Because it is so far away, visitors to the Solomon Islands seldom make it to Temotu Province, the eastern-most province and one of the most remote areas in the Solomon Islands. There is no organised shipping service to speak of, except for the occasional charter by any of the three members of Parliament for the province’s three constituencies. Fortunately, Solomon Airlines operates two flights a week to Lata, the capital of Temotu Province. The fact that not many tourists go there however, does not mean a lack of accommodation and Lata boasts ten cute and affordable accommodation alternatives. The owners of these bungalows, which are often empty for long periods, will tell you that the more frequent visitors to Temotu are yacthies coming through from nearby Vanuatu or Honiara.
But what most visitors do not know is that Temotu has a lot of unique cultural wonders. This is the only province which makes ‘Nambo’ (preserved breadfruit chips) which people keep for months, even years, as stand-by foods in case of natural disasters such as cyclones. There is also banana fibre weaving, unique shark hunting canoes, and feather money among many others.
When the Solomon Islands government decided to hold its 2nd Premier’s conference early September 2008, it also included a mini trade show in Temotu, two firsts for the province. The conference and trade show was also the first time that a Solomon Islands Prime Minister had visited Lata since the country gained political independence on 7th July 1978.
Although a first for the people of Temotu, the events were held successfully, with a high number of stalls promoting the quality produce of the area such as honey, kava, rice farming and a host of other products. The most interesting and unique cultural wonders of the province were available in a ‘kastom haos’ at the show grounds, and were feather money making and banana fibre weaving.
Feather money, according to translator John Daiwo of Noipe village, was introduced by a member of what roughly translates to the ‘small people’ of Santa Cruz Island many thousands of years ago. As the legend goes, this ‘small people’ man met a tribesman while walking around in the jungle and told him that, while he was happy with the smaller shell money, he wanted something bigger and longer that would have more value than the smaller version. The small people man then gave the tribesman special powers that helped him invent the feather money. From there on, according to Daiwo, only members of the man’s tribe would have the powers and skills to construct feather money.
Unfortunately, this ancient skill and custom is in danger of being lost forever if not quickly passed onto the younger generation. “There is only one old man alive in the entire island of Santa Cruz able to make feather money,” Mr Daiwo explains. “His name is Philip Meurmtagi and he had the skill transferred to him in the 1980s by his father when he was too old to continue.” In the local kastom, the handing over of this magical skill is a big event. “Everybody brings food for a big feast. After the handing-over is done by the person transferring the skill, the people celebrate and share the food. As soon as the power is transferred, only the new initiate will continue the tradition until he too is too old to continue and the powers are passed on to the new feather money maker,” he explained.
It usually takes one year or longer to complete one coil of feather money. John says this is because of all the different things required. There have to be sufficient numbers of birds from which to get the feathers, sufficient amounts of sap to glue the feathers together and sufficient lengths of rope to tie the feathers together.
The process of gathering the feathers is very interesting and laborious. “First, the feathers of a particular bird have to be collected. This is a little red bird with black spots on its wings and head and a thin long beak, which usually flies around sucking the nectars of flower such as hibiscus or even coconuts. We don’t use the feathers from his entire body but only the small feathers on its neck. There are also similar feathers on its wings but those are red and black, so it is mainly the ones on its neck,” he explained. “The feathers are collected by the hunter first placing a dead bird of this type up on a small specially made stick, and applying the sticky sap of a banyan tree on other small branches of this made-stick. Once this is done, the hunter uses leaves of wild betel nuts or whatever is available as camouflage before he imitates the whistling sound of the little bird. Soon enough, many birds will fly towards the dead one, landing on the sticky branches. As soon as they land, they get stuck. The hunter then simply picks them out from the sticky branches, plucks the needed feathers from their neck, and then releases them back into the wild. They have to grow new feathers for other feather money!” he said smiling.
But Mr Daiwo also cautioned that the bird, for some unknown reasons, is getting scarce on Santa Cruz. “Maybe some people are killing them and eating them, I don’t know. But they are certainly declining. And, because of this decline, we are now importing feathers from the people of nearby Reef Islands for five dollars for a tiny plastic full of feathers.”
It is expensive, he added, but feather money is very important because that is what is used for ‘bride price’. “Usually, ten new feather money and ten old ones can be used in any bride price ceremony. This is still the practice today. However, because of the difficulties I have already mentioned, we are opting now for modern currency.”
The Temotu province is located in the far east of the Solomon Islands, geographically closer to Vanuatu than it is to its own capital – Honiara. Made up of three islands, Temotu offers a historical and culturally unique history, with practices such as feather money. It is also geographically beautiful; the islands are dotted with white sandy beaches, good snorkeling and surfing along the south coast and ancient Pacific Kauri trees growing at Vanikoro and Santa Cruz.
There is plenty of history to be discovered in Temotu – the French La Perouse wrecks were found here, and Spanish explorer Alvaro de Mendana entered the Solomons archipelago through this province and later returned to set up a short-lived colony on Santa Cruz.
Last but not least, you will also find Tinakula in Temotu, an impressive and active volcano island that growls every hour, sending plumes of ash and smoke into the air.
A rich and spectacular region in so many ways.
Story by Julian Makaa. Photography by Julian Makaa and courtesy of the Solomon Islands Visitors Bureau.