The Solomon Islands

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The Solomon Islands form a chain of islands in the south-west Pacific.

The population of less than half a million (447,900) is composed

of 93 per cent Melanesian, 4 per cent Polynesian and 1.5 per cent

Micronesian, and has a significantly higher per capita income than

Bangladesh ($926 in 1997). During the 1980s, a few weeks after graduating

with a degree in sociology from a British university, I went to live on one of

the larger of the Solomon Islands, New Georgia. During the two years

I spent there I travelled amongst the main islands and, amongst other things,

assisted my husband – a tropical forester – in data collection. I also used my

recently acquired ‘sociological lenses’ to observe the rich and diverse

cultures, languages and customs that characterised the Solomon Islands.

We lived in a village called Munda; our house, built on stilts, sat at the

edge of a lagoon and coconut and banana palms formed a natural

boundary to the garden. We lived without electricity and like our

Solomon Island neighbours benefited from the abundant natural resources

of fish from the sea and produce from the rich garden areas behind the

village. I was welcomed by the local women and invited to join in many of

their activities. These involved such things as weaving baskets and mats,

which were produced on a regular basis in order to raise money for the

local Methodist church. The church provided a key focus for many of the

villagers and missionaries had set up a hospital in Kekengala and a college

on a nearby island. The wontok system was also a feature of Solomon

Island life. This involved reciprocal obligations that spread out from

direct family members to friends, neighbours and fellow villagers and

beyond, all of whom were considered to be each other’s wontoks. Solomon

Islanders could travel within and between the different islands and call

upon wontok ties for hospitality and help. In many ways the wontok

system provided an informal support network, particularly for those in

need. However, it was also open to abuse. Wontok ties could be exploited

and individual families drained of resources as they felt obligated to help

others. For the most part, however, like so much of Solomon Island life it

was accepted with benign good grace – after all, as a Solomon Islander

you never knew when you might need to call upon and make use of

wontok ties.

As noted earlier, the ways in which women and their bodies are viewed

within a culture can provide important markers for how authoritative

knowledge in relation to childbirth is constructed. At the outset, I was

struck by the freedoms that, from a Western perspective, were enjoyed by

women in relation to their bodies and their apparent ease with their

different sizes and shapes. There were not the same invidious pressures

that are perpetuated and reinforced in the West, that compel many

women to try to achieve unnaturally thin body forms. Of course, some

twenty years later, with the enormous changes that have resulted from

globalisation, these freedoms may now no longer be so easily enjoyed.

However, whilst living in the Solomon Islands, I noticed that larger

bodies were celebrated. Indeed, I listened with intrigue to stories about

the butcher’s shop on the island of Gizo selling large quantities of pork fat

to the Gilbertese women, amongst whom a substantial body and ample

backside were highly prized and considered to be symbols of beauty.

Pregnancy outside marriage was also regarded with a similarly relaxed

attitude. The state of pregnancy was described in the lingua franca, pidgin

English, as being ‘bubbly’. Although the earlier arrival of missionary

hospitals on some of the main islands had led increasingly to women

giving birth in hospitals, hospital facilities remained basic. Apart from

the hospital in Honiara, the capital of the main island of Guadalcanal, most

hospitals were very low-tech, consisting of no more than a few rooms. The

hospital provided a place in which to give birth, but only for those who

could walk to the hospital or who did not live too far from the hospital to

make the journey by canoe. This shift for some in place of birth, from

village house to hospital, had not at the time led to widespread, formalised

antenatal care, although basic advice on diet might be given should the

woman find herself at the hospital. Pethidine was available as a form of

pain relief, but apart from this, the birth was just as likely to be attended

by hens scratching around the floor as the hospital doctor.

At the time, men and women shared many of the tasks involved with

daily living, tending the vegetable garden areas and fishing. Members of

the extended family, particularly older siblings, shared in the care of

younger family members. The society was arranged according to ways

of living that were not so hierarchical or divided according to gender as

those in the West: patriarchy was not a dominant, organising feature. In

more recent times the Solomon Islands have been recorded as having

amongst the highest population growth and fertility levels in the Pacific.

In 1995 fertility levels stood at 5.7 births per woman aged 15–49 years.

High maternal and infant mortality rates have also been recorded. These

have been explained in terms of pregnancy-related complications, reproductive

tract diseases and cancers (http://www.spc.int. 27/10/03). Sadly,

as I write this chapter the Solomon Islands is experiencing a period of

continued civil unrest. Ethnic rivalries between inhabitants of the main

island, Guadalcanal, and the neighbouring island of Malaita, erupted in

1998, leading to considerable loss of life. Australian troops have recently

been recruited in to try to restore law and order, but this period of

unrest has had serious consequences for the infrastructure of the islands,

including health services, which at best were already rudimentary and

fragmented. Similarly, the crippling nature of the wontok system described

earlier has also recently been noted. The Chairman of the National Peace

Council, Mr Paul Tovua, has claimed that the wontok system is ‘inconsistent

with democracy’ because loyalty to wontoks is greater than loyalty

to the law or parliamentary democracy (ABC News Online, March

2004). But dismantling deeply culturally embedded practices such as

those associated with wontok obligations will not be easy. Concerns

have also been expressed by various aid organisations about both the

growing maternal mortality rates and the increase in unprotected sexual

activity among young people and corresponding high teenage birth rate,

behaviour which has been compounded by increased alcohol and drug

abuse amongst teenagers. It seems that patterns of behaviour common in

the West now shape practices in these once remote islands (see chapter 7).