By John Roughan
Visitors to the Solomons always bring baggage with them. I speak not of the luggage we carry off the plane, but the mental baggage we bring when we meet Solomon Islanders for the first time. The mental baggage I speak of is tied up with our own national and personal identities, our normal patterns of social interaction, our (so-called) ‘first world’ economic understandings.
This baggage is not unusual, one could almost say inevitable. But our other nation lifestyles also get in the way of seeing the value of a different worldview.
My first assignment as a missionary priest was to Tarapaina Misson Station on Small Mala in the East Are language area. My first village visit on Malaita’s east coast, a small hamlet called Hotonima close to East Kwaio language line, was both an eye-opener and profoundly disturbing. These people, I was convinced, owned nothing. No radios, no machines, nothing that I could label as wealth: yet they were as happy as any I had ever met.
They greeted me as some kind of extra special guest, insisted I stay in the village’s only house that boasted a wooden floor and fed me on my first night in the ‘bush’ with the best they had: a newly roasted yam with a separate plate of coconut flavored cabbage. To this day a roasted yam remains my favorite kai kai. But I kept asking myself: how can these people who looked so healthy, well-built and happy beyond description be that way without any wealth to speak of?
Unknown to me at the time, I was experiencing a steep learning curve. Here in a Solomons village, everyday life’s essentials – food, shelter, water, fuel, medicine, etc. – was found a short walk away in the nearby bush. Moreover, the typical person’s deepest spiritual needs – security, safety, peace, sense of identity—were also evident. These basic life essentials were theirs automatically. They came with membership in the local community. Moreover, people enjoyed these profound securities free of charge, as the village’s gift to them.
Not so when a villager moved to an urban centre. So a fundamental lesson was coming home to me loud and clear: how critical village living is for the wellbeing of the nation.
From the very beginning of its existence in early 1982, the Solomon Islands Development Trust (SIDT) questioned prevailing development wisdom, which did not recognise this inherent wealth and capital owned by village people.
SIDT’s initial task was formidable: to unlearn villagers from thinking of development as something initiated from the outside through heavy overseas funding, and to convince them to accept the idea that development was fundamentally an internal process locally owned and directed.
SIDT taught that development was fundamentally a home-grown exercise, more in need of local leadership than overseas funding and was more about improving village life than focusing in on national airlines, paved roads, and other projects so beloved by politicians.
It made little sense to the newly formed organization to fund such projects when villagers’ very life sources – their forests, streams, ground, reefs – were being destroyed by commercial logging companies, mining enterprises and cash cropping groups
As SIDT’s experiences grew working closely with village communities, it became clear that many rural problems really started in the urban area. Lack of clear, precise information, for example. plagued the rural majority. Where could a villager, in fact, obtain solid information so as to make wise decisions?
In recent times, major transformational forces on village life – modernization, technological change, cash economy-driven economic development etc. – have reduced confidence in the nation and in the ability of its customary political leadership to defend much less promoted villager interests.
In the Solomons, then, the word ‘village’ acts as a code word. It is the major sociological factor of the nation–more than 84% of the population resides there, it controls access to the country’s mineral, agricultural, water and timber wealth. The village acts forever like a prism through which the vast majority of island people view the world. It must be factored into our deepest understanding of how important and vital it is to the majority of the daily lives of our people.