Photo: Majestic, mighty ngalinut of Baniata
Deep in the forests, the tree towers majestically, lording over the terrain.
The woman cuts a tiny figure at her base. She rummages in the leafy brush carpet of the forest floor searching for something. Her face lights up with discovery and the first Ngali nut from the Canarium Indicum tree, indigenous to the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea hits the bottom of the bag. Soon the bags are full.
She looks up and pats the tree trunk with approval, her eyes pools of gratefulness. It’s another successful harvest and Dorothy Walter sings a chorus back to Baniata.
“I’ll make you Ngali nut pudding. It tastes good, you know,” she laughs, her nimble steps belie her 55 years.
Baniata village occupies the southern end of Rendova Island in the Western Province of Solomon Islands.
Rendova is one of the larger islands of the New Georgia Group, with lush forests of Ngali nut and all kinds of fruit trees, coconut plantations, misty mountains and shimmering wide, black sandy beaches where the world’s largest turtle species, leatherbacks nest.
Canoeing from Munda, a government administration centre to Baniata is two hours of craziness.
Furious waves toss the sturdy canoe about, from crest to pit, at times hurling it into the air to the screams of terrified passengers. Soaked to the bone and all you can think about are crocodiles lurking beneath bluish black sheen of Morovo lagoon. You can take an outboard, but it takes the joy out of the soulful experience of a traditional Baniata canoe.
It’s a warrior’s ride to wild country. Right up to the shores, where excited children wait, the waves clutch and pull as if to keep the group from the Pacific Organic and Ethical Trade Community housed within the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (POETCom) from landing and discovering the beautiful secret that is Baniata. Stay away! Stay away they scream in a protective, incessant roar.
But on shore, it’s a feeling of pure achievement, like passing a test of worthiness to be here.
Smoke curls lazily out of sago palm thatched huts. The roasted aroma of baking fills the air.
Dorence Walter, 55 is bent over an earth oven called motu in the Touo language, picking at the hot stones with bamboo tongs.
She’d been shelling nuts the whole day. Nuts are tossed onto the hot stones and covered with taio leaves. They can be done in two hours but she prefers to leave them overnight, slowly baking a golden brown.
Baked nuts add a crunchy texture to vegetable dishes like slippery cabbage that form the staple part of the healthy Baniata diet.
Ngali nut harvest seasons run from August to February. December is peak season. Men clean the picking area for the women and children who pick the nuts.
Jillian Paina, 42 is a seasoned nut picker having been at it since a mere babe.
Her grandmother taught her to pick, shell and bake nuts. She also taught Jillian’s mom, Ruth. Jillian will pass the same skills to her daughters. Ngali nut is an inheritance passed down the female line.
Baniata boys grow up to conquer the wild waves. The girls become expert Ngali nut bakers.
Most of the tools she uses in baking ngalinuts are from nature like her bamboo tongs
A tree can offer nuts to fill three 10 kg bags. On average a family owns between 20 to 40 ngalinut trees. It can take at least a month of picking, shelling and baking to fill several buckets for export.
Baniatan’s believe the trees were planted by God and wild bats dispersed seeds of the Ngali nut all over the forest.
Sometimes they’d sit in the forests and shell the nuts using traditional tools. Flat slabs of rocks they call ofata with grooves gouged out and rock pounders or orugo make delightful, archaeological finds along the pathways. Just as knowledge about Ngali nut is passed down so are these ancient tools.
“Our ancestors made them. They’ve been in the forest a long time. We don’t use anything else to shell the nuts but these,” Jillian said.
“We like to use them because it makes Ngali nuts taste even better knowing we are doing it the way our ancestors did.”
“Our culture is part of our daily lives.”
Women are so intimate with the ngalinut; they know the shapes of the nuts their trees produce.
“There can be rawa (argument) if we see another family shelling our nuts. We can tell by the shape of the nut,” Jillian said.
Puddings are signature Ngali nut cuisine.
Rabarusa is grated tapioca mixed with the white or innermost portion of roasted ngalinuts and in the motu. Black pudding or iqirusa is considered food for the gods that is a similar mixture but turned black over hot stones and pounded to achieve an elastic consistency. Masierusa is combination of grated tapioca, taro and nuts.
A great Baniata warrior ancestor named Ome offered Ngali nuts to the gods for victory in tribal clashes and for acquiring the juiciest human flesh. Ome was a cannibal.
To protect the ngalinut, their sense of identity, cultural enrichment and income the Baniata community has gone organic.
They’ve banned the use of harmful chemical fertilisers, insecticides and weedicides.
With help from POETCom/SPC and funding support from the European Union Increasing Agriculture Commodities and Trade programme the Participatory Guarantee System of organic certification for the Ngali nut has been setup.
The PGS involves a peer review mechanism where farmers keep each other in check to ensure compliance with the Pacific Organic Standards.
“Our forests are clean and pure, and we want to give it to our descendants as it is now,” Baniata Organic Committee chair Walter Silvae said.
“It’s our duty. We respect nature and it provides for us.”
After a period of certification, Baniata Ngali nuts will bear the Organic Pasifika mark, which is a guarantee of purity or naturalness, free of harmful chemical toxicity.
It will be the first Ngali nut from the Pacific to be organically certified for export. The export is a partnership between the people of Baniata and Dr Shane Tutua’s Sol-Agro, a Solomon Islands company that specialises in organic exports.
Baniata is not a typical tropical island destination.
Far off the beaten tourist path, her black sands don’t holler at you. There’s no television, no cell phone coverage. Unplugged and free of social standards and trappings. Food comes from the forests and the sea. Life is simple and enough.
People live harmoniously with nature in a way many Pacific Islanders are now unfamiliar with. It’s a sanctuary both for nature and man – an experience that inspires the soul of the worthy traveller in the land of the Ngali nut.