Of all the things that distinguish a traveller from a tourist perhaps the most denoting is the idea of a destination. For the traveller, is there such a thing?
I’m consistently asked, Where are you going? How will you get around? What have you booked? I don’t know. It depends. I haven’t!
Living like this can involve a degree of discomfort whilst demanding flexibility and patience, but the upshot is too tempting to resist for the intrepid: unexpected possibilities in places unimagined.
Travelling haphazardly then, I shouldn’t have been surprised when Dickson pointed on a map to a remote cluster of atolls in the Pacific Ocean. “We are here,” he said. We are?
I did a double take and squinted at the specks on the map. They were in a patch of water smack in the middle of the sea between the principal Solomon Islands of Choiseul and Isabel – it was a fair whack west of where I thought we were. I realised that I must’ve misunderstood something, somewhere along the way.
“This is Kerehikapa Island, in the Arnavon Island archipelago,” he said. It felt strange and perfect to not really know where I was in the world.
I’d arrived by hitching a whaleboat ride in one of two boats carrying 24 mothers and grandmothers from the Anglican Mother’s Union of Kia, a village in the northern extreme of Isabel Island.
Unbeknownst to me, the women of Kia were at Kerehikapa to learn about the Arnavon Islands marine conservation project, whose ownership is currently being transferred from the United State’s-based The Nature Conservancy (TNC) to the three different communities the islands culturally and geographically pertain: Kia, Katupika, and Wagina.
Dickson, a Conservation Officer representing Kia, the husband of one of the women and son of another, was explaining the principals of the project when he had pointed to the map. I wasn’t the only one feeling a little lost.
For the majority of the crew the 30-mile voyage marked 15 miles more than they had ever before ventured north from their village. Away from husbands, from working in the gardens and from caring for their interminable extended families, these women were thrilled by the adventure of distance, discovery and each others company.
“I have never looked towards my home from this perspective,” marvelled a sixty-something year-old woman called Augusta.
I asked them if they’d mind me taking photos of their trip. A dozen old birds giggled.
“We speak gud inglis for you,” one said. “And we no chew betel nut so we make gud smiles for photos.”
“We will speak our own language!” said Augusta, looking at me sternly. “And we will chew lots of betel nut because it is our kustom.”
Who is this pretentious ghasevaka (white woman)?, I could hear her thinking. It seemed that the austere woman had no tolerance for the preferential treatment white people receive. I liked her immediately.
Otherwise, the women were a rambunctious lot; big, bossy, bold and full of good humour.
They took over the island and its only other inhabitants, the three meek by comparison men, including Dickson, who represent the surrounding areas impacted by the marine reserve. Each community has two officers who alternate monthly. They monitor the nesting habits and hatchings of the Hawksbill, Green and Leatherback turtles, and keep a lookout for illegal fishing vessels and turtle egg poachers.
It is a delicate and difficult job as poachers come from the officers’ own villages, particularly from the closest, Wagina. Francis finds himself confronting neighbours and even family. It is tough work telling hungry relatives that they can’t feast on the food from the next-door islands. In fact the job is so reviled that no one else wants the position, so instead of alternating monthly, Francis often works up to three consecutive months. He told me that leaving his family even for one month was “abuse”.
“My family suffers when I am not there,” he said. “Where do they find wood for fires, fish to eat? I must collect a lot of wood to keep them cooking.”
So why do it? The women’s powerful maternal instinct had the answer. “Because we give birth to our children. Our concern is for the future of our pikinini (children),” said Margaret, the Women’s Union prior president. It is a formidable task.
Conservation in the Solomon Islands is at an inaugural stage for its key established industries of fishing and forestry, the latter of which is working from laws unamended since 1976.
“It is not up to date,” Stephanie in Honiara confided in me a few weeks later. The recent graduate works in the utilisation unit in the Ministry of Forestry.
She said that they have tried many times to introduce new sustainable forestry legislation but it is “impossible” when a select few siphon away revenues and make a killing by selling the nation’s resources without foresight nor consultation. It is not in their interest to change policy.
It reminded me of a passage in the book I was reading: “Power brings a man many luxuries, but a pair of clean hands is seldom among them.”
Stephanie shook her head. “It is not sustainable.”
The same goes for fishing. Small island nations do not have the resources to manage their waters and ward off illegal fishing boats. This is where international organisations, often under the financial steam of wealthier states such as the European Union, play an integral role in fisheries management.
In the Pacific, the Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) is an association of 17 Pacific Island nations who pool their resources together to supervise the vast expanse of Pacific Ocean in a common concern for the state of tuna stocks.
The FFA operates on a macro level. On a micro level – where Solomon Island people are directly and immediately affected – are people’s own fishing practices and the currency of fish. Enter the Arnavon Islands and the issue of a cash economy.
The equatorial Pacific affords an abundance of food and natural materials to ensure full bellies and basic housing; they are not poverty stricken, but cash poor. Subsistence living means commercial specialisation hasn’t matured by western standards whereby skills or crafts are traded for cash (there are exceptions such as canoe carving).
Now, with the encroachment of western life, Solomon society faces the rapid advancement of a cash economy – everyone has a mobile phone that requires topping up. Where in the past people fished to simply feed their families, they are now catching more to make money.
(Furthermore, lower infant mortality coupled with an emerging ageing population, care of improved sanitation and modern health care, has increased population pressure.)
With no meaningful legislation, nor way of enforcing it in any case, stocks are apparently decreasing. Even so, the return from fishing is hardly enough to mitigate even the rising costs of fuel let alone school fees, packets of Pall Mall or mobile top ups.
This is where international or non-government organisations (NGO’s are ubiquitous in the developing world) try to save the day. The Nature Conservancy (the second largest land owner in the United States) for example, swoops in, snatches a choice piece of land and lays a new conservation law. It is a commendable enterprise, however, in the case of the Arnavon Islands it has been challenging to communicate to a culture that thinks only of the present day – subsistence living in the bountiful tropics doesn’t require too much forethought – the significance of conservation for the future. And what else will people use to generate income for mobile top ups and the rising cost of living?
TNC is now pulling the organisational pin, but not the money procured from those who write cheques for their conservation conscious – this will remain invested in the project for the local communities to manage.
Transferring systems, encouraging community collaboration as well as accountability for the project is a process being aided by two New Zealand Volunteer Abroad Service workers, Gary, 59, and Thomas, 22. Gary reckons that the environmental development stage of the Solomon Islands is comparable to New Zealand’s in the 1900’s, “when systems were being put in place to conserve areas of land, sea and air.”
His two-year voluntary role in facilitating the transfer of ownership might actually take three years. Yet he is pragmatic about the project and speaks with cautious sanguinity.
“We’re getting there,” he said. “I think it is possible. We just need to demonstrate the value of sustainability.”
Meanwhile, the women on the island delight Gary. He recognises their significant role as educators.
“We try our best to work for the community and for the next generation,” said Margaret. “We come here to learn so we can teach our children and grandchildren about conservation.”
Many of the Solomon Islands have a matriarchal culture where the first-born daughter inherits land. While their voices are not heard over husbands or chiefs and domestic violence is common, women remain empowered by a sense of ownership and in a typically subtle yet femininely forceful way, they are influential. Nonetheless, maintaining the matriarchal heritage is a struggle.
“Men bring destruction,” said Margaret, referring to logging. “And they make us feel unworthy.”
“But we support women because women are leaders in their own families.
“In the Mother’s Union we have uneducated women and women who feel worthless and we fill them with God to feel wonderful.
“We did not understand the Arnavons,” she admitted. “Now we need to assert leadership over their governance. There are two local representatives that we do not like, they are corrupt, they do not represent the community and they should not be re-elected.
“We will go back to Kia and we will tell our village what is happening at the Arnavon Islands.”
Gary knows that the women will do what women do best: talk.
The last day could have ironically been interpreted as a conservationist’s nightmare. But Dickson said: “We live here, we must eat.”
In the afternoon the women hand dug wide, shoulder-deep holes in the sandy earth, in search of the highly prized and nutritious megapode eggs, which are 90 per cent yoke and the size of a large duck egg. It was the off-season and we gathered over 80.
Meanwhile the men hunted enough large mud crabs and bonito tuna for a banquet of Roman proportions. At dusk the different pots with kumara, cassava, various seafood, boiled eggs, and rice simmered in freshly squeezed coconut milk over fires on the beach. Tiny bats fluttered around us feasting on the night flies.
Thomas took the opportunity to discuss plastic pollution. He faced a contentious audience.
“This food that comes in plastic, this is food from your countries, now you make it our problem,” said Augusta defiantly. “To wrap our kustom food we use [biodegradable] leaves. Plastic is a problem you bring us.”
“Yes, you’re right,” said Thomas.
I leaned back on the sand under the warm night sky and crossed my arms under my head, looking up at the southern stars. Notwithstanding the conversation, there was not a worry in my world.
With the Southern Cross in sight I tuned back in. Between the women they agreed on one thing at least, that the earth the sea and humans are all interrelated, all creations of God, and that protecting habitats means preserving resources for future generations.
It was kai kai time. We gnawed on crabs. The women’s leader decided it was time to formally introduce ourselves so one by one we put our plates down and stood. I took cue from the group, there were three things to declare: name, marital status and number of children.
I licked my fingers clean of crab and as eloquently possible in broken Pidgin, I announced my status and happenstance arrival at the Arnavons, how grateful I had been for the company and hospitality – the keystone of any positive experience in a foreign land. Augusta followed.
She said she had been widowed early and had borne no children, but that being a part of the Mother’s Union had helped keep her spirit young.
The next day the women returned to Kia. I had decided to stay on Kerehikapa for a while longer, to navel gaze and chew the fat with the men left behind.
The farewell line of hand shaking quickly turned into a swarm of hugs and cuddles.
“You are very handsome, Gary,” said one of the old, fat women with a cheeky grin. To be fair, he looked slightly mortified.
When Augusta and I met in the line she threw her arms around me in a big bear hug.
“Keri! Thank you for being open with us,” she said. Where will you go now?” I smiled warmly, shrugged, and gave her another hug. Who knows!