October 25, 2002 Tawatana
Early this morning we heard on the two-way radio that the Kaona was headed our way—a ship to take us back to Honiara. It might be here as early as Sunday afternoon to pick us up. So we spent the day in serious packing mode.
In the evening we went down to the beach for the farewell party that the village arranged for us. For several days, the men have been out fishing, the women bringing produce down from the gardens; they bought a pig and butchered chickens. They made leis of frangipanis for each of us and seated us at a special table decorated with a cloth and beer bottles filled with flowers. They gave us the best of the food, the biggest portions of fish and pork and chicken, a huge bowl of coconut rice.
They made speeches: “We were afraid of you when you first came. We thought all white people were big men—bosses. Then we saw that you just wanted to be like us, so we could come close.”
“Your kids are just like our kids. They run around, swim, eat with us, sleep in our houses.”
Our next-door neighbor got up and said that he and his wife would really miss our kids. He told how Michael had said to him just that morning, “Hida, I have some little friends, but you are my big friend.”
They presented us with a six-foot, quadruple-strand, length of shell money. Each disk is cut by hand from shell, ground into a circle and strung with other disks into finger-length sections. Later the sections are joined into long strands of a fathom each. Each finger-length section has its own name, and the original owner of the shell money can recite the names, recognizing each individual section of disks. Shell money is still used for cash in some places, a dollar per finger-length to pay for your kerosene, salt, or rice at the village store. When a bride is purchased, shell money is part of the price. When customs are broken, shell money must be exchanged in compensation. The strand of shell money that the village gave us is worth 400 Solomon dollars (about $75 US), a small fortune in our area. So to receive a gift of such value from people who have so very little is overwhelming.
The party continued with entertainment—singing and panpiping—until after midnight.
Our neighbors Ben and Elena had us over for a farewell meal. We exchanged stories of our memories together.
Their oldest son, Selwyn, was about 12 when came to the village. He took our Matthew (3 at the time) under his wing, carrying him around the village on his shoulders, taking him swimming, finding papaya and drinking coconuts for him. One evening I’d made bean burritos for dinner--always an occasion for us, since rolling tortillas was a production that I didn’t undertake too often. I gave one to Selwyn to try. He took one bite, then headed up the path for home. Ben later told us that he’d handed over the burrito and said, “Dad, I think I’m going to throw up!”
Then there was the time that Michael went on a fresh-water shrimp kick. Beniang was the designated shrimp-shooter, taking Michael down to the creek, swimming around underwater overturning rocks and shooting the shrimp with a spear. Then they’d bring the shrimp home and cook them. After several consecutive days of this, Beniang got tired of it, but he couldn’t tell Michael “no” straight out. So Beniang would say, “I’ve got homework.” “But Beniang, it’s Saturday.” “Oh. Well, I can’t find my shrimp spear.” “Hey, look, it’s stuck up there in the ceiling!” So poor Beniang would have to give in and go.
Now that our boys are a little older, they are repaying the older boys’ friendship by befriending Ben and Elena’s adopted toddler, Scott. It’s a beautiful, full-circle thing to see Scott catch sight of my boys. His little face lights up, his arms fly out, and he comes running, calling, “Kolo! Tiu! Kopu!” (Michael, Matthew, and Jacob in Arosi-toddler-talk.)
Ben’s brother Patteson got his entire extended family together for a meal with us, so that the kids in our immediate neighborhood could say their farewells together.
I can’t believe all the cooking and work that has been done for us this week. Every evening it’s a huge meal with meat and rice and noodles—things that are expensive, things that local people eat only for special occasions.
We had a lovely, lovely evening, feeling so loved and cared for. Again. Especially the kids. The boys had a special table, the girls had a special table. Some of the kids had even prepared speeches of a sentence or two about special memories with our kids. Then all the kids got up and did an impromptu show for the parents, singing action choruses and quartet-style numbers. We all laughed until we were in tears, at the little ones trying to keep up with the older kids’ actions. Our kids sang, danced, and had a night to remember.
I told the other parents, one of my main concerns for my kids is that they’ve been so happy in the village, I’m afraid that their grief at leaving will match the happiness they’ve had.
I think the best thing about being a kid in Tawatana is that you’re expected to be a kid. Nobody expects you to be mature. They expect you to be childish.
If you are grumpy or whiny, nobody takes it as a character defect. They just assume that you are hungry or tired or hot, and they try to help you resolve the problem.
You’re not expected to be always clean or always quiet. Nobody says, “Stop being so silly” or “What kind of question is that?”
They laugh with you, or try to show you what you need to know. They’re glad when you eat their food, happy when you want to help in their kitchens, or go to their gardens, or paddle their canoes. Children are not an inconvenience, they’re a treasure.
And my children have been treasured even more than most. That’s something we can never repay.