I stand on the sandy shore of Tarawa, a narrow strip of coral in the Pacific Ocean, the most populated of the 33 atolls that comprise the equatorial island nation of Kiribati. As you might expect, picturesque palm trees sway above me, perfect shells lie at my feet, and the bluest of blues stretches out forever. Near me, a pig is tied by its hind leg to the trunk of a coconut tree as it ruts in its own filth and picks through tangles of garbage. Just beyond the scrawny hog, a brown-skinned man in bermuda shorts faces the distant aquatic horizon. He is pissing into the sea. Further out, the head of a woman is all that is visible as she drags her net through the receding tide to collect another day’s catch. She sings. But I only hear her when the noise from passing automobiles banging along the rough road behind me ceases momentarily.
The story goes something like this: There was Nareau and there was nothing else. Awakened from his eternal sleep by a voice calling to him as a breeze against the warm night, Nareau. Nareau. Nareau arise. There is much work to be done. As he awoke from his sleep, he realized that the voice was his own and that the visions he had experienced were not his dreams but some sort of self-determined design for the world he would create. Brightness from the dark emanated out from him and he saw that there was a great ball like a coconut or a turtle shell that enclosed him and all of infinity. As he surveyed this place, he saw creatures resembling eels, sharks, and octopi (albeit, the octopus then had ten arms). Scattered about were the flattened bodies of humans. Into these, he breathed life and shone light until they became Kain te Bomatemaki, the People of Creation. He enlisted these to help him lift open the shell. He instructed the octopus to donate two arms as sustenance for the eel ‘Ten Riki’ who was to hoist the canopy to his furthest reaches. As the eel lifted, ‘Ngkoangkoa’ stepped upon his tail causing ‘Ten Riki’ to leap into the heavens. (He can now be seen in the night sky as the Milky Way, impactful and sublime high overhead.) Nareau surveyed the limitless waters as they merged with the infinite sky and was disturbed by the loneliness. He gathered his people beneath the mwaneaba structure and told them “This land and the vast expanse will become a world of fellowship amongst men.” He plucked from where they stood a piece of land and hurled it afar. He did so again. And again. These became the islands of the Pacific and the Kain te Bomatemaki became the people of Kiribati. The sky is known as Karawa, the sea as Marawa. The land would be called Tarawa.
My transit time to Kiribati was like this eternity in a way. From Minneapolis I flew to Los Angeles with Kelsey and Dr. Chen of the University of Minnesota’s Center for World Heritage Studies. We waited in LAX for ten hours as the rest of the team flew via other routes to meet us. The next leg of travel was the overnight flight to Nadi, Fiji where we would have twenty-three and a half hours to wait for the Air Pacific flight (twice per week) that would take us several hours further northwest to the airstrip at Bonriki on South Tarawa Island. I had boarded the plane in Minnesota on Monday morning and by the time I would land in Kiribati, it would be Thursday afternoon. Somewhere along the way, the International Dateline propelled us into the future.
The American Navy constructed the airstrip in 1943 and external donors improved Bonriki International Airport and its single paved tarmac twenty years ago. It is no small feat to build such a stretch on an island so narrow that one can stand in the sea on the western edge and see the sea on the eastern. To do so, the engineers bifurcated a small village and separated the residents from their livelihood of taro crops and lagoon fish traps. It didn’t take long for the residents to retaliate. They confiscated the runway lights that disturbed their night and removed the fences that lined the tarmac. Now, flights only land in the daylight. As Air Pacific flight 231 taxis to a halt, I witness from my window seat the I-Kiribati as they stream from their palm frond-roofed houses and wave to the plane that just landed in their backyard.
The airport is a single dark room where a hoard of sweating travelers rub against one another as they queue to have their passports stamped. The luggage is hand-carried from the plane to a window in the airport where it is unceremoniously tossed to the floor. We sort through the suitcases, backpacks, and cardboard boxes until we find our gear then line up in the quarantine area. Customs officials usher the travelers to benches where we are required to state the intention of our visit, to declare any fruits or seeds we might be transporting, and to witness our bags as they are unpacked in front of everyone in search of an undeclared item.
Eventually, we are freed of the humid heat of Bonriki International and are greeted in the hot sun by the man who invited us here. Natan Itonga was born on Tarawa Island in a small village that we are to visit in two days. He is an agent of the Ministry of Internal and Social Affairs (MISA) where he has been conducting field surveys for his cultural mapping project begun in 2005. Though he had lived abroad for several years, he is now committed to recording the significant sites and stories of his native land. He has visited every one of the inhabited atolls in Kiribati and has written detailed accounts of the myths, spiritual stories, and construction methods of his people. He greets each of us by name, having studied copies of our passport pictures before our arrival. With a big grin, we are welcomed to Kiribati. Dressed from head to ankle in black to raise awareness about violence against women, Natan prefers to walk barefoot even on the hot, buckled pavement.
The first few days are spent recovering from travel and learning about the cultural landscape of Kiribati. We stay in the Ottentai Hotel because it is only fifteen sweaty minutes walking distance from the MISA Culture Center where we have a small air-conditioned office with internet that operates at a snail’s pace. There is no vehicle at our disposal. The Ottentai is a sprawling complex of rooms, a conference center, and a restaurant. Thirty or more tall flagpoles stand sentry yet not a single flag would be lofted through our entire stay. The water only works in a few of the rooms and we would spend our entire trip sleeping in one room while showering in another. We shared beds with one another on a predetermined rotation.
South Tarawa is the official capital of Kiribati and the most populated of all the atolls. There are sixteen villages and more than 40,000 residents. Several years ago South Tarawa faced overcrowding issues as the population density increased more than 5% in as many years as people moved from outlying islands in search of work and government services. In addition to the airport and a large seaport, South Tarawa is the home of the government offices, banking facilities, retail establishments, coconut oil (copra) factories and several churches. Given the high population density and narrow landmass, the island appears very urban. The main road—a treacherous stretch of broken and upheaved asphalt—is flanked almost continuously with houses, restaurants, hotels, and shops.
Before this trip, I’d never seen the Pacific Ocean. Now, it is everywhere. I’m fascinated with the tidal changes here. The water ebbs to the shore and with it comes food in the form of fish, crabs, and shrimp. The water flows out and carries waste, revealing the patterns of white coral and tidal pools. I look out and see people taking baths in the water. Women and men are fishing while children are playing. On more than one occasion, I hear the songs of Kiribati drifting across the waves. Once it was a single woman far into the sea— almost a whisper as she passed the time. Another time, a chorus of men and women boisterously singing at the tops of their voices obviously enjoying their communal vocation.
At the Culture Center, we were shown a modest collection of artifacts relating to the spiritual and secular Kiribati world. Nets with shell weights, coconuts for menstruation rituals, rusted World War II relics, bottles of palm wine, portraits of kings, models of the traditional mwaneaba community house, and carved shells made into hooks, scrapers, and knives had all been collected since the 1930s and housed in this New Zealand-funded building. Natan’s research is also curated there. Oral histories, genealogies, and songs are collected on reel-to-reel tapes, VHS, Beta, audiocassette, mini-DV, DVD, and mp3 formats.
We were granted a visit with the Secretary of the Ministry of Internal and Social Affairs, Wiiriki Tooma. She expresses her gratitude for our visit and states that more needs to be done in recording the cultural history of the I-Kiribati. She speaks about creating a database, increasing MISA’s documentation, and developing a national policy to conserve and protect cultural resources. We ask her questions about climate change, the saltwater intrusion upon their shallow freshwater aquifer, and the mwaneaba structures we have come here to study. “We believe in the mwaneaba system. It brings peace and order. We need to maintain and promote it to the whole nation.”
The following day, we depart for North Tarawa where we will be shown traditional mwaneabas and significant spiritual sites. To get from South to North Tarawa, we are freighted in an outrigger-style boat for the two-hour trip across the lagoon. We wade through knee-deep filthy water—our backpacks and bottles of drinking water held above our heads—to the overloaded boat. Professor Chen is worried for our safety but Natan assures him that everything will be all right. “Let us just go with the tides.”
As we make our slow journey, I begin to reflect on the I-Kiribati experience. There is nothing as far as the eye can see. Nothing but the sea. With ragged pieces of cloth held as protection from the sun, the passengers stare silently at the curve of the earth, discernable on the horizon of the ocean. A plastic bottle slides from the boat into the water, a sandal is lost, and someone tosses a greasy food bag overboard. The sea is vast. It swallows everything. It provides sustenance, transport, and disposal. Visitors come from the sea. The land here is so small, almost small enough to be completely ignored. What is the identity—what is the belief system, what are the values, and what is the life and death—of a people who know that the ocean is everywhere and that they are nowhere but somewhere starkly in the middle of it?
The I-Kiribati are at risk. They are losing their traditional culture as folk-stories and building methods are forgotten. Their drinking water is almost gone; used up by coconut plantations but not replenished as once-dependable rains fail to come. Trash accumulates on their islands as imported products become increasingly available. Their territorial waters are dumping grounds for the floods of industrial waste that drifts on the tides or is poured from illegal freighters. Sea resources such as schools of tuna are over-fished by large-scale operations from Asia and the British have already robbed them of the only terrestrial resource they ever had; guano was extensively mined for twenty years to the point that Banaba Island is now uninhabitable.
As I look around at my fellow passengers, something on the water comes into view. A beige dot in the middle distance on the cerulean horizon becomes more pronounced as we slowly inch towards the North Tarawa hinterland. The dot enlarges and people point. The boat changes course slightly as we near the object. As we pass, it becomes the bloated carcass of a dead dog.
Our arrival on North Tarawa is refreshing. There is an appreciable increase in canopy vegetation compared to South Tarawa and a breeze blows through the trees into the small villages. There are 11 villages spread across North Tarawa with nearly 5000 people—one-eighth the population of South Tarawa. Our boat lands on a picturesque beach of clean sand and we wade through nearly-pristine water into a small community on the shore. Natan tells us that the hotel is just ahead. I notice as he stops and looks around. “Where is the hotel?” he asks beneath his breath. We walk further, sunburns setting in, three days supply of water making our packs heavy. There are houses scattered about, people are rushing from our boat to somewhere else. Natan stops in front of the wall-stubs of an abandoned building and I hear him again “Where is the hotel?” He asks something of one of the residents of this small town who replies with an extended finger. Natan smiles and we walk a few hundred meters to our hotel in Abaokoro.
We each have our own beds and mosquito nets at this hotel. There is one working shower for us all to share and the water is harvested from the roof. Solar power provides enough electricity to operate lights but not fans. Our home-cooked meal is incredible: conch snail, lobster, shrimp, raw tuna, rice, pandanus fruit, baby coconut, fried fish, green coconut, and taro. Everything but the rice is locally produced. Though we had been eating at Chinese restaurants in South Tarawa (almost every restaurant serves Chinese food and nothing else), this meal demonstrates how dependent on the local environment the I-Kiribati are. But for coconuts, taro, and pandanus, everything comes from the sea. We are informed that the locals have noticed a drop in the production of all of their terrestrial foodstuffs. Salt intrusion into the aquifer is the primary reason they give though they are also concerned with warmer temperatures and changing precipitation cycles.
The next morning, we begin our documentation project by visiting two mwaneabas and four cultural sites. The first mwaneaba is in the small village (200 residents) of Nuatabu and visitors to North Tarawa are required to stop there and be given blessings by the local elders. We offer small gifts of cash and tobacco, as is the local custom. We are given a drink of rainwater as a ritualized event and then Natan explains to the elders the purpose of our visit. Though English is the official language of Kiribati, our exchanges with village elders occur in Gilbertese with Natan acting as our translator.
This mwaneaba is a fairly large community house built in 1979. The construction is entirely of pandanus: The beams, joists, and roof lath are from long, straight trunks while the roof is constructed from woven leaves. We sit on woven mats of pandanus. The columns used to support the roof are made from chiseled coral quarried from another part of the island and brought here via large canoes. Smaller rocks and coral are placed in rows along the perimeter of the building and serve as some sort of curb. The floor, beneath the mats, is composed of small shells and coral. The site itself has historical significance: It was chosen by the ancestors when Nuatabu was originally settled and therefore should remain the site for all subsequent mwaneaba constructions.
Entrance into the mwaneaba is a ritualized experience. Before we are permitted, the elders seat themselves on the mats in the north part facing south, towards the lagoon. Though we arrived in the back of a pick up after a bumpy ride on a dirt road, visitors to Kiribati villages historically arrived via the sea or the lagoon. Mwaneabas are always constructed with the length running parallel to the long side of the island and the people sit so that they can see the visitors as they approach. Each member of the village has his or her own designated place within the community house. We are instructed to approach the structure from the north but to enter at the southwestern corner. We remove our shoes and crouch to enter because the roof terminates only one meter above the ground: A subtle instruction to bow in respect to those we are about to meet. We learn later that the entire construction process is similarly ritualized. When the last of the roof panels are fastened—beginning on the northwest and wrapping around to finish at the southwest—the builders climb from the roof and enter the completed structure for the first time much as we do now.
We enjoy the hospitality of the elders of Nuatabu and they answer our questions. We make a few sketches and take a couple of photographs before moving on to Bauriki, a few miles down the road. Again, the respected members of the community greet us. Again, we give them gifts to express our gratitude and Natan translates our mission to them. They approve and invite us to explore their village. We are given a guided tour of various residences and we ask questions about the property rights of people, about their gardens and wells, and about the history of settlement there. Children surround us as we walk and tell us stories about their homes.
On the beach we encounter a man digging a hole as the tide recedes. Nearby, we see a pile of opened coconut shells. We are told that this is the traditional process of making coconut-fiber rope. The shells are buried so they are constantly soaked with salt water for a month. Then they are extracted from the sand, left to dry, and then the strands are removed from the husks and twisted into a strong twine. This twine has many purposes in Kiribati, including the mwaneaba construction.
We return to the mwaneaba and begin our documentation. We measure every piece of the construction as the elders sit and watch. They have idle conversations as we sketch, photograph, pace, measure, scribble notes. We use long tapes as we measure the distance between supports and laser measuring devices to understand the height of the various wooden beams.
As I diagram the context of vegetation surrounding the structure and the sightlines to the lagoon, I puff on a locally made cigar of imported tobacco wrapped in a pandanus leaf. I ask Natan about the pandanus tree nearby: Is it significant to the spiritual life of the mwaneaba? He tells me that the pandanus tree is one of the most useful plants in the Kiribati world but that no, none of the plants I see around the mwaneaba are planted for any spiritual purpose. Not only is the pandanus the primary building material of the structure itself, it plays a vital role in the lives of people throughout Oceania. The fruit is nutritious and used in many forms of cooking; its stringy texture makes it a useful dental floss. The plant also has been used for centuries for textiles, handicrafts, and fish-traps.
As we work, members of the community arrive with containers of food and green coconuts that they set on tables. Finally, once the measurements are taken and every aspect is fully photographed, we sit on the pandanus mats and the elders return their attention to us. We are invited to eat the food that the community has provided. Lobster, fish, taro cakes, and boiled squash are presented to us and we heartily enjoy our lunch that is completed with sweet drinks of green coconut juice.
When we are finished with lunch, we ask about the construction of this structure and are given a thorough accounting of the process. We are told the story about Nareau and the first mwaneabas in Kiribati. They tell us about the methods and rituals that are employed in the construction of this community house and lament that people are losing some of the traditional knowledge. The mwaneaba is not just a structure; it is also the embodiment of the community, a physical manifestation of the importance of village cohesiveness and cooperation.
A small opening in one side at the apex of the roof is left open to indicate that this is the feminine side of the structure, the side that welcomes positivity. The opposite side is the masculine, the strength of the community. Small dolls are placed there as well. Males are customarily the laborers when the mwaneaba is constructed while women weave the mats and roofing panels. They explain that if a structure goes out of use or needs to be replaced only the coral pillars might be reused in mwaneaba construction while the rest of the material will be ceremonially burned. The structure we sit in was built in 2004.
The elders of Bauriki assigned an individual to be our guide as we visit some of the area shrines and significant sites. Itimatang’s mother is an important member of the spiritual community in Bauriki and he himself is quite knowledgeable. We travel a short distance to a small clearing in the jungle a few kilometers from Bauriki. Natan translates Itimatang’s telling of the site’s history: This site has been a shrine for more years than he can say but three generations of his ancestors are buried here. It is called Te Kamaraia, which translates to “curse” and the site has strong powers for Itimatang. He tells us not to step inside the shrine which is bordered by rocks and coral. He approaches the shrine respectfully and places our offering of tobacco inside a large shell, then lights a cigar and blows smoke around the shrine.
Itimatang tells us that the last time he brought foreigners here, they went inside the shrine and that he was later visited by spirits who threatened to kill him. (We promised not to enter.) He also told us that coconuts will not grow here and that birds drop from the sky when they fly over the shrine. We see several burial plots nearby and a large piece of coral that resembles the head and shoulders of a person. Someone has placed a vegetated crown upon its head. We make measurements and photographs of the shrine and record its location using our GPS unit.
The next shrine is called Nei Temakua and is a benevolent place to leave offerings for bountiful fish harvests. The shrine itself is a small enclosure of shells where fishermen offer an incantation and request before taking fish from a nearby fish trap. Before going to Kiribati, I was studying the coastline of one of the islands on Google Earth and began to notice a number of heart-shaped features with long, straight lines connecting them to shore.
Upon arrival at Nei Temakua, I understood what these features were. Large enclosures of rocks are constructed at areas of tidal fluctuation so that fish will enter during high tide but be unable to escape as the water recedes. Itimatang was not certain how long the shrine has been actively used but said that at least three generations of people have used it. Because it is so near the shore, it is threatened by rising tides and coastal erosion.
The next two shrines were nearer Bauriki. One, the Atinimaebo Rock is a shrine constructed in deference to a giant warrior king named Beiatematekeai. As we surveyed the site, we found a number of disarticulated boulders arranged in linear alignments. The site appeared to have no current function but is significant as an historical site where fish were cooked as an offering to the king. Sadly, the site is barely recognizable due to the overgrowth of vegetation and the absence of several of the rocks. Even the elder who talked to us about the site couldn’t be sure of its extent and said that the community does not use it anymore. The same might be said of the last site we visited which was an alignment of rocks known locally as Baon King Kewe. The alignment demarcates the place where another giant king was said to have slept. An elaborate story was told culminating in the fact that if one were to dig into the beach here, the water would turn red. Unfortunately, due to coastal erosion, the blood-red beach can no longer be seen and the rocks are slumping into the sea.
The next day we returned via the same outrigger to South Tarawa and began to organize our findings. We visited a third mwaneaba, this time in Eita, a short distance from the MISA Culture Center. Again, we took measurements and made sketches. While we have found that there are many similarities to traditional community houses, variations should be expected. The one at Eita does not have the opening on the feminine side and the support beams are connected using a slip joint rather than the staggered joinery we had observed in Bauriki.
The remainder of our time in Kiribati was spent processing our data. Each member of the team contributed to the process. We offered advice to Natan on technological improvements that might make his documentation more effective. We provided MISA a database that they can use to collate their findings and stay organized. We also made recommendations on ways that they can better conserve their historic and cultural resources based upon those used in the US by the National Park Service:
- Establish a balance between change and continuity
- Treat the setting and context around the sites as equally important; heighten awareness to increase appreciation
- Establish use zones around areas of significance so that modern activities do not disrupt the traditional character of the sites
- Identify the valuable resources (vegetation, heritage, mythical) around the sites so that they might be protected
- Provide stewardship for the natural systems linked to cultural landscapes
- Implement long term management and maintenance strategies that include teaching of traditional techniques
- Interpretive goals should reflect the landscape’s historic and significant character by articulating the myth or story in understandable ways
- Continue to refine your inventory of significant properties and buildings
- Protect existing documentation through data back ups and technological updates
- With coastal sites, provide engineered erosion prevention measures to protect cultural resources
- Re-route roads so that that they do not contribute to the disruption of architectural features or cultural activities
- Rehabilitate cultural features so that they are recognizable on the landscape
- Remove inappropriate or disruptive vegetation for site clarity and integrity but maintain groundcover to prevent erosion
- Maintain sites for sanitation
- Provide multi-lingual interpretive signage for visitors
- Develop a responsive strategy for maintenance routines
- Encourage the passing of knowledge and skills within the community
Our findings will be delivered to UNESCO as part of a report on the potential for Inscription to the World Heritage List. Our short stay here demonstrated to each of us that significant sites of traditional beliefs and techniques are present in Kiribati. Whether our pilot study will be followed by more extensive research will be decided by UNESCO.
While we spent a number of hours during our final days in Kiribati making graphics and a presentation of our work, we also continued to enjoy the local culture. We were invited to a youth ceremony where we observed traditional culture including singing and dancing. The Vice President of the Republic of Kiribati, a Taiwanese diplomat, and the High Chancellor of Australia were also in attendance. We visited some of the war machines left behind from the major battles fought between the Japanese and the Americans on Tarawa Island in November of 1943, which witnessed the deaths of almost 6000 soldiers.
On one of our last nights in Kiribati, Natan and his wife Autitino invited us to their home to celebrate their daughter’s marriage. Again, we enjoyed home-cooked food while drinking from green coconuts. We listened to one of the children play guitar while his sisters sang songs on the beach and Ten Riki spread across the night sky overhead. I thought of the final part of the creation story as transcribed by George Hard, author of one of the books found in the MISA Culture Center:
In deep and silent meditation Nareau stood a while before the bewildered people, and when at last he spoke, his words conveyed no meaning to them. “How true was the voice of the Void.”