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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

Land of soap eaters

They eat what? I exclaimed as Oten loaded my bags onto a rusty terminal scale.

“12.5 KG, you are all set!”

I received my claim tickets from the agent and turned back to Oten. I had never seen him look as serious as he did then. “I’m telling you, people there eat soap.”

I’d been to Abaiang and not once did I see or hear of anyone eating soap. He continued, “It is the southern villages where you find it most.” He knew I had never been to any of the southern villages. I began to worry. “They might try and feed it to you at your first bootaki.”

You’re kidding, right? They wouldn’t expect me to eat soap. Without a break in the conversation, “Yes, most surely they would!” As he balanced a kerosene stove and several buckets of food on my arms.

I suggest you try and ask for seconds.”

The only things I knew to eat soap in Abaiang were Jess’s rats. He jimmied a bar of soap into my kerosene stove, and catching my eye glace at it, “That is for good luck!” As I watched the overstuffed luggage rack slowly roll onto the tarmac.

Boarding a small sixteen-seat island hopper back to Abaiang, its well-worn seat covers were pinned to cushions that sunk into their metal frames. Buckled in we rolled to the end of the runway and turned around. ARE WE READY, yelled the co-pilot. Filled with the sound of propellers slicing the air just inches from our faces we yelled back, let’s go, and we were off.

Crossing over the turquoise blue lagoon, Tarawa shrunk behind us. As soon as we reached cruising altitude, we began to descend. Within seconds, coconut treetops buzzed past our eyes as we touched down on Abaiang. The plane taxied to the end of the landing strip before turning around. Heading towards the roofless brick building towards the center of the island, I wondered if this was a possible casualty of the storm we survived three months prior.

Propellers sputtered to a halt as families began to approach the plane. The cabin door opened, and all began to disembark. The atmosphere was cheerful as passengers reunited with friends and relatives. From the cargo deck, I kept my eyes open for anyone looking for a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Children held a keen interest in me. None had any idea who or what I was. Surely, I was a foreigner, but what kind? My dark brown skin almond-shaped eyes and black hair confused most Americans, I had seen it all before. I knew what was going through their minds. I smiled and said hello in Kiribati. This indeed confirmed that I was a foreigner. They smiled, laughed, and shouted, “hello foreigner” before giggling and running back into the arms accompanying adults.

No one, aside from the children, took interest in me. My teachers were not there, and after twenty minutes the airfield was empty. The two Peace Corps Volunteers who would have met me at the field were still in Tarawa awaiting a ferry that would bring more of my luggage which could not fit on the plane.

Not knowing where to go or what to do, I sat on a bucket in the middle of the field until I had to seek shelter under trees from a torrential downpour. I sat, waiting for something anything to happen.

 — — — — — 

Whether folklore or legend, I later learned that Abaiang’s soap consumption dated back to the early days of contact. Enticed into blackbirding (forced labor), largely by Peruvian traders, I-Kiribati filled labor needs for economic benefit. Interaction with the labor trade led to further contact with missionaries and colonizers. Arriving with intentions of proselytizing and converting, missionaries brought cloth, tools, tinned foods, soaps, and other products. Enticed by its smell, villagers mistook it for food, eventually developing an acquired taste for it.

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