Where Sharks are SacredAfter disembarking from the ferry, I walked the short distance to the major town on Malaita Island – Auki. It took a few moments for my legs to adjust to the firm ground after the three-hour ferry journey from Honiara on Guadalcanal. People waved at me from their shops, and others approached to welcome me and to enquire about my travels. The welcomes are usually warmer and more genuine when one takes the road less travelled. I was met by Thomas, who was my village stay host on the small Busu Island and boarding his small boat, we soon entered the mirror-like water of the beautiful Langa Langa Lagoon.
Heavy rain clouds moved across the Malaita’s mountainous interior, but they only delivered a drizzle as we passed small islands fronted by wooden houses and people paddling in elongated wooden canoes would enthusiastically wave upon sighting our craft. It felt like I had truly entered an entirely different way of living. Under leaden skies, we arrived at Busu, an artificial island built on a base of the coral. Home to the Baekwa people, these 400 residents maintain an enduring and endearing bond with the marine world. According to Baekwa legend, they are direct descendants of the pioneers who arrived from New Guinea with the aid of protective octopus named Biaqua – and the octopus is now a protected totem. The same status is granted to the stingray, but most the important sea creature is the shark, for, in this society, sharks are revered and not feared.
Sharks play an integral part in Baekwa rituals. Prior to what is expected to be a difficult boat journey, a coconut is mounted on the boat to attract the shark and its protective powers, and once the journey is complete, the shark is provided with a cooked pig as a sacrifice that is either carried on the boat or procured at the destination. Sharks are also seen as prophesiers, for their unannounced appearance foretells the death of a resident.
Possibly the most important role for sharks surrounds the acquisition of shells used for currency. The holy man calls the shark (a good shark) to provide protection from various dangers, including the wild sharks (the bad sharks). After providing the required swinish sacrifice, he enters the water, and upon sourcing the first shell, returns to the surface, and whilst holding it aloft, prays to the sun for both protection and a bountiful shell harvest. With devotions discharged, all able men gather shells and once completed, another pig would be sacrificed to express gratitude to the shark for protecting them during their important work.
An obvious characteristic of the Baekwa people is their contentment. I reflected on the journey from my apartment in Australia to the airport before coming to the Solomon Islands. I boarded a train filled with people concluding their daily commute to their employment and gazed at a most pathetic gathering. Vacant expressions revealed a body slowly seeped of its soul, a life consumed with responding to the hectic demands of modern society whilst negotiating the concrete maze of a sprawling city. By comparison, the faces of the Baekwa sparkled, a characteristic emanating from a less materialistic society and their total immersion in the natural environment. They seemed happy, relaxed, and the entire Busu Island radiated an aura of calm.
Langa Langa Lagoon is famous for the making and the continued use of shell money, which is used for several purposes: sale, barter, compensation, or as a dowry gift for a bride. The idea of shell money emanated from their New Guinea descendants, and the process of making this currency is lengthy, for shells are cracked or ground (not time-consuming) but drilling the hole within a single piece can take an hour, and smoothing a string of shells into round discs requires two days of repetitive effort. Both men and women work together at these tasks – with the men entrusted with the smoothing of the shells, and the women completing the remaining steps.
Shells are becoming scarce, so they are also imported from other parts of Solomon Islands. Fishing likewise is becoming more difficult as the population increases – and these are just two challenges facing the gentle people of Langa Langa. Being a male, I was granted admission to the sacred area of the island where the skulls of holy men from generations past lay slowly decaying amongst trees. It was considered a special honour to be granted access to this part of the island. It felt a serious and important place and I treated the scared area with the respect it deserved.
There used to be a temple building here but that has long since collapsed, with stones scattered carelessly across the ground, interspersed amongst the numerous skulls. Many traditional practices have been discouraged by the arrival of Christianity, but the sacred status of this area has never lost its importance. The sole wooden church on the island is home to two small Virgin Mary statues that reportedly ooze blood from their chests at times, and bells are often rung to signify the beginning of prayers. I enjoyed wandering around the small island as the more curious (who could speak English) approached me to ask me questions, but a torrential downpour from dark clouds that lasted the entire evening saw me and most of the island’s inhabitants retire to our respective rooms.
From the verandah outside of my room, I squatted on a wooden chair and watched the large drops of rain falling into the lagoon only a few steps away. A grey fog had descended and it enclosed the whole lagoon under its blanket, but visibility was still decent enough to see some distance away. Under ever-darkening skies, men dived under the water seeking out food or perhaps more shells. Their heads seemed so small compared to the mass of grey – both in the water and in the sky – that surrounded them. I observed this scene until the men returned to shore, and there was no sign of any human activity. The evening had arrived in Langa Langa Lagoon.
That night I lay on a bed underneath a draped mosquito net as I listened to the rain tapping the roof or splashing in the lagoon. It was a glorious conclusion to an incredible day that showed the importance of people being strongly connected to nature.