February 04, 2011

Auki, Solomon Islands
Loose Ends

I am back in the Solomon Islands to finish a quest I started three years ago.

Here's the backstory.


The man on the right in the video is Wilson. I found him at his house, sitting in the same spot, having suffered a stroke that took away his ability to walk around.


He remembered me well. His brother lives in New Zealand and called him to say he saw him on the internet.

Wilson told me the name of the village where he thought Jack lived and found a driver who would take me through the middle of the island. The driver wanted about $1000.

New plan.

My travel partner, Elan, and I went to the Ministry of Land and got them to show us some maps of the island.



We found another way to get to Jack's village by going around the coast of the island on public transport for as long as the dirt road would take us. At the end of the road, they said we'd be able to hire a boat to take us the rest of the way.

Wilson sent his nephew, George, with us to make sure we got there in one piece...well, two pieces.

8 hours on the back of a flatbed truck with about 30 other people. Reached the village of Sulofosa at midnight. We slept in a shack until 3am, when high tide allowed the boat to pick us up. We continued on in total darkness; me snuggled between sacks of potatoes and Elan bear hugging a barrel of oil.

The boat dumped us off at the house of some guy named Dudley.


We slept on his floor until dawn broke, then got back on the boat.


We arrived at a Catholic mission/school on the coast. The kids could see two white people coming in on a boat from a mile away, so by the time we got there we had a whole mass of people staring at us.

Remember the scene in Apocalypse Now and when they finally reach Kurtz's village?


We hiked about a mile inland and finally reached Kalafasia, Jack's village.


We found him sitting underneath his house.

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I shook his hand and said I'd come a long way to meet him because I owe him some royalties.

His sons spoke English, so I explained my situation, and that I wanted to help their community. I asked if they had any medical or educational needs.

We formed an ad hoc committee of Afunakwa's adult male descendants, with the understanding that they would decide what their greatest needs were. At the time it seemed getting prompt and reliable medical aid was the main problem, since their local clinic is far from the village and is only visited by a doctor a few times each year.

Getting medical treatment in remote regions is obviously a common issue that's not easily solved. It's the government's job, and even though they rarely do it adequately, outside meddling (especially half-assed meddling) can tend to make things worse.

My main goal was just to establish contact and a means of continuing the conversation -- ya know, someone I could friend on Facebook. The residents of Kalafasia are several days journey from the nearest internet connection, but I learned that Jack has a son, Godfrey, who is a school teacher and lives closer to the main town on the island. Jack sent another son, Clay, to go with me to town, find Godfrey, and set him up on Gmail.

Before I left, we took some photos around the village.

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This last one is of Clay's daughter, named after her great grandmother, Afunakwa.

I stopped by at the mission, found the headmaster, and paid the annual school fees for all of Afunakwa's descendants who are of age. It cost slightly more than my monthly cable bill.

And, of course, the obligatory...

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George, Clay, Elan, and I took the long journey back to Auki, where we contacted Godfrey.

I took Clay and Godfrey to the Telecom center, where they used the internet for the first time.

Here's a challenge: try explaining Google.

I set Godfrey up on email and taught him to send his first email, then opened my account and replied to him.

Believe it or not, I've since heard back from him a couple times. After a quick tutorial, he had no problem doing it on his own.

The plan for now is to reconnect twice a year before he heads back to Kalafasia for holidays. I can wire money into his bank account once we have a clear idea of how it will be spent. We still have to figure some stuff out on that front.

We said our thank yous and goodbyes. They explained that they were very surprised I came to find them, but "grateful for the blessing."


Me too, fellas.

November 02, 2007

Honiara, Solomon Islands
Lots of Napping

If I stoop and look out my window at just the right angle, I appear to be somewhere idyllic. Just a thatch umbrella and a fence between me and the turquoise Pacific.


A few inches higher and the concrete comes into view. Derelict ships in the harbor. Crushed plastic. Old cars farting black smoke and a swirling mass of pedestrians valiantly enduring the impossible brightness of late afternoon.

Nobody pretends Honiara is anything but a dump, which means that, for once, I don’t have to either. The South Pacific is not proud of its cities.

What’s disturbing about Honiara is what’s disturbing about every other big city in a poor country: tourists don’t come here, but everyone else does. Villages are emptying out and the city is swelling with rural transplants.

Auki, where I spent the last few days, is a small town on an island called Malaita. It’s the population center of Malaita, which isn't saying much. The thing that struck me about Auki was how disinterested people were in hitting me up.

I’ve been to over a dozen African countries. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere in any of those countries where someone didn’t ask me for money. I don’t think I’ve been anywhere in the South Pacific where anyone has.

The impression I get is that there isn’t a great deal of want here. People don’t seem to think about or talk about what they don’t have. In material terms, they certainly don’t have much, but no one is rubbing their noses in it.

People just kind of hang around. There are loads of kids, and the lack of television and GameBoys compels them to make their own fun.


Sports are a big deal -- like soccer, rugby, and volleyball. So is, evidently, improvised gladiatorial combat.

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I walked by this hut and saw a bunch of teenage boys sitting inside. I had to ask what was painted across the front. "Psycho Lab," they explained. It's the name of their band.

They have a clubhouse for their band.

A Little Rascals vibe permeates the town.


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Oh, did I mention a lot of Solomon Islanders are blonde? Well, the kids at least. It seems to go away as they get older.

Anyway, the point is, when I get to the cities, civility goes out the window. The frequency of dirty looks rises sharply. It's like the people there have discovered a dark secret about the world. They've been cheated. A cruel joke has been played, and I can't help feeling somehow implicated.

Auki, on the other hand, was one long marathon of smiles and greetings.

“Good evening,” they would say.
“Good evening.”
“Where do you go?”
“I’m just walking.”
“Walking to where?”
“Nowhere, really.”
“Oh. You go for a stroll?”
“Yeah. A stroll.”
“Okay. Nite nite.”

It took me a while to figure out that the word “stroll” explains everything. These conversations got shorter and shorter until it just became:

“Good evening.”
“Good evening. I’m on a stroll.”
“Oh! A stroll. Okay! Nite nite.”

I did a lot of strolling in the early evenings, after the midday heat and before dinner. Sometimes in the mornings too.


The harbor at dusk.


This is how most people travel between the islands. It's a fairly cramped five hours.


This shirt has made the journey from ironic to totally non-ironic. Affection for Spam in the South Pacific is pure and unfettered.

One day I climbed to the top of the island.


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The rest of the time I read old Fantastic Four comics and napped. Oh God, I napped.

Napping is essential in this kind of heat. I didn’t have to discover this fact. My body forced it upon me. I’m generally not much of a napper. I tell myself I should do it more often. It always feels like time well-spent.

When you think of the Solomon Islands, I want you to think of a smallish, lumber-built room. The floor is wallpapered and most of the furniture exists to hold it down along its seems. There is a plastic chair in the corner that would bend and collapse if you sat on it. There is a ceiling fan that loves you and comforts you for as long as the electricity holds out. There is a thin bed in the corner. The pillow is stuffed with pebbles. And you are lying on the bed, napping.

This sounds unpleasant. It’s not. At least it wasn't for me.

My hotel was the only place I found that served meals. I learned not to deviate from the thing they did well, which was lightly fried yellow fin tuna with steamed rice and green mystery veges. Sometimes they had sweet potato fries. Christian missionaries stamped out any hope of alcohol and the soda here is slightly moistened blocks of sugar, so the only liquid options are lime juice and water. The result is an entirely nourishing, satisfying meal.

There were movies every night in the lobby. They were movies I’ve heard of. I remember seeing the ads and I know they played in theaters, but I’ve never seen any of them. I also don’t know anyone who has seen them. They’re movies that come out in September and February and usually involve a plot to kill the president, or maybe a serial killer. These movies will continue to be made forever and ever because of the international film market, where there's an unquenchable appetite for anything that involves a recognizably famous guy shooting at other less famous guys.

I came here to find out about Rorogwela, the song I used in my dancing video. This was ridiculously easy. I asked Collin, who managed my hotel, and he brought me to Wilson, the local police chief. Wilson brought me to his "cousin-brother," David, who lives about 50 feet from the hotel.


I interviewed David at length. I'm not a journalist. I did my best. YouTube videos have a way of getting around on their own, so I shoehorned the whole story into the video for people who aren't reading this entry. Anyway, here it is.

The next day David brought me to his older cousin-brother, Patrick, who is the nephew of the woman singing in the recording. He seemed more uneasy around me, so I didn't shoot an interview.


Patrick remembered the recording, which he accurately dated around 1971. He described the French man and his wife who made the recording, and the device itself, which he said was powered by a hand crank.

Afunakwa died a long time ago. I’ve read 2003, but Patrick said it was more like 10 or 15 years back. She has a son, Jack, who is still alive. He still lives in the same Baegu village, about a half day’s travel from Auki.

Everyone on Malaita knows the "Sweet Lullaby" song. They’ve heard it on the radio. Patrick confirmed that, at least to his knowledge, no one has ever received any kind of payment for use of the recording in an international hit pop song or its reuse in – ahem – a fairly popular internet video. Everyone is vaguely aware that some sort of payment is warranted, but no one has any idea what to do about it. And that’s how things have stayed for 15 years.

Patrick said someone came around last year asking about the song. They wanted to go to the village and meet the family, same as me, but he didn’t cooperate because it would simply be more exploitation without any real benefit for them, and the inquiring party didn’t seem to have any interest in a greater understanding beyond the recording itself.

I’m not sure whether it was the money or the greater understanding that weighed more heavily, but I made it clear that I wished to know as much as they could tell me about their music, and I’d be happy to give payment to him and to the family. I explained that I had used the recording in a project and done very well with it, and I wanted to help them out in return.

That seemed to do the trick. We discussed plans to head out to the village. Patrick said he would have one of the elder members of the family perform the song for me, as well as several other songs from the village, and they would all be translated into English. Unfortunately, things fell apart when we got down to timing. They couldn’t go out there for several days, and the trip required two nights. There was no way I could make it work without getting stuck in the Solomons for an extra week and blowing over a thousand dollars in non-exchangeable plane tickets.

We agreed that I would come back another time and arrange with them in advance. No one is in much of a hurry here, so I’ve decided I’m not either, but I’m already half-planning to work it into my Asia trip early next year.

Wilson and David warned me that other people would approach claiming a relation to Afunakwa. They weren’t kidding. Word got around town about a white guy handing out money for information and I had several parties come to the hotel toting relatives and presenting their credentials.

I don’t know that any of them were lying, as these families can get pretty extended. And conversely, I suppose some doubt should be cast on the authenticity of Patrick’s claim. But here’s a thing I’ve learned: the person you actively seek out is much more likely to be on the level than the guy who comes knocking on your door. Also, my gut tells me Patrick is telling the truth and the other guys were peddling crap.

Oh, and the other thing I came here to do: dancing. Took care of that. No problem. Marched into the primary school before assembly, explained what I’m doing to the principal, and shot the clip just before the start of morning classes.


The kids were understandably mystified by the gigantic American who wanted to dance with them, and it took about 15 minutes to find the trailblazing boy who would embarrass himself in front of the rest of the school by dancing with me. Once he broke the ice, it took another 5 minutes to build a crew of the brave and the bold. Everyone else stood on either side and watched. It was weird and sweaty, but it worked out fine. I slipped the principal a donation on my way out and barely caught the plane back to Honiara.

It took me four days to work up the nerve to go into the school. I remain terrified at the prospect of offending some principled principal and getting booted out the door. But so far they all seem to get it…sorta.

So that's all for now on the Rorogwela song and what ever happened to Afunakwa. I'm looking forward to a time when I can come back here and close the book. It's an interesting project that I feel an obligation to pursue.

But that's a long way off. Closer on the horizon: Papua New Guinea.

October 30, 2007

Auki, Solomon Islands
Lost Siren of the Baegu Tribe
by R.A. Montgomery

Had a stopover on Vanuata this morning. It’s where those guys tie ropes to their legs and jump from wooden scaffolding – bungee jumping without the bungees. "Land diving," it's called.


There are two reasons why I came to the Solomon Islands. The first is wreck diving.

Guadalcanal is the main island. It’s surprisingly unequipped for WWII tourism. By “unequipped,” I don’t mean the resort towels aren’t fluffy, I mean it doesn’t have roads. There are only a few bumpy ones along the exterior. Evidently the main town and capital, Honiara, butts up against some old battle sites, but it seems likely that many of the really important locations remain buried in the jungle and not very accessible.

The war wasn’t just fought on land, though. There are hundreds of wrecks out on the ocean floor – so many that the water north of Guadalcanal is called Iron Bottom Sound.

I’ve done WWII wreck diving in Micronesia. It’s one of the most memorable experiences in my life. Thrilling. Terrifying. Moving. Humbling.

The other reason I came here is because of a song.

If you’ve spent time on my site, you probably know most of this story, but: In 1970, an ethnomusicologist working with UNESCO came here to record languages that were on the verge of extinction. He made a recording of a folk song called Rorogwela, sung by a woman in the Baegu tribe named Afunakwa. The song was released on vinyl as part of a collection of folk music from the region. Decades later, a couple French DJs who go by the name of Deep Forest sampled the recording in a pop song called Sweet Lullaby. The song became a huge international hit.

I am not aware of any money earned from the recording or other related compensation ever having reached the Solomon Islands.

In 2003, I took a trip around the world and danced in a whole bunch of places. When I put it all together, I slapped a dance remix of Sweet Lullaby over it. People liked it.

In 2006, I made a second video, and I wanted to use the same vocals with new music. I got a hold of the original recording and a friend of mine created some very nice music to put over it. People liked it even more.

The recording has had a profound effect on my life. I have a connection to this place that I’ve always wanted to explore. As far as the debt I owe, that’s something I’ve made right in my own way and it’s none of your business. So I’m not here for charity. I’m here to learn.

I haven’t been able to find out much in advance regarding the tribe or the girl who sang the song. It seems Afunakwa died in 2003, but that’s all I’ve heard and even that isn’t certain.

En route to the Solomon’s this morning, I did some reading and learned the wreck diving sites are accessed from an island far off to the west that can only be accessed by plane. Likewise, the Baegu tribe live on an island to the east. I have four days here, and I’m not supposed to fly within 24 hours of a dive. That only leaves time to do one thing or the other.

To investigate the remote Baegu tribe, turn to page 73.
To go diving in sunken World War II battleships, turn to page 12.

As it happened, the flight to the diving island was full, so I’m here on Malaita. I shared a van from the airstrip with two Australian judicial administrators.

“What brings you to Malaita? Holiday?”
“Funny place for a holiday.”

I suppose it is. I appear to be the only white person in town who isn’t some sort of aid worker. The locals have been exceedingly friendly so far, but I’m wondering if they might be hedging their bets in case I’m a new pastor.

Most of the places I go to are destinations of some kind. There’s a reason someone would want to go there, and so there are facilities to enable a comfortable, leisurely visit. As a tourist, you become a source for the extraction of money. Malaita is one of those places that never came up with a reason why people should come here, so no one seems particularly inclined to bother with me.

I’m staying at the only hotel in town. I entertained the manager’s kids with my headlamp.


Tomorrow I start looking for traces of Afunakwa.