The Solomon Islands story of Tiola and the origin of the nguzunguzu

The Solomon Islands story of Tiola and the origin of the nguzunguzu

The following is a kustom stori of the Roviana people of the Western Solomon Islands. It has been passed down through the direct line of banara (chiefs), the whisperings of the ancestors come to life. Journey into a time steeped in ritual and magic, while the story of Tiola unfolds into the present.

This is the story of Tiola, a banara (chief) in Solomon Islands mythology and the origin of the nguzunguzu, canoe prow figureheads used by the islands’ tribes.

It is derived from an interview with Silas Oka by Peter Sheppard and Kenneth Roga in Roviana Lagoon in 1997. The interview was translated by Roga, and transcribed by Sheppard. It has been lightly edited by Te Papa for clarity and is printed with permission.

A man sits on a porch holding a woven basket
Silas Oka, 1997. Photo courtesy of Peter Sheppard

Tiola and his brothers

Chief Tiola was from Nduke, Kolombangara and had five brothers: Veonona, Serekateu, Nakovalaka, Heleveni, and Hiakalozi. They all came out of a cave shaped like a vagina. At the entrance to this cave was a rock shaped like a penis – this is where the brothers came from. But they came out as adults, not babies.

They walked out of the cave, and lived in the area. The cave is still on Nduke.

Veonona was a good chief, a good banara (banara leana), Heleveni was a bad banara (banara kaleana), Serekateu was a clever banara (banara roverove), Nakovalaka had magical powers (tie ruparupaha) that allowed him to solve problems (and was also good at arts and crafts), and Heleveni was the banara who started sacrificial ceremonies.

A carved wooden head. The eyes are made of shells, and the head is wearing a hat
Nguzunguzu (war canoe prow figurehead), Solomon Islands, maker unknown. Te Papa (FE001167)

Building a hope

In the beginning, the brothers had equal powers and authority. Then came a time when Heleveni said: “I want to be more important!” He had the idea of building a hope (sacred site for sacrificial ceremonies), so they made one, because at that time they didn’t use bakiha (shell money, often used as an offering). When the hope was finished, they wondered what kind of head they should put on it – because taking a head was claiming their power – and settled on a batu veke (bat’s head).

After putting the bat’s head on the shrine, they tried to draw power from it – but nothing happened. So they threw the bat’s head out. They tried a batu manuae (possum’s head), but again nothing happened.

Heleveni decided to build another hope. When that hope was built, Veonona suggested they carve a human head and put that on it, so they did. Then they made an offering to the shrine. Still nothing happened.

Wicked Heleveni suggested it would be better if they had Veonona’s head on the shrine.

“If we could offer a sacrifice to Veonona, we could take more power from the shrine,” he said. “We have tried all these other heads but they didn’t work – so it would be better if we could use your head, Veonona.”

Heleveni came up with a plan. He invited Tiola, kuresu (rat), komba (hermit crab), and three sea birds: belama, vangolo, and dekere. He said: “You go down and get a canoe to go to Bugotu (on Isabel); go down and trade for baha and twva (killing spells), and then come back, no later than four days from now, so we can kill Veonona and collect his head and put it on the shrine.”

That was Heleveni’s secret plan with Tiola and the others. So they went, at which point Tiola went through a spiritual transformation and turned into a dog.

Nguzunguzu (War canoe prow figurehead), maker unknown, Solomon Islands. Gift of Tairawhiti Museum Te Whare Taonga O Tairawhiti, 1975. Te Papa (FE006585)

Vengeful voyage

They arrived at Bugotu and waited until dark to collect fireflies and spells.

While returning to Nduke, when they were between Laru and Nduke, the six decided to have a farting competition. It was suggested that Belama should go first. So he did. They all said the fart smelled like rebirebi (dead fish), because he ate flying fish. Then it was Vangolo’s turn. Everyone said his fart smelled like hipuhipu (small schools of bait fish near the shore). When it came time for Dekere, his fart smelled like imabuku (deep sea bait fish). The rat Kurezu’s fart smelt like rotten food. Tiola? His fart smelled like human shit, because dogs eat shit. Finally it was Komba’s turn. Komba moved from the seat he was sitting on and sat on the bottom of the canoe. The force of his fart split the canoe and sank it. The birds flew away. Komba sank to the seabed.

With the canoe sunk, Tiola started to swim – and as he did, Kuresu jumped up and hid in Tiola’s ear. The current took Tiola closer to Nduke, but when it changed it took him away, towards Vella. Then when he was close to Vella’s shore the current changed again and carried him down through Gizo passage to Simbo. Near Simbo, he started to swim towards shore. When he reached the shore he shook his body to dry himself, and Kuresu jumped down. When Tiola saw Kuresu wasn’t wet, he asked him, “I have drifted days and nights and am very wet. Why are you still dry?” Kuresu replied: “I was just riding between your ears and your face (tili tala namu).”

Tiola was angry. He chased Kuresu; he chased him up to the top of the hill on Simbo. At the top, Kuresu disappeared into a hole, so Tiola started to dig and dig … until he reached the centre of the Earth. When he broke into its centre, a great wind came out and blew Tiola into the air, and he flew through the air until he fell on Nusa Roviana. When he landed, the people saw him and proclaimed: “We have found a stranger!” Tiola then spoke like a human, and stayed on Nusa Roviana with some people.

There was a hope on the island. The people built their houses on the ground. They built a stone platform with two posts, one at either end and rafters which came down to the edge of the platform.

Tiola decided he wanted to get married, but the people on the island didn’t want him to stay because he had no respect for them; he just walked over the hope and through tambu (sacred) areas, although he was staying with the Banara (Chief). It was at Zare that he lived.

While he was there Tiola tried to introduce the people to new building ideas. He got the people together, stood up on a platform, and asked them, “Do you see the shape of my body? You should build your house in this shape, with four posts and a ridge pole and rafters. Then the ends of the house should sweep up like my head and tail.” So the people started to build their houses according to Tiola’s suggestion. (Modern houses are no longer made in this fashion.)

Nguzunguzu (War canoe prow figurehead), maker unknown, Solomon Islands. Te Papa (FE002431)

Tiola and the tomoko (war canoe)

Tiola had offered these new ideas because he wanted to marry the Banara’s daughter – but the Banara still wouldn’t allow the marriage. So Tiola came up with another idea: he asked the people to build a canoe. Standing up, he said the canoe should be in the shape of his body. “Put the ribs of my body upside down so they can hold the planks together,” he said. The people followed this design. It was the people from Vuragere who started the tomoko (war canoe) with Tiola. The original war canoe design was more curved on the long axis than the modern one, which is flatter.

After the war canoe was finished, it was time to launch it. When the people built the first one they made it on the ground, so they were sewing it with roots lying on the ground. When they launched the canoe, they pulled the roots and it came apart.

Tiola told them to put langono (logs) underneath, and build the canoe on top of them. They rebuilt the canoe and sewed it together again and carried it down to the sea.

“What should we put in the boat?” they asked.

“My statue will be the one in front (a nguzunguzu, “Tiola’s mouth”),” Tiola replied. So the people made a carving of Tiola’s head and hands and put it at the front of the canoe, to fight enemies.

A stone head of a dog rests on a stone
The head of Tiola from a shrine on Nusa Roviana, 1997. Photo courtesy of Peter Sheppard

Having given the people all these ideas, they decided to give Tiola a wife: the daughter of the Banara. And so he was married – and very proud.

One time, he was sitting on a huge flat rock licking himself down to his penis. While he was doing that, a buti (bird) sitting in a tree saw him. “Somebody is sitting on the flat rock licking his genitals!” the bird chanted. (“Tu tu tu hanotu ta zizoi pa vale buturu pa zare!”)

Tiola became angry, because he was now married to a Chief’s daughter, and chased the bird. The bird continued chanting: “Tu tu tu hanotu ta zizoi pa vale buturu pa zare!” It continued chanting and Tiola was very angry so he jumped to try and kill the bird, but the bird escaped and flew away. This is why the dog’s enemies today are the buti (bird) and the kurezu (rat).

So that is the story of how Tiola was married and lived on Nusa Roviana. He died there, and changed to stone. Tiola is one of those ancestral gods of Roviana, like the others who flew or sank at Nusa Roviana.

Now I will go back to the others.

Nguzunguzu (War canoe prow figurehead), 1800s, Solomon Islands, maker unknown. Gift of Alexander Turnbull, 1913. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Te Papa (FE000716)

Komba’s journey

When the canoe sank from the powerful fart the birds flew away, and Tiola drifted, Komba, the hermit crab, sank to the bottom of the sea. He was on the seabed when a fish saw him and swallowed him up.

Komba was in the fish’s stomach for some time; the fish travelled a great deal under the sea. After a while, Komba wondered where he was so he started to move around in the fish’s stomach, which made the fish vomit him up. He was trying to get to the land by walking on the seabed when another fish came by and swallowed him up again.

After awhile Komba began to hear the sea breaking on the shore. He tickled the fish’s stomach and it vomited him up. The sea was now shallow and yet another fish saw him and swallowed him. Sina is a shallow water fish that lives in the mangroves, so when Komba heard the waves breaking against the mangroves he tickled Sina’s stomach and was vomited up in the mangroves. He climbed up into the mangroves and came ashore in Vaghena (an island south of Choiseul). People there didn’t call him Komba, but Kerambina.

After more than eight days had passed and Tiola and the others hadn’t arrived back at Nduke, Heleveni climbed up to look out for them. He didn’t see them, so he came back down to the coast. When he came down, he found wrapped parcels which had drifted ashore. He knew then that Tiola and the others might have sunk. He went back up to the cave.

At that time Veonona knew that they were planning to kill him so he told his family to get ready so they could escape: “Get two war canoes and secretly get everything ready.”

Nguzunguzu (War canoe prow figurehead), maker unknown, Solomon Islands. Te Papa (FE006584)

Heleveni hides

The name of Veonona’s tomoko was Manogalima. They were loading the canoe at midnight, which was when they decided to paddle out. They didn’t know that Heleveni had already hidden himself under the baskets, hiding in the bottom of the canoe where they’d put a bunch of ripe bananas.

It was from Malanga that they left Nduke. They were approaching Vaghena at daybreak when a small boy said he was hungry. They opened up the bananas to feed him, and found Heleveni.

“I thought you were left behind, but you are here so it is OK,” Veonona said.

“I knew I might be left behind so I came and hid myself inside before you left,” Heleveni replied.

There were only a few bananas left as Heleveni had eaten most of them during the night, and there were only enough left for the small boy.

Then Veonona had an idea.

He took his kile (black pearl shell knife) and started to open his betel nut. After opening the husk of the nut, he took all the husks with his kile and threw them into the sea. After throwing them, Veonona told his brother that it was the only kile he had and asked him to retrieve it.

“Will you wait for me?” Heleveni asked. Veonona said he would, but when Heleveni jumped in, Veonona and his crew quickly paddled away.

When Heleveni came up with the kile and showed it to Veonona, Veonona said, “No, I think you should stay there.”

Heleveni then turned into a reef, which is outside Vaghena.

From there Veonona’s two tomoko went to Bugotu, and across to Malaita, where they arrived at a place which today is called Auki. They were welcomed and taken to a village where they stayed. There, Veonona’s children got married to the people of Malaita.

The youngest daughter had only one boy: Kamkamea. His grandfather gave him all his secret powers and Kamkamea became a very strong man.

It was at this time that the first British commissioner arrived in Malaita, and took Kamkamea to work with him. He was there when the boat Pagan arrived at Saikile, Roviana. They went to Malaita and took Kamkamea and 40 other Malaitans. They carried guns and when they came to Batuna, just inside Marovo Lagoon, they were lowered down to a small row boat. Kamkamea started to order the people in the village to stop headhunting. They rowed on until they reached Roviana Lagoon. Then they rowed to Gizo, where they set up the government station. That is how they started the Gizo station. From there they rowed back to Saikile.

Kamkamea was a very powerful man – very muscular – which allowed them to row back and forth, checking for headhunting. He was so strong that he could hold the huge boat’s rope and not let go until they gave him money.

Kamkamea said he was from Nduke and was related to Tiola and Nusa Roviana.

A man stands holding a shield and staff. He is wearing only a piece of cloth around his loin and is adorned with a large circle hanging around his neck
Oka Nepia Sae, May 1986. Photo courtesy of Alan Freshwater

Guardian holder

Oka Nepia Sae
Guardian of the people of Saikele, Dugaha, and Hoeze tribes of Roviana
Son of Silas Oka and Grandson of John Oka


Watch the original interview with Silas, courtesy of Peter Sheppard. The above text is a translation of one section of the video. Read a transcription of the entire video

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *