Saturday, May 07, 2011

Myths and Myth-conceptions

There’ve been a few changes in Honiara since I last dropped-in, and a particularly noticeable one has been the opening and maintaining of the two pedestrian subways under the [only] main road through town.  Today, these are well-maintained with clean coats of paint courtesy of the new, controversially-appointed mobile phone operator, and are gated and locked after hours to ensure they don’t become a meeting place for miscreants to gather in the dark night to drink kwaso (illegal, distilled home brew) and indulge in other ‘unsavoury’ acts.

Although I’ve not been game to enter one of these yet, I have seen others using them, which is a tremendous contrast from five years ago, when anyone reaching within ten metres of their entrance would be repelled by the smell of stagnant mud, rotting garbage and other forms of refuse, both human and organic.  In some cases, this festering mess reached half-way up the stair-cases, and provided a reasonable indicator of the functionality of the Honiara Town Council at the time to maintain the city generally.

Now anyone understanding anything about the aid and development sector will appreciate that in many settings, expat aid workers rarely have much to do with the indigenous population, and never was this more so than in Honiara, circa 2004, when the population of the city doubled overnight with a foreign military and civil police force intent on returning this ‘rogue state’ back to peace and economic stability, as well as an additional handful of development workers concentrating on the re-establishment of the health and education systems.

In this high security environment, where for a foreigner to even look a local man directly in the eye was seen as a potential trigger to provoke aggressive confrontation, allegedly resulting in the foreigner’s likely maiming or even murder, it became very convenient for expatriates to adopt a mandatory policy of civil movement restricted to the air-conditioned comfort of sparkling, white, Toyata Hiluxes, and ‘as a security precaution’, to frequent only those public sites designated as ‘safe’ by security forces, such as one of a handful of cafes, bars and restaurants serving only ‘Western’ coffee, food and drinks, and whose prices were too exorbitant for local incomes.

As a result, in those days, aside form the daily, patronising engagements with national staff [as few as possible, I should note] foreigners had very little interaction with local people.  Now, as you can imagine, drinking crap coffee in the only espresso outlet in town and eating spaghetti with tomato ketchup from the only ‘Italian restaurant’ will only occupy a foreigner’s complete attention for so long, and after a week or so, even the most alcohol-befuddled middle-aged male, or meticulously manicured and groomed female expatriate aid worker will eventually gaze out the window of the Toyota, and wonder aloud about some curious structure or local practice for which their own experience and upbringing (in New Zealand or Australia) can offer little explanation.

Without exception, such an utterance or question will be eagerly leapt upon by the expatriate’s colleagues or peers in order to establish the latter’s superior field credibility, and an answer to the query will be confidently provided.  The questioner will then lock that piece of information away and have it ever at the ready to drop surreptitiously into the next conversation over a steaming, muddy espresso (probably at morning tea that very day) in the hope of promoting their field credibility, and at least two of these caffeine-enhanced individuals will rush back to the office to casually drop their ‘long-established awareness of local customs and practices’ into the conversation.

And by Saturday night, at someone’s exclusive, invitation-only party [attended by every expatriate in town], there will not be a soul present who doesn’t know the reason behind the curious observation from the cab of the Hilux, just a few mornings ago.

In the ‘high security’ humanitarian setting, when interactions with local people should be kept to a minimum [or preferably avoided altogether], this is how expatriates learn about local customs and practices.  While one may consider that it’s as good a process as any other, the obvious flaw is the extent to which the original ‘authority’ had any factual basis for their confident explanations or, as has often been the case, they simply made them up.

It was in this setting, some seven or so years ago, that a younger, thinner and certainly more naïve Donkey uttered a query about why young men and women, clutching their babies and young children, were taking their chances to run across the busy main road and only narrowly escaping being run-down by the speeding, shining, white Toyota Hiluxes which seemed to have recently doubled the number of vehicles on the road, when there were much safer, pedestrian subways and overpasses they could be using.

My esteemed colleague riding beside me (who I later learned had only been in the Solomons for a month, and until that time had spent his entire, thirty year career working in a regional branch of an Australian bank), assured me that the reason for their lack of use was that in many indigenous Solomon Islands communities, it was inappropriate for anyone to be positioned higher than a ‘Big Man’ (an elder or chief).  This, he informed me, meant that women could not cross the overpasses in case a Big Man was below, as she would have to pay compensation, and likewise, a Big Man would not use the underpasses.  Further, if a Big Man wasn’t going to use them, then why would anyone else?  And so, they remained unused and poorly maintained.  My colleague added that these structures had been built by the World Bank ten years before, and were a prime example of the poor outcomes of foreign aid when the community is not consulted in the planning of activities (pretty rich words from this bloke, given his performance, or the lack their of, over the proceeding years, but that’s another story altogether).

Now while I have been guilty of furthering the propagation of these kinds of myths in the past, in this instance, I do not believe I shared this information more widely, however I did believe it.  So I was admittedly surprised to see that since my last visit, the subways have been cleaned, painted, maintained and are being used.  Is there any truth to the words of my former colleague?  Who knows?  But one thing’s for sure, if it is indeed true that the reason for the lack of use of the pedestrian overpasses is that a lesser-ranking individual should never be positioned higher than a Big Man, then you’d assume that it would also be taboo to take a dump above his, and considering the amount of human excrement strewn across the overpasses each morning, for mine, the ‘official’ explanations are rapidly losing credibility.

Not much [day time] traffic along here, and on investigation (rather than swallowing unsubstantiated here say), perhaps the reasons are clearly obvious – yes, that is poo in the bottom right corner.  Pic: Hagas

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