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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

First Mensuration

On my first day back in Tamana, I awoke to the familiar symphony of morning sounds: the rhythmic clinking of bottles, roosters heralding the dawn, dogs adding their chorus of barks, and the occasional cry of a baby. Normally, my younger sister would be outside, diligently sweeping the dirt with her coconut broom, adding her own unique rhythm to the cacophony. However, on this day, her sweeping sounds were conspicuously absent.

My host mother informed me of the reason for my sister's absence: she was experiencing her aoraki n aine, her first menstruation. Surprisingly, my host mother seemed openly proud to share this news with me. "We will have a party in three days for Bweni," she announced with enthusiasm. The openness and celebration surrounding a girl's first menstruation were a stark contrast to the cultural taboos and silence that typically shrouded such topics back in my home country.

"Can you make some of your candies for the party?" my mom asked me. I had learned how to make caramel by mixing cinnamon with condensed milk and then boiling it—a simple yet delicious treat. Though the appearance might not be appetizing, the taste was delightful. Excited by the prospect of contributing to my sister's celebration, I eagerly agreed to make the candies for the occasion.

During those three days, Bweni underwent a traditional Kiribati rite of passage, secluded within the confines of her home to learn the ways of Kiribati womanhood. She diligently immersed herself in various female tasks, each carrying its own significance. 

One task involved the meticulous process of crafting kora, a twine made from coconut fibers—a skill passed down through generations of Kiribati women. Another task saw her skillfully weaving pandanus leaves into a mat, showcasing her dexterity and patience.

As part of her initiation, Bweni's food intake was restricted, and her stomach was bound—a symbolic gesture intended to impart the experience of hunger, a reality faced by many Kiribati women. In Kiribati culture, women traditionally eat after men and often after their children, with wives and mothers typically consuming leftovers at family celebrations—a practice ingrained in the social fabric of the community.

The school compound bustled with anticipation on Bweni's third day of seclusion. As the afternoon sun cast its warm glow over the school maneaba, representatives from the church, government, and both villages gathered in eager anticipation. 

Before Bweni's grand entrance, Uncle Ari'i, with jubilant fanfare, chauffeured her around the island three times—an exuberant celebration of her transition into womanhood. At the roadside, Zenida and I eagerly awaited the passing truck, brandishing our homemade "Happy First Menstruation Bweni!" sign. The passing convoy, filled with passengers, embraced our spirited display, responding with cheers and honks, echoing the joviality of the moment.

The success of the celebration was a testament to the collective effort of all the families within the compound. Their collaborative spirit infused the event with joy and significance, leaving a lasting impression on all who attended. In the days that followed, Bweni's newfound status as an adult sparked conversations across the island, underscoring her emergence into a realm of new responsibilities and obligations.

As the initial shock of recent events began to settle, I found myself preparing for a short trip back to America. The plan was to return home for a mere two weeks, but as I sifted through my belongings, I couldn't shake the question of what "home" had truly become for me. While many of my fellow volunteers had opted to take their vacations during our mid-service break, I had made the conscious decision to stay for Christmas. Not only would traveling during the holidays be prohibitively expensive, but the thought of facing snowfall after months in the tropics was a daunting prospect.

On the eve of my departure, I found solace in the swing Meeki and I had built for the students—a humble creation fashioned from a piece of scrap wood and salvaged shipping rope. Under the moonlit sky, I lingered in the field, lost in contemplation. Thoughts of America loomed large in my mind, accompanied by a swirl of uncertainty about how the familiar landscapes and faces would receive the changed version of myself.

I imagined the comfort of indulging in familiar foods, revisiting beloved places, and relishing the simple pleasure of drinking cold water from a fountain. Yet, amidst these thoughts, a pang of melancholy tugged at my heartstrings, knowing I would dearly miss my island friends, families, and the simple yet profound life I had come to cherish.

As I pondered the prospect of missing out on village events and struggled with the weight of unfulfilled gift requests, a sense of unease crept in. Would my absence create a void in the lives of those I had come to know and love? The uncertainty gnawed at me, underscoring the profound connection I had forged with Kiribati—a place that had become an unexpected anchor in my life's journey.

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