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  • Michael Roman

A Tragic Event

A week after my penis fiasco, I received a telegraph from the Peace Corps.

Female volunteer attacked last night, meet us at the government station, tomorrow at 11:00 a.m. sharp.


I made my way to the airfield to meet Joe, the country director, and Teraaka, the education coordinator. Once on council grounds, all of us headed to a meeting. Sitting on the floor on the perimeter of the building, we shared tea, biscuits, and bread before starting the meeting.

Lasting several hours, the discussion was in the Kiribati language. Unaccustomed to sitting on the floor, and detached from conversation, we waited. At its conclusion, Teraaka briefed us on what occurred.


His long face expressed disappointment, even before he spoke. “A volunteer had been attacked in her home by an I-Kiribati man. The perpetrator was unknown. Little action to resolve the matter was taken.” Teraaka was frustrated. He couldn’t believe that no one knew anything in this small compound.


I felt safe at my site. However, Joe thought I should leave to impress a message on the council — if one volunteer is unsafe, all are unsafe. Ordered to leave on the next flight, I returned to Tateta to prepare my bags. If the council took action to find and punish this man, all of us could return to the island.


I was starting to feel confident in navigating life again. Colleagues were great, canteen workers knew me by name, and I was even planning first church service that week. Abaiang was warming up to me. It was a shame this happened. This was not the Kiribati I knew. If anything, this was an act of one crazy, possibly drunk man.


In Tarawa, we waited.


Boredom led me to the Ministry of Education. I was looking for something to do. There, I met Rubenang Taokoriri, the director of the Curriculum Design and Resource Center. Ruby, as she went by, took an interest in the bilingual children’s book Atiia and I developed at home during pre-service training downtime. Liking it so much, she invited me to volunteer at the center. I began volunteering, and by week’s end, I was eating dinner with her family.

She lived with extended family, which made remembering names difficult. The house was large, with many modern appliances, rooms, and a bathroom, complete with toilet and shower. Sitting across from a television with a working DVD player, it seemed I was back in the United States.


“We call this KFC! You know, oh, what it is — Kentucky Fried Chicken? Yes!”


My eyes were enormous as her nieces brought endless trays of food. At some point, we began discussing pizza. She loved its smell and taste.


“Do you know how to make pizza, Mike?”


Ever since college, pizza had been a specialty of mine. I made pizza in the Peace Corps dorm and had all the needed ingredients. The only thing needed was an oven, and hands to make the dough.


The following night, I was making pizza with Ruby’s family. Two years younger than I, her niece, Tracey, had an incredible personal history. She had fair skin, an I-matang name, and completely bilingual. I envied her ability to float in and out of languages. She was in her last year in senior secondary school and planning on attending university the following year in Fiji. Little cousins watched us make pizza with great curiosity, and before I knew it, they too were making pizza with us.


Eventually, our supplies ran low, and oven space became limited. Tracey left to purchase more ingredients while her mom asked to borrow oven space from the neighbors in exchange for pizzas. Everyone, including the neighbors, liked the pizzas, and I felt I had gained another Kiribati tie that night.


***


We had been waiting for nearly a month with no movement in the case. A decision was needed. Some evacuated volunteers decided to return, while Joe and I decided to restart my service on another island.


Excited to move forward, I was torn. I returned only to pack my bags. I felt like a traitor. Teachers were sad, and I was heartbroken. Constantly questioning myself, I wondered if I was doing the right thing. I blocked feeling to leave everything behind, but somehow everything remained.


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©2020 by Michael Roman