Remembering a Fijian Performer

Journalist Felix Chaudhary of the Fiji Times wrote an article about how Fiji had lost one of her greatest singers and entertainers of all time with the passing of legendary vocalist Jese Mucunabitu a couple of weeks ago. 

He was 70 and would have celebrated his 71st birthday next month. In a career that spanned more than 40 years, Mucunabitu’s unique golden voice brought to life classic iTaukei songs and compositions penned by Ted Beddoes — like Whispering Palms, Fascinating Fiji, Stars Over Fiji and Tropical Dawn.

His songs, recorded in the ’80s, continue to be played today and will no doubt transport Fijians living all around the world back home for many more years to come.

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Mucunabitu lived life like he sang his songs. He loved Fiji and everything about her. His love for this country was clearly articulated in the songs he sang and the way he sang them. His wife of more than 20 years, Siteri, said Mucunabitu emerged on to the music scene in the early ’80s after winning a Jaycees talent quest. “He sang a Tom Jones number called Without Love and just brought the house down because it was quite a difficult song to sing but Jese did it with ease,” she shared.

Ms Mucunabitu said everyone knew when he was home because he would have his favourite songs being played at top volume. “Jese loved Tom Jones but his other favourite artist was Englebert Humperdinck. But perhaps his all-time favourite was Tina Turner, every time he played her songs he would turn to me and sing ‘That’s my girl’. “He just loved her songs and her voice.”

Many would be aware of Mucunabitu as the resident artist at Tiko’s Floating Restaurant on the Suva foreshore, but not many would know he had gone through three passports and was onto his fourth due to the extensive travelling he did because of his music. “Jese has performed in so many countries to so many people and every time he was asked to go, he would not hesitate because he felt that by doing so, he was being an ambassador for Fiji through his songs. He loved making people happy and was such a people’s person in that sense. But he also loved his family and was a very private person too. Whenever he knocked off from his gig at Tiko’s, Jese would find his way to Tailevu and come home to his family. “He had travelled all over the world and performed in front of thousands of people but he loved being at home and surrounded by his family – they meant everything to him.”

Ms Mucunabitu said Jese hailed from the yavusa Ratu clan of Bau and always kept in touch with his extended family.

The legendary artist’s last performance was at a barrel night held at the Fiji Sports Council bure after the Sukuna Bowl last year. “It was a fundraiser held for him and he sang his heart out that night even though he was battling some health issues. And that was just like Jese – he never did anything half-heartedly, he always gave every performance his all. Jese also liked to encourage younger musicians and he did this by taking different instrumentalists with him to his gigs. They were in awe of him and many loved to share the stage with him, so when he took them along, it was his way of encouraging them.”

This writer met and also had the opportunity to share the stage with Mucunabitu on a few occasions. One particular gig came to mind. After a performance where the music was focused on a different genre, he leaned over and said, “Don’t forget to play island music, son. Anyone can play the overseas music but they can’t play our music like we can.”

Words of wisdom indeed from someone who had taken island music to the world and touched the lives of Fijians and visitors to our shores in immeasurable ways.

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The Use of Coconut Baskets in Solomon Islands

I recently came across an interesting article in Solomon Star Online about how the use of weaved coconut baskets at the Western provincial capital main market has been popular for over four decades now and it is gaining popularity at the Gizo market in the Solomon Islands.

Each day visitors and customers would buy themselves a basket before doing their shopping at the market. The use of coconut baskets is to discourage people from using plastic.

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Many customers now prefer using local weaved baskets made of coconut leaves to store their fruits and vegetables. It is one of the initiatives endorsed by the former Premier Wayne Maepio way back in 2018. The use of local baskets was used many years ago by when the then Maepio-led government came into power, it discourages the use of plastic. Thus, the use of baskets gains popularity. 

This initiative also allowed local women to have the opportunity to weave baskets to earn an income. Mary Sambe is one of the women from West Gizo who usually weaves these bags and sell them at the Gizo market. Ms. Sambe, who comes from Malaita, is married to a man from Western Province and they live at Vorivori village, West Gizo. She said weaving green coconut baskets is daily practice by many women from Paelonge to Saeragi in West Gizo. 

In 2018 women from these areas started to make use of the opportunity when the use of plastic was banned at the Gizo market. The current government under the leadership of Premier David Gina has also encouraged the ban of plastic use at the market. “From that time we started weaving coconut leaves into baskets, other crafts and recreational stuff out of the coconut leaves to sell,’’ said Ms. Sambe.

She explained she would hire some of the boys in the village to climb up the coconut tree and cut down the coconut leaves. The boys also earn between $10 to $30 for climbing coconut trees. “Most of the boys did not hesitate to climb because they also earn their extra money,” she said.

Ms Samb since moving over to West Gizo, she was able to learn from other women in the village how to weave local baskets. On a day she can weave between 20 to 30 bags. After weaving the baskets, she would use public transport to bring her weaved baskets and other local products to sell at the Gizo market. She said there are other expenses such as truck fare, freight, market fee, storage fee to consider when selling her produce and baskets.

She added sales of between 20 to 30 bags can earn between $100 to 200 dollars that will help to buy food and other needs. “And it is big money to sell those baskets,” she said. Her bags cost $5.00 dollars to $6 dollars. The bigger bags can cost up to $10 dollars. She has a kid and the income from her sales help to support the family.

She said using coconut woven baskets is much better than the single-use of plastic to reduce rubbish and its much stronger. She said coconut woven baskets can store more fruits, crops, vegetables, and fish. “Single-use of plastic also has its disadvantage as it can contribute to damaging the environment both on land and sea.”

Meanwhile, many have questioned whether it’s good to use the coconut weave baskets because stripping off the coconut fronds each day to make baskets can also harm a coconut tree itself. A member of the public in Gizo said it is still not eco-friendly. “Let’s instead search and use the coconut waste, husk, and skin of the coconut fruit for recycling and producing bags,” the concerned member from the public in Gizo said.

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The Asaro Mudmen of Papua New Guinea

Our first legend of the new year comes from Papua New Guinea. From this legend a festival was born, and now the Asaro embrace the image of looking like spirits from another realm. They have even elaborated on the legend by elongating their fingers with shoots of bamboo, and crafted spooky clay masks to be paired with their muddy body parts. Today, tourists can visit the Asaro village and watch the Mudmen perform many of their traditional dances and ceremonies. Enjoy!

The Asaro Mudmen

A long time ago the Asaro were caught in the midst of a fierce tribal war. One battle ended badly for the Asaro, forcing them to take cover on the muddy banks of the Asaro river. As they hid, the clay mud covered their entire bodies, drying to a shade of a ghastly white.

The Asaro waited until dusk to make their escape. But what they didn’t realize was that their enemies were still waiting nearby.

When the Asaro arose in the misty light of dusk, bodies whitened by the dried mud, they looked like spirits awakened from another realm. Their superstitious enemies were so frightened by the sight that they ran for their lives without firing a single arrow, forfeiting the battle.

The Asaro Mudmen (Papua New Guinea)

“The Asaro Mudmen,” illustration by Tara Bonvillain, copyright 2021.

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Festival International du Film Documentaire Oceanien 2021

It’s not too late to catch the 18th Annual Festival International du Film Documentaire Oceanien (FIFO), which is now running through February 14.

For more information, registration, and to see the scheduled films, please click here.

The Festival was established in 2004 on a founding idea from Wallès Kotra, at the time regional director of RFO Polynésie, FIFO immediately gained a high level of public interest. It rapidly attracted directors from Oceania and from all over the world, who recognised this event as an opportunity to take a look at the region. The two key elements to its immediate success: authenticity and diversity.

Other events are organised for the public and professionals around this documentary festival like the Oceanian Television Conference, Digital Encounters, the Oceanian Fiction Night, practical training workshops, and more recently, the Oceania Pitch. In addition, since its creation, FIFO has forged special relationships with other festivals in Metropolitan France, but also in Other countries in the Pacific region, like Australia or NewCaledonia.

This year’s event is completely digital. According to the organizers…

The Oceanian odyssey began in 2004. Shy at first, uncertain, FIFO quickly became an unavoidable event for the audio-visual sector from the Pacific. Over the years, Tahiti has become the Oceanian documentary film capital, a place where Oceanians meet and reveal themselves to the eyes of the world.

New factors compel this 18th edition of our festival to regenerate itself. The troubled waters we are navigating on are challenging us to stay on track and to keep moving forward. If the FIFO’s canoe sometimes stops in different location to share the wonders from the 7e art she carries, she has never stopped her voyage. This year is no exception to the rule and represents a challenge as daunting as it is stimulating. But as our tupuna before us, we know how to navigate through the storm and how to adapt. They knew it already, perhaps better than us: one cannot struggle against headwinds. One adjusts his sails.

Hence, FIFO 2021 is adjusting her sails as the festival evolves to be fully digital. This year, from the comfort of your own home you can watch 9 competing films, 11 non-competing films, special screenings, meetings, workshops and many other surprises that we have prepared for this FIFO of a new genre. Continue your journey throughout Oceania aboard our 2.0 va’a with of our e-guests, via videoconferencing either live or on replay. Meet directors and producers from New Zealand, New Caledonia, Australia, Hawaii… all of this, without leaving your living room!

Thanks to the magic of the Internet and despite the particular circumstances, we again invite you to join us on an emotional and fascinating journey into the heart of ourselves.

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PNG Governor Wants Volcano to Revert Back to Indigenous Name

An interesting news article recently came across Radio New Zealand about how the Governor of Papua New Guinea’s Oro province, Gary Juffa, wants to see Mt. Lamington revert to its original, indigenous name.

Last month was the 70th-anniversary of a major volcanic explosion of the mountain. Authorities estimated that around four thousand people died in the eruption. But Juffa said the figure was likely to be far higher because many villagers weren’t counted in the death toll.

The governor, who is looking at establishing a better overall record of the disaster, said the mountain should be known by its indigenous name, Sumbiripa. “It’s something I’d like to do, to give reflection back to the original people of that area, to name those mountains, hills, those geographic locations, their original, tribal names.”

Many mountains and hills in PNG are known by European names in official maps or documents. The famous volcanic mountain in Oro was named Lamington after a British colonial administrator. However, Juffa said all Oro’s mountains and hills had indigenous names. “I’ve already got someone to find out about how to go about the process of changing names of geographic features.”

Juffa said while there would be pushback from some people, he expected the greater majority of people to welcome the use of indigenous names over European ones.

Mt. Lamington 1951 Eruption. Photo from earth-chronicles.com

The 1951 explosion was one of the worst natural disasters to hit the Pacific region in the past century, but Juffa said relatively little was known about it, even though oral history is strong in PNG.

Regarding the death toll, he said only the public servants were named at the time because that was largely all that authorities had records for. But he said for the purposes of closure, the many local communities affected by the major eruption should be acknowledged in a more accurate toll. “There’s an area where seventeen villages were decimated. And only one family survived out of the seventeen villages.”

“In those days the villages were quite large, about a thousand or so (people). So that’d be seventeen thousand people, thereabouts, Juffa continued. “A lot of people that died were not remembered, adequately recorded or recognized etc. So it’s a project that I’d like to undertake as well.”

 

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First Pasifika Festival Celebrated for 2021

Pacific Journalist for Radio New Zealand, Koroi Hawkins, had the honor to write about the first Pasifika Festival for the year, as Pasifika communities in the Wellington (New Zealand) region have started 2021 with a vibrant celebration of their cultural heritage.

Thousands attended the Wellington Pasifika Festival this past Saturday, thought to be the largest in at least a year, with Auckland’s Polyfest and Pasifika festivals cancelled in 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Festival goers were treated to Pacific music and dance, arts and crafts and delicious island cuisine.

But it is much more than just a festival to the people involved, such as the president of the Wellington Solomon Islands community Glorious Oxenham or ‘Aunty Glo’, as she is more commonly known. “We’ve been doing this for 10 years. The very first year we just came down to have a look and they said where is your stall? “So the following year we combined with Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Fiji and we called ourselves the flags of Melanesia.”

The Samoan community had by far the largest presence in the festival with multiple performances and many food and community stalls. One of these groups was headed by Jayden Luapo and his partner Sophia Uele the founders of Tautua Dance who work with a lot of Pasifika youths in Wellington, Porirua and the Hutt Valley. This was their fourth year at Wellington Pasifika but the first year they have had a stall of their own.

Luapo said the importance of celebrating Pacific culture in Aotearoa was driven home to him while he toured Europe earlier on in his performing arts career. “The way that other people over there appreciated the Māori culture, Samoan culture and Cook Islands culture made us realize how important it was for us to teach our kids to love our culture. Because other people want to embrace it and they didn’t even know what we were talking or singing about.”

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One group performing for the first time at Pasifika this year was the Vanuatu community and their string band. Community president Roy Stephens said for their small community it was uplifting to be able to come together with other Pacific communities. “These kinds of events are so important, because living in cities and towns we are so focused on our nine to fives and operating in our own little silos. Through festivals and community events we have an opportunity to reconnect, appreciate our cultures and our Pacific way and expand our networks.”

Festival stalwarts from Niue, sisters Maria Solouota and Tonie Ikivihi, believe having an annual event in Wellington is also important for the visibility of Pasifika in the wider community. They urged more groups to get on board. “Better to have this than nothing at all, and because Pasifika festival is ours we need to participate and make sure that we continue this for the next generation to come,” Maria Solouota said. “It’s also putting us in the face of Council, in the face of Wellington as an identity a group of Pacific people; that we do have an impact and influence in the community,” said Tonie Ikivihi.

Mingling with the crowds and queuing up for steaming plates of sapa sui and ice cold ‘otai were a host of Pacific leaders, including the minister for Pacific peoples Aupito William Sio, who was impressed by the turn out. “So you can easily see the need for our people to come together, which is important,” Aupito said.

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Wellington Pasifika Festival- photo from http://www.eventfinda.co.nz

But he also reiterated the need for Pasifika to remain vigilant so such events can continue to be held. “We have to review all of our practices because we are one of the most vulnerable communities with Covid-19. Not only because of existing illnesses, but also our cultural practices: the sharing of food, the hugs and kisses. All of that puts us at greater risk of infection,” Aupito William Sio said.

Festival director Suzanne Tamaki said the great turnout this year reflected how important the Pasifika community was to Aotearoa New Zealand. “Pacific people are incredible, they’ve got talent, they are beautiful…they are performers, they are doing arts and craft, they do food, and the Pacific is the only place you can get those things. “So I think it is a sense of gratefulness and appreciation for who and what we have around us,” Tamaki said.

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Vanuatu’s Historic Policies to Preserve Language

Continuing from last week’s post- the Vanuatu Daily Post ran an article written by Adorina Massing about how, for the first time ever, Vanuatu has designed and implemented two Language Policies – The National Language Policy of the Republic of Vanuatu and the Language Policy of the Language Services Department. The aim of these policies are to regulate the use of the country’s native languages, to protect, promote and preserve them without neglecting any. 

Language is a crucial part of one’s existence, this is why it is important to preserve the mother tongue for the sake of safeguarding cultural identity. 

During a launching ceremony held yesterday at the Prime Minister’s Office, Prime Minister Bob Loughman formally launched the two documents. “Our nation has three official languages: English, French and Bislama and over a hundred native languages, which is a part of our national heritage,” he remarked in his speech. “These facts prove that our country is not bilingual but ‘Multilingual’ since a high number of citizens can speak more than two languages.”

PM Loughman said there are two reasons why the country’s vernacular languages are going extinct:

1. Many parents fail to teach their children their custom language and instead taught them Bislama. 

2. Many people are adding more foreign dialects to native languages. 

“For these reasons, the two Language Policies will be a great help in reviving our lost languages and in preserving our native mother tongue for our future generation.” 

Created in collaboration with the Department of Language Services, the National Language Policy of the Republic of Vanuatu will look at protecting, promoting and preserving all our native languages, while the Language Policy of the Language Services Department will look at how to address the increasing language services of delivery, through translation, interpretation, revision, terminology and language awareness. 

These two policies will help all the public and private institutions, as well as all the stakeholders to comply effectively with Articles 3(1), 3(2) and 64(1) of the Constitution.

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Parade in Port Vila, Vanuatu, Photo by ICAS

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The Parasite Language of Bislama in Vanuatu

A very interesting article was posted last month written by Mavuku Tokona from the Vanuatu Daily Post that I would like to share. It was about how University of the South Pacific (USP) Emalus Campus Language Professor Dr Hannah Vari-Bogiri described ‘Bislama’ as the fastest growing language and possibly a parasite of Vanuatu languages.

Speaking on the subject of the decline of island dialects and its possible extinction, Dr. Vari-Bogiri acknowledged that Bislama is often used as a bridge between different island languages but lately it has been abused and now made dangerous. “Bislama is therefore the fastest growing language today and is the biggest threat and possible killer of vernacular languages by their speakers within the urban areas,” she said.

The Language Professor stated that if parents fail to teach their children their island dialect, they will be entirely consumed by Bislama, a basic form of communication, thus losing a part of their ‘kastom’ identity. “There are some cases in the urban areas of Port Vila and Santo where children grow up only speaking Bislama because parents come from two different language areas of even when parents are from same language area.”

“This is an example where the younger generations in town could fail to know their language and culture due to their parents’ failure to transmit that to them,” Dr Vari-Bogiri explained.

Overall to ensure that language is preserved, it has to be practiced, protected from external influence and more importantly for posterity, transmitted to the next generation.

Director of Vanuatu Kaljoral Senta (VKS) Richard Shing said that language is ever-growing and is likely to evolve as Vanuatu continues to diversify in terms of different ethnicities and cultures. Ironically the Director of VKS is one of those families – “Me and my wife are from different islands, so our kids grow up only knowing Bislama.”

The local archeologist agreed that Bislama could be identified as a parasite of languages so long as families abstain from teaching the next generation.

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Port Vila, Vanuatu from the air. Photo by ICAS.

As for the vernacular taught in schools, however efficient it may be, it is still not enough. Dr. Vari-Bogiri applauded the educational system with its incorporation of vernacular classes in its curriculum, although, it remains inadequate and needs to be coupled with personal teachings from home. “So, it is promising to see that schools in the urban areas like the Central School and Lycee LAB are taking the lead in promoting language and culture through their students.”

“However, it needs to be cautioned here that promoting vernacular through literature materials or formal education alone is not enough as the classroom is an artificial environment that does not take into account all the language uses, functions and the language repertoire of the speech community.”

While Bislama is recognized as a bridging language, families have a responsibility and duty to retain their island dialect by teaching the next generation and ensure that Bislama doesn’t overwhelm the island dialect of their children.

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Preserving Native Medicinal Plants for Traditional Healers in Samoa

Welcome Back and here’s to a hopeful 2021!

Let’s kick off the first post of the year with an interesting article from the Samoa News about how Samoan traditional knowledge in medicine is proving valuable for SROS- the Scientific Research Organization of Samoa’s exploration of local native plants.

At the frontline of the SROS scientific research of Plants and Postharvest Technologies division at Nafanua, is Masuisuiolemalietoa Dr. Seeseei Molimau-Samasoni who claims that Samoan native plants have shown huge potential in medicine. “There are 500 Native flowers in Samoa, and about 200 ferns in Samoa,” she said. “Traditionally, we’ve discovered that much of these plants can be used in everyday Samoan life. From medicine to consumption to other uses,” added Masuisuiolemalietoa.

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Samoan rainforest- picture from http://www.gettyimages.com

For Medicine, over 130 plants found in Samoa are used or can be used for medicinal purposes. But only 84 of those 130, are used by local traditional healers (Taulasea). “Some of the plants that are not being used from the 130 medicinal plants, were used in the past but are not used anymore, and others were recorded in historical writings, but we have not come across any confirmation as of yet,” she added.

Masuisuiolemalietoa revealed that the Samoan traditional doctors’ community are facing adversity. “Only a few traditional healers have access to the plants they specialize in, and some have come to lose their practice because the plants they are accustomed to have gone either extinct, very rare to find, and some are only found in certain parts of the rainforests, and in other cases, entire parts of rainforest have been wiped out and eradicating along with it are the plants our traditional healers rely on,” she added.

Following these discoveries, the Cabinet has placed heavy emphasis on the replanting, and preservation of Samoan native plants identified by SROS to be of high value to Samoan livelihoods.

A special garden is in the pipeline for SROS under the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries where SROS will plant, nurture and preserve all plants recognized by Masuisuiolemalietoa and her team.

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Samoa- picture from departmentofwandering.com

The Prime Minister. Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi welcomed the initiative and on the spot, impressed onto the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, Lopao’o Natanielu Mua to capitalize on the space at the MAF Crops division in Nu’u. “We have been pushing this initiative for quite some time, but now we’ve put the plan in action,” the Prime Minister added. “It is important that we preserve the plants that have been proven useful to our Samoan people’s livelihoods in medicine and food for consumption. I would advise that to get this project be implemented in Nu’u where there is adequate space to host all the plants needed for the project,” the Prime Minister continued.

Tuilaepa went on to highlight the value of Nafanua Pure and the work that SROS has been undertaking in research and development. The foundation for the Nafanua Pure factory at Tanugamanono has been laid and the construction of the factory continues.

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A Christmas Memory- Missing the Motu in Solomon Islands

Our last Christmas memory and last post of the year is about Pacific Journalist, Koroi Hawkins, of Radio New Zealand and her best memory of Christmas food.

Happy New Year to everyone who visit and read these posts! Let’s hope things will be a lot better in 2021. I look forward to keeping you updated on the cultural news of the Pacific Islands. See you in January!

The best memories of Christmas food for me was growing up in Munda in the Western Solomons and it was all about the process. I remember as a very little person helping, (more like getting in the way of), my great, great grandmother, Joyce Kevisi who turned 100 this month, prepare the motu or earth oven, with glowing hot stones by woodfire and lamplight.

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Where is Munda, Solomon Islands? Map from ethnobiomed.biomedcentral.com

Even the smells and sounds of all the prep work leading up to that point with my mum, aunties and older cousins crushing ngali nuts for the mamahi (rich layered slippery cabbage and nut cake) and grating cassava for the oremarihi (cassava pudding) with a touch of luzu vaka (kumara) for sweetness, her signature touch.

Of course, my least favourite part was slaughtering the animals. I remember being horrified the first time I found out the chickens I had been tasked with feeding in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and who I had inevitably befriended, were being plumped up for the feast to come. I would cover my ears to try and mute the horrible squealing of the pigs as my uncles secured them to enable them to deliver the killing blow.

Everything was organic either grown in my grandmother and grandfather John Kevisi’s garden, raised in pens and coops or pulled from the ocean.

At the business end under the eagle eye of Tai, as we call her, all the various dishes were prepared with ingredients sliced, pounded, marinated, lathered in coconut cream. They were wrapped in cooking leaves then placed in the earth oven which, with her decades of experience, she regulated the temperature and timing as accurately as any conventional oven.

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A motu, Picture from tdriscollsi.blogspot.com

Then on Christmas Day, after lotu, the motu would be opened and with each layer of leaves peeled back came a fresh waft of delicious foody goodness only surpassed by the feasting to follow.

After dinner I would listen wide-eyed as this English trader’s daughter would tell tales of times long gone of the Americans and the Japanese and their noisy metal war machines.

And if we pressed her enough on her childhood and the stories passed down to her from before the church arrived, she would talk of days when fierce ebony warriors roamed the Roviana Lagoon and heads on stakes lined the beaches.

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