While many visitors to the Solomons may think that Honiara or Guadalcanal is the centre of it all, there is actually one Province that is much more populous, and with a much bigger personality: Malaita.
It took me a while to make it to Malaita, but with our sanitation project moving to North Malaita soon, and an offer from one of the Paramount Chiefs to stay in his village, I couldn’t really say no.
3 -4 October – The Journey to Oroe
I joined 10 other friends and together, we boarded the Awka ship for the 6 hour “overnight” journey. This was my first long-distance boat journey in Solomons and it was as much an experience as I expected it to be.
Although the boat didn’t leave until 6pm, it was prudent to get there at 4pm to snag the best spot. Having a reasonable income, we were able to afford the 1st class ticket, which meant we didn’t have to squish with hundreds of others on a dirty, metal floor in the hold of the boat. Instead, we headed to the air-conditioned area upstairs, and nabbed a corner of the room where we could lay down our yoga mats and try our best to sleep through the sickening, rolling motion, and the sound of the waves smashing against the rusty metal hull.
We arrived in Auki, the capital of Malaita, just after midnight. After taking about an hour to get us, and our ludicrous amounts of luggage off the boat, we then we made our way to a pre-arranged 3-tonne truck waiting at the wharf. The guys did a great job at piling our luggage high, and then piling people in all around it. There were 12 of us fitting into a space of about 1.5 x 2metres in the tray (on a mattress), while about 20 locals fit into the other half of the truck.
Of course, our truck was just one of about 50 parked haphazardly at the wharf, and we had to wait patiently for another 1.5 hours just to get out of the traffic jam. This gave us plenty of time to purchase some fresh Arabella Pineapples and mangoes for the 5-hour journey North.
We finally got moving at 2:30am, and the first thing I noticed about driving in an open truck at 3am in the morning in Malaita, is that it was cold! Yes, that strange sensation that I haven’t felt for a while.
The next thing I noticed was that the bumpy road really made me need to go to the toilet. Politely, the truck stopped and turned off its headlights as we scattered to the road edge and did our best to quickly do our business (no number 2s!) before getting caught in the headlights of other passing trucks.
Despite our relative comfort, sleep eluded me, so I was quite grateful as the sun began to rise and I finally got to see Malaita for the first time. I was greeted by thick jungle on one side, and sand beaches on the other, so calm and picturesque in the subtle dawn light.
I also noticed very few bottleshops advertised. When I asked the Chief about this, I quickly discovered that Malaita (especially North Malaita) is very strictly and traditional. A number of villages are dry (loosely enforced) and women must never buy alcohol. Women must also wear skirts, never touch a man’s hair, or step over anyone’s legs or food (apparently, because they might be menstruating).
We arrived at Oroe village at around 7am (For the nerds: GPS -8.390683, 160.731443). Children half my size assisted in carrying our grotesque amount of belongings to the Chief’s house, where we crashed into slumber for a few hours until the searing mid-morning heat woke us up.
After a bite to eat, the Chief led us down to the local river where we could wash off the truck ride’s dust, and the morning’s sweat. The water was lovely, and we whiled away the hours attempting to skip stones, learn an underwater drumming technique (fail!), and catching tadpoles while the entire village nearby looked on in curiosity.
The rest of the afternoon we spent recuperating – by which I mean reading our book, making a vague plan for our stay, and cooking up a delicious dinner of Taro Coconut Soup.
5 October – The Clinic & Lau Lagoon
Despite this blog coming across as a holiday tale, the underlying purpose of this trip to Malaita was for work. Those who accompanied me on the trip were all health professionals, and our first day in the village was spent providing a rural clinic and conducting health awareness.
I take it things like this don’t happen very often in this part of the world, as we had 60 people lined up by 9am. As word got around, numbers increased and by lunchtime, we would have had around 200 people passing through.
While the doctors and nurses attended to the patients, the rest of us were thrust into doing some health education. Naturally, I spent my time talking about sanitation and encouraging everyone to build a toilet and a nifty little tippy tap using a mineral water bottle – it never fails to impress!
However, the most fascinating revelation for me resulted from the diabetes education, where one listener asked if it is good to smoke to stop diabetes. After all, “smoking stop hunger and diabetes is linked to eating too much”. While we know this to be incorrect, I couldn’t fault the logic, and his question gave me one of those jolting reminders to be ultra-careful of how our simplified promotional messaging can potentially lead to other damaging behaviour.
Sadly, things didn’t get any better from here, and the misinterpreted messaging continued on a slippery downward slope. This new realisation that smoking could lead to diabetes led to an interest among listeners about how to quit. Great! Based on this interest, my well-meaning colleague offered to provide personal quit advice to those who were serious. Okay.
In the end, what resulted was the village representative (not the Chief) getting the loudspeaker and demanding that “all smokers go immediately to the School for Smokers”. I observed people dobbing in their friends, neighbours and family members, sending them to the School for Smokers, where the village had set up a wooden plank for now-maligned smokers to sit on – like a line of prisoners awaiting a firing squad. As visitors, we couldn’t question the actions of the village leader, so we just had to go along with it and do our best to minimise the expectations and the damage. Eish!
After lunch, we needed a break and decided to head to Manaoba Island on Lau Lagoon. We piled back into the back of the 3-tonne truck, and took a 30 minute ride to Lagoon Dwellers Lodge. There, the Chief sorted some boats to take us across the lagoon to a sand beach. The boat ride was slow due to the low tide, strong wind and thick seaweed. It was this thick seaweed that brought in the dugong that some people saw from the boat (not me!). Instead, my eyes were glued to the artificial islands built up by hand from limestone, looking for indications of how the islands’ residents deal with the issues of water and sanitation – I am such a nerd.
The boat dropped us at a beautiful sand beach, where turquoise water spread out as far as the eye could see. There was no coral to look at, and the water was like a hot bath, but it was a pleasant place to make a splash and relax for the afternoon.
In the late afternoon, the boat returned to collect us and as we made our way back across the windy lagoon I spied something amazing: windsurfing. Sort of. The locals had rigged up a sail to their wooden canoes using black tarp, and were standing in the canoes adjusting the sails to the wind to take them between islands. This is the first place in the country where the wind appeared consistent and strong enough to facilitate any form of wind-based water sport. It was a beautiful site, and made me wish for a kite!
With everyone back on the mainland, we piled back into the 3-tonne for the journey home. A grey cloud threatened to shower us on the way home, but instead produced a beautiful rainbow that extended across the silhouette of coconut trees in the sunset.
We made it back to the village after dark, presenting a unique challenge (especially with my gammy foot) to hike along a slippery, rocky and clay, path back to the house.
6 October – Adaua Secondary School
The next day we planned to go up to to Adaua School to do more work in our respective fields. Unfortunately, and in typical Solomons style, the primary teachers hadn’t shown up, so instead we spent the morning relaxing and reading. However, secondary teachers were there, so around lunchtime (in the heat of the day!), we made the trek up to the school.
Adaua is a clean, big, boarding school perched on top of a hill, giving fantastic views of Lau lagoon and islands. It came across as quite clean, organised, and a lovely place to work. The secondary students, and teachers, were waiting for us in the hall, and we were given very little time to prepare what we were going to say and do. The girls were sent off separately to discuss menstrual hygiene as part of Days for Girls project. I was told to stick with the boys and talk about shit.
I quickly managed to get the Chief and students to recognise that when they go toilet all about, they end up eating their own faeces – always a party starter. The doctor and pharmacist then talked about diabetes and safe use of medicines, followed by the two nurses who gave a course on CPR. To end, groups of teachers were asked to come up and demonstrate what they had learned about CPR. I had no idea what they were saying, but whatever it was, the students were in stitches. In fact, the students were so engaged by this that during their lunchbreak, after the session had finished, we saw them on the stage practising. Amazing!
After we had been released from our working obligations, we were taken on a walking tour through the school. It was, indeed, a very clean school – at least until I went to investigate the ladies ablution blocks. It was a disaster, with the large investment in toilets and showers flooded with 30cm of sewage from blocked drains.
The more I travel this country and look at toilet projects of the past, the more I think that the introduction of water-based toilets is the biggest hindrance to helping the people of this country access a safe place to shit. The couple of hundred female boarders now use a single drop loo half way down the hill – vastly insufficient for their numbers, but clearly more hygienic and sustainable.
Back at the village, it was to be our last night in Oroe, so we spent the evening doing a gigantic cook-up of all the vegies kindly brought to us by the villagers, consumed against a backdrop of endless chorus from the Church.
7 October – The road to Auki
Big rain came overnight. So when our alarms woke us at 4:30am, in time for our scheduled 5:30am departure, it was no surprise that no-one was stirring – not even the Chief! After drifting in and out of sleep for another hour, listening closely for movement outside, I finally heard that the delay was due to concerns that the river crossing may be flooded.
At 7am, we finally headed off, by which time the rain had stopped. In my short stay here, I had noticed that the weather here is more unpredictable than anything in Melbourne. In the space of 24 hours, you can have bucketing rain, sun, rain, sun, rain, sun.
The river crossing was achieved safely by getting us all to jump out of the truck so that it could pass along a very old and unstable bridge. We also experienced a flat tyre around the time that I needed to stop and pee (although this gave a very painful lesson that peeing in the Solomons jungle can result in red ant bites on your behind). Other than this, the journey was quite enjoyable, with a mattress to sit on, clouds hovering overhead for the entire trip making everything much cooler and bearable, and surplus amounts of peanuts and bananas to keep us sated.
Given that the only other time I had been in Auki was at 1am, this was the first time I really got to see Auki in its “glory”. First stop was Kilu’ufi hospital to catch up with colleagues, all who were extremely excited about CLTS coming to town, thankfully. I looked at their solid waste management facilities, which largely involved throwing everything into a ravine. I then had my bank card swallowed by the ATM, and discovered refreshing chocolate frozen bananas for sale in the secondhand clothing store. And that, dear readers, is pretty much all I can say about Auki.
In the late afternoon, our travel group parted ways, with 5 of us extending our stay by heading to Langa Langa Lagoon for the weekend, and the rest heading back to Honiara.