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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

A Linguistic Mishap

As night fell, I threw myself into setting up my new home, eager for the comfort of my mosquito net and the promise of a peaceful night's sleep on my air mattress, free from the constant need to coat myself in mosquito repellent. Everything seemed to be falling into place, but unexpectedly, a wave of homesickness washed over me, leaving me feeling emotionally fragile.


Despite the warmth and kindness of my neighbors and the understanding gestures from my head teacher regarding the mix-up with my arrival, I found myself unable to articulate my feelings of loneliness. The language barrier compounded my sense of isolation, leaving me unable to confide in others even if I wanted to. And yet, even if I could express myself, I hesitated to burden strangers with my troubles. After all, I had come here to teach and serve, not to be served.


In the end, overwhelmed by a flood of emotions, I found myself crying myself to sleep—a familiar coping mechanism that had helped me through difficult moments before. However, this time felt different. This time, I was alone on the island, with only my thoughts and the sound of my neighbors' snores for company. I lay awake for much of the night, the echoes of my sobs mingling with the night sounds of the island, a poignant reminder of the challenges and vulnerabilities inherent in embarking on a new chapter in a foreign land.


As I stirred from my restless sleep, I was greeted by an unexpected sight: a battalion of curious eyes peering into my bedroom, belonging to the young members of our compound's "Mauri Mafia" regiment. As my bleary eyes adjusted to the morning light, I heard a timid voice uttering "Mauri te I-Matang." Internally, I was taken aback, questioning whether this surreal moment was indeed real.


However, without conscious thought, a different response emerged from my lips. "Mauri te I-Kiribati," I replied, and with that simple greeting, the inquisitive gazes disappeared as quickly as they had appeared. Determined to start the day on the right foot, I climbed out of my makeshift camping bed, resolved to embark on a mission to procure fresh bread and prepare safe drinking water using my trusty kerosene stove.

With a spring in my step and a newfound sense of confidence from my interaction at the store, I made my way back to the school compound, clutching a loaf of bread and a tin of butter. As usual, the Mauri Mafia regiment trailed behind me, their presence now a familiar and comforting sight.


Despite the usual chorus of "Mauri te I-Matang" echoing throughout the village upon my return, I found myself largely unfazed, buoyed by the sense of accomplishment from my successful errand.


After a satisfying breakfast, the tranquility of the morning was shattered by the sudden return of torrential rains. The approaching storm sounded like a slow-moving freight train, its ominous presence palpable in the air. From the shelter of my house, I watched as coconut fronds were whipped through the school compound by the ferocious winds, and the sound of coconuts crashing to the ground filled the air.


As the wind howled and sheets of rain lashed against the ground, I sought refuge beneath a sturdy classroom desk, shielding myself from the threat of falling debris and finding solace in the safety of the makeshift shelter.


As the storm subsided and the village emerged from their hiding spots, it became evident that the damage inflicted by the falling coconuts was not unique to my house. The scene that unfolded before me was one of collective resilience and familiarity, as the villagers swiftly set to work cleaning the compound and repairing the damages, their actions indicating that they had weathered similar storms many times before.


Amidst the flurry of activity, Mr. Patrick made his way over to check on my well-being. With determination and a touch of pride, I mustered my best I-Kiribati to assure him that I was safe, aside from a few holes in my roof. I insisted that I could handle the repairs myself, freeing him to attend to his own tasks without worrying about my safety.


In that moment, I felt a sense of camaraderie and solidarity with my neighbors, united by our shared experiences and mutual support in the face of adversity. Despite the challenges posed by the storm, there was a reassuring sense of resilience and community that strengthened our bonds and reaffirmed our commitment to helping one another in times of need.


Armed with just two pounds of Ziploc bags and a roll of duct tape, provisions insisted upon by my thoughtful sister, I embarked on the task of patching up the damage inflicted upon my roof by the storm. To my amazement, her foresight proved invaluable, as a few hours of diligent repair work with these humble materials seemed to temporarily remedy the problem.


As I completed the repairs, the familiar sound of the English hour on the national radio filled the air, providing a comforting backdrop to my evening routine. Listening to the broadcast had become a regular part of my daily life, offering a connection to the outside world amidst the solitude of my island existence.


However, my restful slumber was soon interrupted by the return of gusting winds and heavy rains in the dead of night. To my dismay, it became apparent that my makeshift roof repairs had failed, and my house was once again inundated by the relentless downpour. The plastic pieces and duct tape, no match for the force of nature, began to tear apart under the weight of the rain, exacerbating the situation.


By morning, the roof resembled Swiss cheese, riddled with gaping holes that allowed water to freely pour into my humble abode. It was evident that the time for makeshift solutions had passed; I needed serious help to address the worsening situation and protect my home from further damage.


Armed with my limited Kiribati vocabulary, which included the words for "hole" and "to make," I set out to seek assistance from my neighbors after Mr. Patrick's departure to the village that morning. With determination and a hopeful spirit, I approached the nearest house and attempted to convey my plea for help in the local language.


To my confusion, the residents seemed puzzled by my request and directed me to another house, which in turn pointed me to yet another. I found myself moving from house to house, repeating my plea for assistance, only to be met with further confusion and redirection. It was a perplexing experience, and I couldn't help but feel frustrated by the lack of cooperation.


As I made my rounds, I couldn't help but notice the chorus of laughter that followed my departure from each house. It seemed that laughter was a common response to situations that I did not find particularly amusing. Despite my growing familiarity with this aspect of I-Kiribati culture, I couldn't help but develop a love-hate relationship with their propensity for laughter, finding it both endearing and exasperating at times.


After visiting at least five different houses, I finally found someone willing to help: Tom, the school carpenter, who had a basic understanding of English. With a mix of Kiribati and English, I attempted to explain my predicament to him, only to be met with laughter—much like my previous encounters with the villagers.


Amidst the laughter, Tom eventually grasped the essence of my problem and offered his assistance. However, his next words left me feeling a mixture of embarrassment and amusement. "Ahhhh, I see," he exclaimed, before adding, "You need to work on your Kiribati."


Grateful for his willingness to help, I replied with a hint of sarcasm, "Great, thanks," before Tom offered a linguistic insight that left me stunned. He explained that the phrase I had been using, "te kabanga," actually meant "penis" in Kiribati, rather than "hole," as I had intended. It suddenly dawned on me why my attempts at seeking help had been met with laughter and confusion—it seemed everyone had interpreted my request as something entirely different!


Despite my embarrassment, I couldn't help but join in the laughter, realizing the absurdity of the situation. Tom's boldness in addressing my language mistake with humor and empathy was a testament to his character. Together, we worked on repairing the roof, sharing laughs and lighthearted banter as we labored, all the while joking about the various interpretations of my unintended linguistic blunder. In the end, it was a moment of camaraderie and shared laughter that transcended language barriers and brought us closer together.


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