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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

God Said No Basketball on Sundays

On that Sunday, aside from attending church services, there were no formal social engagements on the island. However, my fellow teachers had arranged for some entertainment by hiring a DVD player and procuring another bootleg film to screen after lunch. As with previous maneaba movie sessions, the film was a foreign production with subtitles in a language unfamiliar to most viewers. 


As the movie played, the audience was filled with curiosity, prompting questions about the characters, their actions, and the storyline. This particular film hailed from Hamburg, Germany, courtesy of a local family who had a son working on ships for the South Pacific Marine Services. In an effort to generate income, they rented out movie equipment and films to the community—a common practice among affluent families who often had relatives working as overseas seafarers. 


This makeshift cinema experience provided a welcome diversion and a glimpse into distant cultures, offering a brief escape from the daily routines of life on the remote island.


Seafarers' wages constituted a substantial increase compared to the national per capita income. The annual earnings for unskilled seafarers averaged around AUD 6000, while skilled employment in Kiribati ranged from $12,000 to AUD 21,000 annually. In contrast, the average annual household expenditure stood at AUD 9,400. 


Indeed, remittances in Kiribati played a pivotal role in supporting various aspects of life, including education, community events, religious obligations, and basic living expenses. Despite the benefits they brought, there were also challenges associated with dependency and the pressures that came with relying on external financial support. While residents of outer islands generally required fewer financial resources compared to those in more urban areas like South Tarawa, remittances were still essential for meeting daily needs, especially concerning contributions to church activities. For seafarer families, these remittances constituted a significant portion of their income and also contributed to a broader network of individuals who indirectly benefited through established channels of redistribution.


Indeed, globally, remittances have played a significant role in supplementing individual household incomes. In places like South Tarawa, there has been a noticeable shift towards a cash-centric economy, moving away from traditional barter systems. This transition mirrors trends observed in other Pacific Island societies and has had profound effects on social and economic behaviors across the region. A Kiribati seafarer can provide valuable insights into the impact of remittances on his and his family's lives, shedding light on how these financial contributions shape livelihoods and community dynamics.


I will spend a year or more on the ship during one contract period, all for money… for my family. It helps them here.  I made 600 dollars a month working on the ship a few years ago.  Now, I get more than a thousand each month.  At least there is something for my baby and family at home… Maybe I will go to New Zealand and find a job there. I could send money from there. I think that would be better than the ship.  My cousin lives in New Zealand; maybe I live with her.


After the first fight scene, my attention waned, and I found myself scanning the compound. Across the street, I spotted an old basketball court, a pleasant surprise since I had brought a basketball without knowing there was a court nearby. Eager to play, I waited patiently for the movie to end and then approached Meekei, suggesting we shoot some hoops together. However, I soon learned that the island strictly adhered to a literal interpretation of the Bible on Sundays, and Meekei hesitated to join me in playing basketball. With encouragement from other teachers, we headed to the court while they remained in the Maneaba. However, the scorching heat cut our game short, much to Meekei's relief. Unaware of the island's Sabbath observance, my actions led to questions about my religious affiliation from the teachers.


This island was staunchly devoted to Protestantism, showing little to no presence of Catholicism and only a handful of Catholics, if any. The people of Tamana took great pride in their affiliation with the Kiribati Protestant Church (KPC). When Protestant missionaries arrived on the island, they encountered a fascinating clash of cultures when they sought to convert the native women. While the missionaries advocated for the use of moomoos to cover the female body, the women found them uncomfortable and impractical for tending to their children. In defiance, they adapted the clothing by cutting holes for their breasts, a move that incensed the missionaries when they discovered it during church services. Later, when Catholic missionaries arrived, the islanders vehemently rejected Catholicism, going so far as to resort to violence against those attempting conversion. My inadvertent breach of Sabbath tradition left me anxious about being perceived as a religious outsider or even suspected of covertly promoting Catholicism the following Sunday.


***

On the equator, daylight savings time is nonexistent. As a result, the sun consistently rises at 6 am and sets at 6 pm every single day of the year. True to this rhythm, the sounds of the village roused me promptly at 6 am the following morning. The air was filled with the familiar cacophony of chickens clucking, roosters crowing, and the rhythmic clinking of bottles as my neighbor ascended his coconut tree to harvest the day’s toddy. Much like maple trees, palm trees produce sap, which is known as te karewe or toddy. This fresh liquid is gathered daily and imparts a unique flavor to any dish or beverage it touches. If allowed to ferment over a couple of days, it transforms into an alcoholic beverage called te kaokioki or palm wine. Additionally, toddy can be processed into a gelatinous syrup or solid sweet through an extended boiling process.


Daily toddy collection is a ritual that occurs both at sunrise and sunset. Men venture up coconut trees equipped with glass bottles clutched in one hand and a knife clenched between their teeth. Scaling to the top of the tree, they meticulously exchange full bottles with cleaned and emptied ones, ensuring a continuous flow of sap. With deft precision, they recut palm fronds to maintain a fresh supply, then deftly tap one end of a palm leaf into the frond, directing the other end into the waiting bottle to collect the sap.


Throughout this process, conversation flows freely, and sometimes songs join in as the toddy cutters engage with one another. The symphony of their work sets off a lively chorus, blending with the clinking of bottles, the crowing of roosters, the grunting of pigs, the barking of dogs, the cries of babies, and the occasional laughter or shouts of men, creating an extravagant alarm clock that reverberates through the village.


The morning bustle below mirrors the intensity of toddy collection above. Mothers ignite cooking fires, their hands deftly arranging kindling and fuel to prepare breakfast. Meanwhile, teenagers tend to the task of cooking rice or brewing tea, filling kettles with water for the morning meal. Older children wield dried coconut brooms, sweeping fallen branches and leaves from the ground, ensuring cleanliness around the village homes.


Amidst this orchestrated chaos, younger children dart about the yard, equipped with locally crafted rubbish baskets, eagerly gathering the scattered debris into neat piles. Utilizing harvested coconuts, water, and remnants of the prior day's meals, older boys concoct a hearty mixture to feed the family's pigs.

In a matter of minutes, the entire village springs to life, each member engrossed in their respective tasks, seamlessly weaving together the fabric of daily life in this vibrant community.


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