The first man who told me about Holy Mama was Jim Broom at Lever's Plantation in the Russell Islands. I read a short segment about Holy Mama in Dr. Fox's book on the Solomons and asked Jim if the Holy Mama was still alive. "Oh, yeah, he's alive. He's a screwball that's got some kind of commune in the New Georgia area. It's a cargo cult. They don't have much to do with outsiders and are supposedly pretty self-sufficient."
The second man was a missionary, an Australian on the island next to New Georgia. He said, "Well, I've never met the man but I hear he's a bit stuck on himself, you know," He winked at me, "got a big head."
The third man was a Solomon Islander who lived in Munda. A Methodist. He said the Holy Mama carried sticks with him which were "magical and could point them at you and you'd just fall over."
The fourth man, a European who worked at the Munda Hospital and was a Methodist missionary, said "Holy Mama is an eccentric who goes around with a fancy canoe and 12 young girls he calls his angels. He gets all dressed up like some kind of a King. He has a fair following in some areas. Something like a cargo cult."
In a logging camp on the tree stripped island of Kolombangara, the manager of the project said the Holy Mama was "A bloody fruitcake whose been giving us the shits over logging rights on New Georgia. As if he owns the damned place."
A man worth meeting.
In the late afternoon we sail through the narrow pass into Paradise. It is an excellent, compact little anchorage just inside the reef on the Northwest coast of New Georgia. The village, itself, sits on a slight rise next to the bay. From what I can see from the deck of the Moira, Paradise is the most beautiful village in the Solomons. The evening sun casts a golden hue over the delicate houses.
Unlike the shabby European style shacks in some villages and unlike the utilitarian thatched houses of Buruku, the houses of Paradise are works of art, the walls woven like baskets with intricate designs.
Shortly after we anchor, a man paddles up in a dugout canoe. He wears a blue sulu around his waist and a big smile on his face. He has a red hibiscus flower stuck in his jet black afro. "My name is Sam Kuku," he happily announces, "I am pleased to be your guide."
Freddy and I motor slowly after Sam Kuku with our Avon. He leads us to a little stone wharf and, together, we amble up the slope towards a thatched schoolhouse. It is a nifty bit of construction with three main rooms and an interconnecting covered walkway. They have decorated the grounds of the school with well tended flower gardens and surround these by a large open area of neatly trimmed grass. Inland of this, Sam leads us through a maze of three meter tall hibiscus hedges festooned with red flowers. We stroll past rambling thatched communal houses to a mind-boggling thatched church.
Sam proudly says, "This church is the largest thatched structure in the Solomons, it is 140 feet long, 40 feet wide, and raised 8 feet off the ground by 180 log piles." We chorus, impressed noises, like, "oooh and ahhh." This gets us more detail on how they built it. The lovely building was made of the fronds from Pandanus trees intricately woven over frames of local woods. I have never seen anything like it before.
Sam says, "The Holy Mama designed it." Freddy and I, still admiring the church, just nod. Right.
"It was the first thing we built here." Sam adds. I note he is now watching our reactions carefully. "Of course The Holy Mama helped build it, too."
Freddy picks up on our cue, "He must be something. That's a magnificent church."
We are ready for the rest of the tour but Sam is rooted to the spot, some sort of inner conflict churning away behind a fixed, `Official Village Guide Smile.' Finally, he gushes, "The Holy Mama once had a vision. In 1955 the people of the village lived over there, by that point. They called their village Menakasapa. It was an old village, poor, and in run down condition. Holy Mama came to Menakasapa one morning and told the people he had a vision in which an angel had come to him. He said the angel ordered the people of the village to follow him to this place where they would build a new kind of village and lead a new kind of life. No one had ever got all the people of a village to work together on a project like this before but, because everyone believed in Holy Mama's vision, they left their village and came here to this place and built Paradise."
This was obviously a risky statement. We might have doubted the mystic revelation, or maybe laughed, or even been offended at the idea of a whole village of primitive bushmen acting on the advise of somebody who sees angels. He must still be worried about what we might think because he does not look directly at us, but turns and walks off, leading us past another labyrinth of Hibiscus hedges into the living area. Here we discover neat rows of beautiful basketlike woven houses lined up in an honest to God field of clover.
On each side of the living houses are orange groves. Cooking ovens and fires nestle under the orange trees. Backing the whole village is a stand of towering Kapok trees which supply a cotton-like fluff for pillows and quilts.
As we return towards the school, Sam reveals he is the Secretary of the Christian Fellowship Church - the CFC. He tells us "the village is, except for books and fabrics, practically self-sufficient. Of course, our seclusion is not exactly by choice."
"Oh?" I ask, "What do you mean?"
"It is a bit difficult to explain," Sam has already attributed his excellent English to his college education at a University in New Zealand. "Perhaps some other time. You are only the second sailboat to stop in to visit us since the village was founded in 1955. How is it you have come here?"
I smile at what is certainly the most polite "What are you doing here" question of our entire voyage. "To be honest, I'm not sure. As you say, some things are not easy to explain. Let's say, the more I heard about Holy Mama the more I knew I would come to visit him here."
"Really? Why?," Sam turns to me, alert, then glances out into the bay at Moira. We step up onto the porch of the school. "What sorts of things did you hear about the Holy Mama?"
I tell him. Finishing with, "Just this morning I was at Ringi Cove and I talked with the manager of the Lever Brothers Lumber Camp." I guess, knowing the efficiency of the coconut grapevine, he might already know this. "He told me Levers is trying to gain control of the trees on this island and that Holy Mama has been a serious problem for them, stopping them again and again. He said he now has an official supreme court order in favor of Levers but Holy Mama still contests the ownership of the land."
"And what is your interest in all this?" Sam looks intently at my face for clues. (He's asking if I work for Levers or am I an environmentalist or what?) "None. You asked me what I had heard and that's what I heard. The reason for my coming here is simply to meet the Holy Mama, if possible. Like I said, I don't know why. Maybe I'll know why when I speak with him."
"The Holy Mama," says Sam, slowly "does not speak English. He is not here at the moment but we expect him to give a sermon here next Sunday. Would you be willing to wait until then?"
"Sure, it is such a beautiful place, we would be delighted to stay for awhile." I smile. Freddy smiles. We all stand there together smiling in the general direction of some children who are weeding the school flower garden. Mr. Kuku is obviously trying to make his mind up about us. I take some photos of a group of men building a house for a newly married couple.
Sam perks up, arriving (I think) at the realization there will be plenty of time to make up his mind later. "Perhaps you would like to read a little something about our church and the Holy Mama." He and I walk over to his house and he comes out holding a big thick manuscript, not the small gaudy pamphlet extolling the virtues of God I expected. He lays it in my hands with exaggerated care and pleads, "Please take good care of it. It is the only copy we have."
Back aboard Moira, I look at the manuscript. "Francis Hine Harwood. 1971. The Christian Fellowship Church: A Revitalization Movement in Melanesia. University of Chicago." It is a doctoral dissertation. What better source of facts about Holy Mama than a doctoral dissertation by a girl who lived here, on and off, for years. A girl who took the time to learn their language and hunt up every bit of documentation in existence about the guy.
It looks interesting. I plunk down on the cockpit seat and start reading. I read through dinner and on into the small hours of the morning. Francis Harwood knows how to write. The story of the Holy Mama is astonishing.
Freddy says, "Let's go for a snorkel in the morning."
"Sure. OK." I go on reading until I realize she is looking at me, waiting to take a shower and go to bed. Astonishing story.
He's here! Just before lunch, after Freddy and I snorkeled for awhile on the reef outside the entrance to the anchorage, I go on deck and look out the small pass to the sea.
And there he is. I know it is Holy Mama the instant I see the canoe, even before I can see who or what is in it. It rushes past Moira with 6 men paddling. Holy Mama sits in the middle, looking straight ahead. In fact, nobody looks at Moira as they sweep on to the landing area and unload. A small crowd of children waits for them on the wharf. They race up to Holy Mama with cascades of flowers in their arms. He hugs them and one little boy puts a red hibiscus flower in the Holy Mama's bushy hair.
Holy Mama walks off in the middle of the jostling flock. He's wearing a piece of old blue cloth wrapped around his waist, no shirt, no shoes. He looks like any other Solomon Islander out in the bush.
But he isn't like any other Solomon Islander. He's tall, very tall, with sharp facial features, black as ebony. There is something about the way he walks, the way he holds himself, that is special, charismatic, alive and aware. At the same time, he is calm and peaceful.
About 30 minutes go by before Sam comes down the path, gets into his canoe, and paddles out to Moira. Quietly, he tells us Holy Mama would like to come out to talk with me. He turns without waiting for us to say anything and paddles back to get him. As I watch Holy Mama climb into Sam's canoe, I think about Harwood's dissertation.
I have decided to write a story about Holy Mama. I'm definitely on his side about protecting the rain forests. Then, too, the Methodist Missionaries deserve to be boiled slowly in a big pot for their truly nasty and vindictive behavior towards the Holy Mama.
Harwood's dissertation documents decades of unchristian behavior on the part of the white Methodists. The Holy Mama has never done anything to retaliate, indicating his sincere love of Jesus. I, however, have the start of an idea of how to get even.
This is an unexpected pleasure. Sam told me Holy Mama did not speak English. Francis Harwood said he can, but seldom does, and only in the presence of his Angels. Harwood thinks the Angles are a wise political safeguard. No outsider can talk to Holy Mama without them being present. They are the daughters of the chiefs of all the villages which follow Holy Mama. But there are no angels in sight as the canoe arrives alongside Moira.
Holy Mama reaches up from the unstable dugout canoe, grabs Moira's pushpit and swings himself easily aboard. I know, from Harwood's book he is in his late seventies. I hope I can get aboard like that when I'm his age. I was right about his height. He towers over me. His face is square with a strong chin and high cheekbones. His mouth is old but his eyes sparkle with youth a friendly and delightful youth.
"Would you like to come below?" I ask as we shake hands.
"Yes" and he smiles. He's now wearing a white shirt and a calf length brown sulu, bare feet, a red and white ribbon tied into his bush afro, and a length of electric wire with two multicolored handkerchiefs tied to it, loosely looped around his neck. I wonder, looking at the wire, if it is THE wire.
Freddy prepares some fresh limeade while I show Silas Eto (His other name) around Moira. As he carefully looks at our yacht, I remember the story of the electric wire in Harwood's dissertation.
In 1959, Reverend Hall took Eto to the Eastern Solomons to preach. On his second visit to Honiara he agreed to preach the Sunday service in the Methodist Church. "When we began the service," Holy Mama told Harwood, "I saw a light and smoke in front of me and I felt that my heart was on fire. I could not speak, because my body seemed to fly, so I raised up my arms. When I did so I touched the electric wire to which the light bulb was attached. The wire swayed out at an angle and remained in this position until the evening service." When the people saw this, they wrote a letter to the Solomon Broadcasting Service and the strange miracle was broadcast throughout the Solomons.
When Silas Eto returned to Munda, Reverend Hall immediately took the miracle worker aside and said, "I want you to pray for me so that I may receive the Holy Spirit."
Distressed, Eto replied, "I am not worthy to do this for you, because you are a minister who has baptized many people and I am only a layman."
"Yes," insisted Hall, "You can do this. Let us go to the church now."
"In the church I began `Lord....' and Mr. Hall put my hand on his head. I was startled, my ears were popping. I couldn't understand anything. So I stopped praying."
"Why did you stop?"
"I can't speak."
Hall started to pray himself, saying, "Lord, give to me the Holy Spirit so that I shall be like a Billy Graham in the Solomons."
"Would you like some limeade?" Freddy asks the Holy Mama.
He smiles and takes the offered glass of juice. In slow, broken English he asks me, "How long...ago....you leave United States?" I tell him a little about our voyage and, finally, he asks why I want to see him.
"At first I did not know. I just knew I should come here and meet you. But I read Francis Harwood's book and now I know I want to write an article about you. I am so impressed by what you have done for the people of New Georgia, I want to tell as many people as possible about your work."
He watches me quietly as I say this. I'm not sure he understands me. When I finish he and Sam simply get up and leave. As they prepare to paddle off, Sam looks up, "I will come back for you, to join us for the service."
I sit on the aft deck, watching them paddle ashore, and trying to fit the real Silas Eto into the picture of the Holy Mama painted by Francis Harwood. Reading about someone is different than talking to someone. I decide I believe. I believe Harwood reported accurately what she could find out about the long and often colorful and mysterious life of Silas Eto.
I also believe Silas Eto is a very special human; no stranger to the Moirae. He experienced visions and miracles, strife and adventure. He has also experienced jail, slander, and persecution thanks to the Methodist missionaries, particularly a character named Reverend Carter. Even if I did not know his history, I could feel, in some deep part of myself, recognition of his spiritual power. It is almost impossible to define, but its also impossible to ignore. He truly is a holy man. I will, I must, write an article about Holy Mama. I've taken complete notes from Harwood's dissertation and I'll interview him with his angels. His story is so complex, so big, so fascinating, there is no way to tell it simply or shortly. This will take some time and thought.
We sail from Paradise at dawn. As we prepare to up anchor, Sam and The Holy Mama paddle out to see us off.
This week has given me a deep respect and admiration for Silas Eto. I'll never forget him. I admire his complete lack of negative thoughts. I wish I could be like that. He is positive and happy in a way which goes right to the core of his being. He has accomplished so much against such impossible odds.
There is an aura of spirituality around him when he's all decked out in his white robes, walking down the isle of that big thatched church. I don't know what to say to this holy person when he comes to say good by.
His canoe pulls along side and he reaches down and picks up two wood paddles. Ordinary carved paddles, one big, one little. He says, in his slow English, "I saw you no have paddle for your rubber boat. You must have paddle. Here. One for you. One for Freddy."
Sam hefts up an heavy basket of fruit: oranges, pineapples, bananas, papaws. "For your voyage."
None of this "God be with you my child" stuff. They just stand there in the tipsy dugout log and watch us up anchor and motor out into the ocean. I look back for a long time. On the shore the children have gathered to wave goodby to us.
On the northern tip of New Georgia, we stop to see the birthplace of Silas Eto. He was a bushman. His father was a chief.His people lived in the mountains of New Georgia and feared the headhunters of Roviana Lagoon.
To the sea-faring head hunters, bushmen were stupid, ignorant savages. Lunch. Slaves. It is astounding Silas Eto should, as an adult, be a noted religious leader for many of the villages which used to prey on his people. Just before Silas was born, the English Government decided they had successfully stopped the head-hunting. They told the bushmen to come live on the coast.
His father picked this harbor, Kolumbaghea, as their new home.
The harbor is big enough for large ocean-going ships, well protected and deep. Unless the Holy Mama can prevent it, this will be the major shipping center for the new Lever Brothers' logging operation. Ironically, the chart calls this bay "Lever's Harbor," which gives us some idea of the extent and duration of the Lever Brother's influence here.
On one end of the Lever's Harbor, there is a river.
We motor slowly along the river in the Avon until we reach a beautiful waterfall.
There, in a soft tropical rain, Freddy and I sit on a mossy log and do the laundry. The waterfall is one of the most picturesque places we've seen. Except for the large muddy area cleared beside it where the lumbering people are setting up camp.
From the look of the muddy campsite, the company has little concern for natural beauty. They did not set up camp because waterfall is scenic. To them it is an obstacle, as far as they can get with their small boats. They tore out all the brush and trees and plunked their ugly little prefab houses down on the naked red mud. Carelessly, they threw the plants and brush into the river. Now, the branches clog the river bank for hundreds of yards. The lumber camp people are very friendly. Two of the men are taking a bath, nude, on top of the waterfall.
When the laundry is done and hung out to dry on Moira, we motor out to the village by the entrance to the bay to see the Holy Mama's birthplace. The village has a solid, well made wharf. We tie the Avon to it and meander up a tree lined path into the woods. The village nestles quietly in the forest about 50 meters from the wharf. The village looks nice in its jungle setting, but when we approach closer, we discover the thatched houses in a state of miserable decay. The church itself is still intact but has an emptiness - a loneliness - about it.
Freddy and I stand in front of the church and look around the village. A few older people dressed in rags glance at us out of the corner of their eyes and quickly go back to ignoring us. There are no children. An elderly man, thin and wretched, scampers out from his house. He motions us into the church. Two statues stand in the entrance, one on top of the other, like a totem-pole. The higher carving is Jesus on a cross. Below Jesus, a tall Melanesian bears a shield proclaiming, "Solomon Islands. United Under Jesus." A luminous green moss covers the statues.
"I kind of like the green fur on Jesus," Freddy smiles.
"Holy Mama," the old man whistles, snapping his dentures, "carve statues himself. I am Silas Eto's nephew. Christian name Alan," He holds out a thin hand, which I lightly shake. Alan stands around for a few minutes, pleasant, friendly, and hopelessly dispirited. He, like the village, speaks silent words of loneliness, emptiness.
"I'll bet they've all got green fur," Freddy observes dryly, "Come on, lets get out of here."
"Yeah, they do seem kind of listless, almost dazed. I wonder why nobody will look at us? It's not like they get loads of tourists here." A dog barks and someone throws an orange at the animal which slinks off with an offended expression (he was, after all, only doing his duty, barking at strangers.)
I see a modern European style house with plywood walls, louvered glass windows and a metal roof right smack in the center of the village. It looks so impossibly out of place I ask Alan, pointing, "Whose house is that?"
"The Holy Mama's son. He is in Keru, working with Holy Mama to build a new village. All the young people of our village are there." Alan smiles his most unhappy smile and adds, painfully, "They will return." His voice carries the utter conviction that the kids are never going to come back here again.
"It's a great place to study extinction," Freddy mumbles, pulling me towards the wharf. We smile, say goodbye and head for the Avon. Just as I am about to cast off, a delegation arrives with three baskets of clams, a basket of oysters and another one filled with oranges.
"What would you like in return?" Freddy asks Alan.
"Oh No! It is a gift. Like Holy Mama gave you."
A young man from Tusumine, a Seven Day Adventist village on the bay, paddles over to the Moira at dusk. He wants to exchange gifts. Oranges and Papayas for some sugar, perhaps? This guy has a gestalt of health and vibrancy. A pleasant change from the mossy listlessness we saw in Kolumbaghea. With grins and grimaces and sound effects, he relates the heroic tale of how he and his friends came here a few years ago to fight Holy Mama's people.
The issue was logging. The young people of the SDA village wanted Lever Brothers to come. Lever Brothers meant jobs and money. The people of the CFC did not want the trees cut. Our young story teller is full of scorn for his enemies. "Their schools are a joke. The house of Holy Mama's son is a good example of how the people's labor is wasted, thrown away in luxuries! His other son went to school in Fiji on the people's money. He teaches over at Goldie College now! He does not even help his own people."
We motor out of Lever's Harbor into a squally sea, Freddy high in the rigging watching for reefs. The wind blows hard from the eastsoutheast. We beat into it at 50º and after an hour the wind backs and we are tight into it. The seas build and the wind holds at a steady 20 knots with little blasts to 25. But we are sailing! Seven knots. A small squall washes over us and the fishing line snaps loose. I run aft as the wind and rain hits. There is a magnificent wahoo on the line. I haul it in, swing it on deck and clean it as the cold rain flows down my arms.
Freddy puts the meat into little plastic bags to be frozen while I watch the helm. The wind is holding steady. We are moving fine and all is well with the world. In an hour we'll tack and be beating right into the Kia Channel. Naturally, it goes without saying, the wind is blowing directly from the entrance to Kia Channel. But I am fortified by the spirit of Holy Mama and such trifles do not concern me. I gnash my teeth and glare into the eye of the wind.
The squall squalls on and the sea settles down again. Moira is sailing strongly to weather. I begin to have a peculiar feeling. I begin to worry something is going to break. It's a loose sort of worry, wandering here and there around Moira, like the uneasy ache in the jaw which gradually focuses down into a knife-sharp tooth-ache. Gradually, my uneasy worry focuses on the shackle holding the roller furling drum to the deck fitting. My mental tongue worries away at the aching shackle as I stand at the helm. It is now sharp and clear. It is going to break.
I can't stand it any longer. I call Freddy and she comes up to hold the wheel while I scurry forward. I lie down on the foredeck and look up under the roller furling drum. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the shackle. I lay there looking at it. It's fine. No problem. It does not even seem to be working very hard. Huh!
I return to the cockpit and Freddy returns below. I stand at the wheel. The shackle is going to break. I know it is! No, it's just my imagination. It's going to break. "Freddy, come quick," I shout. She comes racing on deck and grabs the wheel again. I scramble forward. There is a short, sturdy wire pennant tacked onto the deck fitting which we use for our hanked on headsails. I snap it on the bottom of the roller furling headsail, bypassing the drum and shackle and return to the cockpit.
"We won't be able to roll in the sail until I unsnap it again," I tell Freddy as I take the helm again.
"What's wrong, anyway?" Freddy looks forward, confused.
"Nothing, it's OK. I was just worried about the headsail shackle." She gives me a long, level stare and sits down, watching me. This has the desired effect of making me feel more than a little foolish.
On the approach to Santa Ysabel Island another squall closes in on us and the wind gusts, again, to 25 knots. Moira heels over and surges ahead. With a resounding "BLAM!" the shackle on the headsail lets go and the whole rig shakes violently. I ease the load on the sail by heading more into the wind, letting the air spill from the now baggy sail. After the squall passes, I go forward and drop the headsail on deck. No problem.
But if I had not attached the pennant before the aching shackle let go, the whole sail, furling drum and all, would have been flying out to leeward - held only by the halyard and sheet. It would have been a risky job getting that down on deck.
I strut back to the cockpit, give Freddy a knowing look, and hum contentedly to myself as I start the engine.
Moira heaves a sigh and comes level as she slides off the cradle into the water. Her bottom has a coat of new paint, the shaft, the headsail and the freezer all are working fine. We move off to a mooring and tie up to it. A long day after a long week. Freddy and I sit down with a sigh. Ready to set sail again.
After the headsail broke on the way to Santa Ysabel, we anchored in Kia to make repairs before heading on to Ontong Java Atoll. But one thing after another kept going wrong as if we were heading in the wrong direction. The Moirae wanted us to turn around. The outboard broke down. When I tried to get parts sent in from Honiara, the mail ship broke down. When they got the mail boat fixed and managed to get out to Santa Ysabel, they forgot to bring the mail. We never did get the parts.
The freezer developed a freon leak. The weather was terrible. I didn't trust the jury-rigged headsail. So, we came to the government slipway at Tulagi for repairs. By some freak of luck we actually SAILED for four hours on the way here. Of course, the wind quit after those four delightful hours and we chugged twenty hours to get here. The stern bearing began rattling and chirping evilly. Another repair job.
Actually, it turned out the stern bearing was OK, it was the bearing mount that was bad and this scored the shaft. It's like that on boats. What seems, on the outside, to be a simple little job opens up like unfolding, nested Chinese dolls. Open up a little problem and there is another, bigger one, waiting inside. I built a new mount out of solid fiberglass, had the shaft sprayed with stainless steel to build up the worn area, and drilled the motor coupling for a retaining bolt. Meanwhile, I pulled the freezer apart and tried to seal the leak in the heat exchanger. I don't know if the repair worked, but I've recharged the freezer and we'll soon find out.
Outside the Chinese doll problems, when I looked up from the mechanical details of the Moira, the birds did what they could to complicate things.
Evil little black birds with burning red eyes fly in and out of our rigging and shit on the deck all day long. They score hundreds of hits in a day; big juicy red turds with sticky seeds all over everything. Up on the slip, we couldn't get water to wash them off, so the grunge built up day by day. When Freddy did the laundry yesterday, the birds organized a special raid just as she hung it out to dry.
It was time to visit the High Shark Priest...