We now have a translation of the research report of social anthropologist and round-the-world sailor, Renate Westner, MA. She came to Taumako in 2007 to study the educational and life experience of children.
The Children of Taumako
by Renate Westner
My host family on Taumako lived in a small village above a sand beach in front of one of the island’s highest mountains. This chiefly family was headed by a man of about ninety, and included his second wife, who was about fifty, their twenty-one year old daughter, and a six year old adopted girl. I also had the opportunity to observe extended family life when the wife’s first daughter, a woman of about twenty-six, and her two year old daughter, who lived in another village, visited. They often came by to help her mother, especially when she was cooking for visitors.
Moreover, because the seven families living nearby were related to the old chief, I had close contact with them too. These households consisted mainly of young married couples, their children and, in one case, of an elderly couple with two grandchildren. The children ranged in age from two to about twelve. Some of the older children from these families were attending secondary schools on other islands in the province or in the capital, Honiara.
From two girlfriends of my host’s daughter I was able to learn something about adolescents. There was no infant younger than two or any pregnant woman in the neighborhood while I was there. However, I was able to contact a family from another village with a six month old daughter. They asked me to become a sort of godmother to her during her ear-piercing, a customary rite of passage for very young children.
My intention was to study how children deal with the problems of everyday life. I also hoped to observe how family members, other children, and schoolteachers educate young people. How did children learn their role in the community through play, duties, rites of passage, formal education etc?
From the Solomon Islands 2007 Demographic and Health Survey I learned that the average household size in rural areas was six persons. My informants confirmed this. They also told me that an average household consists of a nuclear family of father, mother, and four children. The 1999 survey also recorded that half of the nation’s population was under fifteen years old.
To better understand the children’s lives it is helpful to know something of their physical and social environment. The island’s small size (about 3 x 6km.) remote location (the nearest inhabited islands, the Reefs, are about 100 km. away), and the vast ocean surrounding it all play important roles in shaping the children’s personalities.
Another important factor is the ongoing shift from traditional social values of community identification, respect for elders, and sharing to the modern world’s emphasis on individualism, competition and self-promotion. I want to show how all these affect children’s socialization.
Taumako is a high volcanic island, consisting mainly of steep rocky hills where people raise crops and harvest timber. The island’s many small streams provide a good supply of clean water, but also breed swarms of mosquitoes. To avoid these pests, most people live either close to the shore or on artificial coral islands in the lagoon. This means that the children’s play area is small, and easy for adults to supervise.
Children who live at the south point find it hard to get to school because they must either clamber up steep rocky and often muddy paths or, if the tide is low enough, wade around rocky points in the lagoon. Moreover, swamps and streams swarm with mosquitoes which transmit malaria, especially Plasmodium vivax (Bugoro 2009). Diseases transmitted by hookworms, mites, fungi, head–lice and bacteria were common, as were diarrhea, boils, influenza, tuberculosis, bronchitis, pneumonia etc. Because of these, many children were in chronic poor health.
Taumako’s fauna is limited by the island’s remoteness. There are some wild creatures like bats, flying foxes, pigeons, small red birds, herons, various seabirds, rats, skinks and lizards. Insects like butterflies, mosquitoes, flies, termites, beetles etc. abound. Eels live in the streams.
Children have contact with domestic animals like pigs, chickens, cats, and dogs, and play with wild pets like pigeons or seabirds. Because no one feeds these wild pets, however, they usually die within a few days.
Animals are thought of only as toys or as food. The first–world idea that non–human creatures deserve respect and kindness is alien to Taumako culture.
Pigs do play an important role in children’s lives. Firstborn children receive a pig or piglets as gifts from their parents. They are then responsible for feeding and caring for these animals. A four year old boy in my neighborhood, for example, cared for his four piglets, feeding them daily and not letting them wander off into the woods.
Animals other than pigs are sometimes fed coconut or scraps from people’s meals. For the most part, however, they are left to fend for themselves. Until recently, this was also the case in our first–world culture. Nowadays people in our culture have learned to respect animals as feeling beings. It was therefore interesting to observe how contact with a cat–loving visitor changed the attitudes of a small girl and a young woman in our host’s family. From her they learned to treat their cat humanely.
Dogs are only kept for pig hunting. Both adults and children abuse them, often kicking them or pelting them with rocks.
Pigs and chickens are only eaten at feasts or other special occasions.
A very important part of the fauna, which serves mostly as a food source, lives in the lagoon (see section on “The Ocean”.)
People use nearly every plant on the island for food, medicine, decoration, or personal care.
Children receive most of their nourishment from plants like breadfruit, coconut, sago, beach almond, bush apples, bush lime, melon, pumpkin, pineapple, star fruit, orange, papaya, cabbage, green beans, sweet potato, taro, yam, manioc, and lettuce. Dried breadfruit and all kinds of puddings made from tubers or breadfruit mixed with coconut milk and baked in the earth oven (umu) are favorite vegetable foods. Even babies not yet weaned eat the same foods as older children and adults. Besides their mother’s milk they usually drink fresh water, coconut water, or bush tea. However, one small girl in my neighborhood also received dried cow’s milk, which was sold at one of the island’s two small stores.
Recently, the traditional diet has been replaced or supplemented by imported trade store foods like white rice, instant noodles, tinned tuna, dried biscuits, and white sugar. Because these are eaten on special occasions and served to visitors, children learn to covet them.
A puzzling behavior that I observed was that small children often damaged fruit trees, vandalized crops or flowers, and wasted food or water. Adults did nothing to stop them. This was surprising because the community sometimes experiences food shortages when crops or fish supplies fail. Why then is such wasteful behavior not taboo?
The limited variety of flowers is usually used to make head and neck wreaths for welcoming or bidding farewell to visitors or for personal adornment at dances and feasts. Flowers also decorate the church on Sunday and the long rows of food laid out on mats for feasts.
These pandanus leaf mats, mainly woven by women and older girls, are used for floor coverings, beds, and gifts. Coconut fronds are used to make baskets, roofs, and walls. Girls begin weaving when they are about five. They learn how to grow and harvest the various local plants by accompanying and helping their parents or other relatives.
A firstborn child usually receives, beside the gift of pigs, a fruit tree (e.g. beach almond) which remains her or his property for life.
Some sea creatures like fish, turtles, shellfish, crayfish, crabs, lobster etc. provide the children with important nourishment. However, because the island has recently become overcrowded and therefore overfished, this kind of food is no longer abundant. The three traditional–style voyaging canoes, which have recently been built by a cultural project, are not being used for deep water fishing because their crews have not been fully trained. Occasionally some young people paddle their canoes or borrow the island’s only outboard motor and go to the islets of the Haiava or Lua group to fish. Women and children fish from canoes inside the reef using a hook and line. Sometimes small boys fish close to shore using bows and arrows. I never saw younger children fish outside the reef because sharks and ocean conditions make it too dangerous.
People also collect sea cucumbers and a kind of seaweed (limu/lumu). Children help gather and dry the sea cucumbers which are sold to Chinese traders. This is one of the few opportunities families have to obtain cash for school fees.
During the construction of a new voyaging canoe I observed children gathering lumu and putting it in a bowl made from a giant clamshell. They then sat around and mashed the lumu while they sang a special song, clearly enjoying their work. After they finished pounding it, they formed the lumu into small balls and set them out to dry in a covered place. The canoe builders rub this substance with their hands or with coconut fiber onto the wooden hull of a canoe to protect it from being eaten by insects. Even very small boys and girls can paddle or pole smaller canoes within the reef area, even when seas are rough. They use these canoes for transport from village to village or to go to gardens and harvest crops.
Nearly all children use the ocean and reef as a big playground and an area for gaining life experience. Groups of boys swim and dive close to the beach; but I seldom saw girls swimming and playing in the lagoon. They were usually accompanied by their mothers or, in one case, by a grandmother. Because the island has no latrine or other kind of toilet, adults and children use the beach or lagoon for this purpose. High tides wash excrement off the beach.
INFLUENCE OF TRADITIONS
To show how Taumako traditions affect the children’s socialization, I want to describe the life of a child from birth until the age of sixteen.
To get married and become a mother is every Taumako girl’s ideal. But there is no taboo against becoming pregnant out of wedlock. When a woman becomes pregnant for the first time, there is a special event. Her family will gather in the evening and sing all night about family history. My informants told me that today a woman giving birth for the first time goes to the “clinic” or hospital in the provincial capital (Taumako’s clinic is a small station run by a nurse; there is no doctor). She and her baby stay there for a couple of days and family members care for her. If a couple decides not to have any more children, the mother can get a tubal ligation in the hospital.
Because government ships, the only transport available to most Taumako people, call at the island infrequently, pregnant women and those who accompany them must leave for the hospital long before she gives birth. Sometimes the new mother must then wait weeks or months for a ship to take her home. If she experiences no difficulties with subsequent pregnancies, she may decide to give birth at home. A neighbor woman told me that every pregnant woman must take malaria medicine (Chloroquine) once a week for her entire pregnancy to protect her and the unborn child.
Adoption is very common. The 2007 Solomon Islands Demographic and Health Survey reported that 30% of households include an orphan or foster child. This, not a legal action, is the traditional form of “adoption”. Most frequently a child is adopted by a childless couple, an old couple with married daughters living in another household, or a newly remarried widow with small children. In theory adopted children have the same rights as those born into a family to inherit land and social position. The adopted child becomes a member of the patrilineal descent group. However, I am not sure if this is true in practice. The six year old girl adopted by my host’s family was only taken on to help their unmarried daughter care for her elderly parents.
The firstborn child is considered superior to her/his younger siblings, and has specific special privileges. But any child’s birth is very significant, and every child normally receives a warm welcome into a large family environment. At home the infant’s parents choose its Christian name and a local name which may be an ancestor’s or connected to a special event at the time of birth. My host’s daughter, whose birth name was Cecilia, was later called Vaka Taumako in honor of the voyaging canoe of the same name. She was then no longer called Cecilia. Acquiring new names during one’s lifetime is common.
If a priest visits the island, all newborn children are baptized in an Anglican ceremony.
Another important influence on children’s lives is the series of rites of passage which I want to describe below.
Usually a child is born into a family comprising a married couple and their natural and/or adopted children. Grandparents and other relatives live nearby. Even before a child can walk it will be cared for by sisters or other female relatives, who themselves may be quite young. Grandparents have special and warm relations with children, and, as highly respected family members, have a strong influence on the youngsters’ education. They also sometimes look after children whose parents have left Taumako either to travel or to work on other islands. Usually, however, parents are their children’s primary caregivers.
All children are breast–fed for two or three years, or until another child is born. They also receive the same food as adults do, but older relatives chew this to make it easier for them to eat.
Small children usually go naked until they reach the age of about three (for girls) or six (for boys). Their parents carry them on their backs in a cloth sling. Children up to age seven who are sick and in need of comfort are often carried this way. Parents who carry their children this way know when the child needs to urinate or defecate, and then hold it away from their bodies. Moreover, children learn early on how to control their excretions. If they are old enough to walk, they will crouch down by a door outside the house to defecate. An adult will later carry away the excrement in a half coconut shell.
Small children are bathed every day in fresh water from the stand pipe which is shared by several households or in a plastic container. This does not prevent them, however, from having problems with lice and fungi. These parasites come not from lack of cleanliness but from close physical contact and from sharing combs and garments among family members. To kill head lice some mothers mix coconut milk with pandanus root sap and rub it into the children’s hair, leaving it to dry for a couple of days.
Small children sleep with their parents or siblings on a mat under mosquito nets that are often full of holes. This means that they frequently contract malaria from mosquito bites. There is no local plant medicine for this disease, and the drugs they are able to procure are often too old to be effective. Consequently, they get malaria as often as every three months.
During my time on the island I knew of only three children with physical disabilities. I did not see that they were treated differently from others. They have, however, no opportunity for therapy or other help because this requires traveling to and staying in Honiara for a long time. Few families can afford the expense.
Most children receive a government financed multiple vaccine for childhood diseases such as measles and polio. For other medical care, parents must pay at the local clinic. To save money, they often go to the local traditional healer who uses herbal and magical treatments (2 One of the healers told me that she dreams the appropriate treatment and then
instructs her patient what herbs to use and how to behave in order to recover. Taumako people also believe that sorcery can cause disease). Perhaps once or twice a year a doctor from Honiara will take a ship around the province to treat people. When one visited during my stay, however, he spent most of his time playing cards in the men’s house.
UNICEF’s publication “State of Asia–Pacific’s Children Report 2008” says that the Solomon Islands have the highest mortality rate for children under five of any place in the Pacific. The increasing trend to feed children imported foods like white rice, sugar, and tinned fish further weakens their resistance to disease.
Children normally grow up in their parents’ home. They are taken everywhere adults go and participate in every social interaction. During their first six years they learn in the traditional way by observing, listening, feeling, and being punished for wrongdoing. Margaret Mead’s definition of education calls it “that process by which the growing individual is inducted into his cultural heritage” (Mead 1975: 197). In most of European and North American culture, children are more secluded from social life and cultural activity outside the extended family. Their radius of action is smaller and more tightly controlled by their parents or special institutions. Our children therefore learn and experience their culture differently. They are encouraged to ask questions, a practice unheard of on Taumako.
Taumako children are quiet and shy in the company of adults. Instead of asking questions, they stay respectfully in the background, watching and listening, obeying their elders, learning to share, speaking quietly, following the rules, and so on. Because older children care for the younger ones, they are also their principle teachers.
Infants are treated with remarkable indulgence. They never cry loudly or long because there is always someone around to provide relief. They are constantly carried and receive attention from everyone. Even men openly show them the greatest tenderness. Nevertheless, adults and older children think it fun to tease a baby until it cries.
This indulgence lasts only until the child is weaned. Then he or she must begin learning how to behave. For example, the recently weaned two and a half year old daughter of one of my informants was harshly instructed in her new duties. She was expected to sit quietly and calmly with legs close together and properly stretched out on the floor. Her jobs included carrying small items and helping her mother clean the house and yard. If she did not do as her mother expected, she was punished with slaps and harsh words. Only her grandfather still treated her with tenderness.
Usually even very small girls must care for their infant siblings. Since no one on Taumako wears traditional tapa nowadays (traditional Polynesian cloth made by beating and felting the inner bark of various native trees), four or five year old girls wear modern clothing like shorts, T-shirts, and skirts. They also sport nice necklaces and earrings which they make from shells and other materials.
The two- and three-year old girls with whom I was in contact displayed a wide array of speaking abilities. One of them could speak and express herself very well in Taumako language (Linguists call Taumako a dialect of the Pileni language, “a Polynesian language, and a large number of its words are derived from the Polynesian ancestral language Proto-Polynesian or a later descendant of Proto-Polynesian, like Proto-Nuclear-Polynesian.” [Hovdhaugen 2006:14]). Others spoke only baby talk. Most women, even if they know some English or pidgin, speak only Taumako on a daily basis. Consequently smaller children learn only Taumako. However, because Solomon pidgin is the lingua franca of the country, and is spoken by most older boys and men in their dealings with outsiders, most older children understand it even if they do not speak it themselves (Solomon Islands pidgin is a blend of mostly simplified English words modified to fit Melanesian sounds together with a mix of English and Melanesian grammar. [Solomon Islands Christian Association 1995]).
Children are respectful of adults, firstborn children, and other children older than themselves. They are expected to obey them without exception. If they do not, they will be punished by sharp words or slaps. They may even be beaten with palm fronds or sticks. With visitors they are generally too shy to talk or answer questions. They only sit quietly on the floor and whisper. If a small child or infant cries, someone will carry him or her outside. Occasionally, however, some of the boys will try to get attention by showing off their Kung Fu skills.
Every child is naturally interested in what is going on around him or her. Children watch and listen intently without asking questions. If, for example, men are carving a canoe, boys stroll around and watch. If women prepare breadfruit for drying or weave mats, girls sit and watch. Some and sometimes many children hang around in front of the houses where foreign researchers live so that they can observe these strange people’s odd behavior and unusual possessions like notebooks, solar panels etc. Sometimes an older girl was instructed to accompany me on my solitary walks along the beach or through the bush, but I found it hard to communicate with her because children are unaccustomed to being asked questions. As a result, her answers consisted of only a “yes,” “no”, or her name. Only after I became better acquainted with my hosts’ extended families the children around me (mostly girls) lose their extreme shyness.
When girls reach the age of about three, they are given duties like helping to clean the house and yard, doing laundry, cooking, preparing food, washing dishes, collecting firewood from the beach, feeding pigs, lighting kerosene lamps, carrying loads, harvesting sweet potatoes, poling small canoes in the lagoon, and, most important, caring for younger siblings. When they are about six they try to weave their first floor mats from pandanus leaves or baskets from coconut fronds. They also help harvest coconuts and breadfruit, and wash dishes and clothing. At about age thirteen they weave their first fine mat. When they have time, they play with string figures and enjoy a game in which they hop between strings tied to tree trunks. They accompany these games with special songs. I never saw girls and boys play together.
Girls learn traditional dances at a very young age. Some evenings, when neighbors visited the two foreign women in our house, one of the smallest girls, who was about two, wanted to show us how well she could dance. It was fun to watch her swing her hips in imitation of the older girls and women. Small girls always hang around and watch the young women practice their music and dances as they prepare for feasts. From the time they are about ten, they practice performing with their parents and dance in a group of their own.
Small boys are a bit older when they take on jobs like transmitting messages, carrying fire sticks to adults for their pipes, pounding seaweed for paint, and poling small canoes. When they are still older, they must harvest coconuts and breadfruit, and help their parents work in the garden. Even so, they work much less than the girls, and therefore have more time for play. They stroll the beach, swim, dive, sit in hammocks, swing on a rope hung from a tree, play with pet birds, hunt small fish with bow and arrow, play soccer or cards, and tease the dogs. They also learn traditional dances just as the girls do. When they get older, they leave their parents’ home and sleep with the adolescent boys in the men’s house.
Traditional songs play a big part in Taumako life. People also make music on modern instruments like guitars, ukuleles, and pan-pipes made from plastic pipes and played by slapping the ends with rubber slippers. Children watch and listen carefully whenever people practice or perform. If they have access to one of the few instruments on the island, they quickly learn how to play very well. During my stay, one twelve year old boy, who was a master of the pan pipes, demonstrated his skills at a feast.
It was interesting to observe the children shyly sitting in our house and quietly whispering among themselves while they watched us. With great interest they looked through an album containing photos of Taumako. They could recognize almost every person in the pictures. Even the smallest children pointed out people they knew. They showed the same interest in documentary videos.
However, they were only interested in seeing people, and did not care about stories or locations. Even a picture of another island failed to interest them.
Later I learned that some young men in the community had a generator, television, and video player with which they watched Kung Fu movies. So it was not astonishing that I saw small boys practicing Kung Fu. Cultural change is definitely happening on Taumako.
Besides Christian sacraments like baptism, first communion, and confirmation, children also undergo traditional rites of passage. These are:
|after birth||navel cord is buried in the ground|
|1-2 months||first sea bath|
|6 months||ear piercing|
|6 years||hair cutting (for boys only)|
|6 years||receive traditional belt made from plant fiber|
|6 years||first lavalava* for boys, first kaliko** for girls|
|8 years||boys recieve their first bow and arrow|
|8 years||receive first traditional anklet woven from plant fiber|
|12 years||receive first betel nut basket|
* A lavalava is a piece of cotton cloth wrapped around the waist and between the legs to form something like trousers. The last third of the cloth is pulled out and hangs down.
**A kaliko is a length of cotton cloth wrapped around the waist and reaching to the knees.
Every one of these rituals is accompanied by a feast and the sharing of food. I got the impression that the age at which a child undergoes a rite is not important, and varies from child to child. The child’s age is less important than is having the proper person perform the ceremony.
When a relative of a six month old girl gave me a basket of food and asked me to serve as a kind of godmother for her ear-piercing, I was excited to witness the ceremony. The event took place at her parents’ home. The girl’s mother brought her to me and asked me to pierce her earlobes with a small sharp-pointed stick carved by her grandfather. Because I could not bring myself to do anything which would hurt the child, her grandfather did the actual piercing. It was very painful for her.
Before the ceremony, a female relative put cream of turmeric on the baby’s head and face to bring her good luck. Afterward, small plastic earrings were pulled through the new earlobes.
Both boys and girls have their ears pierced. Old photographs show local men sporting huge holes in their elaborately decorated ears (Stoehr 1987: 242). It was interesting to observe that Taumako males do not differentiate between what we think of as “masculine” and “feminine” earrings. Boys and even some men coveted the “feminine” earrings that I had brought to give to girls and women in the village.
It is also important for parents to celebrate their child’s first birthday with a feast and sharing of food with relatives and friends.
To show something of a child’s life, here is the story of one seven year old girl:
“My name is Vaka. I am seven years old, and am living in the village of Kahula on the island of Taumako.
My parents are both very old. They adopted me when I was a very little girl to help them and their only daughter, Vaka Taumako, with housekeeping and gardening. I love my new family, but I cry when I remember my seven brothers from my former family. Since I have been here on Taumako, I have never seen them.
My life here consists mainly of work. I sleep with my adoptive parents’ daughter in our small house on a sleeping mat under a mosquito net. Early in the morning when it is still dark, I get up and go to the reef which we use as our toilet. After I come back, I have to care for the fire and help prepare breakfast. Most times we eat leftovers from the day before and drink hot water or black tea. After that I do the dishes outside at the water pipe, and help Vaka Taumako with laundry. Then I dress in my best clothes and go to church for our daily prayers. We pray every morning and evening, and must dress properly before we go. After I return home I change clothes and help my adoptive mother clean the house and yard.
We grow our vegetable foods in the bush. Therefore I go with Vaka Taumako into the bush to weed or to plant or harvest taro, bananas, cabbage, manioc, and breadfruit. Or we may harvest sweet potatoes or papayas from the small garden in front of our house, or coconuts from trees on the beach. Because most of the gardens are on steep hills in the bush, it is really hard work. In addition, mosquitoes bother us all the time, and we stand in mud up to our ankles.
Every day I feed our small pig our leftovers and coconut. When it gets big enough, it will be killed for a feast. We seldom go fishing because nowadays our lagoon has few fish.
When breadfruit is ripe, older boys help us harvest them because girls do not climb trees and are not strong enough to harvest the heavy fruits with long sticks. After the fruits fall, we collect them and load them into a canoe. We pole the canoe home and carry the fruit to the fireplace in front of the houses where we bake it. The next day we peel and cut them into small pieces to dry. We eat the dried breadfruit if we have no other food. We also carry a bowl of them as a gift when we go to visit neighbors.
Until we return home we eat some coconut and drink coconut water. Late in the afternoon we cook our dinner. Most of the time we eat taro or sweet potatoes cooked with coconut water. If we have enough money to buy rice, tinned tuna or instant noodles from the store in the neighboring village, we eat these. Before dinner we clean up and dress nicely to go to prayer at the church. Then, after I do the dishes, I am very tired and go to bed.
Because of all this work, I am not able to attend school very often, which makes me very sad. I am in first grade at the primary school. To reach the school I must walk for nearly an hour. If the tide is low enough, I wade over a reef and around a rocky cape to the next village. From there I climb a steep path through the bush. If the tide is too high for me to wade around the cape, I must climb a steep rocky path over a hill swarming with mosquitoes. When we reach the school house, which is next to a swamp, more mosquitoes attack us. When they are really numerous, teachers will cancel classes and stay home because they are afraid of getting malaria.
At school we sit on the floor. Some of us have a board or a notebook and pen with which to write. I do not have any of these because some adults always take my notebook pages to use as cigarette paper. Recently I cried because Vaka Taumako took my notebook and gave it to her boyfriend who is a teacher. But since I have no pen I can only learn by watching what the teacher writes on the blackboard and remembering what he tells us.
We do not get paper and pens from the school because the government cannot afford to give us any. At least, that is what the teachers tell us. So I often sit on the beach and try to write in the sand words I have learned from the teachers. Many of the girls here only go to school infrequently, and older ones usually leave after two or three years because their parents cannot afford school fees any more or because they must care for younger siblings.
Often I must also care for Rhonda’s little daughter. Rhonda has no husband, and she occasionally helps my adoptive parents when there is hard work to be done in the house or garden. Tealia is the little girl’s name, and I love her very much. She has some boils on her neck, and her grandmother wanted to cut them open with a razor blade. Thank goodness Rhonda took her to the clinic in the neighboring village and got medicine to soften the boils!
For the last four weeks I have been very ill, and I still feel weak. I had diarrhea, fever, stomach pains, and a headache. I vomited up everything I ate. Everyone thought I had malaria, and they gave me malaria medicine. This did not help, and when I got worse, my adoptive mother took me by canoe to the health-station. The nurse told me that I had worms and gave me medicine. He found three big hookworms which he told me had been sucking my blood. After I drank the medicine I slowly recovered. My adoptive father walks with me a little bit every day so that I can get stronger.
However, I was unable to attend school and I am afraid that I have missed a lot. Many of the children here are often ill. Many of us get malaria attacks every couple of months. We also have skin diseases, lice, and parasites under our skin. Small children often get diarrhea and cough a great deal. Because they go naked they get colds and their noses run all the time. When they cry a lot, a parent or older sibling will carry them around in a cloth sling tied to their back in order to soothe them.
Yes, for us girls there is little time to play. The boys are happier than we are. They play almost all day in the sea or at soccer. Only when they get older must they help their parents in the garden or with building houses and canoes.
But sometimes I do have a lot of fun. Last week we had a name-giving feast at our church and every family in the village brought plenty of food. Our family spent the whole night before preparing food. At the feast we sat on the sand in front of a long row of banana leaves on which food from the earth-oven was arranged. We ate until we nearly burst! Afterwards a group of young men played their pan-pipes and the young men and women danced. Little girls are not allowed to dance at such events, but I always watch the dancers practice and try to learn from them.
Soon Vaka Taumako will be married, and then I shall have much more work to do. Sometimes I cry because it is really too much for me. My dream is to go to school more often, I think that I am good at mathematics, and I want to learn to read and write better. I hope I can go to secondary school on another island if my adoptive parents can afford the fees. That is because I would like to become a nurse when I am older. Perhaps that is only a dream, but sometimes miracles happen.
Now I must stop talking to you because my adoptive father is calling me. I must take him a piece of firewood so that he can light his pipe.
FORMAL/INSTITUTIONALIZED EDUCATION ON TAUMAKO
As a member of the British Commonwealth, the Solomon Islands has a British system which makes formal education available to but not compulsory for everyone from ages five through sixteen. “Education for All” is a national goal. This means that every child should have access to early childhood and primary education (UNESCO Country Reports Solomon Islands 2000). There should be a school system on all islands for children and adolescents. Its divisions are:
- pre-school, for ages three to five
- primary school, ages six to ten
- secondary school, ages eleven to sixteen
- tertiary educational at the Solomon Islands College of Higher Education and the University of the South Pacific Islands Center, both in Honiara
Pre- and primary schools are located in the main villages of the various islands. Only some islands have secondary schools, and state-supported institutions for higher learning are located only in the capital. However, non-government institutions like churches or private schools also offer higher education.
When I was an observer at a meeting in a neighboring village to elect a new council of chiefs, the community hall had posted on its wall two charts listing goals for kindergarten education (see photo below).
When I asked for more information, people told me that the kindergarten no longer had a teacher, and that therefore there was no kindergarten. Later I learned that the island’s primary school included a classroom for four- to six-year-olds. However, when I visited the school, there were only six children in this class.
THE PRIMARY SCHOOL
During my stay there was only one primary school on the island. It consisted of three houses containing classrooms, and one house with rooms for a small library, a small office, a storage area, and sanitary facilities. The school was situated in the midst of a mangrove swamp. Consequently, clouds of mosquitoes constantly bothered the pupils.
The classrooms contained little furniture. The teacher had a simple table and chair in front of the blackboard, and pieces of wrapping paper hung on the walls. Children usually sat on the wood or sand floor. Only one classroom had some locally made benches.
During my visit one of the teachers told me that about one hundred children were enrolled, but only about fifty, mostly boys, were present that day. Of the five teachers only one was there. According to this teacher, the others were afraid of contracting malaria from the mosquitoes. Another reason for poor attendance was that many parents could not afford school fees, which were quite high in proportion to family income.
According to an article in the Solomon Times of 2009, a new national policy mandates free kindergarten, primary, and secondary education.
The teacher complained that many parents were not really interested in sending their children to school because they did not appreciate the importance of education. If the family needed help in the house or garden, or if younger children needed looking after, older girls especially would have to stay home. Most of the time during my stay the school-age children in my hosts’ extended family did not attend school regularly; they only went occasionally. The parents, for their part, told me that the teachers did not always show up for work, and that many times the children made the difficult journey to school for nothing.
During my school visit all of the children were assembled in one of the classrooms. First the teacher prayed with the children, and then introduced the visitors. He then made his announcements for the day, and read a list of those pupils who would be punished for playing with erasers during class the day before. He announced this in a very severe way, and all the children looked afraid and ashamed. When the teacher told them to ask questions of the visitors, no one responded. They were simply too shy. The teacher spoke to the children in local language, but told us visitors that the official language of instruction was English. All the schoolbooks are in English. So Taumako children are taught to use three languages: Polynesian, Solomon Pidgin, and English.
Later, when I was sitting on the beach with some six- to eight-year old children from the school, I tried to get their attention by writing letters in the sand. They were very interested, and copied everything I wrote. So I learned that most of them could write the letters (sometimes in mirror-writing), but that they could not use the letters to form words. They only knew whole words, which they used as pictures or images. They were also very keen to learn how to write their names. Taumako children are very bright and eager to learn, but they do not learn how to express themselves publicly.
Adults do not teach in the same way that they do in our society. Children must watch, listen, and copy adult behavior. Because they are not accustomed to asking questions, they must watch and listen very carefully and involve all their senses in reading non-verbal communication. They are also trained to repeat exactly what a teacher tells them. They learn mostly by memorization, and train their memories very well. I am sure that they can think for themselves, but only if they really begin to examine and reflect upon what they learn through their senses.
Formal education on Taumako is a mix of European-style curriculum and traditional didactic. Therefore children who may later have to compete with students or colleagues from first-world cultures in institutes of higher learning or overseas jobs may be at a disadvantage until they learn to express themselves publicly and to ask questions.
Most Taumako children leave primary school after grade four (form six), at about age twelve. This means that the majority of children and adolescents do not have the opportunity to attend secondary school. There were other reasons why they do not enter secondary school, however. Often their families cannot afford the school fees, transport to an island with a secondary school, or accommodation and food for a student who has no relatives on that island. Some students are able to get scholarships from the Anglican church and attend one of its secondary schools.
During my stay only eight pupils took the entrance examination for secondary school, and by the time I left they had not yet learned whether they had passed. It was generally the first-born boy or girl who had the best chance of entering secondary school.
When I asked one of the girls who had taken the examination what job expectations she had, she said that she wanted to become a nurse. She was about sixteen, and had attended school up to form six. She then took a break to help relatives on Taumako. If she passed her entrance examination, she hoped to attend secondary school and then go on to nursing school.
At age sixteen to eighteen, young people whose parents can afford to pay for tertiary education or who get support from institutions like the Anglican church attend a college to prepare themselves for study abroad or for training in business, organization jobs etc.
The following story of a medical doctor, now about forty, who was born on Taumako and now practices in Temotu province should be told here as an example of successful higher education.
Dr. S. was born and grew up on Taumako. He was the firstborn, and his parents were able to provide him with the opportunity to attend the local primary school until he was nine. Because he was very bright and had support from his parents, relatives, and an Anglican priest, he was able to leave Taumako and attend an Anglican missionary secondary school. After passing his examination there, he studied at a provincial college, and then went on to the University of the South Pacific in Fiji where he obtained his doctor’s degree. Returning to the Solomon Islands, he worked as a doctor at the hospital in Honiara. He now works in a provincial hospital. Dr. S. is very interested in helping Taumako develop opportunities for the island’s young people to receive improved education and the better life it can provide.
As described above, for children in situations like those on Taumako it is generally hard to obtain formal education. Most of them leave primary school at form six or earlier. Therefore traditional education shapes most of their lives. Craftspeople and other specialists or the children’s relatives and friends train them in skills such as canoe or house building, navigation, traditional medicine etc. Higher education is not necessary for people to live good and satisfying lives on Taumako. Traditionally trained specialists gain high status and the ability to provide for their families from their skills.
Yet every child everywhere should have the opportunity to have both a traditional and formal education, and should be able to choose to stay in her or his home or leave it with the knowledge that she or he is equipped to compete for jobs that require formal education. Even if most Taumako parents do not yet fully appreciate the benefits of the modern education system and of learning more about the world outside, they can support their children’s efforts to get what most of them never had, the opportunity and education to make an intelligent choice!
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