Progress And The Lack Thereof

Last night was superb. Don and Pepe invited Abraham and me to a motu at their house. This ancient way of cooking is still practiced all over the Pacific. In Fiji it’s called a lovo; in Tonga, an umu; in Hawaii, an imu; and in New Zealand, a hangi. The recipe is simple. Dig a hole in the ground. Build a fire in the hole. Put rocks in the fire. Wait until the rocks get hot and the fire goes out. Cover with broad leaves like banana leaves. Wrap your food in leaves and put it in. Cover with more leaves. Fill the dirt back in. Wait some hours. Dig up and serve.


Pepe and the good ladies did the cooking while Don, Abraham and I were each at our separate work. The food was absolutely delicious—chicken, slippery cabbage with pounded ngali nut, fish, potato. I ate until the gastrodynamic pressure was threatening to blow out the safety valve … my profound thanks to the cooks, stupendous.

The dinner, with all of the good food and all of the work involved, reminded me that the Pacific islands have plenty of resources, both natural and human. So, other than the obvious problems of isolation and corruption, what is stopping some place like the Solomon Islands from making more progress?

Well, they were foolish enough to sign on to the Australian free trade agreement, so there’s that … but there are other, deeper problems that hold them back. I describe three of these as the Norway problem, the decision problem, and the women problem. Let me start with what I call the Norway problem.

In Norway, to pick a northern country at random, the rules of life are both clear and strict. If you are unable to think far enough ahead in June to envision what will happen in December, you’re likely to die of cold and starvation. You didn’t salt enough fish, you didn’t dry enough meat, you didn’t lay in enough firewood … game over.

And if that’s not obvious enough to the citizenry, we have folk tales to drive this point home to our kids, like the story of the Ant and the Grasshopper. It’s number 373 in the Perry index of Aesop’s fables. For those unaware of this tale of woe, here it is:

ant and grasshopper.png

In a field one summer’s day a Grasshopper was hopping about, chirping and singing to its heart’s content. An Ant passed by, bearing along with great toil an ear of corn he was taking to the nest.

     “Why not come and chat with me,” said the Grasshopper, “instead of toiling and moiling in that way?”

     “I am helping to lay up food for the winter,” said the Ant, “and recommend you to do the same.”

     “Why bother about winter?” said the Grasshopper; “We have got plenty of food at present.” But the Ant went on its way and continued its toil.

     When the winter came the Grasshopper had no food and found itself dying of hunger – while it saw the ants distributing every day corn and grain from the stores they had collected in the summer. Then the Grasshopper knew: It is best to prepare for days of need.

If you told this story to a Solomon Islands kid, they wouldn’t have a clue what you were on about. What’s “winter”, they’d ask … so let me give you the South Pacific version of that story.

In 1985 the gorgeous ex-fiancee and I and four other people went around the outer islands of Fiji. My job was twofold. I was the skipper of the 28-foot open outboard skiff that got us from island to island. However, the purpose of the trip was to survey both the diesel generators and the few solar installations in the outer islands, and see how well they were doing. In the event, I spent much of that trip repairing diesel engines …

During the trip, we spent a few days on the island of Cicia, pronounced “Thithia” because “c” in Fijian is pronounced “th”. It is a lovely island, tiny, with a half-dozen or so families living there.

After a few days on the island, we were about to get in the boat to leave when a young man that we’d become friends with came running down the beach. He was carrying a big string of fish to give to us for our journey.

I knew he had the usual large Fijian family, wife, kids, in-laws, old folks … so I said “Really? Are you sure you have plenty of fish for your family?”

“Oh, yes”, he announced proudly, “I set aside enough for all day tomorrow”

I realized that I’d just witnessed the outer event horizon for South Pacific long-range planning … “all day tomorrow”.

And more to the point, I realized later that he was right. In the islands, there is no need to store food for the future. Sure, you could salt it or smoke it or can it or pickle it, humans have devised dozens of ways to preserve food for long periods … but the truth is, the fish will be fresher, tastier, and more nutritious if you leave them in the lagoon than they will be if they’re smoked or salted.

This point of view has served them well for centuries. In a world without seasons, without ice, without snow, a world where tomorrow will look just about like today … why on Earth would anyone want to worry about December in June?

The problem, of course, comes when the islands collide with the modern world in the form of say a diesel engine. On island after island I saw engines which had died for the lack of the most basic maintenance. Cleaning the air filter. Changing the oil filter. Checking the coolant. Checking the oil level. All of these actions require the mentality of the ant, not that of the grasshopper. You have to think far enough ahead to say “If I neglect the maintenance now, in a month the engine will die” … and that is a long ways beyond “all day tomorrow”.

As things happen, I saw the Norway problem in action yesterday morning. I went to the hotel in Gizo to get breakfast. It’s a modern hotel owned by a European guy. It has 51 rooms, so it’s not small. It has a large restaurant. They serve omelets, English breakfast, eggs and sausages, and the like. I got there early in the day, so I was their first customer. I ordered bacon and eggs.

After about fifteen minutes I thought “… they’re taking their time cooking my breakfast”. But it’s the Solos, so I didn’t say anything. Then about ten minutes later, one of the lovely young ladies came up to me, obviously embarrassed, and said “Oh, mifala sori tumas. Mifala mas sendim boi for tekim egi long maket”.

Which means “Oh, mifala (we but not including the hearer) sorry too much. Mifala must send’m boy long (to) market for take’m (buy) eggs” … turns out that they didn’t even have enough eggs for “all day tomorrow”.

Of course, I assured the poor waitress that as usual, the universe was paying no attention to what I wanted, that it was not her fault, that she should take heart … and my South Pacific day continued on its usual herky-jerky path.

Now, I hear people ascribe this problem to laziness, or lack of mental acuity, or just plain stupidity. It is none of those things. It’s the Norway problem, which is that unless you live in the equivalent of Norway, at some deep level you likely don’t understand the necessity for planning six months into the future because there is never a need to do so.

The next problem is what I call the decision problem, which is that in the Pacific islands in general, and in Melanesia in particular (e.g. Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea) nobody ever really makes a decision about other people. Oh, it looks like they do. But here’s what happens under the surface.

In each village, there’s usually what in Solomon Islands Pijin is called a “Bikman”, which is a “bigman”. He’s the boss, the chief, the ostensible decision maker. There’s a good description of the bigman culture in Wikipedia. Here’s a picture from the web of a bigman in the Solomons:

solomons bigman.png

To illustrate the decision problem, say for example some people come from the outside with a scheme or project that involves the village. They meet with the bigman and explain the scheme. And when they come back a week or a month later, the bigman says he’s made the decision, and he tells them what he’s decided.

But under the surface here’s what has actually happened. The bigman has told all of the men in the village about the scheme. They sit around in the evening and chew betel nut or drink kava depending on which island group it is, and they talk it over. The men go home and discuss it with their wives. Their wives talk about it as they are working in the gardens or doing the wash. The men talk about it while they are fishing. And after a while, a sense of the village arises about just what the answer to the question at hand actually is.

Now, the bigman is not elected in any of these villages. His position is unofficial and tenuous, and thus he’s no fool. He knows that if he disagrees with the village he won’t be the bigman for long, there are always young studs jockeying for position.

So he goes back to the people who had come to him with the question, and he tells them he’s made the decision … which totally coincidentally, of course, happens to be the decision reached by the consensus of the villagers.

But note carefully: the bigman has not made any decision of any kind. He has merely announced the decision made by the village.

And that has worked fine for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Now, suppose we take that bigman out of the village and we make him the Assistant Minister for Funny Walks. We give him a stack of applications for walking permits, and we tell him “Put the good applications in one stack, and the inadequate applications in another stack” … in all probability, he’ll put the whole stack in the Too Hard Pile, bury the pile under other papers, and forget about it …

That’s the decision problem. People just haven’t had much practice making decisions on their own. Not unique to the islands by any means, but very prevalent here. It routinely paralyzes government operations of all kinds, simply because nobody is willing to make a decision.

Finally, what I call the women problem. The women problem is simple—there are nowhere near enough women in positions of power in the village, in business, or in government. It is a huge waste. I saw this on the same trip in Fiji in 1985. You recall that we were looking at how well the diesel generator schemes for providing village electricity had worked on a number of islands?

Well, the answer was, they’d done very poorly. On every island we went to except one, the whole electricity scheme had fallen apart, the generators sat idle, nobody had power.

When I asked about the reason for the success of the one group, I was surprised to find out that the women had gotten disgusted with how the men were doing it, and they had taken the job over from the men. Now, Fijian women are a force of nature, strong and proud, so no surprise there. But the reason was a surprise.

fijian women.png

The women told me that the men were too friendly. All of these schemes depended on people paying for the electricity they used. When a man was making the collections, if someone couldn’t pay, the man would say,“Oh, John, that’s ok, you’re a good man, I know your family, keep using the electricity, you can pay us next week” … and while that’s fine for “all day tomorrow”, you can imagine how well that worked in the long run.

But once the women took over, they’d say:

“Oh, John, that’s ok, you’re a good man, I know your family, we’re turning off your electricity, we’ll turn it back on if you pay us next week”

And as a result, those women had electricity in their village …

In addition, women are good at figuring out clever ways to make things work given the complex social dynamic. I once had a job evaluating small village-level projects in Africa. A number of the money-making projects had gone under due to a problem described in Pijin as “hem garem lek”.

That’s how people describe what happens when you leave something valuable unguarded … somehow it manages to walk away all by itself. Or in Pijin, “him got’m leg”, it got legs …

Now, in Senegal they eat a lot of millet. The millet needs to be ground. The traditional way to grind millet is with a large mortar, and a pestle that looks like two baseball bats joined at the small ends. Let me see if I can find a picture on the web … ok, here you go:

grinding millet.png

And that, my friends, hour after hour, day after day, is hard work. If you shake hands with some of these women as I have, you need to count your fingers afterward. These women are hella strong, and both hands are usually covered with calluses from the endless pounding. Any one of them could have easily beat me in arm-wrestling without breaking a sweat.

So as you might imagine, a small millet milling machine is just what they wanted. A Peace Corps Volunteer had put together a project where US funds bought a machine. Your tax dollars at work and actually doing something valuable … go figure.

And of course, because grinding millet in Africa is entirely women’s work, the women ran the project. They bought the fuel, they collected the money for the milling, they hired a mechanic if it broke, it was all in their hands.

I asked them how they’d managed to keep the project going. How, I said, had they insured that the money didn’t “garem lek” … and they told me of their curious setup to manage the money.

One woman kept the locked cash box.

A second woman had the cashbox key.

A third woman kept the record book.

So all three of them needed to get together to do anything with the money. So I asked, in French, of course, it being Senegal, “But aren’t you afraid that all three would get together to steal the money and divide it among themselves?”

Oh, no, they said. They always picked three women from three different families that neither liked nor trusted each other … there was no way that those families would ever get along, they’d been fighting for years. And as a result, they watched each other like hawks … and the mill kept grinding.

It is in this arena, the art of understanding, navigating, and utilizing the complex and curious interplay of social and cultural forces, where women often excel.

So that is the woman problem, both in the South Pacific and elsewhere. We need more women running things, they understand the family and social dynamics, they can see things that I can’t see, they can figure out a way to make it work.

As to how to bring that about … it’s gonna be slow. I know that when I ran a development agency in the Solomon Islands, we realized that domestic violence was a huge hidden issue that no one talked about. So we made up T-shirts with an image of a man peering out from behind bars. The shirts said “Iu no kilim waif blong iu”.

Now as usual, Pijin is curious. The verb “kill”, as in “kill’m”, means three different things. If you “kilim” someone, it’s different from when you “kilim dai” someone. However, “Kilim dai”, or in English “kill’m die”, also doesn’t mean what you think. It means to knock someone unconscious. On the other hand, “kilim dai finis”, or “kill’m die finish”, means to actually kill someone. Finally, “kilim” alone means to wound or injure someone or to beat them up.

So “Iu no kilim waif blong iu”, or “You no kill’m wife belong you” simply means “Don’t beat your wife”. And indeed, domestic violence is against the law in the Solomons … although I never heard of it being enforced.

However, I was totally unprepared for what Bokonon would have called the pool-pah that followed … we had men stopping and berating us in the streets. We had letters to the Editor saying that it was a man’s divine right to beat his wife because it said so in the Bible. We had men absolutely refusing to believe that it could possibly be against Solomons law to hit their wives.

Now this was back in 1985, and I’m glad to say that the situation is much improved now. A generation of women has grown up during that time, some of whom won’t put up for a minute with that kind of thing … but as in the US, the problem persists.

So … what can be done about the Norway problem, the decision problem, and the women problem?

The last one is the nearest to a solution. The young generation of Solomon Islanders, men and women alike, equipped with cell phones and the web, are what they call “nara kain moa”, “another kind more”, meaning “something completely different”. They see what’s happening around the world, they read of the #metoo movement, they know the score. That problem will solve itself.

As to the other two, that’s harder. How do you train someone to look into the future? In the past it was done with obvious examples all around, and tales and fables … but the story of the ant and grasshopper means nothing in the Pacific. So … ship the Islanders en masse to Norway for a winter? How do you teach someone to think long-term? I don’t have any idea.

And decisions? People in general aren’t that good at making decisions. One place where decisions do get made in the Solomons is in groups. So perhaps rather than “taking the mountain to Mohammed”, we need to take advantage of this by putting groups in charge of things rather than individuals. The corporate Board of Directors is an excellent example of this kind of group decision making. At board meetings, men and women sit around, discuss the issues, and come to some kind of consensus … just like in the village. I suspect it’s one of the reasons that corporations are so successful.

But at the end of the day, the fate of the Solomon Islands is in the hands of its citizens … and one thing I can tell you is this.

Whatever happens … it’s unlikely to happen fast …

Best to everyone from the slow part of the planet,



18 thoughts on “Progress And The Lack Thereof

  1. In New England we call them clam bakes and seaweed substitutes for leaves.

    Also in New England we have the same problems. The Norway problem erupts in foolish governmental budgeting and spending (neglecting maintenance on bridges). The Decision problem falls prey to one-party hegemony. The Women problem manifests as clan allegiance over the greater good.

    Thanks to these posts, I’m learning to read Pijin.


  2. As soon as I saw the picture at the head of your post, I shouted out “Um!”

    In the 1960’s, in my fourth grade social studies book, we learned that the South Sea Islanders cooked food in hole in the ground with hot coals and stones, and called it an “Um”, which we all thought was a fun name. Never heard of it again in , what, over 50 years?

    It’s amazing how some things stick with you. You of course probably got the name right, and my fourth grade socials studies book probably botched it, but all the same. Long live the Um.


  3. Thanks Willis, lots to reflect upon. Going backwards a bit in order to understand whether a change to go forward is something that does need to be thought out. And you’re right about the female clan having a deft feel for the intricacies of the human psyche – having an ex-fiancee in the nexus of decision making relieves a lot of stress though it’s not really fair (to her that is)…,


  4. A very interesting post, a couple comments.

    no matter how providing the environment is, Women have biological reasons to think more than a day into the future, (not counting child-care effects)

    In the US, life is being made too easy for people, so many cease to plan for the future (the govenment will provide…) Here in california where we have a fairly comfortable climate just about all year, you see a lot of the same attitude from people.


  5. Excellent, excellent, excellent Willis. I hope u enjoyed writing it as much as I enjoyed reading it. It gave me insights into what goes on with our Canadian Indians and their decision making and their being stuck in the middle (the worst place) between two cultures & then failing at both. On our reserves the ones with women chiefs usually do better, but not always.


  6. Great Writing Willis. I had to laugh about the general attitude towards maintenance or PMing (preventative maintenance). Having lived in the Middle East for 20+ years the locals reflect many of the same attitudes. Its hot most of the year so why worry about the cold. A car or truck will run normally for quite a long time without basic maintenance other than petrol…so why worry about when the car or truck will quit. If it does quit it must be Insh’allah (Allah’s will that it will/must happen). I was amazed at how many people drove through desert areas without even a spare tire. But they would say… Well we are trusting Allah to get us through. Anyway in the Middle East… we call it the Insh’alla problem. In other words it’s really not our decision to make or something to worry about. If Allah wants it to happen… who are we to stop it from happening.


    • Thanks, Homie. That reminds me of the Sufi story of the Mulla Nasruddin, viz:

      Nasruddin went to a tailor with a piece of cloth and asked the tailor to stitch him a shirt.

      The tailor took his measurements.“When will it be ready?” Nasruddin asked the tailor.

      “God willing, it’ll be ready in a week’s time,” said the man.

      Nasruddin could hardly wait for the week to pass. On the morning of the seventh day he hurried to the tailor’s shop.

      He was bitterly disappointed when he learnt that the shirt was not ready.

      “God willing, it will be ready the day after tomorrow,” said the tailor.

      Two days later, Nasruddin was again at the tailor’s shop. The shirt was still not ready.

      “God willing it’ll be ready on Saturday,” said the tailor.

      On Saturday it was the same story.“God willing…,” began the tailor.

      “Stop! Stop!” said Nasruddin, now thoroughly fed up. “Tell me, how long will it take if you leave God out of this?”

      Best to you and yours,



    • Let me add that Sufi stories are said to have many meanings, and are teaching stories. In this case one of the meanings is that when people start along a spiritual path they often wonder how long it will take them to experience the Divine … Nasruddin points out that you’ll get there faster if you “leave God out of it”, which is to say, focus on the path rather than the goal.

      Just sayin’ … the Mulla Nasruddin is an idiot savant, and his foolery always has deeper currents. Here’s another one, about both literal and metaphorical burdens:

      Mounted on his donkey, Nasrudin was carrying some heavy saddlebags on his back.

      “Why don’t you put the saddlebags on your donkey’s back?” suggested a passerby.

      “Are you crazy?” replied Mullah, “in addition to carrying me, you want my donkey to carry the saddlebags as well?”

      My best to you and yours,



  7. There’s a Nasrudin story where the mullah is walking along a road. In the distance he sees horsemen coming his way. As they approach, he begins to really worry that they could be bandits, and overcome by the worry, dives into a ditch beside the road, hoping to escape their notice. In reality it was a detachment of the guard patrolling the road. Seeing a person acting suspiciously, they ride up to where Nasrudin is hiding in the weeds and ask what he’s doing. Looking at them, he realizes that the explanation will be a but involved and begins, “Ah, while I realize that you are here because of me, I am here because of you.” I actually found mid myself saying that to a Highway Patrolman. Noticed him at the last light out of town and ran it accidentally wondering what he might be up to. He sent me off, no ticket, saying not to worry about the police and keep an eye on the lights.


  8. “How do you train someone to look into the future?”

    The simplest solution: by connecting child rearing with whatever you want to implement that is further into the future than “all day tomorrow”. I ask: why does one raise a child by nurturing, guiding, and teaching the customs of the family? Because the child is not ready to live on their own for many many years. The same thing applies to saving for tomorrow and tomorrow and the tomorrows that comes afterwards. One measures a child’s height at intervals, their weight, their progression in developmental landmarks all of this falls within the rhythm of life, in Norway or the Solomons. Purchasing eggs for tomorrow’s breakfast in the restaurant business, is nurturing the business so at some future day, it will support yourself.


  9. And then there is the Piraha of the Amazon who have no conception of the past or future. They have no word for yesterday or tomorrow. What we think of as advancement doesn’t exist for the Piraha. So,the mystery here is how they have the bow and arrow since they have no concept of making something that can be used “other day”


  10. I worked seven years in the Southern Highland of Tanzania as a development worker on a Vocational School. One of my goals was to generate income for the school. As well I implemented the new craft “worker on renewable energies” in Tanzania. It is acknowledged now by VETA – the vocational training authority there.

    At the end of that term I was totally fed up with all these discussing and palaver meetings. You could decide on something, and in the next day, the Head of the school changed everything.

    The only institutions which run properly were the one with women as heads.

    When I came back to Germany, there was a new election of our Government due. Out of my experience, I thought it would be no bad idea to have a lady as the head of the government. So I gave my vote to the party of women call Angela Merkel.

    So now you know the reason why…

    Some things which work well in one culture, will not work in another – that’s what I’ve learned.


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