Time and Tide
21 October 2018 | Shortland Islands, Western Province, Solomon Islands
..await nobody.." So with the weeks flying by , our next challenge was to match 'the desired' with 'the possible'. We wanted to spend more time at the northern end of Choiseul but then again we felt there was a need to spend more time everywhere, so as we often say, "you can only do what you can do". And of course, the weather and the changing of season consideration is ever-present. Our next destination was the Shortland Islands, the closest point of which to Bougainville PNG is only 2 miles or 4 kilometres but by now a decent wind had become just a fond memory... so it was the iron spinnaker (i.e. the engine) or wait, and with time running out, we had limited options.
The Shortland Islands
The cultural and traditional ties between the people living in this area means formalities associated with modern international boundaries cannot be strictly adhered to and so a similar arrangement exists between these countries as that between PNG and Australia in respect of Torres Strait. The Shortland Islands were closed to foreigners for many years and is likely to be again the case in the near future so this may be the only opportunity for us to ever visit the area. In June 2019 a referendum will take place to decide whether Bougainville will become independent from PNG - and there is going to be trouble, and a great deal of it. Our original plan had been to visit all the villages in the Shortland Islands as well as the Treasury Islands but we simply did not have enough time left. However we would do what we could. The first island we visited was Fauro that had two villages, Taumoa and Samanango where we conducted clinics. The people at Taumoa said that we were the first yacht "since the trouble" to visit the island - 30 years that is. Some people told us what it was like during the late 80's in their village, which we later found out was representative of all the villages in the Shortlands. The people were so frightened of Bouganvillean militia that they lived in the bush for 10 years - the villages were deserted. With the upcoming referendum they are hoping that the Solomon Islands Government and the international community are taking the steps necessary to ensure their safety. Only two weeks before we arrived we were told that a group of 20 armed militia from Bougainville had raided a nearby logging camp, terrorising the workers and stole chainsaws, fuel and other equipment.
At Taumoa we met the health boat from Nila ('capital' of the Shortlands) and the head nurse, Moses, was there with two representatives from WHO. It seems there has been a breakout of Polio in PNG recently (14 cases) and everyone is going to be vaccinated (if they so desire of course). I did read that a few years ago WHO had hoped that Polio would be eradicated by 2018 and in fact we mistakenly thought that was already the case. Meeting Moses was fortuitous as it allowed us to pre-arrange a multi-day clinic at Nila later in the week.
At Saminango the clinic was again very successful and we were invited for lunch at the chief's (Silverio) house for a meal of 'traditional smoked fish' and rice and at the end of another busy day we were happy to return to rest on Monkey Fist. Shortly afterwards we had a visit from a lady (Margaret) from the village (who was around 60) on her way out to dive for Trocus shells in her canoe. She came to say goodbye and thank us and she also told us that "some boys" had been on our boat and had stolen bananas (again lucky we keep everything locked up). But she said that the village was very unhappy and that the boys were now "very frightened". No harm done but certainly again a behaviour the community needs to stamp out. With the wind picking up and a long fetch in the anchorage we again had another less-than-restful night's sleep.
Samanango to Nila was a short but welcome sail of 15 miles with the wind just forward of abeam around 18 knots. When we arrived at Nila a bare-chested local came out to greet us in his dugout with his three pikininis - it was Moses, the head nurse. The two younger pikininis freaked out on seeing 'the whiteman', it was a sight seeing them clambering onto his lap in the dugout canoe, Moses had to take them back to shore, no way were they getting onto Monkey Fist. He returned and helped us anchor and we made arrangements to visit the new clinic and prepare the venue. The clinic is quite new and was funded by the Catholic church that has infiltrated this region, apparently the bishop who lives in Gizo comes from Italy and so the clinic was built by Italians who the locals said couldn't speak English! Our first impression was that the building was inappropriate for the climate and for it's intended use, which it seems coincided with both staff and local people's view for reasons we don't have room to go into here. Most people prefer to stay in the old dilapidated hospital. But it seems a fault of many charity and aid groups that they fail to consult the local communities when giving such aid.
Recently I made mention of SDA's and questioned the value of the restrictive diet forced upon their subsistence followers and feel compelled to make comment in relation to the Catholic church, especially in these communities and especially in relation to their outdated stance on contraception. One night during our stay three babies were born at the clinic, assisted by the one nurse on call, one baby was the seventh child of a woman who was only 32 years old. I'm not sure how anyone can see this as a good outcome. You might say "well, what contraception could they use?", which is where Family Planning Australia has stepped in and has made available to many women in the Solomons without cost, the Jadelle contraceptive implant which (effective for five years).
Moses and two other nursers, his wife Jonica and another lady Ruth helped us out at the clinic with Moses being trained to fit reading glasses (which allowed to to leave a stock with him to supply people who weren't able to attend). At the same time we were there, there was a workshop for nurses from the outlying villages, including Mono on the Treasury Islands, so we were able to give the Mono nurse some training in fitting reading glasses and also a supply of glasses to take back with her. Moses (almost 40) believed that he had good vision and didn't need glasses but as the saying goes - 'you don't know what you don't know'. He was holding and looking at the visual acuity chart while I was explaining his situation to the other nurses and I slipped a pair of +1.00 reading glasses on him. He was shocked by the difference and couldn't stop looking at the chart for some time with a big smile on his face. A simple pair of glasses that we all take for granted produces a pretty amazing difference.
The day after the last day of the clinic we were on our way south east again but not surprisingly, there was no wind. We over-nighted in a quiet bay on the north of Vella Lavella Island and the following day we continued into Gizo, the provincial capital of the Western Province. I must say that Gizo surprised me a little, I think we expected something a little more developed and really it was just a large village/small town with a couple of phone towers dotted around and huge amounts of OBM's speeding recklessly in and out of the harbour, continuing well after the hours of darkness without any lights. How they avoid the canoes I have no idea but it seemed awfully dangerous to us. The only meat that was available were two kilo bags of chicken wings, frankfurts and minced beef of dubious origins - and of course plenty of beer.
We met with our friend from Simbo, Gideon Tuke, who had arranged a meeting with the Premier the following Monday after which he would accompany us to Simbo Island where we would conduct the last of our big clinics. We had been in touch with Gideon through mutual friends who had helped with rebuilding after the tsunami in 2007 that killed nine people. Also we visited Silverio, the vision nurse at the hospital who showed us his limited and incomplete range of glasses to supply to people, so before we left were able to leave with him pairs of eyeglasses that significantly bolstered what he had.
The meeting with the Premier was scheduled in three days time and could not be brought forward so we decided not to wait in Gizo and headed over to Liapari Island 12 miles away where we conducted a clinic at the local village, as well as on Liapari itself. The anchorage was great which was fortuitous, as the weather turned particularly foul. And there were even two other yachts there - our first for many months. We headed back to Gizo on the Sunday afternoon even though the weather was bleak, but we needed to be back for the meeting the following morning. We could see another storm approaching but with reefed sails we believed we'd still have a reasonable sail, unfortunately after it engulfed us it turned into a thunderstorm with lightening and thunder only a few seconds apart - virtually on top of us so we changed course to try and work our way away from the storm cell centre, which luckily we were able to do.
Back in Gizo the following morning the meeting with the Premier ended up with all the MP's (in Gizo for a conference) attending and having their vision screened, with us resolving issues they never even realized they had!
On the Tuesday we headed to Simbo with Gideon and his three year old grandson Joe and arrived in the early afternoon to an official welcoming ceremony complete with a troupe of armed and painted natives who staged a mock attack (re-enactment?) on us as we arrived in the dingy. We had a busy two day clinic which was probably the best run we had in our time in the Solomons, with the help of Gideon and another young guy named Nickson, our clinic ran like clockwork - in two days over 300 pairs of glasses fitted with over 540 pairs of sunglasses gifted.
While Simbo is only 25 miles (50 kms) from Gizo, there are many people here who never leave the island, especially the Old People. Which brings us to Gideon's mother, Daisy Tuke who is the oldest person we have helped so far - 100 years old as of 18th June this year. We paid her a home visit. She was wearing glasses but they "didn't work", glasses that had been given to her by a relative and were only good for "keeping the flies out". After we were finished she was able to count her grand children playing outside, the first time in many, many years. Gideon said to his mother "Can you see me" she replied "Yes son I can see you". Daisy then turned to us and said "Thank you too much for the glasses....that's all". Daisy then stood unaided, crossed the verandah, went down the steps, and the next client arrived a young 77 year old who we were also able to assist with her first pair of glasses.
We asked about the 2007 tsunami which most people had suffered. The nine people that lost their lives all came from a now non-existent village at the north west corner of the island. The epicentre was only a few miles away and at seven am., with the earth shaking and a loud rumbling, people ran for their lives into the foothills. Half the population had been asleep and ran for their lives into the bush still naked, disregarding their possessions, including clothing. The general belief is that those who died had delayed their escape in order to collect some precious items to take with them. Nickson our helper at the clinics told us his wife gave birth to their first child 'up in the bush' the day after the tsunami....the resilience of the village people is awesome.