Sometimes, all it takes is a one-word prompt to get us writing.
Today’s Daily Post writing prompt: FIFTY
I TURNED fifty in Takwa village. I didn’t realise the date was coming around until my partner, who I was travelling with, reminded me the day before. I am not very good at remembering birthdays, even my own.
Crossing the length of the broad lagoon that afternoon we came to the jetty and stepped ashore. We were here after a journey of quite some hours, a motor canoe voyage through lagoons and by forested shorelines where, occasionally, a traditional palm leaf house stood out in its dry yellowness against the green of foliage. It had been the most pleasant of journeys, the sound of the motor canoe’s outboard broken only occasionally by the voices of the passengers. The sea was calm. The day, as we set off that morning, was already getting hot but the movement of the canoe across the lagoon cooled us.
Takwa. On shore, water gushes from a standpipe. Testament to the Solomon Islands practice of poor maintenance, I think, recalling how water was so valuable back in drought-afflicted Australia. But this is different. This is the Solomons. And even in drought there is still water to be had. Enough for a broken standpipe to waste it by the kilolitre.
Takwa is a large village on the Pacific side of North Malaita island, one of the long, narrow, continental land masses that make up the Solomon Islands. A continental island is one with a mountain range. North Malaita has one of those running the full length of the island. It is high, clad in tropical rainforest that has been cleared here and there for the bush peoples’ swidden or slash-and-burn food gardens. The other type is the low-lying atoll and there are plenty of these.
The day of our arrival we had left the village of Mana’abu on the shores of the big lagoon on the western side of North Malaita. The village is close to the northern tip of the island. Setting out in a motor canoe we rounded that northern tip very carefully so as to avoid grounding on the coral heads just below the surface. Coming around to the Pacific coast we entered a broad lagoon, so we could speed-up a little.
I looked across a couple kilometres of lagoon to see the Pacific’s swells crashing onto the coral reef in sprays of white water, and here and there one of the artificial islands that dot this lagoon. Consisting of a stone base a little over a metre or so above high tide level, the islands are occupied by clusters of traditional palm leaf houses. Australian, Tony Jansen, our in-country program manager who is sitting towards the bow of the motor canoe, turns and tells us that population pressure on the land resource led to the construction of the artificial islands. When this happened I don’t know.
We go on, the only motor canoe out on the lagoon. Up ahead near one of the artificial islands we see something in the water and go over, the canoe slowing. Here we encounter a man walking almost head deep in the shallows, fishing. Spear in hand and ready to dive when a fish is sighted, he tows his log canoe behind him. The helmsman exchanges a few words before continuing our journey southwards, following the coast.
Roselyn Kabu, a Solomon Islander working with Tony on the farmer education and food security program, sits behind me. She has said little and now she scans the mangrove forest that clads the shoreline as if looking for something.
A change of pitch from the outboard and the helmsman turns towards the mangroves. What we are heading for I cannot see, the long green line of mangroves all that is visible from the canoe. But… there… a gap in the vegetation. Not a clearing for a village, it’s a river flowing into the lagoon. Into it we go, slowly, the green of the mangrove forest encroaching more and more from both sides as we motor on.
This is Heart of Darkness stuff, I think silently, recalling the Joseph Conrad novel about Africa, the Congo and the tale of tropics-addled characters in the book. No sign of a village. Just a narrowing river and mangroves. Dark water slowly flowing. It is quiet here other than the muffled sound of the outboard. It is still. It is hot and humid and no breeze blows to offer relief from the heat. We watch in silence. I know that crocodiles still inhabited these swamps. I have never seen one but I know they are about. Silent. Still. As if in waiting for something.
The river narrows to the size of a large creek and just ahead, pulled onto the bank, are a couple canoes of the traditional type, carved from logs. A track immediately behind ascends a slope up which we trudge to emerge in a village of palm leaf huts where we are met by a delegation from the womens’ group that is interested in joining the program. That is why we are here in this isolated village, for a meeting. They offer water and freshly made food on tables decorated with flowers in brass .50 calibre machine gun casings, the remnants of the Second World War such as are still found throughout the islands.
Takwa. Here we will be for the next three days. A couple villagers meet us on the jetty and we walk together through the village. Like so many of the larger Solomon’s villages this one is mainly traditional houses, ‘grass houses’ as they are known in-country, and a few ‘permanent houses’ most of fibro or timber with rusting roofs of galvanised iron.
Into one of those we go. There’s just a bare wooden plank floor, nothing more. That evening we will roll out our woven grass floor mats and sling our mosquito nets from the ceiling. That’s something of a ritual in these parts. When you travel between villages, protection from the malarial mosquitoes that appear with the evening is a priority.
The old nun’s house where we are staying is a somewhat uncared-for building now in disuse. Basic, and, importantly, weatherproof. I should say that although the house had been made available to us by the local churchman, we have no connection to the church at all, to any church, to any religion.
We learn that the materials to build the house were brought by ship all the way from New Zealand, but when that was I never find out, nor why the nuns deserted Takwa. Such questions often remain unanswered here in the islands, the answers lost perhaps in the failing memory of oral tradition.
I have mixed feelings about the missionaries that the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries brought to these and other Pacific island shores. They brought Christianity to an animistic people. They brought medical treatment and education. But how much of the old ways that were still useful were lost? I know that missionaries were inspired, sometimes dogmatic, perhaps occasionally deluded, usually well-intentioned people who were perhaps the more benign part of the colonial enterprise, yet there is this doubt, this troubled feeling about them that lingers in my mind.
I assume some, perhaps more, perhaps all those nuns that had made this modest building home were Solomon Islanders. But for those European missionaries who came to these islands and thoroughly Christianised them, how did they adjust to a life so different to what they had known, how did they come to terms with isolation and the lack of the convenience they once knew? Despite the cultural damage they caused, despite my misgivings, I have an admiration for the courage those people demonstrated in voluntarily isolating themselves in distant places. What a strange way to live your life, I think.
The villagers feed us, as arranged by Tony and Roselyn. Sweet potato, the Solomon’s staple along with that other staple, white rice from Australia’s Riverina or, sometimes, from Thailand. And veges from the bush gardens, and, perhaps though I don’t remember now, reef fish from the lagoon.
We carry out our participatory assessments during our two days in Takwa. At night we eat our modest meals, then we talk in those easy-going, quiet tones of people who have known each other for some time. There is no awkwardness in the gaps in our conversation.
Our last night. We are not making the voyage back by motor canoe. Instead, we will make the return journey via truck. Trucks, small trucks, are the public transport here and journeying in them you share space with other people and cargo. It’s not the most comfortable way to travel but there’s an exhilaration despite the sore backside and cramped legs. Our truck will be here at 7.30 in the morning, we are told. We pack all but our floor mats, thin cotton covering and mosquito nets in preparation for tomorrow morning’s departure. We sleep well.
It is dark still. I have been awakened by someone calling. So has Fiona and Tony. What’s going on?
The truck is here, someone calls. But it is dark and 7.30 here is daylight. Just what is going on?
I look at my watch, finding it in the pocket of my pack as a watch is something I put away when arriving in the Solomons because, here, people operate on a looser definition of time known as ‘Solomons time’. It is difficult to read my watch as it is so dark, which suggests that the time of morning is other than our 7.30 departure time.
5.30. Yep, 5.30, which is why it is still dark. The truck has arrived early, someone says. That is a profound understatement that tests the credibility of even a broad conception of Solomons time.
Down with the mossie net. Fold our cotton sheet. Roll up the floor mat. Shine the torch around the room to make sure we have packed everything. It takes only a few minutes. Grab our packs. Out to the truck, its headlights the only illumination in the gloom of the morning. Packs are tossed aboard and we clamber over the tailgate to join them and the half dozen or so others making the journey to Auki. Soon, we move slowly along the narrow gravel road, away from Takwa.
It was the afternoon two days ago that I recall Fiona informing me that my fiftieth was the next day, the day just gone. Now, we are about to spend the good part of another day on the road.
Photo: At work at White River, Honiara, Solomon Islands.