Decades of tension in Malaita were finally put to rest following an important and influential reconciliation involving the AM and the Kwaio in July 2018.
The endemic biodiversity of the Solomon Island Archipelago is phenomenal, with astonishing animals such as monkey faced bats and giant rats roaming high in the tropical forests. Documenting the extent of biodiversity in the Solomon Islands region is paramount not only for conservation efforts, but for our understanding of biogeography, speciation and evolution. Unfortunately for the most part of the past century, scientific research on the island of Malaita has been considerably restricted due to widespread tensions in the region.
The Malaitan giant rat, known locally as the kwete, is rare and previously thought to be extinct. Driven in search of the kwete, the AMs Tim Flannery began to work with the Kwaio community and ascended into the dense mountainous forests to be a part of a reconciliation ceremony. The leader of the Kwaio community conservation initiative, Esau Kekebata, headed and planned the ceremony, and requested Tim Flannery represent both Australia and Britain. The ceremony, Esau said, would ensure peace prospered in the community and would safeguard future scientific researchers.
Unease intensified in the region almost 100 years ago. In 1927 a horrific massacre took place on Malaita, in the then British Solomon Islands. Following years of unrest and unjust treatment of the Kwaio by European occupiers, a group of Kwaio warriors descended the densely forested highlands to Sinalaggu Harbour. Led by the Kwaio warrior Basiana they ambushed and killed two high ranking members of the British administration, in addition to 13 native police.
Panic ensued with emerging concern of a potentially widespread uprising. The British government requested support from the Australian government, and in reprisal for the attacks, HMAS Adelaide arrived in the harbour to deliver what was to become known as the ‘breathless army’. Breathless as they climbed the almost impenetrable and steep jungle into the highlands of Malaita, in a fruitless attempt to locate the Kwaio warriors responsible for the killing. Following their failure, the British tried a different tactic: supplying weapons to a clan hostile to Basiana. After a year of turmoil 60 Kwaio men, women and children were dead, with the Kwaio warriors remaining at large. In order to finally end the unrest and senseless Kwaio killings, Basiana and his accomplices handed themselves in to be hanged by the British forces.
Sadly, this did not spell the end of widespread death for the Kwaio. As the Kwaio community explain, incensed ancestors abandoned vital protection, resulting in disease, misfortune and intraclan violence. Amidst this unease, almost no scientific expeditions were able to take place, and it was not until the reconciliation ceremony in July 2018 that peace was finally able to sweep the area. This reconciliation was fundamental in paving the way for a valuable united conservation effort in this unique ecosystem.
For Tim, the journey from Australia to the heart of the highlands for the ceremony was long and arduous, with numerous flight delays and cancellations. Altogether the travel comprised four planes, a truck, two banana boats, several four-wheel drives and a hike through intense rains, swollen rivers, muddy tracks and rotting bridges.
At the beginning of their journey Tim and Esau, as well as videographer Ben Speare and accompanying mammologist Tyrone Lavery, decided to visit the island of Ngongosila to see the gravestones of the two British administration members killed in the 1927 massacre. They discovered the graves sequestered between a crowd of buildings on an island barely bigger than a football field. On the way back to the mainland the group encountered treacherous seas, with their banana boat flittering precariously on the open ocean. They stayed in a guesthouse in Gala to sleep before the following days long and gruelling climb. In the guesthouse were David MacLaren, a public health researcher from James Cook University and Esau’s eldest son Tommy. As the group rested, stories were exchanged and a dinner of sweet potato, roast taro and greens was served.
The following morning all travelled to Atoifi and were met with a contingent of ‘security’, a troop of armed young men who chaperoned the group to the highlands. Later, it was revealed these men are some of the harshest Kwaio criminals, including people who have been possessed by ancestral spirits and those who have been involved in gruesome murders. Their involvement in the reconciliation signifies that reform is a process for all.
The group embarked on the upward slog, with the trail almost unrecognisable as rain turned it into a muddy and submerged mess. It became increasingly clear that the ceremony could not take place that day. The group stayed at Kwainaa’isi Cultural Centre where it is obligatory to wear kapolato (traditional attire consisting of a cane belt and giant banana leaf).
As the sun rose the next morning the group made its way to the ancestral shrine where an extremely sacred ceremony took place. The area is covered in green mossy forest punctuated by caves and sinkholes. Esau began to weep as he pointed out the cave where Basiana hid for months before giving himself up to be hanged. As the group approached the cave entrance, the rains were heavy and emotions were strong, with several of the Kwaio wailing.
The rain refused to abate and leader Diifaka (who was wearing a necklace filled with human teeth), his brother and brother’s son, awaited the groups arrival under the shelter of several banana leaves. Tim was motioned to stand just outside the shelter, with the rest of group several metres behind. Tim was handed a fearful shivering piglet, which he clutched to his warm chest. Tim then handed the piglet back while Kwaio was spoken. Tim only understood the words Australia, England, Kwaio. The pig was passed back and forth over 90 times with different clan names and ancestors mentioned. As certain names were called out, nearby Kwaio cried out in sadness. The ceremony lasted two hours and ended with the division of a betelnut, which was shared between Tim and Diifaka. Although their respective tribes share a brutal history, they were now chewing one beetle nut as comrades and the healing process could begin. The ceremony finally brought the tribes into a respectful, trusting partnership.
The following day the group assembled in the cultural centre, amidst the fog and mist, for a public ceremony. Tim, David and Tyrone were each handed a piglet in which the Kwaio spirits reside. Tim held Basiana’s pig. Each member handed their pig to representatives of different clans of the hanged men, in exchange for shell money for the deaths of the British men. Speeches were made followed by pan pipe playing and dancing. The reconciliation ceremony was complete.
For the AM researchers, it came time to embark on the long journey home. The hike downslope was treacherous, through rain, mud and chasms. They passed an elderly man on the way down, who gifted valuable shells and expressed his thanks for partaking in the ceremony. As they continued to the air strip there was a final farewell from a Solomon Islands eagle as it soared and circled above. The eagle is a spiritually significant bird, being the totem of Malaita. This was the final confirmation for the community that peace would now come to the Kwaio.
Since the reconciliation ceremony, several fruitful and collaborative AM expeditions and workshops have taken place, including those in search of frogs, insects, snails, birds and reptiles. The positive symbolism of the reconciliation ceremony has been essential for community harmony. This step has proved a vital element in easing past tensions and in planning important and collaborative research. The reconciliation was so successful that numerous more ceremonies are planned with the East Kwaio community, including on the island of Bougainville.
Emma Flannery, Communications Administrator- Solomon Islands Conservation Alliance