In Whose Footsteps…?
Encounters in the Solomon Islands…
I was high in the mountains in the jungle-clad interior of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands –-now of Will and Kate fame– but previously little-known other than as the scene of ferocious guerilla warfare between the USA and Japanese in World War II. In this remote area I was the only white face that had been seen in living memory.
These mountains were the hideout of the armed bands during the recent civil war and the island’s remote valleys are also a safe-haven of cultural isolation. With very little contact with the outside world an ancient traditional way of life is still being lived by many tribal groups. It was these people that I intended to visit and interact with, hoping to learn about their culture and their unique religious beliefs, which have fused some aspects of Christianity with indigenous spirituality.
There are many reasons not to visit the mountains of Guadalcanal. Some of the more obvious ones include the precipitous terrain, the awful food, and the legacy of tribal violence. There was a village in one valley that I was instructed not to go near, since it was where Andrew Te’e, the powerful leader of one of the militant gangs, was hiding from the law. But in this part of the highlands I was in no such danger from rebels. Instead, I was severely warned, I had to contend with the powers and pranks of the resident giant population.
“When you go into the bush,” Melkiore the village chief told me, “you must always keep your hair tied up very tight,” — I have long blond hair -– “if not – the giants will think you are mocking them.”
All the local women practice the custom of tying up one’s hair when going into the bush, but as a man my long hair, combined with my colossal height compared to the locals – the tallest of them about at my shoulder – would alarm the giants more than usual.
“If they see you, they will try and cut it off.” This had apparently happened before. A Japanese soldier, who one of the old men had led into the jungle during the “Bigfala Fight” (World War II) had been sheared by the giants in his sleep.
This is all to say that for the traveler willing to step off the beaten track in the Solomon Islands unexpected things can happen. The only information in travel guides for this area of the country is that it is wild and remote and you will test your Indiana Jones survival skills to launch any expedition here. That is what attracted me there: being the explorer that in a former life I feel I might have been.
I spent all my time with the indigenous people, learning about the culture and recording their beliefs and their folk-tales. I interviewed village giant historians, witch doctors and spiritual leaders. I was, it turned out, the first foreigner in living memory to take an interest in these people’s lives.
This is all to set the scene of an environment where everything you can imagine in your wildest explorer dreams is a reality.
The research I did has given me material to write up my experiences and add to the fledgling travel writing culture that is developing about the Solomon Islands and the Pacific Islands in general. The ‘South Seas’ as they were romantically known have a fascinating heritage in the western imagination and this cultural perspective of the islands is one of which I am always conscious in describing my own narratives. All writers who come back from this remote part of the world assure their readers that the tales they tell are true and accurate – now I will do the same. But there is a kind of tropical fever that travelers are prone to in the Pacific Islands – they seem to make the imagination hyperactive and the senses intensely sharp.
What I went through in the jungle of Guadalcanal is a true story – but then, I would say that, wouldn’t I?
“I know your great- great-grandmother,” chief Melkiore confided in me. We were sitting cross-legged on the hard mud floor in the smoky sacred-house in the middle of the village. The whole village had gathered to hear this evening’s “storying” and children overflowed out the door of the small leaf-house. And the highland rain pounded down on the roof.
Over the next few hours, through a combination of my own slightly broken Solomon ‘pijin’ English and the tribal dialect translated by the local man I was employing, I gradually got the bottom of this bewildering statement.
In their belief, in the ancestral past (a time charmingly and hazily described as “befoa” – ‘before’) a wise woman was sent away from the island. She was sent away in what is known as a ‘cheka’, a Solomon Islands’ custom, which involves sealing the individual into a canoe supplied with a few coconuts and setting the vessel to drift in the open ocean. More often than not these people died, although sometimes they first reached neighbouring islands where their enemies subsequently killed them. This practice was a death sentence in a time of merciless headhunting. But this woman survived and drifted in her hollowed out mango trunk all the way to America. There she told the story of Christianity to the Americans and Europeans.
It is worth noting here that in this case, as with other Cargo Cults and similar hybridized prophecies in Melanesia, Christianity is known not as a middle-Eastern religion, but as a European and American one. This is explained by encounters with the European imperial powers and then the US military during WW2.
This particular group on Guadalcanal is known as the Gaena’Alu or Moro movement. They believe (and have collected the evidence for it) that the stories told in the Bible are based on events that took place in Guadalcanal originally. The “European version”, is “incomplete”, they say, and owes its existence to an imperfectly remembered story that this exiled Guadalcanal woman told.
Their version of Christian beliefs is very detailed and there are sacred stones and groves of bamboo in the mountains that mark almost every story of significance in the Bible. Many of the smaller artifacts have been stored in the sacred-house, including the sharpened piece of bamboo that was used to cut Jesus Christ’s umbilical chord.
My eyes grew ever wider as I heard these things mumbled over the embers of the fire by the wrinkled oral-historians of the tribe as they smoked their pipes and chewed betel nut. The chief then explained to me what he meant by, ‘I know your great- great-grandmother.”
Many of the spiritual leaders of the Moro Movement (though not all of them) believed in a prophecy associated with this wise woman who had taken the story of Guadalcanal Christianity to the West. Much like the “songlines” of the aboriginal Australians, Melanesians have “story-lines”. The chief explained that when this woman had taken her journey she had left a path behind her. Her descendant would be able to follow this path and return to where it began, and where (in their belief) all life began, on Guadalcanal. There he would reconnect with his people and tell their stories to the world, since as a descendant of the wise-woman he would be clever enough to do so. They also have some rather condemning myths explaining why they are still living their simple life in the bush while their European and American cousins are living a better life. The moral of the story is a kind of antithesis to the American Dream ideology.
Many of the leaders believed that I was this prophesied descendant. This suspicion was confirmed by the fact that I took an interest in their beliefs and stories, and it was for this reason that they revealed my identity to me. The young man who I had employed as my translator, himself a Christian and not a believer in the Moro movement doctrines, shyly whispered to me later that night as we lay down in the hut to sleep whether what the chief said was true.
Over the next few weeks I took on the role of historian and recorded as much as I could of the oral history and beliefs of the tribes I lived with.
Throughout I was acutely aware of the footsteps I was following. The history of colonial exploration is full of such titles being thrust upon white European adventurers. The story that instantly comes to mind is of Pizarro being hailed by the Aztecs as a white god who they then worshipped. This bloody legacy was always in the back of my mind during the rest of my expedition. Of course, my intentions were not imperial expansion and acquisition of wealth, and therefore exploitation of the position of power I had been given never suggested such bloodthirsty tactics. But I was always aware of how much responsibility had been placed in my hands by the leaders of these tribes.
We like to think in the age of mass-tourism and globalization that we as Westerners have shrugged off the legacy of colonialism: that the “post-modern traveler”, as this magazine has described before, is somehow ahistorical, asocial, and independent. That is to say, the typical “journey” that those young Westerners tend to describe who have been privileged enough to travel is all about personal development, usually at the expense of some arbitrary volunteer work.
Of course, I say this as much describing myself as anyone else. It always disturbs me that those people with whom I find such pleasure in living do not have the freedom to globetrot in the way I did to reach them. I feel guilty when I have to explain to them how I got there by plane and how much it costs to fly.
But the remedy, is to remember also how much I as an individual can give them back. And for this they expressed their gratitude to me. Simply by taking part in day-to-day activities and festivals, dressed in the traditional outfit like everyone else, my excitement was able to reinvigorate the interest of the young in their own identity and the lifestyle of their parents.
Whether doing volunteer work or exploration, we still need to remember that our white skin can get us into some uncomfortable spots if we are not careful to remember the perspective with which many people view us. Though we feel those colonial days are long gone, in the Solomon Islands at least, that is not always the case.
We travel with a legacy and we need to be aware of whose footsteps we follow. But more than this, we leave a legacy behind us. When travelling in remote areas like this, we make a huge mark; in fact we never really leave the place. Our memory stays, and any subsequent visitor will experience the repercussions of how we behaved. Therefore, we have a responsibility, to remember the past, and the future.