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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

Returning home

I waited two years to hear “On behalf of Air Pacific we welcome you to Tarawa where the local time is five minutes after eleven o’clock.”

In 2004, I returned to complete a summer internship with UNAIDS-Pacific and the Kiribati HIV/AIDS Taskforce. I worked on public health interventions targeting stigma reduction in youth populations on Tarawa. Then, the stigma against people living with HIV/AIDS was high. Billboards tied the virus to death, churches associated it with immorality, and fear of backlash prevented open dialogue in schools, contributing to misinformation, anger, and fear. For individuals living with HIV/AIDS in Kiribati, shame proved deadlier than the virus. A positive status led some to the worst place possible.

On the car ride from the airport to the house, Rubenang and Kuribaba pointed out short seawalls made out of petrified sandbags along certain parts of the road. “They started making these in certain villages that have been flooded many times by the ocean.” Sandbags upon sandbags three feet tall and higher appeared over the past two years to protect the land from the ocean. It was evident that Kiribati was experiencing worsening conditions of something the world did not believe to be real.

Quickly switching the conversation, Rubenang said “I always wondered where we came from, and how did we get here today? I know we are Kiribati people, but where did we come from?”

She was pining for a story I did not have. As does in many cultures around the world, storytelling holds the unique ability to connect. They have a way of placing acute meanings of life on vast socioecological canvases. Lines of narratives, verses, parables, stanzas, and paragraphs weave secrets, knowledge, recipes, laughter, sorrow, joy, and pain between time, space, and place. To her, I of course, would have the answer, with all the knowledge I accumulated while in the states. The truth was, I had no clue. I think somewhere in Southeast Asia, I replied. Content with my guess, we moved onto the next topic of conversation, a pizza dinner. Three years later, I would find a more detailed explanation of the peopling of the pacific in the University of Pittsburgh, while pursuing an extra MPH and Ph.D.

The Pacific basin occupies one-third of the Earth’s surface, an area greater than all land above sea level on Earth (Thomas, 1967). However, it is a mere fraction of what it was some 200 million years ago when the Earth’s continents were then all together. Over millions of years, the Earth’s conveyor belt, the East Pacific Rise pushed all continents together into a single landmass known as Pangaea. Countering this action was the Mid-Atlantic Ridge some 150 million years ago, driving the Americas westward and overriding the Pacific Plate (McEvedy, 1998).

Belt-like conveyor movement created the Hawai’ian Archipelago and many other island chains throughout the pacific. Deep troughs, volcanic islands, submerged mountains, and coral atolls constitute a diverse Pacific basin. Darwin theorized the development of coral atolls through evolutionary stages. Volcanic islands, large, rugged, and protected by barrier reefs are the first stage. Through millennia, high islands decrease in size and fall below the sea, creating an enclosed lagoon surrounded by coral atolls on top of ancient barrier reefs that rise just inches above sea-level.

With each returning, I noticed more and more people leaving Kiribati for other nations. Houses didn’t become less crowded, but the face changed as more took opportunities overseas. With each return, more breaker walls lined narrow causeways, and makeshift sandbags lined backyard beaches. The land was changing, and people were moving.

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