Life in General

The name debate

Once you get married, one of the first and most frequent questions to pop up is “Are you going to change your name?”  Such a seemingly simple question.

Back in my young, feminist days (as opposed to my old feminist days), I always thought that when the time came to marry Mr. Right, we would sit down and have a very civil discussion about what name we thought was best and, therefore, which one we would both use – his or mine.  Having an option for the man to adopt the woman’s name is a true sign of gender equality, no?  So why aren’t more male pro-feminists adopting their wives names?  Perhaps I was naïve, or perhaps I was just too ahead of my time.

So here are some of the arguments that I have come up with in the name debate.

On the Ross side:  A number of my married friends – mostly ones who’ve been married a while – have told me that if they had their time again, they would keep their maiden name.  Too much cumbersome paperwork, they say.  Plus, for a woman who has worked hard to build a career, making a name for yourself would work much better when you have just one name.  Besides all that, I like the name Ross.  It’s a good solid name, short to write (and sign), and easy to spell.  Or so I thought.  Over the last 5 years abroad, I have been called Rose more times than I’ve been called Isabel, and my lifetime of certificates sport a range of variations, from Isabelle Rose, Isabella Ros, and my personal favourite, Isobel Roff.

On the Banda side:  A number of my married friends – most of who are more recently married – have told me they consider a name change important so that any future children share the same name as their parents (although when parents don’t share the same name, the discussion about which parent’s name the child takes seems conspicuously absent from gender-equality debates).  I can’t say I’m entirely sold on this argument.  However, a name change is important for the person I love the most in this world: my husband.  According to his culture, by adopting his name, I would be solidifying his status as a man, and as the head of the household (and honestly, I am happy to relegate that role to him – he will make a much calmer and loving head than me).  Banda, too, is a good solid name, short to write (and sign), and easy to spell.  I can imagine explaining it as such:  “Like panda, but with a B for bear”.  It’s somewhat endearing, and may not encounter the same surprising range of variations as the monosyllabic Ross.

Despite this, there is still one issue that stands above the rest.  For those that don’t know, Banda is a quintessentially Chewan name (from Eastern Zambia and Malawi); much like Ross is to the Scottish.  Take one look at me, and it is pretty obvious that I’m not Chewan.  Even if I was to spend the next 40 years in Zambia, take up Zambian citizenship, and become fluent in chiNyanja, the good people of Australia, and the good people of Zambia and Malawi will not see me as Chewan.  Identifying myself by a Chewan name, therefore, feels a little fraudulent.

Of course, I have selfishly considered how this fraud could benefit me: Perhaps it could boost my “foreign” credentials for international development jobs.  On the flip side, it could hinder my chances in Australia, where patriotism (read: racism) seem ever-more present.  (You can try, but can’t deny that both biases exist).

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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A weekend in the woods

With the joys and challenges of Solomon Islands behind us, the first thing on my agenda was some rest and relaxation amongst the trees.  Someone suggested Atherton, so without much thought we booked a weekend in the woods.

Since we were going to be there doing not much, we also decided to use the time to legalise our marriage.  With a big wedding already occurring in Zambia last year, our plan was to keep this as simple as necessary to satisfy any legal requirements (Yes, yes, I know. You are all upset that you didn’t get to come, but this way, I get to visit you all and celebrate one-on-one.  That’s so much better, right?).

So, in addition to the bride and groom, we needed two witnesses.  I chose one witness – Liz, the Maid of Honour and my best mate of 35 years – while Manyoni chose the second witness – Pip, the Best (Wo)man, and a friend of ours from our time in Zambia.

The four of us met together in Brisbane for the flight up to Cairns.  Despite my plans to make as little fuss about the (second) wedding as possible, Liz and Pip had other ideas.  Firstly, Liz informed the lovely staff at Virgin Airlines about our upcoming nuptials, who proceed to shout us all a bottle of wine for the journey (Thanks Katelyn and Jeff!).   Once we were in Cairns, Pip couldn’t help herself but tell Marika at Thrifty car hire, who then gave us a great discount and an upgrade.  There are some perks to this wedding thing.

After a quick shop in Cairns, we headed up to the gorgeous Canopy Treehouses in Tarzali, near Malanda.  Being a raised wooden pole house, nestled among virgin rainforest on three sides and rolling hills on the other, the 3-bedroom Bower House was completely secluded and the perfect place for some R&R.   The first night was spent listening to the rain, catching up with each other, eating nshima (yep, clearly no concern about how I would fit into a wedding dress), and feeding the resident possums and birds.

The following morning, I woke up to a view of rolling hills, pademelons…and rain.  It wasn’t looking promising for our festivities.  Not that it really mattered, because this was clearly no normal wedding day.  Apart from the rain, my wedding day started out with a job interview, made all the more exciting by a head cold and razor blade throat.  I doused myself with drugs while the others went into town to grab some lunch.  Then everything magically fell into place.

Firstly, the rain stopped and the sun came out.  By about two hours before the wedding, the pain killers were kicking in, and we all decided that perhaps we should get some flowers.  Of course, being a no-fuss wedding, I hadn’t organized any of this before so we jumped in the car and drove along the street until we spotted some vegetation that we liked.  Grant was more than happy for us to take clippings from his trees and even tried to grab a bunch of Tamarillos for our special day, except the possums ate them all.

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Thanks for the flowers, Grant!

With a basket full of freshly picked flowers, we had an hour to get ready.  Again, my no-fuss plan barely extended beyond throwing on a dress, so Liz stepped in and offered her wonderful hairdressing skills.  If anyone knows what it’s like to work with dreads, you will have full appreciation of what she managed to achieve with my knotted locks.  Add to that some beautiful handmade Australian native hair pieces from Karen Pierson on Etsy (the one thing I did organize in advance), and I have to admit, we kinda scrubbed up alright.  Meanwhile, Manyoni quickly finished off our home-made rings, and fashioned a ring box out of a sanitary napkin container.  That’s my man!

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The time for the wedding finally came (actually, it came and went.  It’s obligatory to be late, right?).  We picked out a tree in the area to give us some shade, and wandered down in bare feet to where Barry, the celebrant stood.

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Where it all happened (Photo by Brendan MacRae)

The succinct 15-minute ceremony, crafted by Bazza, captured our sentiments while skipping the superfluous stuff, and left plenty of scope to laugh and joke our way through1.  Which we did.  In fact, Bazza himself commented how nice it was to be at a wedding that was so entertaining, and not at all serious.  Aww, thanks Baz.  I think.

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Entertaining, alright.  Don’t even ask. (With Bazza)

Post-ceremony, we headed back to the lodge to pop some champas (yep, great stuff for a bride on antibiotics), and chill out even more.  Then we went and frolicked in the grass as a brilliant sunset lit up the sky, and the brilliant Brendan MacRae and his wonderful wife and able assistant Rosanna banana snapped our smiles.2

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Our photography peeps, Brendan MacRae and Rosanna banana

As nighttime came, we reluctantly parted ways with our photographers, and were left to enjoy a take-away vegan feast courtesy of the awesome Earthly Bakes in Cairns:  Spicy corn soup, beetroot and leek pie, chickpea curry, quinoa and mango salad, nutty broccoli, mixed green salad and, of course, a vegan blueberry cheesecake for desserts3.  A great way to end a great day.

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Vegan blueberry cheesecake.  Thanks Earthly Bakes!      (Photo by Brendan MacRae)

Now that the formal stuff was over, the rest of the weekend was really just for relaxing.  We slept in most mornings, then spoke philosophy while sipping coffee on our balcony.  Then we did small road trips to the sights of Atherton Tablelands:  A swim at Millaa Millaa falls, stops at Zillie and Elinjee falls, lunch at Mungalli Dairy Farm, wandering around Curtain Fig, drinking coconuts at Malanda markets, searching for platypus and feeding turtles, eating a feast at the local Indian joint.  It was just what this sick, coughing and spluttering, girl needed.

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The lesser-photographed Elinjaa Falls

The only thing that remained was a road trip to catch up with our nearest and dearest, and celebrate one-on-one.  First stop, Mum and Dad’s.  Next…a trip to see you!

 

1 Barry Waugh, ladies and gentlemen.  Wedding celebrant extraordinaire.  Look him up if you’re planning on getting hitched up that way.

2 Brendan MacRae is a man that loves his photography.  Plus he makes such a cute team with his wife.  If you’re just after portraits, or wedding photos, he’s your man.

3 Think vegan isn’t tasty?  Think again.  These guys do amazing pies, salads, smoothies.  Like, really amazing.  And well priced!  If you’re in Cairns, I highly recommend you visit them.

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Ho Ho Honiara

After my recent sojourn to Africa, I had no leave left to enjoy a Christmas holiday this year, so instead we decided to give a Honiara Christmas a crack.

The festivities started well before Christmas.  In the lead up to the 25th, we had choirs practising carols in the valley below, which was just lovely.  Unfortunately, by Christmas Eve, the choir had been overtaken by a loudspeaker blaring Mariah Carey’s ‘All I want for Christmas is you’.

In an effort to escape the tortuous tune, I retreated to my bedroom on the other side of the house, only to be bombarded by Bryan Adams Christmas carols blasting from a different direction.  This cruelty continued well past my bedtime.

It should come as no surprise then, that when I woke up on Christmas morning, my neighbours from the valley below were already well into the party mode.  To drown out the slurring karaoke, I put on my own carols, only to have it punctuated by the sounds of the first drunken fight of the day.  “Silent night…f&*# off…..Holy night….F&*# off…..” and so it went for a good half hour.

It was a good thing that I got to get out and head to an orphan’s lunch.  By orphan’s lunch, I mean that all of those expat stragglers left in Honiara over the silly season, coming together for a gigantic feast.  And what a feast it was.  We had parmigiana, ham, chicken, crab, vegetables, cheese, salads, Mexican chocolate cake and the highlight – home made plum pudding doused (okay, drowned) in Cointreau.

We shared this with 14 people from 6 countries across 4 continents, on the terrace of the most spectacular house, with the most spectacular view, in Honiara.  We then broke the cardinal rule and jumped straight in the pool with bellies full of food.  Summer rain eventually forced us back on to dry land, where had little else to do except polish off the remaining bottles of wine.

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*******

With almost everybody departed for the holiday season, I thought the rest of my week in Honiara would be pretty dull.  However, the orphan Christmas also meant that I had a new set of friends to hang with.  Together, we planned to take advantage of the long weekend, and the latest downpours, by heading on a rafting trip down the Lunga River.

In 4WDs, we headed out to Tenaru and up the logging roads into the beautiful Guadalcanal hills.  We quickly took in the view at Parangiju Mountain Lodge, before driving along a curvier, muddier, more precarious route down the other side.

As we reached the valley, it was time to pump up the rafts, don a helmet and lifejacket, and head off.  No explanation was given, or needed, apparently.  While the term rafting can elicit images of extreme adventure, this was not the case here.  Rafting along the Lunga River is more like drifting, with the occasional run of chop providing a bit of a massaging bounce.  The relaxed pace, however, was much needed therapy for this Honiara girl.  Plus, it allowed us a chance to breathe in the country’s tranquillity.

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It was humbling to see the huge mountains, jutting steeply out of the valley where we floated.  These mountains were covered in sky-high trees, including a lot of mahogany, which will soon attract the loggers that it has so far managed to escape.  As you got closer, you could see a carpet of vines consuming each tree, one-by-one, like sheets thrown over old furniture.  I’m sure there was an array of birdlife in there, somewhere.

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We stopped for lunch half way through, and dived into the slightly chilly waters to cool off.  Then we continued on, with scenery changing from plunging mountains to sheer pink and green rock faces.

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We arrived at our destination just as the rains were coming in.  Soaked and satisfied, we made our way back to the dusty capital.

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As you may have sensed, as I get older, I like to take things a big easier.  So for New Year’s, I took up the offer to join a few friends for a quiet night at Visale.  Visale is one of the beautiful beaches about 40km West of Honiara.  It is also privately owned by the Catholics, complete with a Church, convent, health clinic, rural training centre, and one house for rent.

Other than the nuns, I thought we might have the area to ourselves.  When I arrived, I was disappointed to find 10 tents pitched in front of the house.  Fortunately, those neighbours were well behaved.  I can’t say much for the more permanent residents, though.

We spent the afternoon floating in the sea, before lighting the brazier for a BBQ.  After dinner, we headed back to the beach where Manyoni had set up a small bonfire to bring in 2017.  As old people, we promptly fell asleep in front of its warm glow.  Fortunately, we managed to stir before the clock struck midnight.  Our (quiet) neighbours were also kind enough to make sure that didn’t miss the moment by cracking open a series of flares at the designated time.  Aren’t those things meant for emergencies?

The flares’ flashes and cracks were accompanied by ceaseless ringing of the church bells, and by truck loads of people passing by on the main road, cheering and banging on iron sheet that were also being dragged along the bitumen for extra effect.  The (noisy) neighbours felt that this would also be a good time to crank up the pop tunes.  So much for a quiet New Year’s.

As the festivities waned, sleep beckoned and I was happily snoring within minutes.  But then I was awake again.  Then asleep.  Then awake.  Then asleep.  About 1am, the (noisy) neighbours decided it might be a good time to crank up those crazy tunes, and did so again for every hour after that.  The cheering from trucks was now more like jeering, and the clanging of iron on asphalt startled me awake more times than I care to remember.  If this is what it was like out of town, I don’t even want to know what it would have been like back in Honiara.

On the 1st of January, I woke to more blaring pop tunes, then tried to drown them out by dunking my head and weary body into the salty sea.  Feeling vaguely refreshed, we cooked up a giant breakfast lunch, before making our way home.

Visale

Visale

Despite the weekend away, I still felt I had more to experience for a Solomons New Year, so in the night I joined Manyoni and went out to village of one of his friends.  They had already spent the day doing wholesome family activities – blind volleyball, oldies vs youngies in soccer, throwing eggs and water balloons.  I heard that in the evening it would be movie night.

When we arrived, the village was pretty quiet.  Many were tuckered out and already in bed, but so many children were still awake for fear of missing out.  We storied a little bit with the family first:  The frequent slapping of mosquitoes on legs and arms providing a percussion accompaniment to the ukulele being played in the background.  Palm fruit was lit to help ward off the little vampires – nature’s own mosquito coil.

Eventually, the movie was ready.  We joined the others in a mattress-less dormitory, and then watched students from a school in Fiji sing Christian songs on the big screen.  After this, the village’s local photographer played his recordings from the day’s activities.  It was highly entertaining.

Then it was time for me to sleep, but not without first partaking in a freshly prepared snack of cooked bananas and ngali nut.

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I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts….

As I have now been in the Pacific for nearly two years, it is long overdue for the obligatory food blog.  Any food blog from the Solomon Islands must start with coconuts.

Hail the humble coconut.  Honestly.  This little gem of a fruit is a WASH specialist and foodie’s dream.  Firstly, coconut water is like nature’s Oral Rehydration Solution.  It doesn’t need any treatment to make it safe, and it has just enough sweetness to give you a glucose surge without bringing on diabetes – all while having a delicious taste.  Plus, it’s the cheapest option out there.  A coconut will set you back about AUD$0.70 and provide you with about 700mL of fluid (and you can scoop out and eat the coconut jelly inside when you’re done).  Yes, a cold coconut on a hot and humid day – which is every day in Honiara – does wonders for the body and soul.

However, the wonders of coconuts do not end there.  The Solomons has taught me that coconut milk can, literally, form the basis of any food your little heart desires.  Vegies boiled in coconut milk, coconut smoothies, vegan coconut ice-cream, coconut cakes, fresh coconut sprinkled on your morning granola, coconut and cashew vegan cheesecake.

Coconut is now forming such an integral part of our diet that we (by which I mean Manyoni) have become experts in making our own coconut milk – from scraping to squeezing to eating.  Yum!  Of course, once you’re done, you can use the coconut shell as a candle or soap holders or use it for your “dip ‘n’ drip” handwashing station.  And the coconut husk is the local solution to toilet paper. What is there not to love?

My second favourite food in the Solomons is the bush lime.  Round little citrus about the size of a golf ball, these little guys are another refreshing bargain.  AUD$0.70 for a heap, they are most commonly squeezed to make delicious, refreshing, equally-tart-and-sweet bush lime juice.  They also go great with vegies boiled in coconut milk, ice-cream, cakes….you get the idea.

When you’re speaking of the tropics, though, it is impossible to ignore the fruit.  As someone who has never been a huge fruit fan, the Solomons has shown me another side.  Pineapples so sweet and juicy that you even eat the core and end up sucking the skin dry.  Papaya that doesn’t make you gag (especially when drizzled with a dash of bush lime).  Mangoes that are dropping from the skies everywhere you turn (but you have to be quick –  the season is very short and the neighbourhood kids are adept at finding the ripe mangoes before you).  The Solomons has approximately 189 species of banana to test out, and markets full of watermelons, rambutans, star fruit, jackfruit and soursop.  There’s also the new local varieties to keep your taste buds entertained, such as the village “apples”.  This place is ripe for an organic dried fruit industry.

Breadfruit is frequently found on the market tables, in its fresh fruity form, as well as cut up and dried to become “Nambo” – a jaw-breaking snack that can be nibbled in combination with dry coconut or, as I do, soaked and added to curries.

Mangrove fruit has become a new favourite in our household, cooked up with a bit of curry powder and served with Zambian nshima.

Seaweed is also on the menu, as we discovered when visiting our friends in West Guadalcanal.  The favourite here is seaweed that resembles a string of salty pearls that pop in your mouth, and can be added to salads or cooked with – you guessed it – coconut milk.

There are also a couple of extra nuts to add to our snack portfolio (excluding the hideous Betel nut).  ‘Tis the season for cutnut, a hard inedible fruit that holds a large golden nut inside.  Or Ngali nuts, which taste a bit like almonds, and can be found wrapped up in banana leaves at every street side stall.  Once the hard outer layer is cracked, the nuts can easily be slipped from their skin and eaten raw or roasted.

On the vegetable side, the heat of the Solomons prohibits the availability of some of my faves – carrot, potato, broccoli, cauliflower – and prevents some of my other faves from reaching their full potential – think stunted tomatoes and capsicums.

However, it does put on a pretty good show in the leafy greens department:  chard, bok choy, sweet potato leaves, fern, watercress, pumpkin leaves, and slippery cabbage (as the name suggests, it is full of slimy green goodness).  There is also an assortment of roots and beans:  sweet potato, kumara, cassava, taro, okra, giant beans that look like cucumbers.  Cassava is given a new dimension when ground, boiled and made into cassava pudding.

Plus, for a population whose food is very mild, there is a surprising large selection of chilli.

Any blog about the Solomon Islands, though, cannot ignore the seafood.  Solomons has a huge tuna industry, but the best of it is exported to the EU.  The markets offer a good selection of not-good-enough-for-export-but-still-great yellowfin tuna, coral trout, lobster, prawns, crabs, and a bunch of other seafoody things that I can’t identify.

However, this is no match for the freshness and cheapness of seafood in the Provinces.  I always relish my trips to the Province, where I can pick up a fresh fish – by which I mean, it was caught a few minutes before I bought it – for AUD$0.50. A huge, fresh mud crab will set you back $2, and lobster will cost about $1.  Just listen for the sound of the conch shell in the early morning signalling the fishermen’s’ return, or put in an order before you go to work.

Friends have also come back with eskies full of giant squid, mud crab, endangered coconut crabs, and megapod eggs.  The traditional way to cook all of this up is in a “motu” – wrapped in banana leaves and placed in amongst the hot rocks. Yum!  Sadly, my colleagues prefer to just boil the hell out of it with salt, which I find most devastating.

This probably explains why, despite all this delicious fresh seafood on offer, locals seem to love their meat canned or processed to within a whisker of it still resembling meat.  Taiyo (canned tuna) is a hot favourite here.  But just to be clear, we’re not talking the white tuna flakes that we find in Aus.  No, it is a dark brown sludge that, I assume, is formed from the ground-up dark meat that’s left over once all the good stuff has been removed.

At work luncheons, one can expect to be greeted with mounds of plain white rice, boiled sweet potato, curry chicken wings (wings are the only part of the chicken that is available here – goodness knows what happens to the rest of the bird), ground mincemeat, and “sausage” (think bright red weiners).  Any vegetable dishes will be made inedible to vegetarians by a garnish of taiyo because, you know, fish isn’t meat.

The food on the street is even less appetising, and mostly deep fried.  Street stalls offer fish & chips, with the fish battered, deep-fried and ruined, served with fried sweet potato chunks.  You can also buy an assortment of carb-heavy snacks for SBD$1 (AUD$0.20) – deep-fried balls of rice, deep-fried balls of dough (doughnuts minus the sugar-cinnamon coating), sweet bread rolls, and dense cake.

With all this food on offer, it has made me stop and think about “poverty” in the Solomon Islands.  It is meant to be one of the poorest countries in the world, but when I compare it to other places I’ve lived in Africa, well, there is no comparison.  In the villages around Chipata, or Swaziland, if you want food you need to toil hard, walk kilometres for water, and pray hard for the right amount of rain at the right time.  In (rural) Solomons, food is literally dropping from the trees.*

While visiting a friend, I casually mentioned I was hungry and within five minutes they had gone to the sea, speared a fish, collected some seaweed, climbed a coconut tree, scraped the milk, and was cooking it on an open fire with freshly dug cassava.  Even my colleagues won’t pack any lunch for field trips, because they just snack on fruit and coconuts picked up along the way.

I once heard someone describe this lifestyle / economy so aptly as “affluent subsistence”.  There may not be much cash, but it doesn’t take much effort to get a good feed and some shelter. Perhaps this explains the apathy, lack of entrepreneurialism among many Solomon Islanders – Why would you spend your life working hard in a formal economy, when in five minutes you can collect all the basics for survival?

As you ponder that, I will leave you with two of my favourite island recipes – one vegan, and one for the fish eaters out there.  Enjoy!

* That doesn’t mean that everyone is well nourished – stunting is rife due to diarrhoea and infectious diseases, and non-communicable diseases are striking a terrible blow as “modern” foods like packet noodles, white rice, sugary drinks and processed meat become the diet of choice for many.

 

Jilly’s Papaya Bake

Spread a small amount of coconut oil over the bottom and sides of a casserole dish.

Layer the bottom of the dish with slices of sweet potato (the thinner the slices, the quicker to cook).  On top of that, layer it with slices of papaya (ripe, but not super ripe).  Sprinkle with some garlic, onion, and chilli if desired.

Repeat 2-3 times until the dish is full.  Then pour coconut milk over it all (1 fresh coconut or 1-2 cans).

Pop in the oven for around 45 minutes, or until cooked through.  Yum!

 

Fijian Kokoda

Cut some fish into cubes (eg. king fish or yellow fin tuna).

Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt, then soak in ½ cup bushlime juice.  Cover and chill for 2 hours or overnight, or until the fish whitens – stirring occasionally.

Mix in finely chopped shallots, grated ginger, coconut cream, tomatoes and cucumber.  Add chilli if desired.

Serve chilled.  So refreshing!

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Shaken, and a little bit stirred

Ever since I sat on an earthquake simulator at Questacon (I think) when I was 12 years old, I have had this bizarre desire to experience earth’s awesome natural power for real.  Before you start to psychoanalyse this, which is clearly not going to come up good, let’s just put it down to a strange curiosity of a budding scientist.  Or adventurer. Or both.

So when I was researching Solomon Islands before my arrival here in 2015, I was secretly excited to find out that Sols is at the mercy of pretty much every natural calamity known to man – cyclones, floods, tsunamis, volcanoes, climate change, falling coconuts and, of course, earthquakes.

In the two years that I have been here, I have felt four earthquakes, while missing another two as I was snorkelling or driving.  Usually it’s just a slight shake that it hard to distinguish from the thumping of the maxed out sound systems in the taxis outside my office, or the vibration from overweight people stomping on timber floors, or the feeling of being lolled around in a water bed.

Yesterday morning was a little different.  At 4:45am, Solomon Islands was struck by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake on the Southern edge of Makira Province.  It made global news – enough for some people to ask if I felt anything.  Um…yes…that sort of thing is kind of hard to miss.  So here is my account of what I felt.

It started with a shake that woke me up.  It didn’t seem to stop or slow down, so after about 10 seconds, I thought it might be time to do something.  I jumped up and stood in the door frame – something I have only felt compelled to do once before (a 6.9 magnitude quake back in July 2015).

By this time, the metal gate outside was banging, the walls were creaking, the fans and lights were swaying and I was feeling a little drunk in the legs.  Then all the power went off.  As I stood in the doorway in the dark, I finally got to thinking about the “stand-in-the-door-frame” theory, and quickly debunked it as I considered the wooden frame’s capacity to stop two stories’ worth of cement blocks stationed above me.

So, in my emperor’s clothes, I did my best to get out, and up to the car park as quickly as possible.  I can only describe it as trying to get dressed while running naked down an aeroplane aisle during rough turbulence. I know you’ve all been there.

As I reached the street level, it was clear that I wasn’t the only one shaken by this…literally.  My upstairs neighbours also joined me in the carpark, and the guard confessed that he thought his life was at an end.  He’d had the outsiders view, watching the buildings all across the valley sway from side to side.  The metal gate was still clanging.

By the time I ventured back to bed, 15 minutes later, warnings about tsunamis were already coming through.  Fortunately, I’m perched on top of a hill, so went back to sleep, sensitive to the vibrations from every passing car.

As the morning went on, (and another, lesser, earthquake was felt around 9am) reports from Makira – the epicentre of the quake – started coming in.  So far, thankfully, there are no reports of deaths.  While a large tsunami did strike the weather coast of Makira, the good people knew to seek higher ground and so all were safe.  There is much to be said for the stability of traditional leaf huts and the safety of traditional knowledge.

Despite this, many locals did cite this as the biggest earthquake they have felt in their lifetime.  So I did some research.  Today’s quake measured 7.8 on the richter scale.  In 2007, there was one slightly larger near Gizo, at 8.1 magnitude.  Fifty-two people died as a result of that quake and the subsequent tsunami.   Prior to that, it was only 1971 that had something bigger – outside the lifetime of most of my friends.

So while I can now tick off my childhood dream of experiencing an earthquake for real, it easy for me to laugh knowing that there were no casualties.  Of course, with recent examples from Nepal and Italy, we all know this, sadly, isn’t always the case.  However, this event has also resulted in some form of self-reflection.

My colleagues at Genesearch always used to joke about never travelling anywhere with me, as my adventures always seemed to align with violent clashes or natural disaster.  Admittedly, there was the time in Nepal, where transport/guide issues meant that we were travelling through Maoist-controlled territory in the dark, and I had to flirt with the army guard so that he would negotiate with guerrillas not to shoot us as we passed through a curfew area.

Then there was my trip to Sri Lanka in 2004, when a mix-up in bookings meant that I missed out on being on the Boxing Day day train to Galle that killed all 1,700 passengers in the great tsunami.  There was the teacherous attempt to reach Tetepare – only to be saved by dolphins.  And now this.

What this really says to me is that I am exactly the person you want to be around when things go South, as I seem to always escape unscathed (said with fingers crossed, wood touched, and every God, King and virgin praised).

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Weddings! (Part 2: Swaziland)

After the excitement of our own wedding, it was time to head to Swaziland to introduce Manyoni to the country that stole my heart before he did.

We were welcomed by rain, which continued the whole week.  People assured me that this was a good thing, as the country – and all of South Africa – is suffering the worst drought in almost 40 years.  I won’t disagree, except that I had planned – and packed – for summer.  I was freezing!

Wednesday – 9th Nov

Our first day was spent in the valley of heaven, catching up with the Gone Rural crew.  It was so great to see so many wonderful faces again, and to breathe in the familiar smell of lutindzi grass.  However there have also been so many changes that I didn’t recognise anyone at my old office.  Change is good, right?

Next it was lunch at the Shisa Nyama, where Louise and I tucked into Mahlanya’s best BBQ meat (because of copious amounts of salt, MSG and oil), while Manyoni settled with umbidvo, litsanga and chakalaka.

A quick visit to another friend, Babazile, then we were back on the bus to Mbabane and off to the Albert Millin for drinks with Yael.  We made it back to our temporary abode just as one of Swaziland’s famous lightning storms was about to hit.

Thursday – 10th Nov

Day two was spent around Mbabane.  Like true tourists, we headed up to the Old Ngwenya Mine – the oldest known mine in the world, where ancestors of the San mined hematite around 43,000 years ago.  It has had more recent mining attempts too.  There were the bantu-speaking settlers who mined hematite and iron for tools from 450AD to 1950.  Then commercial interests came in and dug some more holes in the ground from 1964 to 1977.  Finally, a questionable deal between the King and Salgaocar resulted in more iron mining during my time, which finally ended the year I left.

A 43,000 year old mine

A 43,000 year old mine

Interestingly, I never made it to the mine while I lived here so this was a first for us.  The views from there are truly beautiful and showcase Swaziland’s fantastic topography.  The all-encasing fog didn’t hurt in adding some mystique.

old-ngwenya-mine-14

 

With frozen fingers and toes, we continued down the hill to Ngwenya Glass, where we spent the obligatory several hours salivating over Swaziland’s beautiful fair trade handicrafts.  If only the airlines gave us more baggage allowance!

The afternoon was spent in the warmth of our temporary abode, cooking up a pizza storm for our hostess with the mostest, Helene, and an opportune catch-up with few other Mbabane friends – Chantal, Tony, Yael and Shaks.

Friday – 11th Nov

On the third day, it was yet another trip down to the valley to catch-up with Carlie, and take a stickybeak at more crafts at Swazi Candles.  Poor Manyoni must have been sick of being dragged around to all my friends and a seemingly endless handicraft industry, but he took it very well.

A concern with our borrowed car took us back to the mechanic in Mbabane, but after being given the all clear, we were off again down the hill and all the way to Manzini.  Here, we finally caught up with Ras Ambrose – a friend of a friend, and rasta brotherman of Africa.  Our afternoon was spent helping Ambrose and his band sort out a rental car for the next day, so conversations about the Swazi rasta community were held in between driving from shop to house to house to shop.

The evening ended back where my time in Swaziland began – Malandela’s for Friday night drinks.  Here, I finally got to meet up with my beautiful Gone Rural ladies after 2 long years of being apart.  Just as nice was that all the staff at Mallies not only remembered me, but were also really happy to see me.  These are the things that make you feel loved and at home.  These are the reasons why Swaziland is so special to me.

Saturday – 12th Nov

Today was the raison d’etre for our side-trip trip to Swaziland – Shelley’s long-awaited wedding to Rob.

For those that don’t know / remember, Shelley was my boss, friend and role-model while I worked at BoMake – although she won’t admit to some of those titles.  I felt so excited to be able to share this day with her, and with all my Swazi sisters.

After 12 years of waiting and planning, I don’t think the day could have been any more perfect for the beautiful pair.  After non-stop rain all week, the day churned out nothing but blue skies and sunshine – proof of God’s work, some might say.

Shelley looked stunning as she danced down the aisle with her father, preceded by dancing bridesmaids in brilliant blue.  A small group of our Gone Rural ladies provided the song and dance backdrop during the signing, and their children finished the ceremony off with a fantastic poem filled with love and comedy.

After the official part was over, we were invited to House on Fire for cocktails and photos.  Then it was on to another tent for the reception.  Everything was done to perfection – which is nothing less than what I would expect from Shelley and the House on Fire team.  More than that, everything was done with consideration and meaning – which is really what made the day so great.  Needless to say, when all was over, there were a number of hours spent carving up the d-floor.

My ladies (and man)

My ladies (and man)

As soon as the wedding ended, and we were moved to House on Fire to continue the party, the rains returned with gusto.  The timing was so perfect that it would, once again, be hard to doubt the power of God.

My heart is just filled with so much love for these two, and I feel so privileged to know them and to be able to share this moment with them.  A never-ending congratulations and best wishes to Mr and Mrs Kirk.

Sunday – 13th Nov

Sure as ever, the fog returned the next day and set in harder than ever.  We had planned to join Waterford students on a hike to Malolotja Falls.  The miserable weather almost put us off, but we persisted in a delusional hope that it would clear up.  In the end, it was us, a few teachers and 20 students brave enough to tackle the wild foggy unknown.

Hiking into the unknown

Hiking into the unknown

Malolotja has always been one of my favourite places in Swaziland.  Regardless of the weather, it is always magical and today was no exception.  As we drove through the gates, we spotted baby Lesbok suckling from their mothers.  As we continued through, the wildflowers were out in bloom, providing a splash of colour against the misty backdrop.  Really, it was only when we got out of the bus and started walking that the beauty and diversity of the flora could really be witnessed.

As with all trips to Malolotja, it didn’t take long before we were lost.  Trying to find the right path, we scrambled down steep hills, and back up again, dodging falling rocks and trying hard not to re-sprain/re-break ankles on the uneven surface.  Yet we survived and managed to reconnect to the path at the falls’ lookout.  The Gods gave us five minutes of clear skies, allowing us to take some photos of the rugged cliffs, rolling mountains and falls into the distance, before closing back in and pushing us on our way.

Love Malolotja <3

Love Malolotja ❤

By this stage, it was too late to continue on down to the falls itself, so we just headed back toward the bus with a lunch stop along the way.  Arriving home, we were drenched, freezing, exhausted and at peace.  What a great way to end our Swaziland experience.

Monday – 14th Nov

After a quick catch-up with my good friend, Victor, we were on our way to South Africa and the inevitable journey back to Solomons.  Before that, however, we had six hours to kill in Johannesburg.

As we arrived at the international airport, in the most amazing timing ever, Shelley happened to also be walking out of the airport.  You wouldn’t believe it, but her plan was to take her friend to Soweto for a few hours, which was exactly the plan that we had!  So we were able to join forces and check out Mandela’s residence, the outside of Desmond Tutu’s residence, the Hector Pieterson museum, and feast on our final pap lunch together.

As Shelley and Shawna headed back to the airport, Manyoni and I carried on to Braamfontein to catch up with my friend Marnell, and go on a mad search for a specific jumper (don’t ask!).  Finally, it was time for us to go back to the airport too and embark upon a 17 hour journey to Brisbane.

Wednesday – 16th Nov

With just a day to spare in Brisbane, the time was spent with family.  My eldest sister and her children had made the trip to Brisbane to help celebrate my other sister’s 40th birthday.  It was the first time the whole family was together in 4 years, and the first time that many of them had met Manyoni.  Naturally, all the children had grown a ridiculous amount since I last saw them, but fortunately not all of them had forgotten Aunty Isabel.  The understated birthday celebrations were also joined by my Aunt and Uncle, so it was a great little gathering.

Sadly, all good things must come to end, so it was time to return to Solomons and work.

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Weddings! (Part 1: Zambia)

The Journey (25-27 October)

I had been looking forward to this for months: a 3 week sojourn to Africa.  However, nothing in my life comes without some drama.  With an hour to spare until I had to be at the airport, I went outside to organise a taxi and was bitten by a dog.  A very mangy, unhealthy looking dog.  Typical.  A quick phone call to my mate, “Dr Coffin”, and I was back on track with a couple of puncture wounds, an emergency box of antibiotics, and fears only slightly allayed.

35 hours, four flights, and no leg infection later, I arrived in Lusaka.

First stop was to catch up with my mate Aka and her beautiful son, who seemed to get along with me.  Bonus!  Except that this then convinced Aka that I must have children immediately.  Then it was to Alex’s place for dinner in the dark, thanks to Zambia’s extensive daily load shedding.  I even managed a few hours of shut eye, before being up at 3am to catch the bus to Chipata.

This was my first time back to Zambia since I lived here for just 9 months.  I was interested, to see if it still liked it as much as before.  I was also anxious, as this time, I came knowing that Zambia and I would be inextricably linked for the rest of my life.

The bus stop was a hive of activity.  I was a bit disturbed, at first, by all the people hassling me to buy things – from solar lights to packets of chips and chitenge.  I also watched in horror as bus conductors surrounded potential passengers, and almost started fights, in order to win that person’s custom.  But then I realised that this is what determination to make an income looks like – a far cry from the frustrating apathy I see every day in Solomons.  What I liked best, though, was that between the potential customers, the bus boys would dance to African house blaring from the stalls in such seemingly personal joy.

Once on the road, the image of Zambia became somewhat different.  The long drought had left behind little except heat, dust and an arid landscape that made me wonder how people survive here.  The mighty Luangwa River was but a trickle, and made me lament the plight of the poor wildlife that relied on it.

While the new highway certainly made for a much smoother ride, it also gave the bus drivers licence to go faster, thereby posing an even greater threat to the bikes, children, goats and cattle that straddled the road.

Once I reached Chipata, there were highs and lows.  In the name of progress, every single beautiful shady tree had been removed for the new tarmac, making the city somewhat inhospitable.  However, I was impressed that there were now Copenhagen bike lanes and footpaths that stretched the entire main road (although the pedestrians and cyclists were still working out which was which).  The plethora of fresh, brightly coloured vegetables was also a sight for sore Honiara eyes.

Alangezi (29 October – 2 November)

One of the main reasons I wanted to return to Zambia this time, was to partake in Alangezi, a traditional practice that girls and women do to prepare them for womanhood and life as a Zambian wife.  Manyoni’s extended family had kindly arranged for me to do a condensed version of this training in a village half way between Chipata and Katete.

On my first day in Chipata, I went out to the village to meet everyone and get to know my surroundings.  Kazimule Post Office is as typical a Zambian village as you could get – mud or brick houses, no electricity, ox carts for ploughing.  I was given a seat on a bamboo mat and became the scene of attraction for the villagers to greet as they passed by, and the topic of conversation conducted in a language I still could not understand.

Despite being so far out of my comfort zone, everyone was so welcoming and the phrase “This is your home” was said by so many that I felt ashamed coming from a country where Manyoni is not always welcomed by strangers in the same way.

The following day, I returned to the village for the start of my training.  Clearly, this was not going to be a normal Alangezi.

As mentioned, Alangezi is much like an initiation for girls to prepare them for womanhood and marriage.  Most girls undertake this after they reach puberty and/or when they are about to get married.  Being 36 years old, I was probably about 2-3 times older than most Alangezi students.

The process normally takes 2-3 weeks, during which time the girl is “in the house”, meaning they cannot go outside except to bath – much like a caterpillar going into a cocoon and emerging only when it is a fully grown butterfly.  “In the house” also means that they are not allowed to talk to others, or financial compensation must be given.

In contrast, my Alangezi lasted 3 days.  There was a constant flow of people coming in to check out the stranger, and I would spend my evening on the verandah watching the cattle being brought back from the fields and the young children making trouble, as the sun set over the thorn trees and thatched rooves.

Throughout my stay, I was given the royal treatment by my hostesses, Amai Tembo, and Amai Tembo (Justine).  In the morning, they warmed water for my bath.  As I returned from my bath, they had breakfast waiting.  They cooked me up a delicious hot lunch and dinner each day, which they insisted I eat from the couch while they sat on the floor.  They even put cushions under my feet wherever I sat / stood, lest the bamboo mat hurt my precious foreign skin.  It was ridiculous, but also a symbol of their genuine concern and kindness.

Back:  My teachers Amai Tembo & Amai Mwanza. Front:  Amai Julu and my hostess, Amai Tembo

Back: My teachers Amai Tembo & Amai Mwanza.
Front: Amai Julu and my hostess, Amai Tembo

For three days, I was under the tutelage of Amai Tembo (Esnath) and Amai Mwanza (Alice Phiri), with translations by Amai Chulu – an ex-teacher from the neighbouring village.  Traditionally, Alangezi is not done with your immediate family.  Once you discover what is taught you will understand why.  The teachers, however, may be from extended family or completely separate.  Usually, young married women are chosen to be teachers, as they still have the youthfulness and strength to practice what is taught.

So what is taught?  Well, that is a well-kept secret for married women only – perhaps not something to detail on the world wide web.  However, to give you an idea, each day, my mornings would be spent learning “Mwambo” (custom).  My teachers would demonstrate, then it was my turn to try.

In the afternoons, we were joined by a group of women who would dance, sing, drum and do theatre.  These dances were not just for fun (although plenty of fun was had!), but are actually designed as a teaching tool of how you should behave once you become a wife.  Of course, to demonstrate that I had learned these messages, I also needed to join in the dancing.  The good thing about coming from another culture, is that no matter how bad you are, they appreciate your effort.

The whole training culminates in a big final day, where the girl must demonstrate all that she has learned to a group of elderly women and her mother-in-law.  If they approve, then she is free to marry.  It has been a long time since I have done an exam, and there was a lot of pressure on me to do well.  Fortunately, I passed, and some even exclaimed:  “Amazing!  Your hips are so soft after just 2 days.  You are already better than some of us.  Imagine if you were here the whole two weeks!”

After a celebratory lunch of Zambian nsima, I was then released into the outside world.  With a chitenge* over my head, and eyes down, I was led to a bamboo mat under the trees, where people came to give money and well wishes.  I was now wife material.

*Chitenge is a 2m piece of coloured material, like a sarong, worn around the waist and used for absolutely everything.

Meanwhile…..

Manyoni was running around like a headless chicken preparing for the party to celebrate the end of Alangezi – known as a “Kitchen Party”.  This is much like a bridal shower, where female friends celebrate the woman’s upcoming transition to wife, and bring gifts of kitchenware to help her set up her new home.

Except that somewhere along the line, the “Kitchen Party” transformed into a “Coming Together Party”, which, in other words, equates to a wedding.

After we realised, and happily accepted, that we were getting married, Manyoni really had his work cut out for him.  Not speaking much chiNyanja, I was pretty useless at this point, so he had to go it alone.  Plus, he had a few extra challenges thrown in for good measure.

The first was no cash.  Even before I had arrived, the ATM in Chipata had swallowed our bank card.  Despite numerous attempts to retrieve it, and countless different stories from the bank, they would not return it to us (Barclays!).  So Manyoni had to operate without cash for two weeks, and then we had to rely on credit after that – it certainly made for interesting times.

Then, the night before the wedding, as my friend Alex and I were enjoying a beer at Wildlife, Manyoni was busy transporting chairs to the village in a borrowed ute / bakkie.  Unfortunately, on the way back, late at night and well off the main road, the car stopped.  He tried his phone but there was no signal.  Eventually, one person passed and together they tried to push start but with no luck.  He waited some more.  Another two boys came past, and he asked if they had phone signal.  They did, but no airtime.  As extraordinary luck would have it, Manyoni fished around in his bag and came up with a voucher for airtime for MTN, which is not even his phone provider.  They were able to call the owner of the vehicle, who came to collect him.  He reached home at 1am.

The Wedding – 5 November

The day of the party had arrived.  Manyoni was up at 5am with a million jobs to do – finding a new transport option for all the guests, buying the final pieces of our wedding outfits, and answering calls from everywhere.  I slept in.

Needless to say, our planned 7am departure for the village stretched to 9:30am, but finally we were on our way.  There was no turning back.

On arrival, I was swept off to the main house, while Manyoni was taken elsewhere.  I dressed, and then watched from the bedroom window while the crowd of villagers gathered outside and the dancers entertained.  Eventually, the time came.

I was led outside.  Beside me was my sister-in-law’s sister, and Amai Chulu to translate and tell me what to do.  In front of me and behind me were dancers.  I could see Manyoni off to the distance at my left, standing alone with one other man.

Manyoni and me - ready, set, go

Manyoni and me – ready, set, go

At snail’s pace, and to the beat of the drum, I inched forward, with the dancers leading my way, and the small flower girl throwing bougainvillea petals at regular intervals.  At the same time, Manyoni also edged forward until we met in the middle, and he handed me a bunch of pink plastic flowers (TIA).  Together, we continued moving toward the waiting couch, continuously surrounded by the ladies with amazing hip gyrations.

me-starting

Once seated on the couch, which had been set up on a raised verandah, I finally got an idea of the situation I was in.  To the left of me was a newly-built shelter for friends and family, with some gratefully recognisable faces and many not.  In front of me, on the opposite side of the grounds, were the caterers set up with bain-maries, and adorned in the stereotypical chef hats.  To the right of me was the giant drum, and the drummers and dancers doing their amazing work.  Around all of this were decorations – toilet paper (yes, you read right) strung from the beams like streamers.  It was so perfectly apt and African that I could not have planned it better myself!

Our vantage point.  Note the decorations.

Our vantage point. Note the decorations.

The rest of the panorama was made up with people from the nearby villages – hundreds coming to check out the spectacle of the white woman marrying a rasta man – both quite foreign to this rural village.  It was amazing, and humbling, to see how much effort people had gone to for this event – everyone was dressed up with men wearing suits, women wearing weaves in their hair, and crisp, new chitenge around their waists (it almost looked like a PF party thanks to the Patriotic Front party’s recent widespread pre-election chitenge distribution).

A view across the event

A view across the event

Our MC opened the event, and then we were straight into speeches.  First it was Manyoni’s father, who was quick and to the point – “Never pack up and leave”.  Then it was on to my fill-in Italian father, Enrico, who had been given 24 hours’ notice and managed to detail our entire love story in deep chiNyanja.  Everyone was very impressed, including me!

Up next was more dancing and drumming from the “professionals”.  They were shaking it standing, shaking it on their knees, and even shaking it on all fours – hips so supple it didn’t seem possible.  As if the moment couldn’t get any more quintessentially African, the wedding was then crashed by a goat who ran into the middle after being chased by Manyoni’s nephew.  Perfect.

goat-dancing

Then it was time for the cake cutting.  However, before this could start, we needed the knife.  For the next 20 minutes, we watched as four small girls danced their way spectacularly across the grounds with decorated knife in hand.  Forget about what I managed to do with my hips in 2 days – I couldn’t believe what these girls could do with their hips in the first four years of their life!  I was blown away, and clearly the crowd was too, as the girls were occasionally joined in their dancing by excited cooks and relatives.

girls-dancing

When the knife was delivered, Manyoni and I stood up to cut the cake.  Now, as many of you know, Manyoni is vegan, and Chipata Spar doesn’t exactly stock a variety of vegan cakes.  So, just to make this whole wedding a little more off-beat, we instead cut Chikanda.  Chikanda is sometimes known as African polony, but is really made from tubers and is savoury – not a cake at all.  Never-the-less, we fed each other, as is the custom, and sealed the deal with a…..hug.  We had officially “Come Together”.

Mmm....chikanda

Mmm….chikanda

With three cakes still in front of us, we then had to deliver two to our parents.  Together, we held a cake and slowly, slowly moved toward Manyoni’s parents, before delivering it to them on our knees.  The same was then done for my fill-in parents.  The final cake was taken away and distributed to the crowds.

taking-cake-to-parents

After more dancing entertainment, we were then on to the final activity of the day – the gift giving.  People were asked to come up and bring their gifts or money to put in a bucket / on the table in front of us, before shaking our hands and wishing us well.  Presumably this is so everyone can see who is giving what, which to me was a little awkward, but we got through it without incident.

The Pastor of the Reformed Church of Zambia then arrived just in time to give the final closing prayer, before Manyoni and I were led back to the house surrounded once again by the dancing women and flower girl.

This was, perhaps, the first time that Manyoni had managed to relax in a month.  We ate lunch, alone, in the room and then waited until all several hundred spectators had also eaten.  Then we snuck outside to take some photos with friends and family before they left.

With Manyoni's parents (in the matching outfits) and our Italian family

With Manyoni’s parents (in the matching outfits) and our Italian family

Normally, this is where the story of the wedding ends.  However, over the next couple of days, Manyoni, his family were being bombarded by people wishing to congratulate us on what we had done.  The Pastor even stated several times that we had presented them all “with a challenge”.  It seems that traditional weddings are now a thing of the past, having been usurped by white weddings and all their fanfare.  It took the white woman and the rasta man to show Eastern Zambia how beautiful their traditions can be, and to help revive them.

Obscene amounts of thanks…..

While I blissfully waltzed through this chapter in my life with barely a care in the world, I was only able to do that because of the efforts of so many amazing people.

This whole trip really relied on the kindness of friends and family – especially the Carrettas and Tembos – for the use of their cars, accommodation, cash advances, networks and, of course, their time.  Without them, none of this would have happened.  We are blessed, and we thank you a million times over.

The ultimate thanks, however, must be given to Manyoni, who did everything from designing invitations to buying dress material, meeting Chiefs and negotiating payments (never easy!).  Needless-to-say, this isn’t a typical role for a Zambian man, and simply demonstrates why he is so special.

Categories: Exploring, Life in General | 10 Comments

The real deal on coconut oil

I do love a good social enterprise story, especially one that focuses on creating opportunities in rural areas.  A few months ago, I headed off to the Coconut Technology Centre for a tour of their facility.  I left with a lot of coconut oil, and a very belated blog post.

The story starts with Dr Dan Etherington, a passionate man for social justice and an academic at the ANU who researches smallholder agriculture.  In 1975, he went on a conference to Sri Lanka to look at tea.  As part of the conference, he did a tour of the coconut industry corporation.  This forced him to look at the coconut in comparison to the tea leaf, and he was amazed.  Tea is one commodity and one product, but the coconut is so many products in one.

There’s the water inside: a fantastically nutritious and ready-to-serve hydrating product.

There’s the flesh: an edible and tasty product in itself, but also open to value adding.

Within the flesh is the coconut oil:  eight times higher in lauric acid than mother’s milk.

There’s the shell:  a great source of charcoal that can cook a meal for about half the cost of wood charcoal.  In addition, coconut shell has an extremely fine and dense carbon structure that makes it fantastic as activated carbon for filtering a range of things, including microscopic particles.  Take a look at your water filtration systems – there’s activated carbon.  Air respirators – activated carbon.

Coconut husk:  great for door mats, textiles, and rope.

Coconut flower:  the nectar of which is a sweetener to challenge maple and the hippest of hipster sweeteners, agave.

Coconut leaf:  used to weave sleeping mats, hats and baskets.

Finally, coconut timber:  a gorgeous long grain, beautiful when polished up, and extremely strong when used correctly.

Needless to say, Dr Dan suddenly became a coconut addict (it’s easy to do).  He then spent the next 20 years fostering this addiction, and finally received funding to do a project looking into the coconut industry.

What he discovered is that, in the Pacific, most of the coconut industry is based on copra – dried coconut flesh, which is extracted and used to make oil.  He also discovered that people are slaving away to produce copra, shipping the heavy bag to market themselves, getting low pay, then buying food and a ticket to get home, leaving them very little change for their efforts.  Seeing a similarity between this back-breaking “slave” labour and Australia’s much earlier exploitation of Pacific Islanders in the cane fields, his heart breaks.  There must be a better way!

There is.  Using his experience from Sri Lanka, Dr Dan realises that by extracting the oil in the village, and then shipping just the oil, workers are able to produce a high value product with lower shipping costs and greater returns.  Introducing Direct Micro-Expelling (DME).

Direct means the oil is extracted directly from fresh coconuts.

Micro means it’s a factory at a village scale, making it super family friendly and perfect for including people with disability.  By operating in the village, people can stay with their families and earn income at home, instead of joining the urban pull that we currently see crippling rural and urban communities alike.

Expelling is based on a technique that they found being used in Kiribati. By making sure that the coconut meal is moist enough and soft enough, the oil can be expelled under very low pressures – such as hand pressure.

Compare this with getting oil out of copra, which generally requires very high pressure (megapascals, apparently – whatever that means).  To achieve this, a big screw press, screws, presses and heats the meal, leaving a rather burnt and tortured coconut meat, plus oil.  Copra oil is generally yellow, smelly and tastes disgusting, so to convert it into coconut oil, they then put it through a process called RBD:  They refine it to remove the sediments, bleach it to remove the colour, and deoderise it to remove the aroma and the flavour.  It is then shipped to a health store near you and sold as coconut oil.  So much for a “health” food.

With the DME technology, Dr Dan decided to start in the Solomon Islands after seeing the challenges the country had recently faced with cyclones and tensions.  He partnered with a local Solomon’s business to establish Kokonut Pacific Solomon Islands (KPSI).  Their purpose was to create a viable, integrated value chain that supports everyone from the growers right through to the consumers.

Kokonut Pacific Solomon Islands also got together with Kokonut Pacific Australia (trading as Niulife Australia and developers of the DME tecnology), and the Producers Association (a cooperative that includes the coconut growers and the meal producers) and started the Coconut Technology Centre.  The purpose of the centre is research and training.

As part of our tour, we got to try our hand at each stage of the Kokonut Pacific process, just as one would in the village.

The process starts with the coconut growers.  These are families who collect coconuts from their own, and others’ plantations.  They make sure only to collect coconuts that are fully mature (a unique feature of Kokonut Pacific that ensures a higher concentration of lauric acid), and that have naturally fallen from the tree (ie. not harvested).  Each coconut tree will produce around 6-7 coconuts per month, and it takes 10 months to go from coconut flower to mature fruit.  It will take around 15 coconuts to produce 1L of oil.

They then husk the coconuts to make them lighter and easier to handle.  Husking a coconut requires removing the outer skin using a very pointy stake that would be equally effective in fighting vampires.  It looks really easy, but really isn’t. The husked coconuts are collected into a heap and transported to the village DME factory.

Here, the growers get paid directly, channelling the cash straight into the hands of the growers – be it men, women, elderly or youth.  This payment method is also unique to Kokonut Pacific.  It differs from the system used for copra, where multiple families or villages combine their product in a form of cooperative, and where payment is made to the leading member of the group – usually a male – who distributes it when, and as, necessary.  Great if you have a good leader – terrible if you don’t, and a pretty reliable way to bypass putting cash directly into the hands of women.

Once the nuts are collected and paid for, they’re cracked open in the traditional way – with a bush knife.  They are then graded.

The first grade is coconuts that are fit for human consumption – no smell and beautiful and white inside.  The second grade has vara starting to grow.  Vara is actually the start of a new coconut tree, generating shoots and roots, and is formed by feeding on the coconut flesh that has been broken down by enzymes inside the coconut.  It also feeds on the coconut oil, reducing the oil’s quality and, therefore, making it less great for coconut oil production.  However, the vara itself is totally delicious and edible, despite looking like a little foam yellow ball.  The bottom grade is rotten (smells like vinegar), which is then used to make copra.

The first grade coconuts are then grated using an electric grater.  We watched as one of the operators grated a coconut in 30 seconds – slightly faster than the 15 minutes it takes me on a manual grater.  In fact, a good grater can grate around 100 coconuts an hour.  The end product is a nice, soft, oily, moisture-filled flesh.  At this point, you can squeeze the meal to make coconut cream, or set it on its path to coconut oil glory.  Once the graters have about 3.5 kilograms of grated coconut (~15 coconuts), they then take it to the dryer.

The grater

The grater

The dryer is really just a glorified BBQ plate.  Its aim is to evaporate out the water as quickly as possible (grated coconut is about 1/3 water, 1/3 oil and 1/3 meal), to stop it from fermenting and to prevent any bacteria from growing.  The operators achieve this by picking the grated coconut up with a metallic dustpan-looking thing and tossing it gently over the BBQ plate like confetti.  This warms the coconut slightly and allows maximum air to circulate through it for a quick dry.  The other trick is to make sure the coconut is moving all the time so that it doesn’t burn, as this creates a very fine dust which is hard to remove from the oil – much easier said than done.  I had a go at it and was focusing so much on being gentle that I held the scoop a little too gently and threw it, with the coconut, over the side.  Oops.

How drying is meant to be done.

How drying is meant to be done.

Once the material is dry it has a bit of a crunchy feel to it.  The operators are able to tell, by touch, how much water content remains inside.  The magic number to aim for is 3% moisture.  Any drier than that, the coconut meal is too hard to release the oil.  Any wetter than that, the coconut tends to jam in the cylinder.  The fine moisture content in the oil will also cause it have to a low shelf life.

Loading the dried coconut until the cylinder

Loading the dried coconut until the cylinder

With coconut at the right moisture level, it is then loaded / jammed into a cylinder.  The cylinder is then loaded into the Expeller – an over-glorified corking gun.  This is when the fun really starts.  Using a ratchet, to which your body weight can be applied through a chain stirrup if you need, you squeeze the oil out of the coconut.  Boy, is there some oil!  Around a litre of oil literally come streaming out and into a jug below.  It is truly mesmerising to watch.

Liquid gold

Liquid gold

Once you have squeezed out all the oil, each batch is recorded for the weight of the oil, before being poured and filtered into a bigger bucket to remove any sediments.  The meal is pressed out as a huge compressed cylinder, and used in the village for stock feed, so nothing goes to waste.  The pigs love it and it sure beats a diet of human faeces!

The end products - oil for me & a coconut meal cylinder for the pigs

The end products – oil for me & a coconut meal cylinder for the pigs

From there, the oil will stay in the buckets for two weeks to settle.  They are then decanted into a 60kg barrel that is coded to indicate the farm that it comes from and the day it was produced.  This is shipped to KPSI.

When KPSI receive the barrel, they take out a sample of oil and test it for taste, colour and aroma.  If the tests suggest that it’s not top quality, it will be given an additional test to check for free fatty acids.  Free fatty acids are an indication of the load of enzymes that are present in the oil that could lead to rancidity. For virgin coconut oil to be classed as virgin coconut oil, free fatty acids need to be below 0.3%.  KPSI ensures that coconut oil doesn’t go into a jar at any more than 0.2%.

If the oil is graded as first grade, it will be pumped into a blending tank to be filtered again.  From there, it will be pumped into cardboard boxes with plastic liner and shipped for export for human consumption.  The oil that doesn’t achieve first grade is put to good use in producing a wide selection of completely handmade soaps and (soon) lip balms and body scrubs.  Everything produced at KPSI is certified organic, and certified fair trade.  Just another way to ensure maximum returns for their workers.

After witnessing the DME in action, all I can say is that it is rather impressive in its simplicity.  Obviously the people of Solomon Islands are also impressed, as there are now about 60 DMEs across the country.  Villages that want to set up a DME factory apply first to KPSI, and then raise the funds to purchase the equipment (SBD$150,000 or around AUD$28,000).  From there, they receive training and support, but manage the whole process themselves.  A well-managed DME factory will ship 20 barrels a month (1200L or ~18,000 coconuts’ / 2750 coconut trees’ worth), and it usually takes about 2 years to fully recover their initial investment.  That’s pretty good returns!

Now knowing the difference between copra “coconut oil” and coconut oil, it has really made me think about my purchasing power.  The next time you buy coconut oil, I encourage you to think about what process it has gone through, and what support that oil provides to rural, smallholder farmers.  Next time, I will be buying my premium quality coconut products from Kokonut Pacific, and I encourage you to do the same.

In Australia, you can find Kokonut Pacific products at most health food stores – trading as Niulife – or check out the Niulife website.  If your local store doesn’t sell it, be sure to tell them that they should!

If you are as fascinated as I am and want to learn more about the DME technology and Kokonut Pacific, I also encourage you to go to their website:  www.kokonutpacific.com.au .  There you will see links to Dr Dan presenting the DME on New Inventors, and an episode on KPSI from ABC’s Landline.

Now, I think it’s time for some Christmas shopping!

Showing the villagers how to use the Expeller.  ;-)

Showing the villagers how to use the Expeller. ;-)My 

* My sincerest apologies to Frank and KPSI if I have mucked up any of the facts.  It was a while ago, and I was high on that delicious Coconut Coffee thing.

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Invalid

This may sound a bit stupid, but have you ever realised that invalid (meaning someone made weak or disabled by injury of illness; pronounced /ˈɪnvəlɪd/) is the same word as invalid (meaning not valid; pronounced /ɪnˈvalɪd/).  How horrible!  The reason for this startling revelation is because I, myself, have been invalid for the last 2 months (feel free to use whichever interpretation you choose).

Yes, it seems that in one of my typical moments of death-defying extreme action (I was chasing our pet parrot), I slipped on a small step and hurt my ankle.  Given that I sprained my ankle in the exact same place a year ago, I assumed this was just a repeat injury and carried on.

Insurance, however, insisted I get an X-ray “just to be sure”.  So off I hobbled to the local doctor.  He sent me to the hospital for the X-ray, who then sent me back to the doctor to get the X-ray interpreted.  To my surprise, I was told I had a fracture of the fibula.  I was surprised, not only because my sprain was not just a sprain, but also because the local doctor managed to pick it up!  I really must give the health workforce here a little more credit.

With this diagnosis, I was then sent back to the hospital to see an orthopaedic specialist.  I was sure that all this to-ing and fro-ing couldn’t have been good for my ankle, but thankfully I had the most patient chauffeur (who, thankfully, got his licence only a couple of months ago).

Back at the hospital’s fracture clinic, I was seen to by the head of Division who cracked a few jokes (see what I did there?), and then presented me with a moon boot to wear for four weeks.  In case you are not aware what a moon boot is, all I can say is that it is very aptly named after what you would anticipate an Isabel-shaped astronaut would wear while walking on the moon…. on one foot.  At least it was removable in this tropical heat – unlike a cast – and at least I could continue to put weight on my foot and “walk normally”.

Walking normally.  Yes, I would just like to say that there is nothing “normal” about walking in a moon boot.  Imagine one of your feet doubles overnight, and is covered in hard plastic armour.  Not only do you inadvertently kick everything around you, but having one foot a few centimetres higher than the other also causes you to limp somewhat dramatically, causing shooting pain in the knee and hip of your other, supposedly good leg.  The lovely nurse from insurance had a very comforting story for me when I made her aware of these troubles, “My sister wore a moon boot for a small fracture, and then slipped and broke her other leg.  I thought it might make you laugh”.  Laugh isn’t quite the word I would use, but I appreciate the effort.

With Solomon’s technology, it took me a week to get a copy of the X-rays to insurance.  They very quickly called me back to let me know that, in fact, I did not have a fracture.  Rather, the bone was minimally displaced.  I think that means it was broken…..but only a little bit.  There goes my thinly-veiled faith in the Solomon’s medical elite.  This new diagnosis had insurance very worried, and they gave me very stern advice NOT to wear the moon boot, not to put any weight on my foot, and to go on crutches immediately.

So, back I went to the hospital.  For the princely sum of SBD$30 (about AUD$6), I was issued with a true piece of art: hand-made wooden crutches.  For all the faults, it does amaze me what people here are able to do with so few resources.  Speaking of faults, the remarkable and rudimentary, all-wood crutches lasted about 30 minutes before imprinting black bruises in my armpits and bestowing big blisters on my hands.  Fortunately, my patient chauffeur is also rather handy, and fashioned a very comfortable leather-bound padding on my crutches at the cost of one of our couch cushions (don’t tell the Landlord!).

About a week later, I received a call from an orthopaedic specialist in Australia, who had been contacted by insurance to offer further advice.  His advice was this:  “Don’t use crutches.  Wear a moon boot and put weight on it”.  Sigh.  While this third piece of advice in as many weeks left me rather relieved that I didn’t have to bother with crutches anymore, it also made me rather frustrated.

This mixed messaging, coupled with extreme concern from those around me who had experienced the same thing and strongly recommended immediate physio, finally led me to demand that insurance arrange a proper assessment in Australia.

Back in Australia, everything seemed so easy.  I had an MRI, which almost sent me to sleep with its repetitive clunking sound.  A few days later, I had an appointment with the specialist – who had an awesome nespresso machine and herbal tea selection free for client consumption (it’s the little things).  He sent me to get an X-ray, which was just down the hall and took 15 minutes.  After a 30 second glance, he advised me that:  a) the bone was healed – Yay!;  b) I had a lot of ligament damage but not enough for surgery – okay;  c) it would be six months of physio before I could run again, and 18 months for the ligament to be fully healed – sigh; and d) that I should avoid walking on sand, hills or uneven surfaces for a little while – in other words, don’t walk anywhere in the Solomon Islands.  I guess it was as good a diagnosis as I could expect.

The real challenge in Australia was the cost.  Even with insurance covering most of it, I was responsible for the Medicare gap, which still left me a few hundred dollars out.  Perhaps the most bewildering thing was getting the ankle brace.  I remember back in the day when you would just head to your local pharmacy, go to the rack, choose your size, and then go on your merry way.  Not anymore!  This time, I had to have an appointment with a specialist orthotic company, pay an AUD$25 consulting fee for someone to decide whether I needed a small or a medium size, and then hobble out $100 poorer.

The one positive from this whole experience is that I am now far more acutely aware and observant of disability inaccessibility wherever I go.  It may not surprise you that Solomon Islands is a disaster for this – pervasive slippery tiles on the floor; steps that are so steep and spaced so far apart that they would be better suited as a climbing wall;  no railings……anywhere; no ramps; and just lots of sand, hills and uneven surfaces.

However, I was also surprised by things in Australia.  I was pleased by the buses that drop down to allow you to easily step on them. I was pleased by the lifts, railings, ramps and automatic doors.  I was less pleased with the numerous escalators that didn’t work (so many! And way worse than steps), slippery paint used for pedestrian crossings, long distances between bus stops, and sloping footpaths (great to rain runoff, bad for people with feet at different heights).  My conclusion is that it is almost impossible to cater for every form of disability everywhere, but having more than one option for getting to/from, in/out of a place is good.

Now to end with some good news.  Back in Solomon Islands, I have managed to find myself the most amazing physio ever (excluding my physio friends who have not had the chance to woo me with their mad clinical skills).  In the space of a week, I have managed to regain almost all movement, and am beginning to get strength back in my foot, thanks to a lengthy and slightly painful daily exercise regime.  I am walking without a hobble, and have just made my first venture back into the field where I am preparing to tackle the extremes of sand, hills and uneven surfaces.  Wish me luck!

Categories: Life in General | 1 Comment

A taste of Italy

Refreshing falls at Mt Austen

Refreshing falls at Mt Austen

Over the last three weeks, we’ve been blessed again with lovely visitors.  This time it was Christina and Lorenzo, all the way from Italy.  By now, we are starting to get our visitors’ schedule down pat.  Depending on the amount of time you stay, it will inevitably involve:

  • An (occasionally late) welcome at the airport, with a cold coconut.
  • Dragging you along to a hike or two in Honiara’s hills (Mataniko, Kakobona, Tenaru or Mt Austen), involving much cursing to get there, a refreshing swim and waterfall half way through, much cursing to get back, and three days recovering from all the bruises, scratches and stings. This time, we took Christina and Lorenzo to Mt Austen, sustaining a sting for a plant that lasted 4 days.
  • A day trip and picnic to relaxing Visale beach, and a snorkelling visit to the WWII shipwreck at Mbonege beach (rough ocean permitting).
  • An overnight trip to Maravaghi to get away from it all and see spectacular snorkelling.
  • A visit to the art gallery, craft markets and, rarely, the museum.
  • Several days/afternoons spent by one of the hotel’s pools with a cold drink (Coral Sea, Heritage or Honiara Hotel) because, let’s be honest, it’s too hot to do anything else.
  • A trip to the Central or SDA Markets to smell the fish, look at the exotic fruit and veg, and do the grocery shop on behalf of Isabel.
  • Sitting in front of the TV, fan as high as it can go, watching foreign news or old movies while being harassed by the parrot because, let’s be honest, it’s too hot to do anything else.
  • Countless trips to the bank, bottled water shop, Fantastic corner store and the bulk shop….to do the grocery shop on behalf of Isabel.
  • Excessive amounts of eating because, well, it’s too hot to do anything else! By this I mean dinner at the Taj Mahal, the Korean Restaurant, and sunset drinks at The Ofis.  For those who like fish, there’s also a lunchtime Kokoda at El Shaddhai, and the Sunday evening all you can eat Japanese buffet (read:  all you can eat sashimi).  We’re also kind enough to cook the occasional meal, provided you’re happy to indulge in Zambian nshima, and vegan dessert experiments.
  • If you’re also lucky, you can also expereince a trip to the doctor for one of the Pacific’s latest tropical outbreaks. This month, it’s Red Eye!

Actually, it’s Manyoni and I who are the lucky ones.  Not only do we get to enjoy fantastic company but our guests always seem so adaptable to the hot and slow Honiara lifestyle.  In the case of our latest Italian residents, we were also treated to delicious pasta, risotto, a pizza bake-off and vegan mayo.  For that, we are so grateful.

So now you know what to expect, start booking your trip to Hotel Ross-Banda, where the love and red eye abound!

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