Monday, April 10, 2006

April in the Solomons

April ... ah, so glad about spring coming.  Ha.  The Solomon seasons seem to be Hot, Hot, Hot, Hot.  Even so, during one week of rain this past month, two or three nights got so cool that we turned off the fan and actually pulled up the sheet.  Wow.

Church ...  We missed a number of Sundays for various reasons, but we figure we deserved some time-off for having joined our neighbours for a �visitors� Sabbath� one Saturday at their Seventh Day Adventist church.  A service began at 9:00 ... at 10:00 we switched to an hour of discussion groups [Hey - we got assigned to the Youth group!] ... then at 11:00 the service resumed ... at noon we spent � of an hour socializing on the lawn ... from 12:45 there was a lunch.  We left home at 8:30 and got home at 2:15.  Whew.

Health.  Mar is in the late stages of a nasty cold.  But we�ve been remarkably healthy.  In a half-year I think each of us has had a mild stomach upset for one day, and a couple of weeks ago I spent a few days on the couch resting a sore back like I had two years ago.  Interesting: neighbours and friends came to visit the invalid.

Utilities. 1) In mid-March the electricity corporation installed a bigger-and-better-than-ever transformer and so fixed all the electicity problems—so the newspaper told us.  About four days later the power went off for three hours ... then we had a series of brown-outs ... then there was a series of outages for about 20 minutes ... then it went off in the middle of the night for three hours ... then it went off in the middle of the day for 2 1/2 hours ... then—well, you get the picture, eh?  However, in the past few days everything has been working.

2) Water has been working for more than two weeks now, and we’re almost getting ready to believe it’s reliable.  Interestingly, the water corporation announced this week that it’s going on a crusade to shut down all the illegal connections � the ones which have mushroomed because the corporation hasn�t been billing for a number of years.

History in the making ...

1) Honiara re-introduced garbage collection � for the first time in more than 5 years (it stopped in the early stages of �the Tension� i.e. civil war).  The results are actually noticeable: in Chinatown, especially, the bins and the piles around them get picked up; shop-workers sweep in front of the stores; there�s far fewer plastic bags and bottles under-foot.

2) The national election was Wednesday April 5th.  There was a big build-up to it: for about a year there were teams going to the neighbourhood and village level to do awareness-raising about good governance and civic duty.  Everyone talked about throwing out the old corrupt politicians (and subsequently the high-level civil servants) � who for years were being sacked for selling favours and raiding the Treasury ... and then getting recycled into different posts.  A good number of these folks were leaders of factions in the civil war; some got imprisoned, but several of them were running again in this election. What surprised us was that, despite everyone�s recognition of the importance of this election, there was no hoop-la: there were some articles in the paper � mostly mud-slinging, but the campaigning amounted to a few computer-printed posters and neighbourhood mini-rallies and trucks of waving supporters driving around on the final campaign day.  Smart technique for a limited-literacy country: each candidate is assigned a symbol as a recognizable identity: axe, rooster, paddle, lantern, bush-knife, tuna, etc.  After three days we have almost all of the results, and they are disappointing: most of the people elected are incumbent or former MPs - a number of them with reputations of corruption or too-close involvement in causing the horrors of the Tension, or just plain petty and useless.  No women were elected.  Overall, it seems that many SolIslanders are more influenced by gifts of rice and school fees and boat fares than by concern with issues and competence.

TV.  We virtually never watched TV in Canada, but � perhaps because the heat tuckers us out; perhaps because of not having the accustomed level of extra-curricular involvement; perhaps because of a sense of non-accomplishment at work � here we find we�ve been watching a lot of episodes of TV shows via CD on the computer.  We lost the disks our son-in-law sent us with CSI Miami, Medium and Veronica Mars [more about that in the next section], but then a friend gave us two seasons worth of the show �Lost�.  However, we still do read a lot, both fiction and non-fiction, including several books about the Solomons.

Burglary. Two weeks ago we had a break-in.  About 2:00 a.m. I got up for a snack.  On my way downstairs I heard a noise, and when I got to the kitchen, things started registering: muddy footprints, a few empty spaces, a cooking pot by the partly open door ... the window: 2 louvres removed, a corner of the cyclone wire bent to create a hole big enough for a small body. 

We were lucky—they got interrupted before they could do more ... so what we lost was a table fan, a cheap Chinese radio, a piece of cloth, a calculator, propane tank, a box of staples, 2 CDs with recorded TV programs, a flashlight and our address book.  What a strange haul, eh?  Presumably they hoped to get the computer, but we take it upstairs every night.  The police also think that the propane tank and the cooking pot indicate that one of the purposes was to get equipment for making kwaso, the rot-gut moonshine.  The two losses that gripe us most are the address book (phone numbers etc. for all the family and friends) and the TV episodes.  We were visited by lots of police, and the ‘coconut news’ system in our neighbourhood went to work to find the culprits, but there has been no success.  The good thing about this is that no one considers that there might be violence in such a burglary.  So we’re disappointed that it happened, but not scared by it.  As for the lost TV episodes, a friend has given us two or three seasons of �Lost�, the series about people marooned on a South-Pacific island.  [Yes, we can sense an irony.]

Work.  Yuk.  Mar�s counterpart, instead of coming back from maternity leave, launched a protest against our literacy organization at the Labour Department.  My counterpart did (eventually) return from leave; he has been very friendly, and has done maybe 2 or 3 days of work in the past couple of months.  The leadership ... don�t ask.  We�re in midst of a selection process to replace our counterparts.  It is clear that nothing would have been happening in this organization if we hadn�t come � Mar, particularly, has rescued its relationship with the German donor agencies, and hence prevented financial collapse.  But what is also clear is that this organization has done nothing for literacy in the past year � has not touched its main purpose of helping communities start up and run local literacy programs.  And even though we might make a little progress at bringing some order to the chaos, we know that it will be months and months before LASI gets back in the swing of providing teacher training and support for community literacy.  So we�re fairly discouraged, can�t you tell?!

Social life.  A couple of birthday parties � one for an adult (Aru, husband of Canadian Holly who did her doctorate on the secret sex practices of Malaita young people!) with yummy pizza and the treat of wine;  the second for our 5-year-old neighbour Tristie, which was held in our house (because it has more room than their stilted shack).  Spent a nice Sunday with a young couple: at Boneghi beach about a half-hour�s drive out of town � snorkelling around a WWII Japanese troop carrier ... and then for late lunch and storying back at their place.

Impressions & Observations ...

- Women with a hibiscus or frangi-pani flower tucked behind the ear

- Johnny, the religious fanatic selling Solomon Star newspapers at the Chinatown bus stop every morning: �Good morning my friend � a new age is dawning!�

- Wholesalers� supply trucks parked in front of shops everywhere � loading or unloading with a human manpower conveyor belt, a chain of young men tossing cartons along the line ... and testing each other with a suddenly sharp throw and a laugh.

- Non-lining: SIslanders don�t queue � people push in front of you to get into the bus.

- Wag-tails: swallow-size black-and-white birds with a cute whistle, and a much cuter habit: as they alight, they wiggle; they wag their longish tail back and forth, back and forth like a windshield wiper.

- Pathetic infrastructure: here on Guadalcanal, the main island, there is one main road (sort of road) which goes along � of the coast; that�s all � the rest of the population is dependent on motorboat or path/track ... there�s essentially no postal service: even in town, to send or get a letter you have to go to the central post office; much communication is done by public service announcements on the radio, although a network of solar-powered email stations has been established and is starting to be useful.

- The central market: it�s relatively cool inside as the sea breeze blows through it; huge variety of produce, and especially of people � jam-packed crowded, but everything moves in a relaxed way; no bargaining � you know it�s just a dollar for a heap of green peppers.

- Great honey and, would you believe, peanut butter

- Ants: two kinds pervade the house, appearing within minutes if there�s a crumb of food or drop of water

- Tobacco: cheap factory cigarettes (Cdn$2 a pack), but more common is �stick� tobacco, which you scrape shavings from, and roll it in a piece of notebook paper.

- The most wonderful thing about the Solomons: virtually no one is �poor� in the sense of not having shelter, clothing, enough food to eat.  The collective land-holding system + available materials means that anyone who wants a house can build one, and anyone can have land for a garden ... and anyone who needs a place to sleep or some help can just ask someone in his/her wantok (clan/tribe).

- The �middle-class� behavioural status symbol: you wear a flash-drive on a strap around your neck � showing you are a computer owner/user.

- As it gets dark (about 6:45 pm) the shrill chirp of crickets replaces bird-song as the background noise � it�s like a new act coming on stage.

What we miss at this time: the chirp of robins and the honk of Canada geese

Let me tell you how easily exiles like us can be amused ... For Mar it�s doing our income tax returns; for me it�s a trick when I shut down the computer.  One stock wallpaper-background option in Windows is a wonderful photo of golden canopy of autumn leaves over a lane between two lines of old trees.  If you click �Turn Off Computer� but don�t immediately confirm the shut-down, the screen bleaches out to black-and-white ... and the effect is like there has been a mid-autumn snow to just cover the leaves.  Believe it or not, this triggers an emotional response: gosh we miss the seasons.

Again I apologize for the bulk-mailing newsletter approach.  But we assure you that, given a response, we do write personal letters and often send a photo.

Our good wishes to you, Rob & Mar


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