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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

An Aussie Nun

As dusk rapidly descended upon the outer island, devoid of electricity, I hurriedly made preparations to seek refuge in the open-air terminal for the impending night. Just as I was about to settle in, the distant rumble of an approaching vehicle caught my attention. A white Chevy pickup, driven by an unexpected sight—a spirited Australian nun—tore across the airfield towards the makeshift shelter I was constructing.

As she pulled up to the cinder block structure, she called out, "Do you speak English?" Her words punctuated by deliberate pauses. Startled by the sudden arrival and her inquiry about my linguistic abilities, I managed to stammer out a hesitant "Yes."

"Right," she nodded approvingly. "Are you with the Peace Corps?" she asked, her tone brimming with curiosity. Without a moment's hesitation, I replied with an emphatic "Yes!"

"Where are you stationed?" she inquired further, prompting me to clumsily rummage through my belongings to retrieve my assignment tags, which I then handed over to her.

Extending her hands in a gesture typically used to bridge language barriers, the nun instructed me to wait in place. With no other options available, I complied, settling back onto my makeshift seat, a humble bucket. Time passed, marked only by the ambient sounds of the island, until the familiar rumble of the truck's engine reached my ears once more.

This time, it wasn't just the nun; she returned accompanied by a small cohort of teenagers. In a flurry of activity, she barked orders in Kiribati, prompting the adolescents to spring into action. They swiftly descended from the truck, gathering my bags and loading them onto its bed.

Amidst the commotion, one of the students addressed me in flawless English, inviting me to join them on the truck, assuring me they would take me to my designated school. I was taken aback by their proficiency in the language.

Seated amidst at least half a dozen I-Kiribati students, I longed to engage in conversation. Yet, the prospect of attempting to communicate with my rudimentary grasp of the language left me feeling self-conscious. Thus, the journey unfolded in a silence punctuated only by awkward smiles and nods, traversing a landscape dotted with villages and vast stretches of wilderness.

Eventually, the truck slowed to a halt and veered into the compound of my school. As we pulled in, the students sprang into action once more, leaping out of the vehicle to unload my belongings.

The Australian nun instructed me to remain in the car while one of the students went to fetch the school's headmaster. Before long, a figure approached, accompanied by a swarm of eager children. It was Patrick, a man with a genial, round-faced demeanor. He exuded an air of authority, speaking impeccable English as he extended his hand in greeting.

"Hello, I am Patrick," he said, his voice warm and welcoming. "And you are?" He paused, awaiting my response.

Caught off guard by his unexpected presence and his flawless English, I momentarily faltered, struggling to recall how to articulate my name in Kiribati. "Um, Mike... kabwara au bure arau Mikaio," I managed to stammer out, feeling a pang of embarrassment. I had learned the basics of introducing myself in Kiribati during training, but now, in this moment, it seemed crucial.

"It is nice to meet you, Mr. Patrick," I added, trying to regain my composure.

"Likewise, Mike. Please forgive us," Patrick replied sympathetically. "The Peace Corps did not inform us of your arrival today."

He then extended an invitation. "Why don’t you come to the school, maneaba? We will have the students unload your supplies from the truck and put them in your house for you."

As I stepped out of the car, I was greeted by a swarm of children, their energy palpable as they formed a human chain, efficiently transferring my belongings to a nearby house. Inside, I observed a flurry of activity, as women bustled about, diligently cleaning, arranging, and preparing what appeared to be every kie (mat) in the house.

Mr. Patrick rallied the other teachers to gather in the maneaba so I could be introduced to them. Some brought food, while others arranged for their families to bring dishes after them. The offerings were plentiful: tins of Ox and Palm corned beef, savory Shapes crackers, comforting Arrowroot Biscuits, energizing Milo, and generous portions of freshly caught fish accompanied by basins of steaming white rice.

Despite the tempting spread, I felt a pang of apprehension. Not knowing the whereabouts of the nearest roki or a reliable supply of toilet paper made me wary of indulging too much. Thus, I settled for a modest selection—a couple of biscuits and a handful of Shapes—hoping to avoid appearing impolite by declining entirely.

I lingered with the teachers in the maneaba until my new dwelling was deemed ready for occupancy. As we made our way to the house, my limited language skills left me struggling to follow the conversation, especially when it turned to topics exclusively in Kiribati. These moments served as a reminder of the urgency to accelerate my language acquisition journey.

Upon reaching my newly prepared abode, I was accompanied by the teachers, with a throng of curious children eagerly awaiting outside.

Upon stepping into the house, I was taken aback by the absence of several essential items from my luggage. A mosquito net, a sleeping mat, and even pillows were nowhere to be found. Left with little choice, I resigned myself to an unconventional sleeping arrangement, settling down for the night on a camping chair my parents had insisted on packing. At the time, I had found their insistence on including the chair rather amusing, never imagining it would become my makeshift mattress in Kiribati. Yet, as I drifted off to sleep that night, I couldn't help but feel grateful for their foresight, just as I appreciated the protection provided by the Deet against the relentless mosquitoes.

The following morning, I awoke with an insatiable hunger gnawing at my stomach, eager to embark on the day ahead despite the challenges presented by my Spartan living conditions.

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