Volume 33 1924 > Volume 33, No. 131 > A Solomon Islands historical drama, p 162-165
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- 162

HAVING been a resident for over twelve years on the Island of Owa-Raha or Santa-Anna on the South Eastern end of San Cristoval in the British Solomon Islands, and therefore having seen most of the native customs and dances observed on different occasions, I approahed some of the leading old men and asked them if they still had customs out of the time gone by I had not witnessed yet. They replied there was one but as it had not been done for a long time they did not know if people could do it properly, but still they were going to produce it on the next occasion.

Shortly after that a feast was given by the village of Upuna to the other two villages of Navinuatogo and Netagre, all situated on this Island, and this is what I witnessed:—

On one end of the village, which boasts of a fine large village green, a large platform was erected, decorated with different shrubs, and on top of the platform were distributed heaps of yams, green cocoanuts, basins containing native puddings, roast pigs and fish. In front of the platform a team of dancers lined up and presently began to dance, while the women folk and the children and all visitors were sitting about in the shade of the houses and different trees. All were gaily decorated with hibiscus and other flowers presenting a pleasant picture, and everybody was enjoying himself immensely. Suddenly shouts went up and I saw the women furthest away picking up their children and, much agitated, running toward me.

Out of the scrub near the village there appeared a procession of the most devilish looking lot I could imagine. The first and evidently the leader, his face a hideous mask, his whole body smeared over with yellow-brownish clay, armed with a crude bow and arrow, advanced slowly with a shuffling gait. He was followed by eighteen or twenty others, all covered from top to toe with the same clay, their faces covered with cocoanut bast and smeared over, each of them holding as a support a freshly cut leaf covered sapling of about fifteen feet long. None of them carried any arms - 163 and they all walked in the same shuffling way, as if not used to walking, some stumbling and even falling down. They kept in a bunch following their leader, who slowly advanced to investigate and who kept on conversing with the ones nearest to him in a most inarticulate language, and was answered by them in grunts.

When my dog eventually got away from me and rushed at them, they bunched up and held on to their saplings like grim death, their legs shaking very badly and only the leader made a feeble attempt to shoot the dog with his bow and arrow. They proceeded slowly further, taking a great interest in everything they saw, but always holding on to their saplings, as if afraid to let go, and always keeping together.

These were the Mako-mako people, or, as I shall call them, “the tree people.” Needless to say, all women and children, and even young boys, made helter skelter for the elevated rest house, all being very much frightened; the children mainly were difficult to pacify, but even quite full-grown women appeared to be very much disturbed. One quite sensible young women stepped unawares out of one house and turning round came face to face with the leader; she with one shriek, jumped back into the house and escaped, still shrieking, out of the back door. Most of the young boys had climbed up the nearest cocoanut trees like greased lightning.

Suddenly we heard the boohoo-boohoo of the afuri shell (conch), and a large canoe holding about twenty men entered the Reef-passage. All jumped out and with the exception of two who were left to guard the canoe, came in single file toward the village green. These were the Ai-fono, or, as I shall call them, “the canoe-people,” strangers coming on a voyage of discovery. All were jet-black, and armed with spears and clubs. The string of white bulu shell (cowries) appeared on their foreheads, while some wore the big broad arm-rings made out of the giant clam shell.

In single file, walking swiftly and strongly, they eventually came near the tree-people. Sighting each other, the poor defenceless tree-people bunched up, giving out little shrieks and grunts like frightened animals, while the canoe-people slowly advanced in a half circle, their spears and clubs in readiness.

- 164

They came slowly nearer as people not quite sure of what appears before them. “Are they human beings like ourselves or some bad spirits out of the bush?” they seemed to ask themselves. Their leader got gradually very near the leader of the tree-people, but still seeming to hesitate.

The poor tree-people, all pretending to be very frightened and keeping on their legs with difficulty, made slowly for the bush, still being followed by the canoe-people. Then one, the last of the tree-people, stumbled and fell and was promptly pounced on by some of the canoe-people, who, discovering that he was human after all, carried him some distance and dashed his head in with a club. Leaving a watch over him, they returned and captured a few more of the tree-people, but more than half of the tree-people, once in the scrub, got away. The prisoners were then brought to the canoe, and the canoe left.

This had not been done for a long time, from 25 to 30 years, I made it, which, in a native's estimation, is a very long time. That explains the younger people and children getting such a fright and running away. It is not an easy matter to a native, in whose mind the bush and specially the night, is swarming with bad spirits of frightful appearance, to be all at once confronted by some wicked looking creature.

Now for an explanation of the just described.

Questioning some old men brought no results except that the tree-people were called mako-mako ai-matauwa, and the canoe-people were called Ai-Fono-fono.

Mako-mako means “to cover yourself with earth or mud,” while ai-matauwa means “the men from the distance,” as Ei faka or Ai faka means “men of ships,” or “men that came in ships,” faka being “ship.” Ai-Fono-fono means “the men from Fono-fono,” but none could tell me where that was. All were sure that it is somewhere in the West. That was all they knew, except one very old man, who said that mako-mako ai-matauwa really meant “to cover yourself with earth to go and see the people from the distance.”

Questioning the middle aged men who represented the different people brought no better results, they said they had seen it when they were young boys and that it somehow - 165 came natural to them. What it really represented they did not know.

On the one hand we have what I have called “the tree-people,” of a light colour, as represented by the yellow-brownish clay, as people would be living in the jungle and seldom coming into the sunshine. People of a very primitive race not having any arms with the exception of one crude bow and some arrows, having no ornaments at all, very likely living in trees as their behaviour on the level ground demonstrated. Further, their carrying of saplings as a familiar thing to support them on the ground. Their in-articular language is very likely meant to be the language of a very primitive people.

The Ai-Fono-fono, or as I called them “the canoe-people” already further advanced, a war-like race, skilled in the art of canoe and ornament making, used to travel on the water and the shore, already armed with spears and clubs. Coming from the West, the home of the present day jet-black people, like the natives of Choiseul and Bougainville as the canoe-people tried to represent in having blackened their bodies with charcoal. The advance guard of a wave of black people from the West finding the original inhabitants, over-running their habitats and eventually inter-marrying with them as they brought no women in their canoes, but still pressing on further East.

Did these natives, unbeknown to themselves, enact that day a drama out of the very beginning of history?


Note.—Mr. Kuper thinks the ai-matawa were the aboriginals, but their name is against this. I suggest they may be an earlier set of immigrants. Elsewhere the earliest immigrants to San Cristoval are the Atawa (“the foreigners” or “people from over the sea”) and they are always represented as fair. They had a cult of trees (which may account for the saplings), and seem to have been an unwar-like people. But it was certainly a piece of acted history that Mr. Kuper saw, and perhaps the most interesting point is the evidence it gives for dark people coming in after fair people were in possession. The Mwako-mwako dancers at the other end of San Cristoval (Arosi), are described in my forthcoming book “The Threshold of the Pacific,” but there they seem to belong to a later immigration than the fair coloured Atawa; which makes Mr. Kuper's evidence all the more valuable as perhaps correcting my interpretation of their place in the history of San Cristoval immigration.—C. E. FOX.