I recently had the privilege of not only visiting Tarawa, Kiribati, but also of doing some volunteer IT consulting there. Consulting in such an environment is certainly a story worth telling – but before I can do that you really need some background, with pictures…
Kiribati is a place that sadly few have heard of, much less visited, but that’s unsurprising given its physical remoteness and lack of development – it’s not exactly a tourist destination and I certainly felt very intrepid going there.
So how did I end up in Kiribati? My wife is the architect of the trip – she’s there to do some field research for her thesis; I was there for 10 days to help her get set-up, and do some volunteer IT consulting with the Kiribati Family Health Association (KFHA).
By the way, the syllable “ti” in I-Kiribati is pronounced “s”, so you don’t say “kiri-bah-tee”, you say “Kiri-bas”; likewise, the township of Betio is pronouced “Bey-so”.
Kiribati is republic of 33 small islands and atolls spread across 3.5 Million square kilometers across the central Pacific – basically at the intersection of the equator and international dateline. The bulk of the total population (of just over 100,000) lives in south Tarawa: the southern edge of the atoll that runs East-West.
In a word, Tarawa is… narrow
We spent most of our time in and around Teaorarereke, a village / suburb between Nanikai and Banraeaba, the width of the land mass here is just over 300 meters, with the lagoon on one side, often with a thin strip of houses running between the lagoon and the newly paved road; bush and housing opposite.
The view from the causeway looking east from Nanikai, the landmass on the right is about 330 Meters wide, opposite it across the road is effectively beach (lagoon side).
The lagoon itself is an vivid turquoise; a surreal visual contradiction of beauty and featurelessness, strangely imposing under mid-30 degree heat; a presence scarcely captured by a camera.
People & Culture
Kiribati is a crazy mixture of old and new, a mixture which to my eye seems balanced and sustainable.
Culturally, local tradition is vibrant and well supported – song and dance featuring strongly in public life – and even corporate-government life, and of course “island-time” is a thing. The influences of modern life are definitely present: many people, especially youth, are increasingly embracing mobile phones & Facebook; but the resulting blend is (or so it seems, for now) much less all-consuming than in “western” cultures.
With regards to the part traditional culture plays in corporate life; the photo above is from the signing of an MoU between KFHA and the Ministry of Health – a somewhat formal affair by I-Kiribati standards. Western corporate observers may notice several subtle features that distinguish doing business in this part of the world: the generous use of natural air-conditioning, strict adherence to the latest in corporate attire, and appropriate personal-space whilst dancing.
The format of the ceremony featured speeches and agreement signing – but also a number of performances, typically one group will speak, then accompany the speech with one or two songs – a sort of call-response format not unlike a Maori Pōwhiri. However, unlike a Maori Pōwhiri, the spraying of perfume on the performers (by those being performed to) is a cultural norm. Funnily enough I was invited (as a guest, I suppose) to stand at the front of the KFHA group as we performed a song (I’m afraid I just hummed along, since I had never heard the song before and it was sung in I-Kiribati!), and I was one of those sprayed with perfume – which is applied carefully to the lower shoulder.
Actually, I need to be fair and not misrepresent Kiribati with respect to where business is done – the venue for this ceremony was a restaurant, not the corporate offices of KFHA or the Ministry. Interestingly though, a lot of traditional community business occurs in a physical setting not to dissimilar from this – the venerable Maneaba.
Culturally, the Maneaba fulfills a role very similar to that of a Marae; it is both a meeting house, a place to host community events, and a place to sleep or take refuge. Physically they are essentially a rectangular building with no sides. The larger more modern ones these days tend to be constructed with modern materials, but even so it’s not hard to find smaller ones still using traditional natural thatching for their roofs.
Inside the large Tenimanraoi maneaba in Betio, during a large wedding we were invited to attend.
Whilst the Maneaba might skimp on walls, weddings don’t skimp on food: 2 pigs, and three 20-30 meter long tables laden with food in this case. By the end of the night it’s all gone – but not all eaten straightaway, guests will take loaded plates and containers away to share with families later.
Shopping was an interesting experience – as pretty much everything is imported there’s not an overwhelming array of choice, and given the lack of land there’s not much of a local textiles industry as in others countries (such as the silk scarf production in Cambodia). That said, there’s still people selling local produce by the side of the road: hand-woven rope, bananas & coconuts and more.
There’s also a number of little shops lining the main road, selling daily essentials, like the one below. The striped box out the front is a utilities box, these are all uniquely numbered – which makes them occasionally useful for reference, given that there’s no street numbering system.
There are more substantial shops than this, to be sure, more substantial in size but less substantial in character.
I’ll leave you with two final vignettes, the first of which is local public transport. Unfortunately I don’t have any photos, at least none that do it justice. Basically public transport consists of minivans (and the odd minibus) that ply up-and-down the main road.
To board the bus you simply signal the driver – standing at a formal bus-stop (or which there are plenty) is optional. These vans are manned by two, the driver (always male) and the bus-lady (always female, not sure if ‘bus-lady’ is the formal label). It’s actually a really efficient system, the bus-lady handles all financial transactions and customer liaison, leaving the driver free to concentrate on the road (and the sound system, Kiribati public buses all play catchy & loud local music, apparently those who don’t play music don’t get as much business).
As the van pulls up the bus-lady will yell out the end destination they are going to (i.e. buses heading east will either be going all the way to Betio (remember that’s ‘Bey-so’) or Biariki), customers will signal agreement or yell out where they are going to. Depending on circumstances the bus may or may not have come to a stop during this interaction.
Carrying limits are strictly enforced – the bus will only take as many people as can physically fit in the bus. 95% of the time you’ll get a seat. Treatment of locals and I-Matang (non-locals) is the same, in fact refreshingly so – foreigners attract a certain amount of attention but not as much as I was expecting. Seeing an I-Matang on the bus was obviously a novelty, but for the most part people just let you get on with your business, the type of badgering and begging tourists are often assailed with in other developing countries was refreshingly absent.
Anyway, back to public transport – English wasn’t widely spoken on the bus, there’s a simple I-Kiribati phrase to announce you wish to get off, but I hadn’t learnt it for my first few trips. Despite this it was still easy enough to get off, useful techniques include getting off when someone else gets on or off (if you think you’re close enough), or tapping the bus-lady gently on the upper-arm and waving at the side of the road.
The final image I’ll leave you with is one of simple Kiribati domestic life, feeding the pigs under the shade of trees in the gentle 30+ degree heat.