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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

Ioane's Coconut Grove

I learned how to climb a coconut tree! Ioane, my eldest brother, taught me. He was deaf and spoke through a sign language I did not know. However, it was because of him that I found myself picking up on his sign language faster than I was learning the Kiribati language.

When evening came, he would always leave to cut toddy, a tart liquid produced from the coconut tree. One evening, he invited me to go to the bush with him to cut. He proposed biking rather than walking, so using a cousin’s bicycle and my father’s machete for a makeshift safety handle, we took off to our family’s plot of land at the end of the island.

Endless taro pits and rows of coconut trees awaited us after a brief ride. The land was beautiful! Pointing to a tree, then himself, he communicated that he would climb up and do something at the top. He then looked to me, touched my feet, and patted the ground. I was to stay put. Understanding, I nodded my head, and he was off. Smiling, he looked at me before starting his climb, during his ascent, and after he reached the top. He was worried that I would follow him up the tree. Twisting two coconuts from the palm bases, he threw these down before seemingly gliding down the tree; eyes still fixed on me as I stood in the spot he planted my feet.

At the base of the tree was the machete I carried to the grove. With two swift strikes of the blade, he sliced the coconuts open and handed me a moimoto, just like the coconut drinks we received upon arrival in Kiribati. We walked to around the grove, looking at the different plants and trees enjoying our moimotos. When finished, he pointed to me and the trees as if to say, your turn now!

I was up for the challenge. I rock climbed in the states; a coconut tree was nothing more than a thin mountain. I headed to the base, refusing to look down until I reached the top, just like I did back home. Ioane was making sounds the whole time I climbed. Yells grew louder the further I climbed. From the top, I could see Ioane frantically ordering me to descend. The only problem — I didn’t know-how. I could not sit back in my harness and let the rope do the work. I tried to do as he did and wrapped my legs around the tree to slide down. I had significant problems the following day but did not let anyone know.

Maybe I misinterpreted him when he pointed to me. Perhaps he wanted to know if I wanted another moimoto or help with carrying coconuts back home. Either way, there was no misunderstanding him when I made it back down. He was relieved that I was safe, but entirely not happy with me. It was the first and last time I went to the family’s coconut grove.

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