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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

An Island New Year

The period between Christmas and New Year's was filled with vibrant celebrations in the village, predominantly hosted in the main maneaba. These festive gatherings often extended over several days, immersing everyone in a whirlwind of activities and entertainment. Luckily, my proximity to the village maneaba made it convenient for me to join in the festivities while still having the comfort of my own roki and kiakia nearby.


During these gatherings, families brought along their sleeping mats, temporarily transforming the maneaba into a communal living space. As the festivities continued late into the night, we enjoyed watching imported Chinese action movies, occasionally with German subtitles, projected onto a screen. Some of these films were recorded in theaters, offering us a unique perspective as we observed theater patrons coming and going.


Despite my limited understanding of Chinese, German, and other languages, I found myself drifting off to sleep amidst the excitement, using cups, coconut shells, or a rolled-up mat as makeshift pillows. The lively atmosphere and shared experiences during these celebrations created lasting memories that I'll always cherish.


As New Year's Eve approached, the bustling activity in the village seemed to accelerate the passage of time. To mark the occasion, all Peace Corps Trainees (PCTs) and staff organized a camping trip for the big night. I joined my fellow male volunteers in setting up a campground just outside the northern village.


Our preparations included setting up lines for mosquito nets, gathering wood for a bonfire, and digging a fire pit. While the I-Kiribati typically only used fire for practical purposes like burning trash or cooking food, we wanted to create a bonfire solely for the joy of gathering around its warmth on a tropical island. Our I-Kiribati trainer seemed puzzled by the idea of collecting wood for a fire with no specific purpose, but he joined in nonetheless, gathering fallen branches with us.


Despite the lack of a practical function, the bonfire turned out to be a resounding success. As we gathered around it, we stayed up late into the night, eagerly anticipating the arrival of midnight and the dawn of the new year. It was a memorable way to welcome the new millennium +1 and celebrate the beginning of a new chapter together.

 

Before 1995, Kiribati was divided by the International Date Line, resulting in the country straddling two different days simultaneously. To address this unique situation, the Kiribati government made the decision to relocate the International Date Line east of Christmas Island, the easternmost atoll of Kiribati. This change effectively placed the entire country within the same day.


Since the relocation of the International Date Line, Kiribati has held the distinction of being the first country to greet each new day and year. This adjustment has not only unified the country in terms of time but also symbolizes Kiribati's commitment to coherence and unity as a nation.


In 1999, Kiribati gained international attention when it was featured on CNN's millennium coverage. The network flew to Millennium Island to cover the celebrations held by the I-Kiribati as they welcomed the new millennium. Additionally, CNN's coverage referenced the highly anticipated Y2K global meltdown, which had been a topic of concern and speculation worldwide leading up to the year 2000.

 

Y2K, a computer programming flaw that theoretically could have caused worldwide havoc once the calendar year switched from 1999 to 2000, instilled great worry among people worldwide. Media coverage, speculation, and governmental reports fueled public fear by suggesting that the world could suffer severe problems from Y2K malfunctions. As a result, the U.S. population stockpiled everything from bottled water to batteries to non-perishable food items, and some even sought refuge in "end of the world" shelters. Despite the extensive preparations, no significant problems occurred because of the calendar switch, but the Y2K scare left a lasting impact on the global population, highlighting the potential vulnerabilities of our increasingly computer-dependent systems.

 

The Y2K scare brought Kiribati into my Ohio home for the first time. Helicopters flew out to Millennium Island, Kiribati's easternmost uninhabited atoll, where seventy-five men and women dressed in traditional clothing sang and danced for CNN's coverage. As midnight arrived in Kiribati, reporters jubilantly claimed victory over Y2K. However, from my living room, I questioned the reporter's assumption, as the I-Kiribati were dancing with sticks around a fire on a remote island with no electricity or computer equipment — the very things needed to fuel a Y2K meltdown.


***


Towards the end of January, all 27 PCTs had weathered severe homesickness, moments (if not weeks) of utter confusion, countless cultural and linguistic mistakes, 31 parasitic infections, week-long bouts of explosive diarrhea, near-death bus experiences, one typhoon (we think), seasickness, three months of constant bootakis, and weeks of random 3 am dance practices. Finally, on January 23, 2001, we were sworn in as the PCV class of K-27 and received our official volunteer assignments for the next two years in Tarawa.


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