|Marist Bishop Adrian Smith writes from Honiara about the plight of his people at this time|
JANUARY 5TH 2003
Background to the story of Tikopia -- An essay prepared for BBC
by Archbishop Adrian Smith
In 1966, as a new missionary from Dublin, I was the only passenger on the twenty seater plane from Fiji to the then New Hebrides, now VANUATU, and on to Honiara, Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands. There were three crew on the flight. We met a cyclone as we approached Vanuatu. The pilot came to explain there might be delays. He later told me he was surprised I did not seem concerned about the weather conditions. Ignorance is bliss, I had no idea what a cyclone was! Now after thirty six years I have come to loath and fear cyclones. They can do immense damage, their unpredictable nature leaves their victims in a prolonged state of uncertainty. Strangely like Australian bush fires, cyclones seem to play a part in the revitalization of soil, it is a case of nature caring for itself .
The recent cyclone which has devastated the islands of Tikopa and Anuta has once again brought the small island community of Tikopia into the world view. Around 1828, a red headed Irish sea Captain, Peter Dillon, visiting Tikopia discovered what the judged to be French cutlery and other artifacts which lead him to discover the fate of the French La Perouse Expedition of around 1780, Peter Dillon was able to prove it was wrecked off Vanikoro Island. The French Government honoured him with the title: Chevalier. In 1851 two French Catholic Priests, Marists, arrived in Tikopia, their disappearance remains an unanswered question. Later the Anglican Missionaries were more successful. The Tikopians, who are Polynesians, are members of the Church of Melanesia (of Anglican origin) as are the people of Anuta.
In 1928, the highly respected British anthropologist, the late Dr. Raymond Firth visited and stayed one year on Tikopia. His scholarly work, "We, the Tikopia" published 1936 gave Tikopia international fame. He returned to Tikopia in 1952, his works on life on Tikopia continue to captivate a large audience.
The around 2000 inhabitants of Tikopia are well accustomed to ways of cyclones. I visited Tikopia and Anuta about twelve years ago. There was much to learn. The people live in low houses on ground level, one has to creep through the door to enter. Inside the house people adopt a sitting position and move about on their knees. I could not stand erect inside their homes. This kind of building is cyclone proof to an extent.
I also discovered their unusual method of preserving food which I have not seen elsewhere in the Solomons. They very carefully prepare and bury food in deep holes in the ground, which months later they reopen and eat. It was not my taste!, but not anymore strange than some of the strong odorous cheese you can find in Europe. They are prepared for the weather's strange antics.
In 1986 on Guadalcanal we were hit by a major cyclone NAMU. Visiting the devastated villages shortly after the cyclone I found the people in a state of shock. I expect the people of Tikopia are in that same state. The unavailability of clean drinking water was an immediate problem, perhaps that is a difficulty the Tikopians are now facing. We don't yet know if there has been loss of life. The most recent report from an Australian Air Force plane which made a reconnaissance flight over the islands; reported seeing scenes which might indicate two villages having been washed away. They also reported the population busy clearing away debris. Some were in their canoes fishing. Fish is the main diet of those island people, which explains their very strong boned features. Island people have a resilience when faced with natural disasters. The major problem will be the reconstruction of their community buildings, meting houses, schools, clinics and churches. The more permanent they try to make their buildings the more dependent they are on imported materials. It is a thirty-six hour ship trip from Honiara to Tikopia which makes this kind of recovery slow and expensive. It is in this area of rehabilitation that the outside world can most help.
After four years of civil war and with weapons now in the hands of criminal groups the economy of Solomon Islands is at rock bottom. The Government was unable to send a ship in quick response, there was no money for fuel. The Australia Government footed the bill. The crew would not move until them were paid arrears due to them. Public servants are all experiencing arrears in their salaries. Only the police and other essential service workers are up to date in their pay. If they are not paid they don't work and the country is further strangled! Poor Tikopia and Anuta, it is not a good time for you, the country is with its back to the wall!
January 7th 2003 Since writing the above which was sent to the BBC, the news coming in from Tikopia is good. There are no fatalities, their drinking water is not contaminated. Yes, some villages were washed away by the sea. There will be need for food for the next three to four months.
+Adrian Smith sm
Archdiocese of Honiara, P.O. Box 237, Honiara, Solomon Islands