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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

A Christmas Orange

That afternoon, we gathered for another celebration at Nei Marau’s uma ni waa in the central village. It was evident that my mum was struggling to understand her peculiar I-matang son. To me, prioritizing a healthy lifestyle meant regular exercise and avoiding fatty foods like pig fat. However, this perspective seemed to bewilder her. She often observed me running around the school’s playing field or doing pull-ups on random pandanus tree trunks, which only added to her confusion. In her eyes, I didn't consume enough food and spent an excessive amount of time exercising or in the roki.


As I began lacing up my running shoes, ready to head out for a run, I could sense her concern. She urged me not to be gone too long and reminded me to prepare for the celebration as soon as I returned. We were scheduled to attend the uma ni waa for the festivities, where Eriti would be waiting on the bwia with the biniata (piñata), ready to carry it to the celebration with me.


The previous week, our entire family embarked on the ambitious project of crafting a Christmas piñata using old Time magazines sent by the Peace Corps every month and a giant punching balloon from my mom and dad. Eriti enthusiastically took charge of the endeavor after I demonstrated how to mold the paper mache.


With careful planning, I had cut an abundance of paper strips, intending to compensate for any mistakes. However, I hadn't anticipated that all of them would be used. When creating a piñata, it's crucial to strike the right balance with the paper mache. Too little, and the piñata breaks on the first hit; too much, and it won't break at all. Unfortunately, I overlooked this detail when instructing Eriti, and she utilized all the paper strips I had prepared, resulting in the toughest piñata I had ever seen.


The piñata became the center of attention, quite literally taking a beating from everyone, including the elders. Despite numerous attempts, it stubbornly refused to yield. Eventually, my site dad and I intervened, removing it from the rope and tearing Eriti's solid creation in half.


As the piñata split open, a flurry of coins, toys, and candies burst into the air. People of all ages eagerly dove into the chaos, playfully jostling for prizes. Amidst the excitement below, my dad chuckled and passed me a lollipop that had landed near him, a gesture of approval and amusement at the festive scene unfolding before us.


After the piñata frenzy subsided, the missionary offered a blessing for the meal. Aware that much of the food would be leftovers from the previous night's festivities, Tera reached into a white bucket and pulled out a cold orange, handing it to me with a warm smile. "Merry Christmas, Mike," she said.


I didn't know where the white bucket came from, nor did I care. I also couldn't fathom how it got cold, but that detail was insignificant. What mattered was the gesture: one of the few oranges on the island, given to me not because of my status as an honored guest, but because I was family. As I peeled the orange, my thoughts drifted to another place I called home. Surely, it was snowing in Ohio, a stark contrast to the sweltering heat of Kiribati. Back home, my family would be gathering for Christmas Eve festivities, unaware that I was already celebrating halfway across the world. Mentally and physically, I felt worlds apart from home.


Indeed, in the context of the situation, the cold orange held profound significance. While it might seem like a mundane gift to those back home, its symbolism was powerful. It represented humility, selflessness, and kindness, given from a family I cherished deeply. I made a silent vow to myself never to forget the significance of that simple orange. It was a reminder of the warmth and generosity of my Kiribati family, even amidst the challenges and distances that separated us from our homes.


I departed from Tamana shortly after Christmas to attend another Peace Corps Volunteer conference. One of my fellow volunteers was getting married to an I-Kiribati woman on New Year’s Eve, adding a touch of celebration to the holiday season. After the wedding festivities, I found myself with a few extra days on the main island of Tarawa. It was an opportunity I gladly seized to reconnect with my Tarawa host family, whom I cherished deeply.


During my time with them, we shared two wonderful dinners together, reliving old memories and creating new ones. Just like before, we indulged in homemade pizzas and perhaps bought a few too many Cokes for our meal. To my delight, my host surprised me with a new dessert creation: banana slices delicately covered with creamy vanilla ice cream. It was a delightful treat that perfectly complemented our warm gatherings.


As we spent the nights catching up and sharing laughter, I felt a sense of belonging and comfort that only family can provide. In a heartwarming gesture, it was my host family, not the Peace Corps, who accompanied me to the airport when it was time for me to return to my site. Before parting ways, we made plans to reunite in three months, eagerly looking forward to our next gathering filled with love and shared experiences.


Each time I returned to Tarawa, I experienced a profound sense of culture shock. The sheer number of people, the bustling traffic, and the abundance of modern amenities never failed to leave me in awe upon my arrival. The disparities between life in Tarawa and our simpler existence in Tamana were stark and often unsettling. I couldn't help but feel as though I was witnessing the complexities of poverty unfolding in a nation already struggling with economic challenges.


However, I came to realize that poverty wasn't solely defined by economic factors, as I had once believed. In Tarawa, there was a tendency among some to jest about the perceived backwardness of those from the outer islands. Yet, despite lacking amenities like electricity, buses, and readily available cold drinks, our villages in Tamana were not backward or lacking in community spirit. In fact, our way of life emphasized communal living and a deep connection to the land.


Unlike in Tarawa, where the pace of life seemed to revolve around the need to earn cash to survive, outer islanders like us thrived by living off the land and embracing a communal existence. Despite my time spent there as a Peace Corps volunteer, my connections to the people of Tarawa remained limited. I lacked a village group, had few I-Kiribati friends, and no permanent dwelling. It was a reminder of the contrasting ways of life within Kiribati, each with its own challenges and strengths.


Angeteiti, a resident of Tamana's southern village, made the move to Tarawa around the time of Kiribati's independence, hoping to secure employment opportunities. Settling into an already overcrowded house where only two family members held jobs, she faced significant challenges. However, recognizing her plight, another family graciously offered to take her in.


While some members of the household expressed frustration at the prospect of accommodating an additional person, deeply ingrained cultural values of kinship and social responsibility prevailed. It was understood that, regardless of the challenges, Angeteiti should remain with her extended family. As her uncle succinctly put it, "We cannot kick a relative out of our house."

However, attitudes toward relatives staying in urban areas, particularly if they were not contributing economically or attending school, were markedly different on the main island. Many residents there voiced dissatisfaction with relatives overstaying their welcome, suggesting that those not actively contributing should consider returning to the outer islands. This sentiment reflected a belief that life on the main island revolved around financial pursuits, unlike the more communal and resource-based existence found in the outer islands.


Life in Tamana revolved significantly around fostering extensive social connections rather than solely pursuing individual economic prosperity. However, this emphasis on social relations did not mean that money was absent from daily life in the outer islands. On the contrary, money played a crucial role, particularly for expenses such as school fees, church offerings, and the purchase of imported goods.


Despite the abundance of fresh fish in the surrounding ocean, one of the most commonly consumed imported food items in Tamana was canned Mackerel in tomato sauce. It was a curious irony that these canned fish products became a staple at every bootaki, despite the availability of an ocean teeming with fresh fish just a stone's throw away.


Canned fish carried a certain prestige that wild fish did not possess in Tamana. While fish from the ocean was a readily available natural resource, ensuring that no one went hungry, access to cash was more limited. With cash, individuals could afford to purchase canned fish, a luxury enjoyed by few but desired by many.


Fishing in Tarawa presented its own set of challenges. The polluted lagoon created an inhospitable environment for fish, forcing fishermen to venture into the open ocean in search of a catch. However, this endeavor was not without risk; many fishermen either became lost at sea or tragically lost their lives in pursuit of fish that could be sold for cash.


In contrast, life in the outer islands did not hinge on the need for a cash income to survive. Instead, there was a greater emphasis on self-sufficiency and communal support. This way of life felt more familiar and comfortable to me than the hustle and bustle of Tarawa or the lifestyle I remembered from America. After nearly two years in the outer islands, the pace of life in Tarawa seemed disorienting and overwhelming. I took pride in being an Outer Island volunteer, embracing the simplicity and connection to community that it offered.


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