When I travel the first part of me to arrive is always my imagination. It scouts the route ahead, sketching scenes and picturing people. Empty open spaces make it uneasy. Given a chance it races to fill them.
I had been imagining the Weather Coast for months before we actually got there. It was at the heart of the civil conflict that submerged the Solomon Islands from 1999 until 2003. It was another land, people in Honiara assured me, only 15 minutes away by helicopter but in every other aspect as distant as the archipelago’s most remote atolls. When it rains I was told, paths become rivers and rivers rise to torrents. When the swell picks up, people said, it becomes impossible to launch or land boats off the shingle beaches; villages are cut off for months. While people talked, I pictured steep cliffs falling into a groaning, grey ocean. And I day-dreamt of floods and swallowing seas.
Of the three villages we planned to visit the one that captured my imagination most was Sughu, our second destination. Sughu had been home to Harold Keke, the most notorious of all the militia leaders. A man who had terrorised the Weather Coast, evading government forces and killing their soldiers. He executed priests, villagers and his own troops too. As people told me this, I dwelt upon the legacy of war, and decommissioned fighters returned to their villages.
I imagined our welcome in Sughu. Unlike most of the places we were visiting for my study, I wasn’t confident that people in Sughu knew we were coming. There was no cell phone access, no road access, no regular postal service, no regular boat. No way if finding out if we’d be welcome. One afternoon a friend of mine drove me down to the Honiara wharves and found a boat that was heading to a village about eight hours walk from Sughu. On board that he found a relative of his who was going to be walking that way. We gave the relative a letter for the chief of Sughu, sealed in an optimistic yellow envelope, and that was my introduction, hopefully destined to arrive in advance of Jo and I.
From Kuma (our first stop on the Weather Coast) we had hoped to take a boat down to Sughu. But on the day the boat never arrived. Eventually the captain sent us a message. To travel to Sughu we would have to pay an extortionate fare. And so we decided to walk. Abandoning as much of our gear as possible in Kuma.
For the residents of the Weather Coast walking is the main way of getting anywhere. A two day traverse of steep mountain passes is how many travel to Honiara. A two hour walk to tend hillside gardens is common. It is a land of amazing walkers. Locals assured us that they could walk from Kuma to Sughu in two hours. Although, after a considered look, they figured it would take us four.
We left Kuma in the early afternoon, accompanied by the chief’s daughter, who was heading to her high school between Kuma and Sughu, and two women who took pity on us after they spotted us wading precariously across the Kuma river.
We rotated packs, the women making much lighter work of the load than we did. After two hours of trudging, kept almost cool by intermittent puffs of trade wind we finally rounded a corner and saw in the distance a headland that our guides identified as Sughu. It was nothing more than a silhouette, smothered in clouds, but at least we could see it.
As we walked further the cloud came to greet us, wandering in on the wind, arcs of rain in its wake. And as the showers closed in, our companions departed. The chief’s daughter turning off towards her school and the other two young women turning back to Kuma, seeking to avoid the impending deluge and to make it home before dusk. Jo and I walked on, Jo carrying the largest backpack and me carrying the small pack along with the day bag. Walking, wondering what lay in wait for us behind the cloud.
Solomon Islands fell into conflict in the late 1990s. First, militants from Guadalcanal expelled Malaitan settlers from ‘their’ Island, then Malaitan resistance arose, taking control of Honiara. Combatants began to extort money from the government and then from their own people. In rural Guadalcanal the armed militia splintered and then retreated in the face of government policing operations. Keke, in charge of one of the militia groups, based himself on the Weather Coast, marching from Sughu to the other end of the Weather Coast and then inland. His troops caught and executed a band of Malaitan ‘commandos’ that had been sent to hunt them, and Sughu was razed by government troops. Keke flayed some of his own soldiers to death on trees. Possibly as a result of injuries, his mental health frayed until he was, by all accounts, insane. In the end he surrendered without a fight to Australian peacekeepers.
As I chewed over this, plodding over the shingle, the clouds grew to fill the sky and rain started to patter on the beach around us. Keke was safely in prison now, and there was no reason to expect Sughu to be any different from any of the other villages we had visited as part of my study. But it was also unknown, and I filled that unknown with worry.
After a while we were joined by a group of boys who materialised as we passed a small coastal village. They weren’t unfriendly, but they weren’t smiling either. If they exuded anything it was uncertainty. Most of them hung back, watching, silent, leaving two of the younger boys to come up and speak to us.
“You going where?”
“What country you coming from?”
They tried to speak to us in English, but their accents and broken grammar made understanding them almost impossible. And when I tried to speak in Pijin, my questions drew confused stares, my own grammar and accent rendering Solomons’ lingua franca unintelligible. Not being able to communicate we couldn’t ask the questions we wanted to ask (How far was it to Sughu? Had anyone there mentioned us?) and we couldn’t explain what brought us to be walking along their isolated stretch of beach. But despite all this they wanted to help.
“We carry you bags?”
It was help I didn’t really want. I didn’t want to hand over my research notes or the EPERB, our lifeline to the outside world. And I didn’t want to think about whether we could trust this group of boys in the middle of nowhere, with whom we could hardly communicate. But equally I didn’t want to offend them, to turn the tentative friendliness into resentment. And so we unburdened ourselves and, as the rain came and went, acquired an entourage, the two talkative kids confidently shouldering our packs, and their mob of teenage accomplices walking along with us, watching quietly.
Eventually, we arrived.
“Displace Sughu,” one of the boys announced.
It was almost dusk. The village sat beyond a rise on the South East side of a bay. As we walked across the shingle we could see a few houses on top of the rise but nothing of the rest of the village.
“I guess we need to find the chief?”
“Mifala nid fo tok tok wetem seif. Iu save findem?” I tried asking one of the boys.
It was then, as I was trying to convey this message, that we noticed a woman standing on the top of the rise, waving her arms, calling out something. At first I thought she was shouting at the boys but then it became clear her attention was directed at us. She strode in our direction. Calling out. I tried to figure out what she was saying.
She was short and slender, with an angled face that was framed by an explosion of black, curly hair. When she reached us she spoke again. This time I could almost make out what she was saying
“Hello-i’m-Gladys-we’ve-been-waiting-all-day-for-you,” her English was clear but so rapid fire that her sentences tumbled out as if one big long word.
“Yes. We thought you were going to arrive this morning, and we organised a welcome party for you. Everyone’s gone home now. But the kids are still waiting in the church. They are going to sing you some songs.”
“A welcome party?” If my imagination had been scouting ahead trying to picture Sughu, my conscious thought was now struggling to keep up with the reality of the place. “You knew we were coming?”
“Yes. We had most of the village out here waiting for you. The kids were going to sing.”
“It’s ok for us to stay?”
“Of course”, she smiled, “you will stay in the church guest house. We’ve prepared it for you. The pastor’s wife has cooked for you. I will take you to the guest house. But can we go to the church first? The kids are still waiting there? They want to sing.”
“Um. Sure. Sure. That sounds great.”
And so we wandered up into the village, over the coral pebbles that they used to cover the ground, and past poor but tidy houses. From doorways people waved. We stumbled into the old wooden church and sat down on pews at the front. And on Gladys’ urging a group of teenagers in clean white shirts began to sing.
We were tired and we were damp. And the hard work of my research still lay ahead. But we had arrived. And to a far friendlier reality than any I’d dared imagine. And so, as puddles formed on the wooden floor around my feet, I soaked up the hospitality, gave into relief, and set my imagination to thinking about dinner.