Apart from funeral services, one is not accustomed to seeing people shedding tears during prayer service, and much less so during a thanks-giving service.
But an opening thanks-giving prayer to an event held at Okwala village in the central highlands of Malaita Province has drawn tears and sobs from many in the crowd – including the pastor conducting the prayer service.
But these were tears of joy!
For the villagers in Okwala village, the long awaited road connecting them to Auki, has finally reached them, marking a dream in the lifetime for many of them.
And their jubilation on this development has no bounds – even if it means shedding tears in public to express that joy.
Things just happened so fast within a span of few days at Okwala village, that many residents would not clearly comprehend the turn of events that occurred simultaneously, culminating into a heart-rendering occasion on Friday morning this week.
On the morning of Tuesday 8th March 2016, the villagers could hear sounds of engines down below their villages as a bulldozer and an excavator ploughed their way through the jungle.
Just before the noon on Thursday 10th March, the machines have carved away a portion of the hillside on this remote highland village and literally stumbled onto the makeshift soccer field of Okwala Primary School, and thereby enabled access to this once remote community highland village.
Around the same time a day later, the machines was joined by another one on the same location – this time a helicopter, transporting the Acting Prime Minister, Manasseh Maelanga; the MP for Central Kwarae, Jackson Fiulaua; and other senior government officials who are there to conduct a brief ceremony to mark the occasion.
Many in Okwala village would never dream such a thing could ever happen in their lifetime.
But it did. And that was what drew shameless tears from many villagers taking part to commemorate event.
The road, their lifetime dream, has finally reached their village. And it also, literally, brought the Acting Prime Minister and the local MP and their delegation, in a chopper, in a sight as mind racking as it is bizarre.
Local SSEC preacher, Pastor Festus Jack could not have been more forthcoming about the significance of this event when he declared in the finale of his opening prayer, “Lord, today is the beginning of a new era. Our dreams have come true!”
Many in the 200 people gathered at Okwala Primary School grounds to witness the event would naturally shed heartfelt tears as they responded “Amen” to Pastor Jack’s rally.
Nestled in one of the highest mountains of Malaita, Okwala village is a good five-hour walk inland, from the provincial capital, Auki.
Travelling by truck, however, a journey from Auki to Okwala usually include an hour’s ride on a pick-up truck to Busurata head road, before disembarking for a two-hour uphill walk into the hinterlands.
Constantly surrounded by mist due to its high elevation, good clear sky is a rarity in Okwala.
But when the sky clears, there are always patches of mist hovering below the village, and down the slopes and valleys, a clear testimony of its elevation.
Even the forest surrounding the Okwala community has grown thin due to the sheer height, that timbers for construction of houses have to be felled and cut from the valleys below, and carried uphill.
Yes, carried on people’s back just like any other things that have to be brought into Okwala, including building materials for the schools and church building.
For there is no road. Until now, that is.
Before then, the closest road to Auki would be at Busurata, a good 10 kilometres away – on foot.
Okwala then, is one of the remotest highland communities in Malaita, in Central Kwarae Constituency.
According to Albert Maesulia, the head teacher at Okwala Primary School, an hour’s walk west or east of Okwala village and you will find yourself in another coastal constituency either side of Malaita Province.
In the past, any reference that a road would have ever reach this most inland community would have invited scoffs and even ridicule from some quarters.
But that is exactly the dream that the forebears and elders of the village have been talking about since the country gained political independence in 1978.
Thirty-eight years on, the road has finally reached Okwala, and the great elation emanating from this success has inevitably drawn tears of jubilation in many quarters.
Maesulia could still recall vividly the excitement from the community the day last week when the machines were making headway uphill to the village.
“Shouts of joy echoed through the hills all throughout the day,” he said.
“People just did not go out to their gardens that day. We gathered and watched as the machines cleared the forest and came through to the school playing grounds.
“It was a sight we will never forget. It is like a dream. But this time it’s real. It is the happiest moment in our life.”
According to Maesulia, many more Okwala villagers are living outside the remote highland community, so much so that out-migration in Okwala has resulted in three-thirds of the population either living in Honiara, Auki or moving to the coastal areas.
But he said the trend could also be an indication of the successes of the community in terms of the development of its human resources.
In terms of education, Maesulia said the village could boast of at least more than 15 university graduates while also a number of high profile local business personnel on its community profile, including the their Member of Parliament, Jackson Fiulaua himself, who was a carpenter by profession and have moved to become a successful businessman after establishing his own construction business.
But now that the road reached the village, there is a good reason to believe that the Okwala villagers will eventually come back to the village.
“I expect the Okwala community will be seeing some big changes in the near future, especially once our people started showing interest in coming back to our village,” he said.
And for another, there are also major developments too proposed for Okwala.
According to Maesulia, a new clinic for the community will also be constructed in the immediate future to replace the old one.
And there’s talk of building an airstrip as well, he said.
There is great optimism about developments in Okwala too in the future. And having an Okwala local as the Member of Parliament is an added bonus.
“Our MP is our champion and having him at our side will definitely see our visions for our community coming true.”
“We have succeeded where people think it is possible, in having a road build right to our village.
“Now the opportunities are abound. With God’s blessing, anything is possible,” said the 54-year-old educator.
Things can be considered possible only if they ever occur, that is, if we go by the rule perpetuated by Fiulaua himself.
Not new to the development loopholes surrounding many development projects in Malaita , Fiulaua, now in his second term as parliamentarian, was careful to see that projects proposed for his constituency are attainable, mindful of the connotation associated with the term ‘ground-breaking ceremony’
For the Busurata/Okwala road project, the MP was keen on marking any means of ceremony only when he deem the project was through to the last stages.
This time, for the Busurata/Okwala road project, Fiulaua has decided to hold the ceremony the other way round – when the project is successfully completed, other than at the start.
“Too many projects have languished under the term ‘ground-breaking ceremony’ without the projects actually getting off the ground. And more so in Malaita in the past, especially where national projects are concerned.
“I have decided to do otherwise, and rather held the ceremony of that sort at the end, when we actually see the tangible results,” he said.
Acting Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs, Manasseh Maelanga, who is MP for the neighbouring East Malaita Constituency, when delivering his key-note address pulled no punches on the type of development that he would envision for Okwala and the rest of Malaita.
“Infrastructures, infrastructures and infrastructures are the things we require in this province before we can achieve the developments we aspire,” Maelanga stated.
“And the Busurata-Okwala Road is a clear example of this development, the type of development we would want to see happen, and my Government is happy to witness and participate in this historic occasion in Okwala village,” he added.
Even though the events of the day had started in almost an eerie and seemingly melancholy atmosphere, the festive mood was not lost on the Okwala villagers once the final part of the official event was over.
The happiest day in the lives of the Okwala community must be celebrated, and it was done through feasting of a kind.
A senior Government official attending the event is marvelled by the extensive use of bamboo tree, grown in abundance in the mountains, by the villagers in preparing for the occasion.
“Gourds of bamboo tubes hold water for our drinking. Food were also cooked in bamboo tubes in various specialties,” said Tommy Mana, a political administrator at the Office of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Fun abound, jokes were not lost on the villagers, too.
On one occasion, a respected elderly, after formally declaring the feast to begin also remarked that the Acting Prime Minister and the Member of Parliament attending were not to be honoured with any food servings as they are merely paying a visit to their homes, a remark which drew giggles and smiles from the villagers.
The Okwala road has reached its destination, with only the gravelling works to be undertaken before a formal opening ceremony will be held.
The 10-kilometre Okwala-Busurata road is a special priority government project in 2015 by the Ministry of Infrastructure Development, undertaken by local company, JF Construction.
Assistant Press Secretary
Office of the Prime Minister and Cabinet