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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

Celebrations!

Our arrival in Abaiang sparked a flurry of celebrations in our honor, orchestrated by Amanda's fellow teachers who were eager to extend a warm welcome to us on their school compound. As we stepped onto the grounds, it was evident that everyone had pitched in to ensure that the festivities went off without a hitch. The air was filled with a palpable sense of excitement and anticipation as preparations for the event were in full swing.


While the gesture of hospitality was undeniably touching, I found myself experiencing conflicting emotions towards the prospect of yet another welcome party. On one hand, I appreciated the effort and sincerity behind the celebrations, but on the other, I couldn't shake off a sense of fatigue and weariness that had settled over the group. The long boat ride had left everyone except me feeling drained and exhausted, and the thought of attending yet another social gathering was the last thing they wanted to do.


Despite our collective exhaustion, we felt a sense of obligation to accept the invitations extended to us by the teachers. It was important to reciprocate the warmth and hospitality that had been extended to us, even if it meant pushing through our own fatigue and discomfort. As we reluctantly made our way to the festivities, I couldn't help but admire the resilience and determination of my fellow volunteers, whose commitment to fostering positive relationships within the community remained unwavering despite the challenges they faced.


Bootakis, elaborate and highly structured ceremonies, served as moments of celebration and recognition within the community. These grand events were typically held in the village maneaba, a central meeting-house-like structure that served as the heart of the village. Situated at the center of the village, the maneaba's towering thatched roof and distinctive structure made it a prominent landmark, visible even from approaching vessels.


Built on coral atolls that rise just feet above sea level, the maneaba's triangular-shaped roof, reaching heights of up to thirty or forty feet, often greeted travelers as the first glimpse of land. The traditional design of the maneaba featured a rectangular base covered by the iconic thatched roof, while the perimeter and interior posts held profound social and political significance.


Each supporting post within the maneaba represented a distinct family within the village, symbolizing the interconnectedness and unity of the community. The arrangement of seating within the maneaba reflected the hierarchical political structure of the unimwane, the elder male council, with specific positions denoting authority and status.


Upon entering the maneaba, all individuals were required to bow their heads as a sign of respect and reverence, symbolically acknowledging their allegiance to the village and its communal values. In essence, the act of bowing served as a physical manifestation of humility and deference to the collective spirit of the community, underscoring the deeply ingrained cultural traditions that guided social interactions within Kiribati society. 

The maneaba served as the beating heart of village life, a multifunctional space where various aspects of community and social interaction converged. It was here that the village unimwane, or elder council, would convene to deliberate on matters of village concern, ensuring that decisions were made collectively and in the best interest of the community.


Beyond its role in governance, the maneaba also played host to a myriad of social activities and gatherings. Women would gather for lively games of bingo, while children found refuge under its protective roof, engaging in playful antics and games in the safety of its confines.


Weekends saw the maneaba transformed into a hub of celebration and festivity, as villagers came together to mark significant milestones and events in their lives. From first birthdays and weddings to welcoming feasts and engagements, the maneaba provided a communal space where joyous occasions could be shared and celebrated with friends and family.


In some villages, the youth took the reins, organizing social nights that offered opportunities for camaraderie and bonding among peers. Despite the diverse range of activities that took place within its walls, one thing remained constant: strict adherence to maneaba protocol. Respect for tradition and adherence to cultural customs were paramount, ensuring that all behavior and interactions upheld the sanctity and significance of this sacred space within Kiribati society.

 

Despite the makeshift setting of our welcome bootaki, held in a classroom rather than the traditional maneaba, efforts were made to uphold the customs and behaviors associated with maneaba protocol as closely as possible. Following formal introductions and welcome speeches by the teachers, it was our turn to introduce ourselves.


With our best attempts at speaking I-Kiribati, we nervously greeted the assembled guests and stated our names. However, it quickly became apparent that our pronunciation left much to be desired, eliciting laughter from the teachers and even our gracious host, Amanda. The laughter reached a crescendo when one of us inadvertently introduced themselves with a mispronunciation that sounded remarkably similar to the word "ass."


In many ways, we became the unwitting entertainers of the evening, providing lighthearted amusement for all in attendance. Despite the initial embarrassment, we found ourselves joining in the laughter, embracing the opportunity to poke fun at our own linguistic mishaps. As the evening progressed, we abandoned our attempts at speaking I-Kiribati and instead opted to converse in English with the teachers, much to the delight of all present. In doing so, we forged connections and shared moments of joy and camaraderie, transcending language barriers to create lasting memories of laughter and fellowship.


Despite the evident financial constraints faced by the school and teachers, it was clear to any observer that they did not possess the means to fund extravagant parties complete with imported foods and electricity, as ours was. However, this did not deter them from pooling together whatever resources they could muster to ensure that our welcome celebration was as warm and memorable as possible.

With collective effort and ingenuity, they managed to scrape together funds to provide food and even rent a stereo system, complete with a generator to power the festivities. Much like the sturdy posts that supported the village maneaba, the teachers came together in solidarity to extend a heartfelt welcome to our group, leaving us deeply humbled by their generosity and kindness.


The constant invitations to welcome festivals from adjacent villages served as a testament to the warmth and hospitality of the Kiribati people, who embraced us with open arms despite their own limited means. In a letter home, I expressed to my family the profound impact of receiving such generosity from individuals who had far less than we did back home. In just one week in the country, I found myself viewing the world through a new lens, appreciating the value of community, resilience, and the intrinsic goodness of humanity in the face of adversity.


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