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!

Categories: Life in General | 1 Comment

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

Langa Langa Lagoon

After parting ways with the North Malaita crew, a few of us headed off to Langa Langa lagoon for the weekend of relaxation (Langa means “long” and is a lagoon just South of Auki that stretches 21km long by 1km wide).

Reaching Serah’s Hideaway just before sunset, we grabbed a cold(ish) beer and plunged ourselves in the lagoon until no sign of the sun remained.  That evening, I ate one of the most delicious meals I have had in a long while, cooked by Serah and her team.

Sunset beers

Sunset beers

There really is nothing better than waking up to a huge breakfast of eggs, fresh sweet papaya, bananas, when the rain drizzles and you have nowhere to be.  This is what happened our first (and second) morning in Langa Langa.

Post-breakfast, we had a quick dip in the lagoon, before I sat down with Serah and tried to learn a bit more about this tranquil place.

Artificial Islands

Serah’s Hideaway is built on an artificial island.  Malaita, and particularly Langa Langa, is known for its artificial islands.  The first islands were built hundreds of years ago, during the head hunting and cannibalism days.  After being forced to flee, many people were not able to return, and instead set up villages on the shallow reef beds.  Most of the “artificial” islands are actually reef islands that are reinforced with rocks to prevent erosion and flooding.  The number of purely artificial islands (ie. islands built from nothing) are few.

One key advantage of artificial islands is that they avoid land title issues, which stop at the water’s edge.  However, even these days, people are trying to dispute reclaimed land.  Despite this, there are also a lot of down sides to living on an organised pile of rocks.

Rocks generally aren’t great for growing food, so back in the old days, residents had to regularly spend a couple of days travelling in huge war canoes (which they built themselves – Langa Langa people are skilled boat builders) to the Florida Islands in Central Province and even Guadalcanal.  There, they would barter their world-famous shell money for goods, perhaps even pick up a wife, and then come back.  Because of this, the residents of Langa Langa are a mixed bunch of people from Malaita, Central and Guadalcanal.  There are three main language groups that occupy the area now, and are unique to the islands.

Another downside of tiny, rocky island habitation, is water and sanitation (yep, it was only a matter of time).  Originally, the islands provided a freshwater lens that enabled people to access fresh drinking water from shallow wells.  With rising sea waters, many of the lenses are becoming saline and unusable.  After Christianity came, people were able to go and collect water from streams on the mainland, but that too is becoming less safe.

Poor sanitation and environmental practices have further contributed to the area’s environmental decline.  Years of using the lagoon as a dumping ground for rubbish and faeces, as well as the use of dynamite to catch fish and create rocks for building, has decimated the lagoon’s coral, mangrove and fish numbers.  Overpopulation is also contributing to poor conditions, according to Serah, who is not afraid to tell her peers to stop having so many children.

Not much space for waste!

Not much space for waste!

Serah’s Hideaway

Serah herself grew up on the southern edge of Langa Langa lagoon in Kwaro area.  From those early days, she even remembers two cannibal families who were living nearby, and describes them as “very big and tall, with huge muscles”.  Good to know.  Her family then moved to Bozo / Flanders area, which is close to where her islands are now.  When she finished school, she set out to build her own island.

Serah found the spot, and her father sought permission from their ancestors to allow her to build in that area.  Apparently, if you try to live on reclaimed land without ancestral permission, you will have “bad luck”, resulting in sickness and death.  Apparently, this is why so many of the islands are now uninhabited.

Twenty-nine years ago, Serah laid the first stone, and has laid every stone since.  In that time, she has constructed a total of 5 islands with her bare hands, and she has no plans to stop.  The original purpose of the islands was to create a home for her family, then in 2006 she opened for tourism.

Serah’s Hideaway is a true sanctuary, and through hard work, she has overcome the constraints of artificial island living.  She has built amazing, raised garden beds, filled with organic vegetables and chickens.  It is this produce that is used to create our amazing breakfasts, lunches and dinners – some of the best I’ve tasted in Solomons.

Serah's Hideaway

Serah’s Hideaway

Shell Money

The reason that most people can survive on these islands at all, is because of shell money.  Shell money is one of the trademark features of people from Langa Langa, and is still used as currency in the area.  It also remains an important part of wedding negotiations (think bride price), and a common adornment in traditional wedding ceremonies.  Each year, there is a shell money festival, and at any time of the year, you can do shell money tours, which is also important for tourism dollars.

Shell money uses four types of shells – black, white, grey and red, with red the most expensive.  Originally, all the shells were found locally but now that supply has dried up, they need to purchase from other Provinces.

Shell types

Shell types

The residents start by smashing shells into smaller pieces with rocks.  Then they chip away at the corners to give a roughly circular shape.

Chipping away....

Chipping away….

The next step is to make the discs smooth.  Using a special rock, which is burned in the fire to become soft and sticky, they can mix it with water to create a paste.  They spread the paste onto a smooth rock and stick the discs to it.  They then rub this rock – with the discs – against another smooth rock to sand down the shells.

Original sanding machine

Original sandpaper

After this stage, the smooth discs are transferred to a dry coconut shell, where they will have the holes drilled into the centre.  This step uses the most amazing contraption I have ever seen, and is a credit to its original inventor.  I can’t even begin to explain it, although I will say that it involves a sharpened rock as the drill bit, a big metre-long stick, and some bush rope which acts as a mechanical device to spin the stick and drill bit very quickly.  It is mesmerising to watch.

Ryobi eat your heart out

Ryobi eat your heart out

Once the discs have holes in the centre, the shells are then put on hot rocks, allowing some of the colours to change.  When the final colours are in place, the shell money is threaded onto giant strings a couple of metres long, and sanded to consistent size using rocks chiselled with culverts.

Sizing rolls of shell money

Sizing rolls of shell money

This is where the laborious process essentially ends.  People can either sell the long strand of shell money, or make their own patterns and sell the final designs.  These days, 30 discs will get you SBD$1, or 60 discs will get you one cigarette.  I reckon it’s a good incentive to quit smoking.  A full wedding kit, which includes head wear, earrings, an intricate design that drapes over your chest and back, waist and foot jewellery can set you back thousands.

Photo courtesy of someone else

Photo courtesy of someone else

Back to the relaxing weekend

After learning as much as I could about Langa Langa, there was really not much else to do but relax.  The days would be spent going between eating, reading, swim, reading, eating, swim, reading, swim, beer, eating, sleep.  In the evening, we would sit on the jetty in the moonlight, and watch mesmerised as the coral spawning created luminescent bursts on the water surface, and as a lion fish meandered below in full splendour.

Snorkelling.....again

Snorkelling…..again

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and on Sunday afternoon, we headed back to Auki to catch our afternoon flight to Honiara.  At least, that was the plan.  The plan wasn’t well executed.  Partly, it was because some of us were confused about the flight time (4:15 or 4:30?).  This led one of us to book the taxi with very little room for delays.  But then one of us left something behind so we had to go back to the lodge.  Then the taxi ran out of fuel.  After topping up, the taxi then became incapable of going up hills (wrong fuel type?).  So then the taxi added oil.  That didn’t help.  Then the taxi broke down.  So we flagged down the next vehicle, which kindly took us to the airport.  We got there at 4:00pm and the plane had already left.  Perhaps the only time in the country’s history when they are running ahead of schedule.  Furthermore, we weren’t the only ones caught offguard by the early departure – at least four others also missed the flight.

Needless to say, we were not getting out of Auki that day.  Fortunately, Solomon Airlines is pretty flexible so we were able to get booked on the next morning’s flight and still make it in time for work.

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North Malaita

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.

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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.

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View from Oroe

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.

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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!

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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!

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School for Smokers (note the loudspeaker)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Categories: Exploring, Work | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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.

Categories: Exploring, Life in General | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Battle of Guadalcanal

It’s cuppa tea time, people, because here comes another lengthy blog for your enjoyment.  I also apologise in advance for any errors written – I’m sure there are plenty.

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View from the US Memorial over Iron Bottom Sound.

View from the US Memorial over Iron Bottom Sound.

Solomon Islands is really only known for two things:  Great diving, and the WWII Battle of Guadalcanal.  Since coming here, I have done my best to experience the country’s amazing underwater life.  I felt it was about time to learn more about its second claim to fame.

Every year, historian and WWII enthusiast, John Innes, makes his way to Honiara to conduct tours to some of the key spots in the island’s battles.  I decided to join.  The one-day tour took us from the:

  • US Memorial (Opened on 7th August 1992 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the American landing in Guadalcanal)
  • Kola Ridge (the site of action where Mitchell Paige won the Medal of Honour….and now someone’s house),
  • Japanese Memorial (a shrine built in the 80’s where, every year, a memorial is held).
  • Track of the 2nd Raider Battalion on Mt Austen
  • Japanese spy observation point over Honiara shrouded by long grass
  • Mt Austen and the site of the Gifu,
  • Alligator creek, and
  • Bloody Ridge.

This is what I learnt:

Going back

In 1893, the British took over the protectorate of the Solomon Islands, and set up the capital at Tulagi in Central Islands Province.  The biggest industry at the time was copra, and it remained a sleepy backwater of the British Empire.  Tulagi is an excellent anchorage – steep into the water – and in 1924, the Royal Navy recommended the British transfer the Far East fleet from Singapore to Tulagi.  Due to the cost, they did not.  How different Solomon Islands would be now if that recommendation had been accepted!

By the time the second world war arrived, there were only about 500 expatriates spread throughout the Solomon Islands.

The Japanese entered the war in 1941, in a bid to take over the European empires, force America to the negotiation table, and have them recognise Japan as a leading player.  On the 3rd May, 1942, the Japanese headed for Tulagi.

At the time, Tulagi was defended by 18 Australians.  When they heard news of the pending invasion, they took off.  Three hours after their departure, the Japanese took over and set up a sea plane base, as well as having long-range flying boats.

The first American involvement was on the 4th May, 1942.  They had heard about the Japanese landing in Tulagi so, on their way to the Battle of the Coral Sea, they sent two aircraft carriers over Tulagi to bombard the Japanese ships.  All this managed to achieve was to let the Japanese know that Americans had aircraft carriers in the area.

The 1st Marine Division

Meanwhile, the Japanese settled into Tulagi and quickly identified a flat bit of ground in Guadalcanal perfect for an airstrip.  They sent over 3000 construction workers, guarded by 247 Special Forces, to construct an airstrip at Henderson Field.

Eight Australian volunteer coast watchers (the ones that didn’t flee) – each supported by around 100 Solomon Islanders – remained behind enemy lines and fed information on the airstrip construction to the Americans.  Bolstered by a recent victory in the Pacific, the Americans decided to attack.  Unfortunately, the only people available were the 1st Marine Division.

Now, a Division is made up of several regiments, with 3 battalions per regiment, and 1000 men per battalion.  Within the 1st Marine Division were two Raider Battalions of 900 men each.  A raider is the equivalent of a British commando.

The 1st Raider Battalion was led by Colonel Edson (of Bloody Ridge fame).  The 2nd Raider Battalion was led by Evans Carlson, who had previously had experience fighting against the Japanese alongside Communist China.  When Carlson had carefully selected his Battalion (choosing only 1 in 3 marines), he used revolutionary tactics learnt in China.  One of the most famous tactic was a catchcry used to motivate his men, meaning “Working together”.  The term in Chinese is “Gung ho”.

The 1st Marine Division had arrived in New Zealand in June, 1942, and had never experienced a battle together.  Led by General Vandegrift, they had expected to be given 6 months of training but, instead, were handed a note giving them 6 weeks to prepare for Guadalcanal.  After much protest, the seniors relented and gave them an extra 6 days.  Fortunately, the climate of New Zealand is just like that of the Pacific, so the training they did have was totally appropriate.

Landing at Red Beach – 7th August, 1942

On the 1st August, the 1st Marine Division set out towards Guadalcanal.  The Japanese were oblivious to this development and continued operations as usual.  From this point on, luck landed on the side of the Americans and played a big part in their success in Guadalcanal.

On the 5th & 6th August, the weather was terrible, so the usual reconnaissance flights made by the Japanese were abandoned, allowing the US ships to enter undetected. In fact, due to construction of the airfield moving ahead of schedule, the Japanese also held a party on the 6th August, leaving them hungover for the American’s arrival on the 7th.

The Americans came from the Western end of Guadalcanal, past Savo Island.  Some Battalions landed at Blue Beach in Tulagi, Florida Islands, and the small islands of Gavutu-Tanambogo (all in current-day Central Province).  They faced strong resistance from the Japanese and suffered many casualties.  With support from the Division Reserve, all three islands were cleared of Japanese within a couple of days.

The remaining Battalions sailed on to Guadalcanal where they expected 7,000 Japanese to be stationed.  The admiral in charge decided to land Red Beach*, where the swathes of Guadalcanal Province Palm Oil Limited (GPPOL) palm plantations are now situated.

This was a rather stupid move, as the beach is in the middle of a bay.  Had Japanese soldiers been situated anywhere on that bay, the Americans would have had to endure inflow fire from both sides.  As mentioned though, the Japanese were caught unaware, allowing the Americans to sail in without resistance.  Their arrival was extraordinarily anti-climactic.

* A common misconception is that Red Beach is named for the blood shed there, however no fighting occurred at Red Beach.  There are three designated beaches:  Red Beach in Honiara, Blue beach in Tulagi, and White Beach at the islands of Gavutu-Tanambogo.

Takeover of Henderson Airfield – 8th August, 1942

Seeing no Japanese upon landing, the Americans automatically assumed that they were planning a sneaky attack, so the marines took a very cautious 36 hours to reach the airfield at Henderson.

Meanwhile, instead of staying to defend the airfield, the Japanese Engineer in Charge thought it would be a good idea for everyone to leave, go to the other side of the Mataniko River, and wait for the Americans to move on before going back and finishing off the airstrip.  They left everything – trucks, fuel, generators, radios – ensuring that construction of the airport could resume quickly upon their return.

Of course, the Americans didn’t leave.  They took over Henderson airfield on 8th August, and all its construction machinery, without any struggle.  They immediately set up a defensive posture facing the sea, with a two-mile front, and shoulders 500 yards back.

When they did this, though, what they found was an empty sea.  On the night of the 7th August, the Japanese had sent seven cruisers and one destroyer to do a U-turn around Savo Island.  In the 38 minutes it took to do that, they destroyed five American ships.    The Captain of the remaining US ships decided to head off to avoid further attack, leaving the Marines marooned on Guadalcanal.

With few options, no supplies or artillery, and 2000 men short, the Americans proceeded to complete construction of the airport using the Japanese equipment, and surviving on Japanese food supplies.  The first plane – a Catalina – landed on 12th August, 1942.

Battle of Tenaru (Alligator Creek / Ilu River) – 20th August, 1942

After the takeover of Henderson, the Japanese realised that they needed more people to defeat the Americans.  Their intelligence told them that there were 2,000-3,000 Americans, so they responded by sending 911 men.  In reality, there were more like 11,000 marines.

Led by Colonel Ichiki, the Japanese landed at Taivu point on 18th August, and made their way towards the airfield.  At this point, the Americans were unaware that the Japanese had landed, however the 1st marine regiment had already set up a perimeter at Alligator Creek (1st battalion in reserve, 2nd battalion along the river, and the 3rd battalion along the sea).

On 20th August, the Japanese came close to Alligator Creek and met a local man called Jacob Vouza who was carrying an American flag.  Vouza was a retired policeman who served as a Coast watcher and Headman for the British District Officer, Martin Clemens.

As the Japanese questioned and tortured Vouza to get information on the Americans.  Seeing the small number of Japanese men, Vouza decided to lead them to Alligator Creek where he knew that thousands of Americans were waiting.

That night, Ichiki told his men that they were going to attack.  The tactic of the Japanese is to attack at night, while the Americans attack during the day.  This forced the Americans to stay put all night, urinating into their helmets rather than going to the bush, for fear of being mistaken as the enemy.

Ichiki first ordered a company of men to walk across the Alligator Creek at 0310 hours.  They were quickly decimated by the waiting Americans.  Ichiki sent another company of men, and then another.  Very quickly, 300 Japanese soldiers were dead.  Then it settled down into a two-sided shelling.

With information from Vouza, the Vandegrift released the 1st battalion from reserve, who crossed the river upstream and launched an enveloping attack, which led to complete annihilation of the Japanese.  Of the more than 800 Japanese soldiers, only 26 survived.  Of the 11,000 marines, 35 died and 75 were injured.

The Americans scraped out a grave to bury all the Japanese bodies.  A run-down headstone sandwiched between leaf huts now marks the spot.  For his efforts, in this battle and others, Vouza has been immortalised in a statue out the front of Rove police station.

The battle at Alligator creek is also famous for one other incident involving three marines – Leroy Diamond, Johnny Rivers, and Al Schmid.  On the 20th August, the three men opened fire with a machine gun.  The Japanese were able to pick out where the shots were coming from, so they fired back and hit Johnny Rivers and killed him.  Diamond and Schmidt took over but, a little later, a mortar round came through and blew the hands off Diamond and blinded Schmidt.  Between them they still had a good pair of hands and a good pair of eyes, and they kept firing the gun all night.  They were awarded the Navy Cross for their efforts.

Battle of Bloody Ridge – 12th September, 1942

The Americans started numbering the hills, with the site of bloody ridge originally being named Hill 1 & 2.

By late August, the 1st Raider Battalion and 1st Parachute Battalion were moved from Tulagi to strengthen the defence of the Guadalcanal beachhead.  First they went to Savo, then were put on an expedition to go to Tasamboko in the East.  They got to General Kawaguchi’s headquarters after he had already left.  So, the Americans took everything of value and burned the rest.

The Americans then tried to identify the line of approach for the Japanese return.  General Vandegrift insisted that the Japanese would return along the ocean front, which would have been reasonable if the Japanese were coming by boat.  However, since the Japanese were already on land, the operations officer, General Thomas, and head of the 2nd Raiders division, Colonel Edson, felt they would approach from the ridge south of the Airfield – Hill 123.  Thomas and Edson were ignored.

At the same time, the 1st Marine Division headquarters was located next to the Lunga river and close to Henderson airstrip (where Willie’s Electrical now stands), meaning that they were subject to all the overnight shelling and daily bombing, and giving it the name ‘Impact Centre’.  Vandegrift decided to move the headquarters to a quieter spot, and he chose Hill 123.  This concerned General Thomas and Colonel Edson greatly.  So, they went to the General and asked that their men be allowed to rest and recuperate at Hill 123.  General Vandegrift agreed, and the Raiders and Parachute Battalion moved in there on 11th September.

By now, Colonel Edson had 760 men (three companies) under his command.  He stationed the B company of Parachute Battalion on top of the hill, the B company of the Raiders from the top of the hill going down to the base, and the C company of the Raiders from the base of the hill to the edge of the Mataniko river.  That was the front line, and it was very, very thin.

Meanwhile, General Kawaguchi had returned with his 5,280 men.  They landed to the East, and then cut inland to attack the Americans from the undefended rear (remember, the Americans had set up a defence posture facing the sea).  They attacked on the 12th September, however got lost in the jungle in the process.  Instead of having 3,000 men reach the Americans at the same time (who easily would have defeated the thin front line), they only attacked with about 250 men.

The attack occurred in the dense jungle next to Mataniko river, where the C company of Raiders were stationed.  The C company was easily overrun – they had no time to build fields of fire, clear the grass, or set up barbed wire.  This was a minor success for the Japanese, but it also served to notify the Americans of which direction the Japanese were attacking from.

So on the next day – the artillery of the 11th Marines were allocated to defend the ridge.  They had all day to register the guns on their targets.  The Japanese attacked again that night, but the Americans were ready for them.  In the end, the mass amounts of artillery won that battle for the US.

A memorial in honour of this battle is located at the Central Police Station (opposite the Mendana).

From Bloody Ridge down to the Mataniko River

From Bloody Ridge down to the Mataniko River

The Battle of Coffin Corner – 24th October 1942

After the defeat at Bloody Ridge, the Japanese then allocated 8,500 men to make another attack in October.  They landed to the West at Poha River, and then cut a difficult trail inland, taking 5 days to reach their destination.

On the 23rd October, the Japanese made an attack across the Mataniko River (In fact, the turret of one of the tanks can still be seen in the river, about 50m in from the shore, on the side of the hospital).  This attack spooked the Americans into thinking that the main attack from the Japanese would come from the mouth of the Mataniko.  So, the US put one battalion in to protect an attack from that direction, with 46 men on lookout.  They had a very thinly held line, but it was bristling with fire power.

On the 24th, the Japanese started to move into position, streaming past the outpost where Sergeant Briggs was located.  Briggs got on the phone to the command post, who asked him how many Japanese he thought there were.  He replied “The whole f….ing army”.  Chesty Puller got word to his men to hold fire until the last possible moment, allowing Briggs and the men stationed at the outpost to quickly move out.

Instead of attacking as one mass force of 8,000 men, the Japanese started to string out.  They fed themselves in, one company at a time.  In doing so, they were being chewed up by the firepower of the Americans.  Still, the marine line was buckling and, for the first time, they allowed another battalion of army to be filtered into the American line to boost numbers.  Later, Chesty Puller commented that “the army fought like marines”.  I assume that’s a compliment.

In the end, there were so many dead Japanese that one of the marines said “If you were a coffin maker, you’d make a fortune”.  Hence, the second battle at Lunga Ridge is named the Battle of Coffin Corner.

The Gifu (Hill 27 / Mt Austen) – January 1943

In October 1942, the Japanese set up a very strong and static defensive position of about 800 men at Mt Austen (Hill 27), with supporting foxholes and big bunkers five logs deep.  The marines knew they were there, but sealed them off and ignored them.

By December 1942, the 1st Marine division had been relieved, and replaced by another marine division with two army divisions.  One of the army regiments was insistent on taking back Hill 27.

On the 17th December, the 1st and 3rd battalions of the 132nd infantry commenced their attack on the Japanese positions.  Unaware of how strong the Japanese defensive positions were, they failed to make a dent.

On the 19th, the Colonel of the 3rd battalion – Colonel Wright – went forward and was throwing hand grenades at Japanese machine gun.  He succeeded.  The Americans continued on the offensive but, despite being bombed and shelled, the Japanese were very secure in their positions.

On 1st January, the US released the 2nd battalion from reserve.  They made their way around the flanks of the battle, attacked the Japanese from behind, and took Hill 27.  The Japanese had five attempts to retake the hill, to no avail.  As dusk approached, the Americans went to a more easily defended night position and allowed the Japanese to come on to the hill.  As they did that, they called in the artillery who was at the mouth of the Mataniko and blasted the Japanese out with high explosives. It was impossible to survive.

The Americans then set up a perimeter around the area.  Despite being surrounded, the Japanese still refused to give in.  On the 22nd January, the army brought in three tanks.  Two of these were immediately bombed, but the remaining tank managed to pierce the Japanese line and come back out.  That night, the 89 remaining Japanese were ordered to withdraw, but were reluctant to do so.  Instead, they fought to the death and attacked the strongest part of the American line.  Only four survived.

The Japanese who defended the site all hailed from a prefecture in Japan called the Gifu – and that is the name that made it into the history books.

The Japanese memorial in Honiara was built in the 80s, along a road used by the Americans in their attack at Mt Austen.  The road is names Wright Road, after the Colonel who was first able to infiltrate the Japanese lines.

The memorial is more of a shrine.  Every year, the Japanese hold a ceremony here.  They also conduct a bone burning ceremony just outside, burning all the Japanese bones collected over the past year, and taking the ashes back to Japan.

Foxholes at the Gifu (Mt Austen)

Foxholes at the Gifu (Mt Austen)

The Japanese Withdrawal – 8th February 1943.

The Japanese, not to be defeated, sent another 12,000 men to Guadalcanal on 11 transporters.  Unfortunately, the transporters were seen and bombed by the American’s SBDs, sinking seven of them.  One is now a great snorkelling point at Mbonege beach.

The remaining four transporters landed, releasing 3,000 Japanese into the mainland with no supplies.  Knowing they were unable to win, they immediately set up a night time withdrawal on 8th February, taking off 11,500 men in three evacuation runs and leaving behind 24,500 dead on the ground.  So ended the battle in Guadalcanal.

The US expansion

In the years that followed, Henderson airfield became a major American air base.  2.5 million Americans passed through here, forming the biggest expat population in the country’s history.  With so much infrastructure investment, the capital was moved from Tulagi to Honiara.  They built every road that currently exists in Honiara, power, water, seven airfields (one of which is now the SolBrew factory) and a number of field hospitals.  Henderson airfield and Field Hospital No. 9 (our National Referral Hospital) are still in use.

As you look around, the hills are exactly the same as they were in 1942.  The only thing that has changed is the intense logging along the Mataniko River that has replaced tropical jungle with swamp lands, and the explosion in population from the 18-hut Horahi village to the current day 55,000 populous of dusty Honiara.

Conclusion

As I hear these stories, it is easy to see how enthralled our storyteller and historian, John Innes, is by these wartime events.  I usually find such enthusiasm infectious but, this time, sadly, I didn’t share his delight.

While the WWII is an important part of the region’s history and making (hence why I did the tour), and while standing in the original foxholes and finding shells on the ground sets the hair on end, I feel an overwhelming sense uneasiness in witnessing such excitement over these events.

The excitement is even harder to stomach knowing that the average age of the Japanese army was just 18, and that the youngest US soldier was only 12 years old (when his real age was discovered he was dishonourably discharged, but that has been overturned recently and replaced with an honourable discharge and full backpay and pension).

Whether you’re backing the Americans or the Japanese – 24,500 dead is not a pretty picture.  That’s not even to mention the lives lost from the American side, and the countless lives lost at the many battles at sea – so many, that the water between Guadalcanal, Savo and Tulagi is known as Iron Bottom Sound for all the sunken ships.

Almost everything we see about the battles in Guadalcanal – in Australia and through Hollywood – is heavily Americo-centric and goodies vs baddies.  However, it is hard to get away from the idea that, perhaps, it wasn’t so black and white.  Those 24,000 murdered Japanese also had wives and children that they left behind in order to fight something that they felt was worthwhile.  One day, I would love to hear their side of the story.

Artifacts from the war still cover the ground around Honiara.

Artifacts from the war still cover the ground around Honiara.

Categories: Exploring | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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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