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Breaking the Chains

In September 1994, I was sitting with a local man on a pile of copra bags on Malu’u beach, North Malaita, in the Solomon Islands. We were waiting to load the motorboats plying their way to and from the coastal trading ship anchored 500 meters offshore. Working with 60 kg bags of copra was hard, dirty and smelly work.

I was in Malu’u conducting experiments with a new technology we were trying to develop to help farmers process their coconuts into high quality oil instead of making copra. We had had a number of major setbacks with equipment breakages and bad weather.

As I sat there wondering if all the effort was really worthwhile, my gaze moved towards an obelisk standing in the shallows offshore, about 100 meters away. Just then the man sitting next to me turned and said in excellent English,

“Tell me, Dr Dan, will we ever be free from the chains of the copra trade?”

That simple question in that specific location had a profound impact on me. You see, people hate the hard, lonely and dirty work of making copra. They hate it not only because of the nature of the work but because they get paid so little for this raw material that is shipped overseas for processing. They consider making copra a form of slavery.

The obelisk I was looking at had been erected in 1992 by the local people to mark the centenary of when and where Peter Ambuofa had landed on his release from kanaka slavery on Queensland sugar plantations. Peter had become a Christian while in Australia. On his return he was initially rejected by his own people and persecuted vigorously, for he had changed so much from the youth who had been captured by the “blackbirder” slave-traders. But his remarkable persistence in teaching the Christian message eventually had a profound impact on his whole tribe.

I felt humbled. My difficulties were minor compared to Peter’s but in this location I was being challenged in a quite extraordinary way to keep on with the task of removing another set of chains.

Dan Etherington

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