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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

Forever Chained

Returning from Peace Corps service introduced a complexity I hadn't anticipated. The world no longer appeared through the same lens, and my relationships, particularly with my biological family, underwent a subtle yet profound shift. With the addition of my Kiribati family, whom I knew I would likely never see again, my perspective on familial bonds was forever altered.


Conversations with family friends, once simple and familiar, now carried an air of disconnection. After a mere few minutes, the conversation would inevitably circle back to the Peace Corps experience, a topic that held little interest for them. I became adept at offering brief, convenient responses to these inquiries, sparing us both the discomfort of navigating unfamiliar terrain.


My mom took me shopping for new clothes, a seemingly ordinary activity that quickly overwhelmed me. Stepping into the bustling department store, I was instantly transported back to Uncle Ari’i's humble shack store, with its sparse shelves and limited selection. In contrast, the vast array of choices before me felt suffocating, almost paralyzing.


As tears welled up in my eyes, I fled the store, unable to articulate the turmoil within me. My mom, ever attentive, chased after me, her concern palpable. "What’s wrong, what’s wrong?" she called out, her voice filled with worry. All I could manage to say was that it was too much.


She drove me home, where I sought solace in the familiarity of my room. As Kiribati music played softly in the background, I closed my eyes and allowed myself to drift back to Tamana, if only in my mind.


I brought back a canoe with me from Kiribati, a precious gift from my host family that symbolized far more than just a mode of transportation. In Kiribati culture, canoes hold deep significance, representing unity in marriage, the journey of life, and an unbreakable bond.


Unfortunately, during my journey back to the United States, the canoe suffered damage. Determined to repair it, my dad took me to a hardware store to purchase glue. As we entered the store, I was overwhelmed by the sheer variety of glue available—wood glue, wallpaper glue, stained glue, and more, stacked high on shelves lining the aisles.


While my dad went off to find something for the garage door, I found myself lost in the maze of choices, unable to make a decision. I wandered aimlessly, absorbing the sights and sounds of the store, feeling a sense of detachment from the overwhelming selection.


Suddenly, an announcement over the intercom jolted me back to reality—my name being called to the front of the store. Hurrying to meet my dad, I found him waiting, visibly frustrated that I had wandered off. Despite his irritation, we made one more stop at a grocery store before heading home, where he instructed me to stay put while he ran inside.


As I sat alone in the car, I reflected on the unfamiliarity of it all, longing for the simplicity of life in Kiribati, where choices were fewer, and decisions were easier.


***


To navigate the unfamiliar terrain of my new American life and alleviate the profound homesickness that weighed on me, I turned to the internet in search of a connection to my Kiribati roots. Surprisingly, my exploration led me to an online community of I-Kiribati individuals residing outside of Kiribati, courtesy of an internet service provider reminiscent of the early days of the internet—America Online.


Through this virtual platform, I stumbled upon a revelation that both astonished and heartened me: there was an I-Kiribati residing in none other than Cincinnati, my new home in the United States. She had relocated from San Diego, where she had met her husband. Through her, I was introduced to a network of other I-Kiribati individuals living in the area, all of whom maintained a strong connection to their heritage and community through an online Kiribati platform. This newfound community became a lifeline for me, providing comfort and familiarity in the midst of my unfamiliar surroundings.


Within just 27 days of returning from my Peace Corps journey, I embarked on a new chapter of service through AmeriCorps. My assignment led me to a small liberal arts college in Pella, Iowa, where I took on the role of coordinating service learning initiatives. Despite throwing myself into this new role, I couldn't shake the hold that Kiribati had on my heart. To others, I might have appeared irrational, but the grip of homesickness persisted.


The weather in Iowa felt tepid compared to Kiribati's scorching heat, and I found myself recoiling at the sight of summer festival activities that seemed to squander precious drinking water on frivolous games. While everyone else sported shorts and tank tops, I remained bundled up in jeans and sweatshirts, earning me playful jabs about a supposed "third-world fever." 


Returning home had transformed me in ways I couldn't fully articulate. The specter of global warming loomed large in my mind, exacerbated by the knowledge of the environmental challenges facing my island home. While many dismissed climate change as a distant concern, I couldn't shake the urgency of the issue. Determined to do my part, I chose to walk to work every day, even in the harshest winter conditions. On days when the snow made the journey impassable, I resorted to sleeping in my makeshift office closet, equipped with a change of clothes for a quick shower at the school gym.


Despite my initial discomfort, professors at the college began to notice my unconventional habits and unique perspective, prompting them to invite me to speak in various classes about my experiences. While I initially felt embarrassed discussing topics like global warming, I found it much easier to share anecdotes about my life in Kiribati, the profound connections I formed with its people, and how the experience had transformed me.


As the year progressed, the college administration convinced me to create a video for the incoming class, part of the First Year Experience curriculum. The academic dean selected "The Future of Life," a documentary focusing on the threat of global warming, as a central theme. While initially hesitant, I realized that sharing my insights could potentially inspire others to take action and consider the environmental challenges facing our planet.


The weight of HIV/AIDS became even more burdensome than global warming during my time in Kiribati. As I neared the end of my service, I found myself spending countless days at the national hospital, supporting a host relative from one of my outer island families who was battling the disease. It was a grim sight: she lay in the patient ward, emaciated and weak, with little hope left.


In Kiribati, seeking medical help in such dire conditions often signaled a critical stage of illness. It was evident that she had delayed seeking treatment until it was too late. Witnessing her struggle in the hospital deepened my connection to the country and fueled my determination to make a difference.


When I wasn't grappling with the urgency of global warming, I dedicated my efforts to raising funds for a National HIV/AIDS Taskforce stigma reduction campaign. The experience at the hospital and my involvement in the campaign further solidified my commitment to advocating for change and addressing pressing health issues in Kiribati.


After completing my Master's degree in Applied Medical Anthropology at Oregon State University, with a focus on the escalating HIV/AIDS incidence and stigma in Kiribati, I returned to the country for fieldwork in 2004. Presenting my thesis findings in 2005, I couldn't help but notice a significant shift occurring in the landscape of Kiribati.


With each return trip, I observed a growing exodus of familiar faces leaving Kiribati for countries like Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, the United States, and even Cuba. As more people departed, houses became less crowded, and opportunities overseas beckoned.


However, it wasn't just the human population that was in flux. The physical environment was undergoing dramatic transformations as well. New breaker walls lined the narrow causeways and private backyards, offering protection against rising sea levels. Makeshift sandbag piles dotted the beaches, while trash piles were repurposed into habitable land spaces.


The encroachment of seawater became increasingly evident, with motes surrounding buildings that once stood on dry land. During high tides, entire plots of land vanished beneath the ocean's surface. The changing landscape served as a stark reminder of the environmental challenges facing Kiribati and its people.


Upon my return from Peace Corps service, my intense homesickness and yearning for a sense of belonging in the United States led me to seek out fellow I-Kiribati for that much-needed community connection. Six years later, I embarked on a Ph.D./MPH program at the University of Pittsburgh, where I intended to expand upon my MA thesis work focused on HIV/AIDS stigma reduction in Kiribati.


By the time I commenced my studies at Pitt, there had been significant progress in Kiribati's access to treatments for individuals living with HIV/AIDS—an achievement that was merely a distant hope when I first engaged with the task force.


However, during my second year of the program, my life took an unexpected turn when I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. This diagnosis necessitated significant adjustments both academically and personally. I now required weekly interferon injections, which had to be stored under precise refrigeration. Unfortunately, such medications were unavailable in Kiribati, and the promise of consistent access to refrigeration was uncertain.


Global warming remained a persistent concern for me, even a year after leaving Kiribati. I couldn't shake off the knowledge of my homeland's struggles with prolonged droughts and increasingly devastating king tides. Aware of the growing trend of migration to countries like New Zealand and the United States due to climate change-related issues, it frustrated me that our nation had yet to fully acknowledge the reality of this threat.


As I progressed into my second year of study, I made the decision to shift my research focus. This change led me to receive a Fulbright grant, allowing me to delve into the experiences of transnational I-Kiribati communities in New Zealand. It was a pivotal opportunity to explore the impact of climate change-induced migration on Kiribati's diaspora and their connections to their homeland.


Unbeknownst to me, my initial fervent search for fellow I-Kiribati in the United States following my Peace Corps service laid the foundation for a Ph.D./MPH study centered on population health and Kiribati migration in the face of escalating pressures from climate change. In hindsight, I realized that I could relate deeply to the experiences I imagined other migrants were undergoing – the yearning to connect with fellow I-Kiribati, the craving for Kiribati cuisine, and the longing to converse in our shared language. These emotions echoed the sentiments I first experienced upon my arrival in Kiribati as a Peace Corps Trainee. Over time, however, these feelings underwent a profound transformation, shaping and reshaping my identity.


Since my initial arrival in Kiribati, I have remained deeply tethered to this nation and its people for fifteen years. It has become an intrinsic part of who I am, intertwining with my personal journey in ways I could never have foreseen. Kiribati will forever hold a place within me, defining my perspective on the world and influencing the trajectory of my academic pursuits and research endeavors.


***

The land was once wealth to an I-Kiribati.  It was of high value and far-reaching importance.  Apart from being the basis of subsistence, it also held social, political, and legal significance, which bound families together (Talu, 1979: 68).  


In Kiribati, the health of the land serves as a traditional barometer of prosperity and societal standing, reflecting the overall social well-being of individuals, families, and the broader community. At the heart of Kiribati's social fabric lies the kainga, or family unit, which forms the cornerstone of social life. Across generations, families inherit and pass down land, creating an unbroken connection between the present and the past, and paving the way for the future. From birth to death, individuals are intertwined with the land, as it provides sustenance, security, and a profound sense of belonging.


While economic shifts have seen wealth transition from land to monetary assets in some regions, the spiritual bond between I-Kiribati and their ancestral land remains unwavering. Regardless of physical ownership, every I-Kiribati can trace their lineage back to their ancestral land, fostering a deep-seated connection that transcends mere ownership. Land not only sustains livelihoods by providing food and stability but also offers a profound sense of rootedness and identity.


In the face of changing environmental conditions, many I-Kiribati grapple with the prospect of leaving their ancestral lands. This upheaval evokes profound emotions, reflecting the profound attachment and reverence they hold for their land. As environmental challenges mount, the preservation of ancestral lands emerges as a poignant symbol of resilience and cultural identity for the I-Kiribati people.


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