Kiribati

Introduction

The Republic of Kiribati (pronounced kirr-i-bas) is made up of thirty-two atolls and one raised coral island. Located across an expanse of 1,351,000 square miles area, Kiribati can be found where the equator meets the international date line in the central Pacific Ocean. The Republic lies in a band of weather known as the doldrums, and thus enjoys a calm, warm, and humid climate.

A reef shelf in Kiribati leads into the Pacific Ocean.

The total land area is only 313 square miles (about the size of New York City) and is spread over 33 islands (many are not inhabited). Almost 50% of the 100,000 population live in the capital of Tarawa. Tarawa is one of few atolls that can accommodate a runway and scheduled airline service. Most islands, including Vaitupu, are only reachable by small ships with irregular schedules.

Before independence in 1971, the countries of Kiribati and Tuvalu were known as the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. Since 1915, they were ruled as a British Crown Colony with Tarawa named as its capital. In 1975, Tuvalu (a Polynesian culture) decided to split from Kiribati (a Micronesian culture). Yet to this day, ties between these islands remain strong. Both countries are members of the Commonwealth of Nations, the IMF, the World Bank, and the United Nations.

 

Early Voyages

Migration

I-Kiribati, as island natives are called, keep myths and legends about the creation of their islands alive through song and dance. These stories, coupled with anthropological evidence, suggest the islands were part of a great Pacific migration that began approximately 3,000 years ago. The first migrants came from Southeast Asia, followed by canoe voyages from Samoa, Fiji and Tonga some 500 to 600 years ago. To this day I-Kiribati are known for their skills in navigation.

Kiribati is part of the culture and language group known as Micronesia. The United States has political ties to many Micronesian countries such as Guam, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands.

Simple structures provide living, sleeping and storage space.

Traditional Settlements

Prior to independence, the most important relationship in the life of I-Kiribati was to family and clan. Even today, most people live in traditional settlements, called kaainga. Everyone living on a kaainga comes from a common ancestor. One cannot buy or sell any part of the kaainga land since it is communally owned by the clan. When women get married, they obtain rights to live in their husband's family's kaainga.

Before people had office jobs or salaries, all aspects of life in a kaainga were shared. Each family contributed by fishing, planting and cultivating taro, harvesting coconuts and pandanus, weaving mats, and etc. While peaceful relations may have been the goal, warfare between different kaainga was common; particularly in the northern islands where chiefs battled over land and status.

Cultural History

Coconut remains an important part of life; even after foreign demand and exports dropped.

Foreign Influences

Because of their remote location and lack of resources, the islands were not visited by large groups of foreigners until the early 19th century. Beginning with whalers and followed by permanent traders, European and Australian contact ushered in significant changes to the islands. Trade brought not only imported foreign goods such as cooking pots, tobacco, knives and axes, but  European diseases and violence as well. The introduction of guns intensified local battles. Slavery was evident in the 1860s when Peruvian blackbirding ships captured many I-Kiribati and Tuvaluans and forced them to work in guano deposits in Peru.

Children stop to say a prayer to Madonna before school.

Limited Resources

With limited natural resources, Kiribati has little to export to the world. At one time exporting copra (dried coconut meat) was profitable; however, there is little market for copra today. From 1900 to 1979, the British profited through phosphate rock mining on the island of Banabas. Tragically, 90% of the surface of Banabas has been stripped away and in the process residents were relocated to Rabi Island, Fiji by the British. Today, only 300 people live on what is left of Banabas. The sale of fishing rights to commercial fisherman provides one source of national revenue, yet the consequence may be overfishing. This has impacted local fishing.

Religion

Traditionally, most islanders worshiped anti, or ancestral spirits that were half-spirit and half-human. However, during the mid 19th century, missionaries changed Kiribati society forever. Today, nearly 97% of islanders are Christians and of these, 55% are Roman Catholic and 36% are Kiribati Protestant.

The church plays a vital role in everyday life. The missionaries coming from Samoa encouraged the use of music in worship. They adapted traditional Kiribati song and dance to Samoan and European styles resulting in multipart singing that has become a distinctive part of Kiribati culture. The effect of worship can not only be seen, but heard. Many citizens have a command over a vast repertoire of memorized music centered on religious themes.

Japanese weapons are a reminder of WWII occupation.

WWII Battle in Tarawa

During World War II, Tarawa was occupied by the Japanese and in November 1943, U.S. Marines landed on the coral shores and fought in one of the bitterest battles of the war. Rusted gunnery equipment stands as a reminder of the destruction and loss of 6,000 soldiers. The American victory at Tarawa turned the tide of the Allied effort in the central Pacific. Perhaps because of their remote location, Micronesian people have witnessed many acts of war and seen weapons of mass destruction. The Pacific Proving Grounds was the name used to describe a number of sites in neighboring Marshall Islands, used by the United States to conduct nuclear testing between 1946 and 1962. In July 1947, atomic weapons were first tested at the Bikini Atolls.

Island Life

Villages

Kiribati children - all from the same family - having fun at the beach.

Kiribati has changed significantly in response to foreign influence over the last two hundred years, but many aspects of traditional life remain the same. Most I-Kiribati live with their extended family in a single compound, sharing the duties of land and food production. I-Kiribati honor their elders and ancestors through a great body of oral traditions, such as the recitation of genealogies which trace ancestry back more than 100 generations. To further complicate things, I-Kiribati do not use family surnames; rather, children take the given name of their father as their surname.

The two most important architectural structures in any Kiribati village are the church and the maneaba. Family and community values are publically articulated there. The maneaba is where government leaders conduct island business, important anniversaries are celebrated by schools and civic organizations, and visitors are received and entertained. No important event is complete without a feast and artistic performances of oratory, music and dance.

New Parliament building on Tarawa.

Independence

In 1979, one year after seccession from the Ellis Islands, the Republic of Kiribati became an independent nation, ending 87 years of British rule. Kiribati is now governed by a parliamentary democracy with a president elected by popular vote. The central government is composed of representatives from local government councils. Kiribati’s formal economy is centered around the government sector in Tarawa. However, personal identity, loyalty, and political allegiance is always connected to their island of birth.

It is difficult for the government to provide assistance equally to all the islands because of the enormous distance between islands, the lack of inter-island transportation, and limited communications. Agriculture, education, and public works improvement are a great challenge for the Kiribati government.

Liscensing commercial fishing fleets is a source of government revenue in Kiribati, but threaten harvests of local fisherman.

Some of the issues facing the nation today are access to clean water, proper sanitation, and trash disposal (from an influx of imported goods). The nation receives the bulk of its aid from Australia to expand education and health services. In the new cash economy, where there are few salaried jobs, thousands of men turn to work on shipping vessels, leaving their families for years at a time. Perhaps the most important and consistent source of national income is the sale of fishing licenses to commercial vessels.

 

Music and Dance

Ioane Tekaai (left) founded Te Waa Mai Kiribati with the support of his sister and nephew.

As with many islands in the Pacific, the principal musical instrument in Kiribati is the human voice. Historically the only musical instruments were the boaki (large wooden box), biscuit tins, and the sound of the hands slapping the fine mat garments. First introduced by Europeans, string instruments such as ukulele and guitar are an essential part of music making today.

Music and dance is always a group affair and many groups can be found on each island. Schools might form groups for special occasions, youth groups may perform as part of their weekly activity, and family clans may pride themselves on their ability to perform with great skill.

Dances must be choreographed and performed in perfect synchrony. Therefore, a significant amount of time is required to learn new movement. Movement for men is direct and precise, while movement for women is fluid with an emphasis on the hips. I-Kiribati always sing while they dance. Gestures of fishing, sailing, and the martial arts are illustrated through outstretched arms, quick movements of the head, and movement through space. Verses are punctuated by the sound of hands slapping fine mats, foot stamping, and clapping.

Mothers can spend months weaving costumes for their dancers. Once gifted, these heirlooms are never sold.

Costumes are an important part of aesthetic expression. All costumes are hand-made with love and care by each performer from local materials found on the islands. The long, wide, saw-like leaves of the pandanus are softened into a pliable material fit for the artistic demands of performance. The fibers of the pandanus are used to create the “grass” skirts, woven tops worn by women, and fine woven mats worn by men.

The body can be decorated with arm bands, belts, garlands, sashes, and crowns made of flowers, leaves, shells, beads, and pandanus. The swish of the skirts and muffled slaps to the thighs offer contrasting timbres that enhance performance.