Kiribati is being swallowed by the sea.
It’s happening much faster than predicted since Cyclone Pam hit several days ago. Much like my first three months living on Tamana, I am quiet on the subject. Then it was because I didn’t know the language. Now it’s because I can’t find the words to express how much this place and its’ people mean to me and countless others lucky enough to have been adopted during our Peace Corps years. It´s hard to describe the way that I lived in America for 22 years but somehow grew up in Kiribati. My hope in sharing these words is that it will spark some compassion for my family who is treading water halfway across the world. And maybe that compassion will translate to some sort of action, however small it may feel.
Tamana changed my life. For a girl who grew up in the Midwest, I have been completely drawn to the ocean since I was a small kid. When I arrived on island and sat in the dark in my stick home for the first time, I listened to the Pacific sighing and rolling her shoulders in my backyard. I knew then to always trust the voice that had brought me here. I remember thinking “This is where I live,” and giggling with disbelief.
I spent the first of many nights there, peering through the stick slats under kerosene lantern light.
I simultaneously hoped my neighbors would invite me over and prayed that they would not. I walked a line of complete solitude where I would go a full day without speaking to a fishbowl existence where I couldn´t walk, talk or eat without someone commenting on the ways I did it.
I tended toward isolation and solitude those early days but Tamana would have none of my hermithood. They came in the form of dogs, children and botakis (celebrations) which all demanded my presence. Secretly I think they just knew I needed a friend.
Those first days on Tamana didn’t so much start as they did burst on the scene. Brooms swept stones and roosters crowed and grown men with bright strips of fabric tied lazily across their hips sang from the tip tops of coconut trees while they cut toddy. Pairs of little brown eyes peeped through stick slats, tracing my every move, willing me to wake up and when their wish was granted, they scurried off for a bath then a breakfast of dried salt fish. Women squatted over fires, fanning flames under ashy teapots. This is where I lived.
When I first arrived, we’re talking week two, I thought I would start an exercise class. Diabetes, it seemed, was rampant and after all I was a health volunteer. My three participants showed up an hour late, by American time. I sat there with my boom box and they grudgingly exercised while I tried not to laugh because they all three had cigarettes dangling from their lips the whole time. I decided then to throw out my Peace Corps script and begin improvising. I realized that this culture had somehow managed to survive without me and my liberal arts degree for many years and that maybe I should focus on learning from them. I started asking what they wanted rather than imposing Western ideas. I stopped insinuating the way they lived was not right. They wanted an English teacher so they got one. But what they really seemed to want was my presence. I gave it to them. That first year, I had the whole of Tamana to myself as the sole volunteer. I had the space to dive deep into this culture. To see who I was when nothing familiar or known was around.
Of course there were bad days, too. Days where I wrote honest letters to my Peace Corps friends who still remain close to my heart. And letters home to my family in America which were deceptively upbeat, lest I worry them. But I don’t remember those days.
Instead, I think of my favorite day. It was the day my host father Mantoa took me fishing, something I used to do with my dad growing up. We pushed through the surf in a tiny hand carved wa (canoe). As soon as we tore through the last breaker to calmer seas, silvery flying fish began cartwheeling into our canoe and flip flopping around. The sun was slowly being gummed by the horizon and I sat there with my mouth wide open as if I could inhale this moment so it would always be inside me. In that moment, I understood why people who can stand on land choose to live on water. I understood what it meant to truly live off the land and sea. It felt like I understood the whole world, just for a brief second. Mantoa could only laugh when he saw my face, as he often did.
There are a thousand more things I miss about Tamana- 15 minutes of BBC a day where I would gather with my family and listen to the radio news of the outside world that seemed so far away. We discussed George Bush, elections, American life. There were social nights where I danced with my youth group friends and flirted middle-school style with cute guys my age. Sitting in the back of pickup trucks, driving as fast as they could go around the whole island under a field of stars so bright and close you felt like they were blooming and you could pick one to keep. My students waking me up at 5am to study for the biggest exam of their lives. The terrible play I made them put on. Making cake with Jenn. Spear fishing with Donna. Staying up all night watching Japanese soap operas with a group of women, all self-consciously wiping our eyes after the final episode. Watching the youth group bravely teach their community about HIV/AIDS and safe sex, which I capped off with a condom demonstration. My first scorpion sting. Going three months never seeing my own reflection. The window in Tamana’s church where I did my best meditating; where I saw the boat that convinced me someday I would like to become a sailor. Saying goodbye. Knowing it would be forever because I would never want to go back and remember Kiribati any way but this until I had to. And I have to now.
I don’t know if there is anything I can do to help Kiribati. I will continue to stay aware and share their struggles. I let the depressing thoughts in. I wonder if a country sinks, do they continue to put it on new maps or if we go on acting as if it never existed. I think about when I have kids and explain my life to them. I wonder if Kiribati will seem like a fairy tale, a bedtime story. If they will think their mom is crazy for claiming to have lived on a place that isn’t even on the map.
Things change and always will. That is part of life; of nature. But for a place to change this way is not natural. It is nature corrupted. And I feel sad about it. Profoundly sad that the very people who least impact the environment pick up the check for our overconsumption in the developed world.
When I feel upset, I generally read in order to find comfort in the words of people who have lived other lives. I found a passage in a book that best defines this situation for me.
Nature is so exacting that it hurts as much as it is worth so that in a way one relishes the pain, I think. If it didn’t matter, it wouldn’t matter.-
Julian Barnes, Levels of Life
I find this to be the case for me. Nature does reveal how much I care about things. I sort of hang on to the pain of this situation rather than letting it go because I want to make sure Kiribati always matters. It will always matter to me and the people of Tamana. This is where they live.
If you want to help bring clean drinking water to Kiribati follow this link called “Shout Kiribati” a great project was just brought to my attention… https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/shout-kiribati