Wednesday, 29 October 2008

On being white - part 1

I have been reflecting, rather seriously sometimes, on my experience of being in a racial minority group. We are white fish in a brown bowl, a walking freak show, objects of curiosity, a temporary distraction for crying babies, things to be gazed on, pointed at and whispered about from a safe distance. Even after a year in this little town of Auki, I can’t walk down our own road without attracting many stares. A stroll through the main street practically halts business and stops trucks. It is rare for people to be unpleasant in any way, rather most offer a smile, a raise of the eyebrows or a “morning”. Rarer still, though, is the prospect of anyone actually speaking more than a few words to me.

I walk through the hospital in the mornings, passing the outpatients department on my way to my own, and keep my head down as I hurry past, to avoid the stares, smirks and even outright gaping. Of late, it has meant I have not seen some friends who have been waiting there, but I am encouraged that they have been brave enough to attract my attention, even though by communicating with me, my peculiarity and “whiteness” envelops them too. For me, it means someone shares in my experience of being ogled, at least for a little while.

On any of the wards, I snatch the attention of at least ninety percent of the occupants. Silence often falls across the dingy concrete room as I slink behind the nurses’ desk to read a patient’s case notes. I sit down to treat a patient, and one or two onlookers will move to a neighbouring empty bed to observe my movements a little more closely, whispering knowingly to each other, “oh, exercise”. On the paediatrics ward, my presence alone will make some small children burst into tears, never having seen a European before.

I swing from being amused by my effect on people to being mildly annoyed. Sometimes, when a child calls out “bye bye white man” (the “bye bye” was picked up from the American Peace Corps, in Pijin it designates future tense, so doesn’t make sense on its own, and we are called “man” regardless of sex), I will mimic their tone and call out “hello black man” in Kwara’ae, the local language. Some of the older kids and the adults pick up on the irony, and we have a good laugh. Many don’t realise, and go on pointing and staring, “oooh, white man”.
One friend suggests that the reason locals distance themselves from we whites is that they don’t expect to be able to communicate. I think this is true for many people; recently I was speaking with a local motel owner who looked at me completely blankly even though I spoke to him in Pijin (spoken by most Solomon Islanders). He initially spoke to me in English, but I replied in Pijin, which usually elicits a surprised smile and an “oh, you know Pijin” response, and then the conversation segues into Pijin and flows more freely. This time, the Pijin didn’t work. My local friend repeated what I’d said, then translated it into Kwara’ae, to which the man was able to reply. It frustrated me that I was unable to participate in the conversation even in one of the man’s own languages, but I couldn’t help but smile at the way my white skin somehow created a language barrier where there was not one.

As I write this, I start to remember a few pleasant encounters we have had lately: a neighbour who lives down the road met us and spoke to us for the first time at the market last weekend (she knew who we were, we’d never seen her before!), a new friend called me at home for the first time wanting to give me some bananas, and a lovely girl working in a store shyly spoke with us last week, identifying herself as a relative of our landlord and has since greeted us with smiles and conversation. It won’t change the gasps and wide eyes when I go into town, but it’s comforting to know some Solomon Islanders are brave enough to reach across the colour spectrum to be our friends.


Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Unanticipated Suzuki drowning

Another wonderful weekend was had with Ants & KC down at Su’u. Filled of snorkelling, relaxing and regular bathing in the river - no bathroom could ever have such beautiful surroundings or clean flowing water. Thinking to extend this time we decided to leave early Monday morning to make the 2 hour trip back to Auki for work.

Everything was going to plan until we reached the river crossing near Maoa. Here on Friday we discovered two huge sago palms felled across the road. (Landowner’s dispute) A lovely local lady showed us an alternative route, transversing the river further up and then driving along side until connecting with the main road again. Unfortunately we were unfamiliar with this part of the river and forgot where we had crossed. No friendly local was in sight to share their knowledge so the attempt was made.

The water rose at one stage above the bonnet and the Suzuki went on, growling up a stony gradient and then. . . although the volume of growling increased the movement stopped. Stuck Suzuki! There it hung suspended, three wheels grounded as the river washed away the stones from under the fourth. The river continued its flow through the Suzuki. Fortunately rumblings were still audible and my mission was to monitor and foster these while Rob went for help. It was a surreal experience lingering, alone, gazing on a pageantry of tropical delight, cool water rushing around feet, hands grasping the steering wheel, foot hovering over the accelerator, ears intensely tuned on that vital grumble ready for action . . . yet frozen, inactive.

Rob emerged from out of the bush with about eight locals ranging from children to adults. As they approached the Suzuki a sudden silence filled the air. The engine stopped. Devoid of mechanical assistance Suzuki was surrounded and manually extracted from it’s peril deposited safely on the dry stony bank.

Unfortunately the Suzuki didn’t escape unscathed from its near drowning. Water entered the fuel system and the following two hours were spent in Maoa as Rob worked to restore it to life. God assisted having overseen the tools Rob had selected for the journey, so we were again journeying home with an operating fuel gauge, revived Suzuki (including an improved starter motor) and a great story to share.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Tropical diseases

Sorry it has been a while since the last entry from us, but Steve and I have been laid low recently with a rare but severe tropical illness known as Wantok Withdrawal Syndrome (WWS). [For an explanation of the term ‘wantok’ see below.] Symptoms include lethargy, malaise, intermittent whinging and low mood.

The problem is, we have been far too spoilt lately, with six wantoks in six weeks, essentially. And now, nothing. Sniff sniff, pout. The fun and anticipation began several months ago when we received an unexpected e-mail from a Sarah, a medical student in Wales, and later from her friend Aimee. They had chosen to do their five-week elective at Kilu’ufi Hospital, and found this website amongst very few others that mention Malaita. Not only that, they would be staying across the road from us – yay!

We were very excited when they arrived on Malaita Day, although slightly distracted by a last-minute invitation to the Premier’s lunch-time function (the joys of being white). Steve and I met them for the first time that afternoon, and proceeded to coerce Aimee and Sarah into being our friends, we think: gave them unlimited access to safe drinking water from our tank, hooked them up with our haos mere, Helen (cleaning lady/angel) to get their washing done, made them dinner, imparted some local knowledge, organised some tourist stuff, took them snorkelling on a reef… What we were trying to do was create dependency: if the girls needed us, they would feel obliged to spend time with us. Steve and I wanted to extract as much wantok time from those five weeks as we could.

Just a week after the girls’ arrival came the boys: another two medical students, from England this time, came also to do an elective placement (although for four weeks here, and a further four in lovely Wellington, NZ). Our strategy was the same: create dependency. The boys, James and James (aka Jim, to reduce confusion), arrived before the doctors did, so I got in quickly and introduced them to the girls, suggested they also stay across the road from us, perhaps they’d like someone to do their washing, etc ,etc. It seemed to be quite effective, as we enjoyed frequent visits, lots of chats, dinners, DVD watching, board games, swapping books (yes it may sound pathetic to you big-city people, but social life in Auki is based almost exclusively around these activities), ah yes they were happy times. But now they’re gone……..

I am hoping that Sarah, Aimee, James and/or Jim are reading this and thinking “oh I would love to do a guest blog on this website”, because I think their adventures deserve far more than I have mentioned here; obviously I have focused on Steve’s and my plot to suck them in and make them be our friends. (Fortunately, they all turned out to be nice wantoks, the sort of friends you want to keep, as we have had the occasional case where we lived to regret freely offering hospitality!) I must move on, you see, as I have mentioned only four of the “six wantoks in six weeks”. The final two, much to the surprise of many, were Steve’s mum and dad, Pat and John.

These daring travellers have begun their global roaming a little later in life than some. As much as we assured them they should not come to visit, a tour around Europe earlier this year convinced them that the Solomons were not beyond their grasp. P&J visited us for one lovely week, and experienced many things: the reliably unreliable Solomon Airlines, traditional Solomon Islands music and food, island church, our hammock, LangaLanga Lagoon (back to Serah’s little paradise again, see earlier blog entry), Friday’s weekly fish-and-chip ritual at Solomon Organic CafĂ©, the bustle of the market, power cuts, stifling heat and breathtaking humidity. They coped admirably, and Pat even made noises about coming back to help us pack up next year – impressive! I was so miserable to be saying goodbye to them on Monday evening, but was thankful for once that Solomon Airlines cancelled their flight back to Honiara that day. Instead, we had one last night together and then waved P&J off on Tuesday morning, which got them to the airport nicely in time for their flight back to Brisbane.

And so began our WWS, which has stricken us ever since. I do think that perhaps a cure (or at least symptomatic relief) may be found in a parcel that has just arrived for us at Auki Post Office…….thanks Sarah and Aimee, we’re sure it’s from you.

P.S. I did entitle this entry “Tropical Diseases”, and ran out of space to talk about Steve’s tropical ulcers on his ankle. Suffice it to say, it was a lot of pus from a tiny scratch. The saga ran on for a few weeks, but I am pleased to say that after some wifely nagging, a course of antibiotics and lots of debriding and dressing changes, he’s okay! It was just a shame we couldn’t have got our lovely med student friends to do the fun stuff.


[A wantok (from the English words “one talk”) is literally someone who speaks the same language as you, and usually identifies someone as being a relative (no matter how distant) or friend from the same village or region as you. It is contextual, however, because two Solomon Islanders from different provinces (who have different first languages) would be considered wantoks if they were overseas. We refer to other white people that we have at least a superficial relationship with as wantoks.]

Friday, 17 October 2008

Our Driveway

Our driveway is clay and very steep, the ferocious tropical downpours have rapaciously gouged trenches randomly over the surface. Numerous arduous attempts have been made to fill these in with dirt but the rain just laughs and washes the hard toil away in the next shower. It is difficult to know whether walking up or driving up is preferable. Driving includes the terrifying experience of being suspended at 45¡¡ facing the sky, not seeing the ground and avoiding dwelling on the steep drop on the right side of the track. The sounds of banging and complaining of the vehicle’s joints, the grinding and moaning of the 4 wheel drive as it struggles up slowly, laboriously, crunching over concrete with occasionally the wheels spinning out on the loose soil. Diesel fume overpower the smells of dust, sweat and dirt. Your breath is held along certain points of the journey as you yet again only just make it.

Walking, at least you have your two feet on the ground (unless they slip and go flying on the loose gravely surface)! However the amount of physical stress on the body equates to an hour aerobic exercise! Techniques vary with some taking the tortoise approach slowly and steadily does it, fighting the temptation of resting as to succumb may remove the goal from reach. Others go for the hare approach including the long rests. Overall the survival rate of the ‘tortoises’ is healthier. To increase the complexity burdens such as suitcases, 10kg of rice/flour/gas, or 40kg of concrete can be added! How else do they arrive?! I guess our driveway is a major deterrent for visitors but at least we know if people are serious about seeing us! And there is always a drink at the top. As for the view – it really is worth the endeavour!

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Guest Blog: Visitors from Su'u

Rob and Lara have invited us to have the very honoured privillage of writing on their blog site. Our names are Antony and Cassey Wright, we are working at Su'u Secondary School which is 65km South of Auki in the bush. Cassey and I are newly weds (Dec 2007), and we felt strongly about giving our first year in marriage to serving God in a third world country, so here we are. Our time here in the Solomon’s has been one adventure and challenge after another. Stepping out in faith has been an incredible blessing for our marriage. We have had to learn, trust, grow and pray together on what seems like a fast track course in marriage and serving God.

Su’u National Secondary School is a large Christian boarding school in the middle of the bush. The school is in an isolated location, because Malaita is a big island and Su’u is very central, also because being so isolated means the students are forced to study away from the many distractions of village and city life.

Cassey is teaching English and taking care of the Library and I am teaching Science and Biology. There are only three schools in the Solomon’s that go up to 7th form (university entrance) level, Su’u is one of them and we have just over 400 students. The challenges are relentless; lack of resources, communication (limited VHF), power, water, bugs, rats, drunk locals and the biggest being the cultural differences.

Having Rob, Lara, Steve and Kelly in Auki, with their open invitation and friendship has been a lifesaver for us. Cassey and I finish in 6 weeks at the end of the school year and make our way back to New Zealand. Please continue to pray for these four amazing people. They are doing a great work for God, serving his people at Kalufi hospital. Especially pray for funding for the workshop Rob is building at the hospital, and maybe if you feel lead, even loosen your own purse strings a bit.

Thank you once again guys, you're legends.

Lots of love, Ants and Cassey.

Run-way Pigs

As yet no comment has been made regarding domestic airline travel. The short rural dirt runaways lined by idealic tropical bush and villages, sudden thunder storms and restriction of no night flying must challenge the most competent pilot. Since we have been here there seems to be a good flight record with no major air accidents. Like most places there are always exciting stories to exchange, some may wonder if they are fabricated. The following are from eye-witness accounts.

With the plane ready to go there appeared extensive conversation with the ground crew, pilot and two locals. The pilot at last wandered over to the waiting passengers and announced there had been a mistake and too many tickets had been issued for that flight so two people would have to say behind. One local man volunteered to stay and catch the next day’s flight but all other passengers for various reasons needed to arrive at that location that day. So the pilot put all their tickets into a ‘hat’ and drew out the unfortunate person. He happened to be an overseas visitor meeting up with his beloved for a two week holiday. Distressed he protested to no avail, left to spend a night in a strange town while the two locals not part of the conversation quickly seated themselves in the plane.

Another incident occurred while on route, when the passengers observed the co-pilot trying to attract the attention of the pilot who appeared to be asleep! It was only after much shaking the pilot was aroused just in time to assist his co-pilot in landing the plane!

Recently there has been many a delay and cancellation of flights due to air crafts (three at one time) being out for repairs. However in an unusual event a plane has left early without notification to passengers concerned who arrived to find having missed that flight no further opportunities were available that day. Please note that accommodation or taxi fares are not provided by the airline to people whose travel plans have been disrupted.

So the lesson is – always have change for a taxi fare and a ‘plan B’ when you fly! And you thought run-way pigs were all you had to worry about!


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