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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

A Celebration (Bootaki)

Jess’s teachers’ wanted to welcome us by hosting a feast. I both loved and hated all the celebrations our presence prompted. We were tired from travel, and attending another welcome party was the last thing on anyone's mind. When teachers approached us with the invitation, we could not say no.

The Bootaki is a very structured celebration with time for speeches, entertainment, and eating. More formal celebrations are often held in the village meeting house (maneaba), of which each village has at least one.

These man-made structures are some of the tallest structures in the village and are often the first things seen by approaching boats. 

A traditional maneaba, built on a rectangular base, is protected by a thatched triangular-shaped roof which soars thirty to forty feet above the ground. Interior posts supporting the massive roof, hold both structural and social meaning. The posts represent families of the village as well as the seating structure of the communal organization. Low entrances force adults to bow as they enter.

As Mikaio explained, the maneaba is the center of village life. It is where elders gather to discuss issues of importance, women socialize after dinner playing bingo, and children cool off in it, playing games when empty.

First birthdays, weddings, welcome feasts, and other big events occupy these structures on weekends. During the week, recreational activities, movie nights, or Island Night fundraisers occur. Each event has certain levels of followed protocol, from loose and relaxed to timely and strict.

Though our welcome bootaki was held in a classroom, the customs and practices associated with maneaba protocol were somewhat present. 

After formal introductions and welcome speeches, we introduced ourselves in our best one week old broken I-Kiribati. 

All we could say was hello and our names. We knew we mispronounced a word when everyone, including Jess, laughed at us. Pacific laughter is loud, unique, and beautiful. This was the first time I experienced such overwhelming laughter. It rose to a fever pitch when one of us said our name was “your ass.”

Having as much fun laughing at ourselves as everyone else, we were the evening’s entertainment. 

Her teachers spoke perfect English and innately understood our struggle with a new language. When her teachers corrected us (in English), it made me question just who was helping who.

Her teachers did not have expendable cash to fund such an elaborate party — complete with imported foods, petrol for electricity, and a small portable DJ set. Nevertheless, we had all that and more that night. 

Like the posts supporting the maneaba, her teachers came together to create a welcome feast we would never forget —  leaving all of us tremendously humbled. One week in and I was already seeing my world through very different lenses.

Family movie night in a small family maneaba.

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