Monday, July 26, 2010

Wealth without exploitation?

A few Solomon Islanders I’ve met say that they want to live like Australians.

I am perhaps feeling a little romantic about the way of life I’m am witnessing in the village, and I tell them that taking up an Australian lifestyle could mean the destruction of community bonds and the environment. I tell them that in Australia, it’s relatively rare to know your neighbour. I have this hunch that it’s to do with how rich everyone is. Many of our river and forests have been poisoned and destroyed. In the village I saw people intimately connected with each other, with the land and with the food they are eating. Most Australians don’t have that.

And yet I would rather live in Australia, where I don’t have to lug water up to the house to flush the toilet, and where I can travel on the train to the city’s centre, and where I can easily satisfy my material needs and desires. Better still, I would rather live in middle class Australia where I can get my two degrees and my nice office job, where I don’t have to sweat under a steaming sun for potato and cassava. I would rather live in Australia, a good base from which I can trot across the globe, comparing this place and that with my last exorbitant adventure.

How can I criticise people’s desires for development, when the very clothes I stand in are the fruit of my wealth?

But I am also critical of this wealth, as much as I enjoy its benefits. Australia’s wealth – my wealth – comes from exploitation, on so many levels, stemming deep from our roots. The land, which contains the resources that drive our wealth, was not only stolen, but its traditional inhabitants were murdered and the people broken. The land itself has now been ripped up and butchered to make way for cities, farms and mines. We exploit the air so we can produce electricity to keep our economy running strong. In the early days the poor of England and Ireland were shipped to Australia and used as slave labour, and later Solomon Islanders were kidnapped and made to work on the sugarcane fields of Queensland. This was all kick-started by the colonial ambitions of our former Mother Country, whose wealth was gleaned by plundering the rest of the world of its land, labour and riches.

And so, we are rich, and we live a nice lifestyle. Sustaining these lifestyles requires more exploitation, of the earth and its less wealthy inhabitants.

My question for Solomon Islands: is it possible to generate wealth without exploitation? And suppose it is possible, can you preserve what is good and beautiful about Solomon Islands people and communities?

The government intervention program of Australia and other regional partners, in Solomon Islands, is called RAMSI. RAMSI came to Solomon Islands after some terrible ‘ethnic’ tension that occurred between 1999 and 2003. People put down their guns almost as soon as RAMSI arrived. Seven years late, RAMSI is still in Solomon Islands, trying to strengthen government institutions and bolster the country’s economic performance.

Australia is the main player, but outside of RAMSI it is not just Australia who is interested in the affairs of Solomon Islands. China and Taiwan are also pouring aid dollars into the country, hoping for power and influence in the region. No doubt Australia is there for the same reason.

The kind of development proposed is usually large-scale projects such as mines and ports. These kinds of projects have the capacity to generate large amounts of money – some of which will no doubt line the pockets of rich foreigners, but some of which can also be used to really help Solomon Islanders. The education system, for example, is in a bad state. Teachers often do not know the material that they are trying to teach, since they have come from that very same education system. Most schools don’t have proper books and libraries.

A well-placed injection of capital could surely improve the situation, which would have flow-on effects of the wider society and to government. Is this money to come from aid donors like Australia, China or Taiwan, who will then hold the country to their demands and conditions? Or could it be funded by the proceeds of a gold mine?

And could a gold mine be run well, without poisoning the rivers that people rely on, without the proceeds going into the pockets of just a few people (probably men), while everybody else suffers from the environmental impact?

There are lots of NGOs doing good, bottom-up development work in Solomon Islands – developing people’s livelihood opportunities, doing piecemeal work on the education system, helping people respond better to the frequent natural disasters. But is it enough?

And enough for what? Enough so that Solomon Islanders can live like Australians? Or just enough so that people have higher levels of education and running water and die less often from malaria?

Ah, so many questions. Anybody got any answers?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A village wedding...

I have just come back to Honiara from a few days in a village and I must say, I’m a touch relieved! The destination point was R-, which is a village on the west side of one of the other main islands, Malaita. The purpose was a wedding: the younger brother of Ruth (the woman I am staying and working with) was getting married, and I got to tag along!

I fished the travel sickness tablets from my medical kit soon after the boat left the wharf – which I promptly threw up. The rest of the trip was spent on the floor, clutching my stomach while the kind attendant passed me plastic bags. Tearoha, Ruth’s 10-year-old daughter, just laughed at me.

When we entered the village on the back of a truck, I was so overwhelmed by the mass of unfamiliar people – many of whom were staring at me – that I happily took up someone’s suggestion and went to bed. That afternoon I sat on a stool amongst some of the women, and some brave little girls got up close, clinging to each other and giggling. One of them poked the skin on my arm. We finally broke the ice with some hand-slapping games. I find it amazing that little girls all over the world seem to play the same games! I taught them a few that I remembered from my own childhood, and then they wouldn’t leave.

The wedding preparations were in full swing. I watched some pigs being slaughtered, their screams ringing throughout the village. The men then used their fingers to pluck the bristles, and a team grabbed Bic razor blades to shave what was left. A big group of people sat around into the night, chopping the pigs into little pieces. A group of ten chicken-pluckers, many of whom were children, sat in a semi-circled and pulled white feathers from fattened birds.

When they held up the naked chicken carcass it occurred to me that the only time I’d seen anything like it before was in the form of the rubber chicken in a magic show. The dead chickens I was used to seeing were neatly folded under plastic film, their long toes clipped so we’re not reminded that this lump of flesh once pecked and fossicked. But these chickens were fattened up months before the event, as were the pigs, and people gathered taros, cassava and stones for cooking in the weeks leading up. There was no paying caterers for this wedding – the land and the people did it all.

The whole village came to the wedding, including the other language group (Langa Lanage as opposed to Kwa’rai, who hosted the wedding). The bride wore white and the service was fairly Western traditional, save for the wonderful Melanesian women’s choir that accompanied the couple to the church, and the scores of villagers who poked their heads through the windows to get a peek of the proceeding. I got a front row seat, such is the privilege of a white visitor!

But the wedding made me feel a bit homesick, as I thought about my own community and my own husband-to-be. There’s nothing like being an outsider in the midst of another’s community bonds to make you feel alone!

I also really began to miss my independence, by the end of my stay in Radefasu. I was like an infant again, completely reliant on everybody else for everything.

I needed to use the toilet, which requires a bucket because the house I was staying in was fairly modern save for the lack of running water. So I asked one of the women what to do, who inquired loudly as to the nature of my business, and then everybody discussed amongst themselves how I might acquire a bucket. A grumpy teenager led me to the church where she emptied a bucket of flowers, took it over to the water tanks, filled it up and set it before me. I knew what to do from there.

And I came to understand a little better the nature of a subsistence lifestyle. I mentioned around lunchtime one day that I was a bit hungry (alas there was no convenience store in sight!), but was told there was no lunch that day because everybody had been busy killing pigs in order to reward people who had helped with the wedding or contributed to the bride price. So much labour is involved in eating – you have to catch it, kill it or dig it, and then prepare it and cook it. So I waited til dinner.

And so I have a new appreciation for the joys of urban life, as polluting and unsustainable as it might be. It’s nice being able to catch a bus into town when I want to. It’s hard to leave the village. I managed to arrange a little trip around some of the nearby islands while I was in the village (I was intrigued by the Langa Langa people who have no land and so make artificial islands out of rocks!), and the whole thing cost over 300 Solomon Island dollars, by the time I paid for fuel and hired the boat and its drivers. Who has that kind of money – when you live off the land, largely outside of the cash economy? When you live in the village, it’s hard to go anywhere. As a consequence, I attracted a group of about eight women, who all wanted to go for a ride and see a part of the world beyond the village.

I can see why so many young people come to Honiara seeking opportunity and excitement – unfortunately far too many of them end up chewing beetle nut on the side of the road, and walking up and down, up and down, because there ain’t that much to do in Honiara either!

Monday, July 12, 2010

God in Solomon Islands

At the Pentecostal services, they often talk about THIS life, as opposed to life after death. “Jesus heals”, “God is good to me”, “God always provides” – it is these kinds of phrases I hear over and over again. These aren’t rich Australian Christians who have everything they want and need, and whose main religious concern is the kind of afterlife to expect. These are Christians who rely on God everyday; when many pray the words, “Give us today our daily bread” they are literally asking God for their next meal.

I was sceptical at first. When one of the women, Sista Beverly (I have changed her name for the purposes of this post) got up to give her testimony (amidst cheers and hoots and cries of ‘Amen Sista!’), she told how sometimes there is no food for her children, but God makes it ok. I wondered exactly how her faith helped her – did it just make her feel better about her poverty?

But I had forgotten my own childhood experiences, when Mum and Dad had their own struggling business during the 90s recession. It was nothing like the poverty Sista Beverly was experiencing, but my parents found it pretty hard to make ends meet, with me and my five brothers and sisters. They sent us to a private school, but I think it was pretty hard going.

However, I remember understanding that God always provided. Not in some airy-fairy feel good way, but literally, at times, provided food and clothing. It usually came through the Christians we knew, who would hand over $100 in an envelope or drop off some groceries. And my parents would do it for other people too – they were always giving away money or baking cakes for people or whatever.

God doesn’t work in a vacuum – God operates within a community of people who love and support each other. Is that what God is? The love that people show for each other? Or is God separate from that? I remember growing up and people just sensing when someone was in need, and responding to that feeling. I think that kind of intuition is God too – it’s God’s spirit connecting us all together.

Today I sat with Sista Beverly in the church building while she made a beautiful flower arrangement for tomorrow morning’s service. Afterwards she went out to pull up some cassava from the land next to the church, which she planted a while ago. Some of the church members use that land for growing food. I tagged along and as she dug we chatted, and I found out that her husband had left her with four children and no means to support them. She doesn’t have any family to help her. So she relies on God to provide every meal. Sometimes someone brings her some rice or some root vegetables. I think people from the church help a lot (I wonder if the people who speak her language – her wantoks – help her more? I need to ask). Even that church land is God’s way of providing – never in a vacuum, but always through people sharing and showing love.

I had never tasted cassava before so she gave me three to take home and cook up. I gave her a cucumber I’d bought from the market that day and a loaf of bread. I think that’s how God works. Just by talking and sharing what we have.

I like it here. Life goes slow and I have time to talk and sit and read and think and write. We’re going to a wedding in Malaita next weekend – very exciting for me!

Saturday, July 10, 2010


I’ve been in Honiara, Solomon Islands, for three and a bit days, and it occurred to me that I should let people know how I’m going! Right now I’m home alone – everybody else has gone down to Honiara High for this evangelism night that’s part of the United Pentecostal Church conference. People have travelled by truck, boat, bus and plane to be here. There’s a whole group of people from Malaita – that’s the next big island across – who are spent six hours on the boat and are sleeping in the leaf hut by the church. I’ve been chatting with them about life in the village.

I’m staying with Ruth and her family, which includes her pastor husband, two daughters, a cousin and an adopted son. Their church is hosting the conference. I met Ruth when she came to Melbourne last December and spoke at a forum I ran on religion and disasters. Ruth runs Hope Ministries, which is the organisation I’m volunteering for. Hope provides education for street kids. My task, among others, is the help organise the school library.

So far I’ve been to two Pentecostal churches services – one for women only, and one huge one in the open hall at Honiara High, that involved an imported American pastor. The best part is the singing, for me. When the women got together they strummed their guitars and sang Christian songs in Pijin and in English. They have this way of singing that seems to flow straight from their souls. I tried to do it but my voice kind of got stuck near the back of my throat. And there are a hundred harmonies flowing alongside the tune.

Here, everybody can sing. I think that everybody can sing in Australian society to, but people think they can’t. The thing is with Solomon Island singing is that people pick a pitch that suits their voice and makes it work with the melody. Sometimes in my Australian church I hear people singing who ‘can’t sing’ – and they are actually singing a third below the melody. They’re creating a harmony but because it’s not ‘correct’ they think they can’t sing. I like the Solomon Island way – if you have a low voice you sing low, if you have a high voice you sing high. And I guess you learn from a young age to make it harmonise in with the other voices.

So I’ve been singing along and learning the songs, clapping and dancing and all that. I stop short of the Pentecostal arm waving and the shouts of ‘Amen!’ and ‘Praise the Lord!’ The biggest culture shock so far has been the Pentecostal style of worship, which I’m really not used to. But nobody forces me to participate where I’m not comfortable, which I really appreciate. I’ve made friends with quite a few of the church ladies – they’ve been so lovely and welcoming.

I’m having a wonderful time so far. I’m picking up the language quickly – the best thing I did before I came was learn a bit of Pijin. It’s amazing how it breaks down barriers – people go, “Oh, she speaks Pijin, she must be ok”. The kids were really shy at the start but they’re getting used to me now. I’m sharing a room with Ruth’s daughter and young cousin (just a bit younger than me) and we’re having lots of fun. They’re showing me around and teaching me how to ride the bus and all that.

There is a giant huntsman spider watching me. I wonder if it’s the same one that accompanied me in the shower the other day. I squealed and Ruth’s cousin came in and herded it out with her fingers. I preferred the multicoloured moth from the first night. But you win some you lose some.

Right now I’m also waging a war on mosquitoes. I brought a massive baton-like can of repellent with me from Australia, and I intend to use it – whether by spraying or by beating them off! I’m not planning on getting malaria while I’m here. The mozzies are little but deadly.