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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Tok Pidgin

Last week, I started my pidgin lessons.  While English is the “official” language of the Solomons, hardly any locals speak it unless they are talking to expats. Pidgin is based on English but has splashes of French, Spanish and local dialects.

The need for a pidgin or bridge language is pretty obvious; there are about 128 different languages and dialects throughout the country.  Pidgin is pretty universal; most people speak some form of it here.

One of my favorite words is pig pig.  Kororako is also another favorite (pidgin for chicken).  Other words are great like stakka e.g. I got a stakka work or there is a stakka rain coming down. 

Celia is my language teacher; she has been teaching pidgin to starry eyed ex pats for years and anticipates my questions and difficulties. She is from Gwale or Guadalcanal as it is known and talks about life during the tension.  Because her village is away from town, supplies were difficult to get during that time. Celia found 101 ways to find good uses for a coconut, including using it as a soap and a shampoo. 

Not only does Celia act as my pidgin teacher but she also helps me get a better grasp about the culture. Language is the heart of culture; it tells you a lot about what a culture values and what they like to talk about.  For example, in U.S. English, we often express things in financial terms e.g. making an emotional investment or paying someone back when getting revenge.  It is kinda telling that our relationships have an economical basis.

Other than my pidgin lesson, I have been thinking that living in a developing company can be an assaulting experience because I think I have come to realize the illusions, the lies we tell ourselves about our own structures.  People in developing countries are a lot more resilient; they go with the flow a bit more and accept the way things are. 

I think one of the great things about living here is that you have to accept that we aren’t really in control of anything.  Power outages are common.  The water running from the tab is a lovely brownish colour, making it impossible to do washing or to cook rice without it coming out with a nice brown coat on it.  In the developed world, we have built ourselves up in this illusion of control.  It can be very seductive and very comfortable. 

In a place where hot showers o any shower for that matter, are not guaranteed, I have to admit; I would love to go to Vic’s CafĂ© and have Eggs Benedict or sit at Fat Eddy’s, listen to music and sip lightly on a Sexy Sara martini (yes they named it after me.  I’m just that sexy).    

After my Thanksgiving dinner, on Saturday, I get invited to a mango party, where everything is orange.  The party went on into the wee hours of the night and into the early morning.

I crash my incredibly shameful, exhausted self at Ally’s* house.  In the morning, Ally makes everyone a beautiful brunch, which includes barbecued bacon (I have never tried, but I love it now), crepes, and all manner of tropical yummies.  Other ex pats come over and we all have a dip in the pool.  An incredibly decadent weekend.         

After the weekend, there has been a small civilian disruption or a bit of violence in Honiara.  I won’t go in to the details but it made for some tense moments at the office.  During times like this, rumours fly all over the show; people ran out watching for the looters and fighters.  Rumours of deaths, murders and injured police officers across the mobile network.  The centre city was cordoned off and a curfew was called and then lifted. 
For the first time being here, I felt a little unsafe.  I mean, intellectually, I was in a big office, with lots of people, away from where people where fighting.  But it reminded me that life here can be unstable and it’s important to respect that.  Things can change here very quickly, so it’s important to stay alert.

I try to remain as calm as possible and just get on with my work.  But there is something almost exhilarating about being in the middle of it.  The exhilaration fades quickly and reality shortly kicks in and I realize, this isn’t a game and it’s not t.v.; some bad stuff could really happen and people could get hurt.  As I look around my office, filled with local people, I worry about their friends and family that might be hurt in the riot.  As an expat, I’m pretty safe; I have the power of at least two governments behind me.  Worst comes to worst, I get a ticket out.  But who will protect them? I would be devastated if any of them were hurt or affected by the violence.

As some of the men who started the fight drive along the roads of Honiara, my tropical escape seems less shiny.  Despite all the fun, the expat parties, there is real work to do here.  Illiteracy, unemployment, gender violence, child abuse…the list goes on and on…and the work will take decades.  The work I do today is a drop in the bucket (with the bucket having a giant hole at the bottom). 

So sure the parties are fun, the people are great and the climate a blessed change to the New Zealand winter.  But the riots, the brown water, the violence simply solidify my commitment to being here and doing all I can to help out.  Maybe I won’t change anything; it would be arrogant to think that I can affect lots of change in this country.  But I’m going to do the best I can in my small part of this beautiful, isolated country called the Solomon Islands.

And try to use the term “stakka” as much as humanly possible (I love it!)

*All names have been changed to protect the innocent and not so innocent.