Wednesday, April 13, 2011


It's funny which Western customs the Islanders pick up, and how they adapt and integrate them into their own culture.  In Honiara, it's common to get Christmas carolers in May.  From the Island perspective, if all you have to do is get a group of friends together and go sing in front of some white people's house in order to get food or money, why let the semantics of season get in the way?

Celebrating the New Year was another Western custom the Islanders took and tweaked to their own interpretation.  For some reason, the people of Guadalcanal had internalized that the first of the year was a time to play 'friendly' pranks.

One January, we had taken a SITAG van out to Bonegi beach, spending a lazy Sunday afternoon picnicking on the black pebbled shore.  When the sun began to sink towards the Western sea, we piled back in, windows down, and began the 45 minute drive back to town.  It was a simple luxury to speed down the hardball, the buffeting roar of rushing air lifting my damp curls and sucking them out through the window as I watched the jungle speed past.

Every so often we'd pass a little village, its huts wedged in between the coast and the road.  At the third or fourth village along the way, some boys stepped out towards our car as we neared the huts.  Sometimes villagers sell produce from their gardens, or locally made hand crafts, and it was not unusual to be approached on the road.  Still, we were tired, and on our way home, so Dad only slowed down a bit to ensure he didn't hit the kids.

As we quickly neared them, the two teenagers stood well into the road, buckets in their hands.  I wondered idly if they had fish in those containers.  One second.  Two seconds.  Three seconds, and we were right next to them.

One boy, tall and slender, lifted his bucket with both brown arms.  In one fluid moment, the contents of the pail rose and fell in a smooth, liquid arc.  Perfectly timed to the second.  Through my mother's open window.

The next instant there was chaos.  Mom let out a sharp scream of shock.  A thick, white substance was dripping down her entire right side.  It was plastered over her hair, covered her right temple and cheek, her glasses, her neck, all were coated in white liquid.

In a confused moment, I wondered how these Islanders had gotten their hands on all that milk.  Dad brought the van to a screeching halt, skidding it sideways onto the roadside gravel.

"It's paint, David!"  Mom was screaming.  Matthew was crying from the back seat.  My dad flung open his door, propelled himself to Mom's side in what seemed like one giant stride.  Did a quick check.  By the grace of God, her glasses had prevented the toxic stuff from entering her eyes, and she had her mouth closed at the moment of impact.  Wheeling on his heel, my father strode into the heart of the village before us.

Each stride seemed to grow his stature, until soon he was 7 feet tall, a bear of a man swelled up in defense of his family.  We all followed along, a scared little trail of ducklings, Mom dripping white paint on the dirt and us kids clinging close to her.  Dad, his Indiana Jones style hat pushed back on his head,  and arms swinging with each wild step, stormed into the clearing around which all the village huts were gathered.

"COMPENSATION!"  he thundered.  "I demand compensation for what your village sons did to my wife."  A few worried men stepped out warily from the trees.  Here was a white man who knew the Island ways.

The value of 'compensation' is deeply seated in the Melanesian culture.  Up until about 50 years ago, 'compensation' meant that if someone from your village is wronged or killed, you raid the offending tribe and kill and eat one of theirs.  After the British colonized the region, these cannibalistic practices were replaced with more civilized ones.  These days, you pay compensation in the form of money, land, or pigs.

The villagers quickly shifted into recovery attempts, the men pulling my dad aside to apologize profusely, assuring him that the boys would be dealt with.  Some women ushered my mom and us kids to a shaded area by the shore, and gently washed her.  We were all fed.

I don't think Dad ever insisted on the villagers giving monetary compensation to us.  Afterwards he explained that he had used that word in order to get their attention, connect with them on their level.  However it was that the grownups eventually worked the situation out, I will never forget the feeling of utter security and protection that pulled me along in my avenging father's wake.  

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