Where learning is a mythical journey

14th April 2000 at 01:00

BOYS at Pawa school on Ugi Island had played football on scrub ground near the sea for years.

When two expatriate teachers thought the boys needed a properly marked-out pitch, they carried buckets of sand up from the beach and created goalmouths and touchlines.

Horrified students warned that their actions would anger the shark god and that rain would wash the sand back. To them the shoreline was sacred ground.

As predicted it rained over night and the markings disappeared. The same thing happened four weeks in a row. On week five the teachers did nothing, it stayed dry, and football resumed on an unmarked pitch.

Traditional "kastom" as it is known is alive and well on the 350 islands of this South Pacific archipelago, despite the zeal of Christian missionaries. Nor has cable television made inroads into these "wontok" communities.

Some 85 per cent of the 400,000 inhabitants still live in villages ruled by a chief. And children happily believe their ancestors' spirits live on in sharks and eagles.

But now these myths about the transmigration of souls and homilies explaining the natural world are being embraced by educationists. These stories should not be a source of embarrassment in the modern orld, they argue. Rather they represent uniquely rich material suited to the classroom.

And the result is "Nguzu Nguzu", a series of 40 stories collected from the provinces. These tales - in English, pidgin and local languages - are being used in every primary school across the Solomon Islands as core texts for reading, writing, listening and speaking. Typical is "The Tapa Cocoon" which explains how butterflies got their bright colours. The secondary school curriculum is also adapting along similar lines.

"Nguzu Nguzu" (carved figureheads) replaces the much criticised Pacific Series, produced in Australia with stories featuring non-indigenous children, kangaroos and koala bears.

Far from being a nostalgic return to the past, using such stories in class is highly practical. When only 12 per cent of the population receive salaries and most school-leavers become traditional traders, a community-based education has more relevance.

On exam day at Pawa school, a star pupil told his teacher that the angry spirit of his dead grandfather had visited him in a dream. It had made him ill, too ill to do the exams. In the West such a story would be laughed out of class. In the Solomons you couldn't get a more legitimate excuse.

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