We’re well on our way West now towards our yacht rally and customs rendezvous at Panapompom Island this weekend, having made a couple of good day-passages downwind through the island chain. But our hearts are still in Rossel, and this blog outlines a few things about the place that for reasons that may become evident we thought it best to write about after we’d left.
Rossel doesn’t get many visitors. Currently there is a kiwi archaeologist visiting the south side of the island, but land-based visitors are very rare this far out from the mainland, the simple logistics of getting here a sufficient deterrent in itself. As for water-born visitors, most years the island may get 5-6 yachts but for some of them this is simply a stop in the journey from the Solomon Islands to Indonesia and not a destination in its own right, so their visits are fleeting. The yachts that do spend time here are dominated by serious God-squaders on a mission to convert, a mission that seems to involve much bible-bashing, plus critical commentary on current customs such as betlenut chewing and their custom beliefs.
We’d heard that many years ago the state-sponsored United Church suffered from a lack of leadership, and a splinter denomination CRC (Christian Revival Church) broke away and formed an alternative, the split itself proving quite divisive in an otherwise close-knit community. So now there are two distinct churches with very little to distinguish between them, and islanders have to make the choice. Unfortunately the United church is still tainted with some complacency and corruption amongst the older pastors, and the previous pastor here in Tryon Bay was one such. Some say that early attempts to filter aid through him ended up in his grabbing the good stuff and very little getting distributed to those who really needed it. We’d heard that he also managed to get a local girl pregnant out of wedlock, and his behaviour so rankled some of the islanders that two of his huts were burned down.
Sadly, despite this pastor having moved on, the United church here continues to suffer from a tainted reputation. The Godsquad yachties having turned their attention from the United church to the CRC, and all aid has been directed there. But the CRC church doesn’t represent the whole bay, in fact probably fewer than half, and thus much of the aid hasn’t been widely distributed; the aid that is distributed often stays within the congregation or is sold in order to collect funds for church activities. This fact became evident when we surveyed the possessions of each: the CRC church has VHF and HF radios, solar panels and petrol generators, lighting for its church, a DVD player and other modern stuff, all of it donated by missionary yachts. The United church simply has it’s building, not much else. Suffice to say that there is much politics between the churches, not perhaps always helped by the visiting dimdims.
We were careful not to get involved or take sides, distributing aid equally through both denominations, but we did get a sense of some of the complexities early on and, knowing that the CRC church had received the lions’ share of dimdim attention thus far, we’d spent more of our time with the United church who evidently have the greater need. This is a long-winded explanation for the particularly warm welcome we received from the United church villages. A couple of the elders described our visit as ‘a breakthrough in dimdim relations’, a statement that we thought a bit over the top, but it seemed that finally here was a dimdim yacht that wasn’t judging them based on history.
They told us this statement was also related to our interactions with them: whether it was the boys charging around playing with the local kids, Rebecca and I hanging out getting to know a few of the guys, or perhaps our evident confidence in letting the villagers keep their own eye out for Jakey’s wellbeing as he careered around the village. With perhaps one exception, it may be that most other visiting yachts haven’t chosen to hang out in the same way, perhaps focussed more on charging around doing good deeds ashore or otherwise cooped up on their boats. We know that some westerners feel anxious about catching illnesses from the locals, getting sicknesses that they’re not geared to cope with, and so may hesitate from getting too physically close for that reason. I guess in that respect we’re very lucky to have the good Doctor Starr’s expertise on hand. Either way, the villagers we’d got to know best had been effusive about our stay, and this made the visit all the sweeter for us.
We found ourselves very sensitive to our own and other dimdims’ behaviour. Some rally yachties stayed on their boats and barely went ashore, leaving the villagers scratching their heads as to why they were there. For some others, there is an underlying assumption that they bring superior knowledge and tools and the villagers should be catching the pearls of wisdom as they fall from their lips. And to be fair, it’s easy to see where this attitude comes from. By way of example, I can relate that some villagers on a nearby island regularly complained about how long it took to cook their yams, never having considered that cooking yams whole took a lot longer than cutting them up….ah-ha! And there is no question that we can help, but the question is how? Do we help by lecturing them on the evils of betlenut? Do we help by persuading them to use mudbricks instead of wooden sidings? Do we help by talking to them about the outside world (our good friend and very learned pastor Matthew asked me the astounding question “when people say ‘America’, where are they referring to?” which led to a discussion over an atlas that may have been his first viewing of the world in this way).
Of course we don’t know the answers to these questions, but it’s the underlying premise of our presence here that I think is important. We hadn’t come here to help, although it’s wonderful to bring aid and we sought opportunities to help wherever we could, these opportunities presenting themselves to us every day. We weren’t here to preach, or in fact to change their lifestyles in any way. Who the hell are we to do so? What makes our lives so much better or more fulfilling than theirs? No. We’re here to experience them, and the only way to do that is to get to know them. And in a way we’re hoping to learn from them also. When I say learn, I don’t just mean how to make fire with just two sticks (not easy), how to paddle an outrigger without going in circles (definitely not easy), how to make yams palatable night after night (almost impossible), how to safely build a fire inside a wooden hut, or how to open a coconut with the blunt edge of a machete (that one is pretty cool!).
These islanders live in a community environment and social system that is so much more supportive, self-policing, and I would suggest naturally tuned to human happiness than ours, it makes us feel quite keenly the inherent loneliness of our Anglo-saxon way of life. We live the nuclear family – they live the extended clan. We tell them that in our world, it would be unusual for a dimdim to hand their child over to another dimdim to bring up and care for (outside of formal adoption), or to go and visit for more than a few days… and they look on uncomprehending. Children move freely within the community, safe in the knowledge that someone is always looking out for them, and are commonly raised by extended family members.. We tell them that we pack our wrinklies off into old peoples’ homes when they can’t survive on their own, and they gape at us. “Why don’t they live with you?” they ask. People help each other out in a way that isn’t comparable to our would you mind popping over to help us move a wardrobe? protocols. They truly live what goes around, comes around Villagers from one clan help another build their canoe, build their house, or bring up their children for awhile, knowing that the favour will soon be returned.
Now, it would be easy for us to glorify their lifestyle. Lord knows, we wouldn’t want to eat sago and taro everyday or live in smoke-filled bamboo huts with leaky sago leaf roofs, we’d be driven mad by the rumour-mungering that these small communities generate, and probably left speechless by the immediate attributing to black magic any illness or death that can’t be easily explained. And they endure physical hardships and discomforts that would show us in our truly wussy colours alright. So we’re not entirely starry-eyed about the place. But we have been left deeply moved by many aspects of these people, and on the other hand quietly embarrassed by some of the behaviour shown by a few of our fellow dimdims. Time to put the soapbox away. Enough said.