One day, during a recent stay on Malaita Island, in the Solomon Islands, I sat under a coconut tree with Bill, my elderly New Zealand friend, sipping juice from fresh green nuts. Bill was decidedly uneasy. He told me that a few days earlier, Francis and Lillian, who lived in the village across the river, had to rouse our truck driver, Joseph, from a bad dream. He was thrashing about on the bench where he was sleeping in Francis' leaf hut, moaning and gasping for breath.
When fully awake, Joseph told them he had dreamt that he was stretched out on a bench when he felt, then saw, a European male sitting by his head. Then he saw another apparition, a European female, standing over him, seemingly trying to strangle him.
Later, when Bill teased Joseph about the dream, Joseph repeated the story, though in this version there was no mention of the female figure. Bill was not sure why the female was omitted and thought perhaps it was as a courtesy to me. However, the dream had made Bill decidedly uncomfortable. We were the only two "Europeans" in this highly superstitious area, and if the dream became common knowledge, how would it be interpreted?
I hoped an opportunity would arise for a quiet talk with Joseph to try explaining that the dream was most likely a result of his being so run down, stressed out, and constantly suffering from malaria.
A few evenings later, Joseph wandered by our hut, complaining of a headache and sore chest. Bill smeared him with Vicks and when suitably daubed, Joseph asked me to walk with him back to the beach. I thought this would be an ideal chance to explain away his frightening dream, but our hostess, Frieda, offered her escort services instead, and came back chuckling over the fact that Joseph had been too afraid to walk to the beach alone as he had never before been this far from his village, by himself, in the dark.
The following day, however, I ran into Joseph sauntering casually along, on his way to Taiwamare Village to visit friends. He asked me to walk with him to the beach, and as he wanted to talk, we discussed his dream. It did not bother him a jot that I had heard both versions, although I had no idea if he understood my faltering interpretation of why he had such a nightmare.
He also was not shy of telling me that he had asked me to accompany him because he was afraid of lurking "bush devils."
Unthinking, I blurted out that people in my culture also believe in devils, but we know they are not real, we know they live in our heads. Now I had given him a new devil to cope with, so with one foot in my mouth and the other ready to jump in behind, I rushed on, "Joseph, my culture, you believe in devil, devil come. You no believe in devil, himfala (he/him) devil go away."
Joseph mulled this over. "You tell devil go – he go?"
"Yes," I said.
He replied that he would try to think at the head devil, "Iufala (you) go away."
Later the following evening my new flashlight conked out. With no electricity or fuel in the village, a flashlight was a necessity, and as Joseph was the only fix-it man for miles around, Bill and I headed across the river, in the dark, to Heo Village where he was staying.
We arrived to find him fast asleep on a bench, twitching, groaning, and gasping for breath. A few villagers were hunkered on the floor, Bill sat on the bench by Joseph's feet, and as I was standing by his head, staring speechlessly down at him, someone begged, "Iu (you) wake him."
I shook him gently by the shoulder. He moaned louder, frantically gulping air. I shook him again, less gently, hissing "Joseph, wake up for God's sake!"
As I was bending over him, staring into his face, he woke with a start. He seemed in pain but tried sitting up, glancing at Bill and me in surprise.
"Eh, iutufala (you two)," he croaked and fell back onto the bench.
Bill and I exchanged shocked glances – the dream!
Joseph said he hurt everywhere, had a sore throat, a headache, and a sore lung. Nonetheless he rallied enough to fiddle with the flashlight, took it outside to "get magic" and soon returned with a fully functional light. Explaining that he fixed it with "African magic," he said he had paid for a spell that could "tame wild cows."
I knew that an African had visited the area a while ago – but wild cows and dead flashlights? The significance was lost on Bill and me, but we did have a working flashlight. We set off with an idea of getting more Vicks for Joseph, but just as we got to the river the torch went out again.
After stumbling around in the dark, we returned to Heo and found Joseph asleep, but he woke when we entered the hut. He claimed that the spell ran out only because he had not wanted us trekking back and forth across the river in the dark.
Having another go at the flashlight, Joseph fiddled a bit – and it worked, nothing wrong with it at all. But now he was exhausted and stumbled off to lie down, and we left. About halfway to the river we heard him crashing to the floor in a faint. At the same time, the torch went out.