The Land the World May Never Know
The sun had risen over the islands of Kiribati, but its rays had not reached their full potential for the day. We gathered in the maneaba, the traditional meeting house, for morning mass. I sat with my I-Kiribati class mates, our crossed knees gently touching as we anticipated the performance we were to give at the end. As we took our places in front of the congregation, faces fleshed with excitement and wonder stared up at me, from both the I-Kiribati students and my friends from home. Without accompaniment, but humming with anticipation, the chorus began.
Kiribati (pronounced Kee-ree-bas) is a collection of coral atoll islands, scattered across the Pacific Ocean and straddling the equator. The total land mass is a meager 811 kilometres squared, but the country stretches across an impressive 3.5 million square kilometres of ocean. Despite this, many people outside of its borders don’t even know the place exists. I haven’t met many people who have heard of the country Kiribati. And if they do know it, they always say, “That’s the place that’s sinking right?”
Yeah. It is. But it’s so much more than that. And I resent that it’s only known because soon it may no longer exist.
When I travelled to Kiribati in 2010 with a group of 23 other students and staff from my high school, for many of us, it was our first time out of the country. I’d never even flown before. So descending onto an island as narrow as the airstrip, with only palm trees whipping past the windows was a little surreal. Besides the capital island of Tarawa, much of the country has been left untouched by the western world. Unless you count the effects of climate change.
The slim sandy arced island of Abemama is where we spent the bulk of our trip. Our high school’s sister-school hosted our stay and we attended classes with the students. In exchange, we did what we could to help them improve their English. We slept in mozzie-infested pandanas huts only a hermit crabs crawl from the water. We had to rid ourselves of technology. We had to rid ourselves of any sort of luxury. And it was bliss. Our showers were cold, our nights were dark, but our hearts and souls were overflowing.
We danced, we sang, we laughed and we learned. Not from the teachers, but from the students. Their generosity overwhelmed me. If I knocked the volleyball off of the coral-covered court, they would insist on running after it. In class I would be presented with wristbands they’d spent the previous night crafting, or coconut candy they’d paid for themselves. But mostly their joy – that is what I remember about them. Children sprinting with all their might alongside our truck, waving and calling “Mauri! Mauri!” with sparkling eyes and grins that swallowed their faces. Elderly women falling over themselves with laughter as they watched each other throw up their arms and shake their hips.
I dread the day that all of that is taken away by forces beyond their control; by the destructive environmental forces caused by the pollution and overconsumption of bigger, richer countries. Countries that aren’t in a hurry to mend the problem, because they’re not feeling the effects of their own actions.
The Kiribati lifestyle completely revolves around and relies on the ocean. With such little land space, even less of it arable, much of what is consumed has either been caught from the seas or imported from across them. But with the continual rise of these seas, soon the country will be drowning in its own sustenance.
But it’s not just the loss of precious land space that is the issue. Each time there is major flooding or a king tide, the only fresh water on the island is polluted with sea water. The crops that are able to be grown are inundated too. The sea walls that have been constructed around the islands have to be constantly rebuilt. The humble life of the I-Kiribati is becoming more and more difficult to maintain.
How lucky am I to have experienced a culture and made friends in a country that many people don’t even know exists. But now I almost wish Kiribati had been overrun by tourists. Maybe then people would be doing more to save it. Imagine if rising waters were threatening islands like Bali. Australia would be doing the utmost to make sure our holiday island kept its head above water. Everyone would have an opinion and it would be all over the media. But as it is, because of Kiribati’s size and near-impossible accessibility, people don’t even know it’s there. It’s even left off some world maps. Perhaps a frightful insight into the future.
The chance that the I-Kiribati people will be able to continue living in their homeland is slimming by the day. But the possible future the people of Kiribati face is not just a loss of their physical homes. Relocating to a different country, although excruciating, strange and unwanted, is doable. It can be achieved without people dying, it can be achieved peacefully and with the welcome of open borders and doors from neighbouring countries. The least we can offer for the irreversible damage our societies have caused these island nations.
What can’t be done is the relocation of an entire culture and lifestyle. The population of Kiribati, although minuscule in comparison to many, cannot move to a new country and continue the way of life they are living now. If climate change continues the way it is going and the I-Kiribati have to leave their homes, their language, traditions and spirit will simply but painfully be split apart; the remainders of which will slowly disintegrate into our society of consumerism and be lost. Much like, I fear, my memories of my favourite place, time and people.
There is no simple solution. But if we want these islands and the Kiribati culture to remain, we need everyone to know about the people who are under threat, what is at risk of being lost and to care about keeping it around.
Our hands moved gently in sync; movements like the soft waves of the beach just outside, pushing, pulling, turning. I felt overwhelmingly inadequate compared to the full-bodied and fearless voices around me, but their looks of encouragement let me know they were proud to have me. As we sang the final words, the reverence that had encompassed the maneaba was interrupted by the slapping of hands and a flood of smiles.
Cover by *shot, inset supplied by author