An Aussie Nun
An old white pickup truck was barreling across the field while I was preparing to take shelter in the roofless terminal for the night. Over the engine’s roar, a nun with a thick accent yelled, “DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH,” with noticeable pauses between each word. Stunned by seeing a white person, I stuttered yes in English.
“RIGHT THEN, ARE YOU A PEACE CORPS?” The pause between each word magically disappeared. Yes, I smiled! Still yelling over the engine, “WHERE DO YOU BELONG?” Fumbling through my bag to retrieve my assignment, I handed my papers over. “WAIT HERE.” Really, where was I going to go? I followed her instructions and resumed my position on the bucket.
Within minutes, the roar of her truck was back. This time, with a small group of teenagers in its bed. All jumped off to load my bags. “Get on,” one student told me, “we will bring you to your school.” Shocked again, I took a seat in the bed. I wanted to talk but was too embarrassed to try. I wondered if they ever felt like I did.
The trip was long, silent, and filled with many awkward smiles and nods. After some time, we slowed and turned into an open field. In the middle of the field was a maneaba. Small houses lined the perimeter. We were at Tateta! The truck shut its engine off, and the youth jumped out to unload everything.
A young boy sitting next to me instructed me to wait while he alerted the school’s headmaster that I had arrived.
A short balding man with a kind face rushed to the truck with his own army of children. “Hello, I am Taake. And you are,” extending his hand. Stunned by his British accent and perfect English, Um, Mike… I’m sorry, my name is Mike. It is nice to meet you, Mr. Taake.
“Yes, likewise Mike. Please forgive us, the Peace Corps did not tell us that you would be coming today. Why don’t you sit in the school maneaba with me, you must be tired. We’ll have the students bring the luggage to your house.”
He pointed to a small thatch roof hut about 100 meters away. Women were sweeping, wiping, beating, and shaking out, what seemed to be, every mat inside of the structure. While men carried out timbers and many pieces of thatch.
Other teachers and their families joined us with trays of food which was blessed and shared.
I had lost a good 40 pounds over my first three months and hoped not to lose much more. Out of extreme caution, I took only a few biscuits to munch on while we waited for the house to be ready. During this time, my teachers told stories about everything from World War two* to everyday life in the school compound.
Mr. Taake was a masterful storyteller in both English and Kiribati. His eyes lit up before every punchline that was delivered with exact timing and precise execution. It was obvious that teaching was his craft. Soon after dinner, my house was ready!
I was more than thankful for being rescued at the airfield by complete strangers, having a place to call home, and not consuming soap on my first night. I walked to my new house with Mr. Taake, my teachers, and their families. Excited to take my first picture of the house, the kids were even more excited to pose for a picture.
*Kiribati was a turning point for allied forces in WWII. The Battle of Tarawa was the bloodiest battle of the Pacific. Over 3,000 Marines died in three days' time, overtaking Japanese forces.