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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

A Tragic Event = A New Assignment

A week after the rather embarrassing incident with my unintentional linguistic faux pas, I received a telegraphed message from the Peace Corps that sent a shiver down my spine: "Female volunteer attacked last night, meet at government station, 11:00 am." The message, printed on light pink carbon-copied paper, seemed to carry an air of confidentiality, despite its now unfolded state.

The following day, I made my way to the airport to meet John, the country director, and Tieratta, the education program director, whose arrival seemed much more organized and coordinated than my own chaotic entrance. Together, we proceeded to the council grounds, where we were ushered into a meeting room.

Once inside, we found ourselves seated in a large circle on the floor, surrounded by drinks and food, before any official business was addressed. The casual atmosphere provided a stark contrast to the seriousness of the telegraphed message we had received, serving as a reminder of the delicate balance between the demands of our roles as Peace Corps volunteers and the human connections we forged along the way.

The meeting stretched on for about three hours, conducted primarily in the Kiribati language, which left both John and me feeling somewhat detached from the proceedings. As we sat on the floor, not accustomed to this mode of seating, John's discomfort was palpable as he struggled to follow the discussion.

Towards the end of the meeting, the program director provided a translation of the key points discussed. It became apparent that very little progress had been made in addressing the incident. There were still unanswered questions about who was responsible, how it had occurred, and whether police intervention was necessary. John expressed his frustration and disappointment at the lack of resolution.

Tieratta, being I-Kiribati himself, found the lack of care and concern surrounding the incident to be particularly troubling. While I harbored confidence in my own safety, knowing that women in Kiribati rarely attacked men, John felt compelled to send a strong message. He believed that if one volunteer couldn't feel safe at her site, then no volunteers should remain until the issue was adequately addressed.

With that decision made, I was instructed to prepare for the next available flight out of Abaiang. The abruptness of the directive left me reeling, but I understood the gravity of the situation and the necessity of prioritizing the safety and well-being of all Peace Corps volunteers.

Looking back, I realized that my placement at the site was likely influenced by my gender. Previous female volunteers had encountered multiple incidents involving male residents, leading to a low completion rate at the site. Despite this knowledge, I found myself growing attached to the school, with its dedicated teachers and welcoming families. Slowly but surely, I began to integrate into the community, feeling more at ease venturing into neighboring houses and even finding solace in attending church services.

Despite the initial setback that led to our relocation to Tarawa, I held onto the hope that an arrest would be made and justice served. However, as weeks passed without any progress in the investigation, frustration grew among my fellow teachers. It seemed that the actions of one troubled individual had cast a shadow over the community, tarnishing the reputation of the warm and welcoming I-Kiribati people I had come to know.

Ultimately, the lack of resolution left us all feeling disheartened and disillusioned. While the incident was not reflective of the true nature of the community, it served as a stark reminder of the challenges and complexities inherent in cross-cultural exchange and the importance of addressing issues of safety and security for all Peace Corps volunteers.

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