heard of a Solomon Islander getting sea sick.  The whole trip starts to have very much a “three hour” tour to it and I wonder if I can build a coconut phone.

By the time we Iand on the beach at village four, I was ready to march across the mountains back to Honiara.  But then the pleasant sway of the palm trees and the tranquility of the fourth village took hold and I felt oddly…peaceful.  The village was set up about 500 metres from the sea, on black rock cliffs.  The settlement was neat, clean and the people were friendly.

I turn to Regan and say,

“I think this is my favorite village.”

She laughs.  We are greeted by a local woman who takes up back to her house.  Her leaf house hugs nicely near the cliffs and is tall.  We climb the half hazardly nailed together ladder/stair case up to her home.  The floor is made up of flexible wooden slats painted black.  There are large spaces between the slats where I can see the rocks, some 3 metres below. The house is clean, with large tropical print pieces of fabric to give privacy.   

Jenny, the owner of the house, has become our village girlfriend.  I always ask for a female caretaker in the village because each village has its own unique set of kastom or laws.  There are tabu (forbidden) areas to women and to men, certain clothes or modesty must be observed.  Melanisia is a land of diversity so even locals won’t know all the customs in every village.  It would take many, many lifetimes to understand fully each and every village’s customs.

Jenny turns out to be a superb girlfriend.  She takes us down to the large river for a bath.   Regan jumps into 
the water from a large rock, fully clothed.  I take off my clothes and wrap myself in a lava lava.  For the first time in awhile, I bath completely in fresh, cool water of a river.  The swimming hole is large and filled with colourful river fish. 

I feel reborn in the crystal clear waters of the river and swim around the rocks and deep pools.  I open my mouth to drink the water and stop just in time to see a large black pig covered in mud crossing the river 300 metres upstream.  He stops and watches us for a second, plops down in the water, gives himself a good dousing to clear off the mud and then trots off. 

“See, we all share the river,” laughs Jenny. 

Great.  I probably will end up with pig itch or something.

The villagers give us plenty of time to rest and relax.  I sit up and talk story with everyone; the projects we have put in have made a real difference to their lives, they say.  But this is a village divided; there are two large churches on opposite sides of the village, of the same denomination no less.   A new young chief has just been chosen and everyone is trying to work together. 

The chief system in the Solomons is based on dominance rather than by birthright, like in Polynesia.  A “big man” rises every generation and is chosen by his village through a variety of methods.  This makes for a dynamic changing environment in villages and the Big Man set up can just as often lead to violence as it leads to peace.

Village politics are rife with petty jealousies, rivalry, manipulation and deception.  Not unlike politics everywhere else on earth.  In a way, the Melanesian political structure reflects modern democracy; villagers empower chiefs and, in turn, chiefs must be responsive to the needs of the village.  If he is not, typically he is removed quickly.  There is usually a council of elderly men and women to assist with governance. 

One unexpected aspect of churches is the rise of bureaucracy in villages.  Every village visit we go to has a programme with official speakers, including chiefs but also heads of community committees, like literacy or education committees or water committees.  Minutes are taken and given to us.  It strikes me as being incredibly official and probably very inefficient.  Because this type of bureaucracy was put upon the people, the people speak the words and have the structure but have no idea what it actually means.  The original village set up, with the council of elders both women and men, seem much more logical than modern committees.

There is a noticeable lack of garbage in this village.  Disposable packaging is the bane of island life; there is no recycling programs to get rid of cans or bottles or plastics.  Plastics and rubbish litter Honiara streets.  I can understand where the mentality regarding rubbish comes from here.  Most people are used to purely organic food; when you finish a coconut, you throw it over your shoulder and it rots happily away.  Now with the invention of tinned foods, packaged biscuits and all other manner of plastic crap, the islands here are starting to get rubbish filled.  Then the difference strikes me; this village has no store so people can’t purchase needless crap. 

As the day wears on, we are well fed and looked after.  For the first night in four days, I sleep peacefully in the little hut on high stilts. 

I wake up, as usual, to the sound of chickens.  I go outside on the balcony and watch the women dutifully pick up all the errant leaves from the ground.  I notice this in the Weathercoast; the women pick up the leaves by hand to ensure their village is a tidy place.

After another quick dip in the river, which is thankfully pig free, the village starts with their handover program.  The women line up and begin to sing us songs about the project and about God.  Now, Solomon Islands are born with naturally beautiful voices. Give them any song and they will have it arranged in four part harmony within a matter of minutes.

It’s a beautiful and idyllic island scene: flowers are strewn everywhere and we are given flower wreaths to wear.  The village chief presents us with a gift, an offering from the village.     Heaps of sweet potato, taro and other root veggies were piled high around a pole.  And then there were the chickens…to be precise four young chickens were tied up to the side of the pole, lying calmly.  Two young roosters and two small hens. 
Chickens.  As gifts.  Who knew?

We also receive some shell money, which are strings of tied up shells used as, well, money.  Shell money is typically used only for ceremonial purposes now; mostly for bride prices, cases of compensation (when an individual has wronged someone else and needs to make a payment) and as gifts. 

Afterwards, a huge feast is laid out before us.  We sit and munch on a cake made of rice and fried onions (which is surprisingly good), fish curry and other local delicacies. 

As I drink a fresh coconut and sit on some large rounded stones used as seats, I find myself completely relaxed.  I could stay here forever, hanging with the friendly villagers and swimming in the river.  But we can’t; it’s time to go. I grab the chickens, who aren’t terribly impressed.  I talk to them and quickly give them the name of Pricilla and Henrietta. 

Pretty soon, it becomes clear that the chickens and I have bonded and I decide to keep them as pets.  I figure this kills two birds with one stone, literally; I have a poached egg addiction that must be fed several times a week.  Eggs are expensive in Honiara, and, as a volunteer, I am always looking for ways to save money. 

I think to myself what all prospective parents tell themselves: what can be so hard about this?