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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

Smokin' for the Gods

With a mix of anticipation and apprehension, all 27 Peace Corps Trainees (PCTs) and 12 training staff members boarded a cargo ship bound for Maiana Island, situated directly south of Tarawa. Each of us was assigned a host family for the next several months, with host families spread across five villages, each accommodating four to six volunteers.


As we embarked on this next stage of our training, emotions ran high. Excitement mingled with concerns as we prepared to immerse ourselves in the Host Family Visit (HVV) training. Initial encounters with our host families left us with the impression that they were eager to welcome us as their new "children," while the trainers themselves seemed relieved to leave behind the hustle and bustle of Tarawa. However, beneath the surface, there lingered a sense of apprehension about what lay ahead.


Taking a group of 27 young adults to unfamiliar territories, with limited ability to communicate with the local population and even less knowledge of basic necessities such as using a pit latrine, felt like the premise of a reality TV show. Yet, this was not scripted entertainment; it was the reality of our new life as Peace Corps volunteers.


To reach Maiana, we embarked on the Nei Matangare, a large ship affectionately known as the "smiling woman." This vessel was sizable enough to accommodate trucks on its deck and cargo containers in its belly. Its sheer size made it difficult to detect any motion from the waves, but the Peace Corps had thoughtfully provided me with motion sickness medicine before our departure from Tarawa.


"Quickly now!" Amanda urged, reminding us that the ship had numerous stops to make along its route. After dropping us off, it would continue on to the southern Gilberts, where it would unload its imported cargo and purchase copra from outer island cooperatives.


This was the first time I had encountered the phrase "hurry up" in Kiribati, and it felt like a call to action amidst the otherwise leisurely pace of island life. Everything seemed to operate on "island time" in Kiribati, a stark contrast to the fast-paced lifestyle I was accustomed to back home.


The journey itself lasted only a few hours, but upon reaching Maiana, we encountered a delay. We had to wait in the lagoon for several additional hours until high tide, allowing the ship to maneuver past the reef plateau and unload vehicles directly onto dry land. 


As we idled in the lagoon, my motion sickness began to resurface, prompting me to retreat to the edges of the boat. I eagerly awaited the moment when I could set foot on solid ground once more. Eventually, I became the first to disembark from the ship, filled with gratitude for the stability of terra firma beneath my feet.


Our destination was Tebwangetua village, where the boat docked. Once the unloading was complete, Peace Corps vehicles were on hand to shuttle volunteers to their respective host villages. Those residing in the northern villages were dropped off first. Assigned to a family in the island's southernmost village, I had ample time to recuperate before embarking on yet another journey in a moving vehicle.


As the sun dipped below the horizon, casting a warm glow over the ocean, my village cohort of six loaded our bags onto the Peace Corps truck and set off for our new homes in Bubutei Meiaki Village, the southernmost settlement on the island. By the time we arrived, darkness had enveloped the village, but we were greeted warmly by our host families.


Since my family's house was second to last in the village, I had the opportunity to meet all the families along the way. Each encounter served as a stepping stone in my journey to understand Kiribati culture, or "katei." While each of us volunteers wanted to extend the same warm greetings an American would offer new friends, we were mindful that cultural norms in Kiribati might interpret such gestures differently. Uncertain whether to kiss, hug, shake hands, or simply wave, we all felt a bit out of place.


In my first two weeks in the country, I quickly learned that the I-Kiribati people valued modesty and reservedness. Public displays of affection, such as holding hands or hugging, were rare occurrences. When I met my host father, Tateka, and my brother, Ngao, we exchanged nods of acknowledgment and shook hands in a manner that felt respectful and appropriate.


After introductions were made, we gathered my bags and carried them to my new "kiakia," a traditional dwelling built specifically for me by my host family. It was a humbling and heartwarming moment, marking the beginning of my immersion into the rich culture and traditions of Kiribati.


Under the soft glow of the almost full moon, the short walk from the truck to the kiakia felt tranquil and serene. The walls of the kiakia were crafted from lashed coconut spines, while its roof consisted of woven pandanus thatch. Raised three feet above the ground, the structure exuded a rustic charm that seemed to blend seamlessly with the natural surroundings.


To my surprise, my host father had ingeniously rigged up an old car battery to power a fluorescent light bulb inside the kiakia. Using recycled frayed wiring, he had managed to create a rudimentary electrical system that illuminated the small dwelling. I couldn't help but wonder where he had acquired the idea and materials for such a setup. Perhaps, I speculated, the Peace Corps had informed our host families of Americans' preference for reading at night.


Tateka beamed with pride as he demonstrated the electrically enhanced features of my new home. With a simple flip of a switch, the interior of the kiakia was bathed in light. However, our moment of excitement was interrupted by the sudden appearance of a white scorpion, its stinger poised menacingly in our direction.


Though I felt a surge of fear coursing through me, I managed to maintain a composed exterior. Frozen in place, I watched as Tateka swiftly moved to dispatch the intruder with his bare hand. In a swift motion, he squashed the scorpion, holding up its lifeless body for me to see.


In perfect English, he uttered a single word, "Scorpion," as he presented the creature to me. Grateful for his quick action, I murmured a faint "thank you" in Kiribati, still processing the unexpected encounter with the unwelcome visitor.


That evening, my new family gathered in the bwia, which served as the heart of household activity, much like the maneaba in the village. Here, all social interactions took place, and it served multiple purposes—it was the living room, front porch, bedroom, and dining room rolled into one.


Accompanied by my brother, I was introduced to my extended family, which now comprised seven times more members than my biological family. Despite the language barrier, I managed to exchange greetings and learn the names of everyone present. However, sitting under the scrutiny of thirty pairs of eyes on one end of the bwia made me feel increasingly uncomfortable. The awkwardness of the situation only added to my exhaustion.


After enduring polite smiles and nods for about ten minutes, I mustered the courage to ask Ngao if I could retire to my kiakia for some rest. As I lay beneath the mosquito net, I could hear the family's lively chatter continuing in the bwia, punctuated by occasional laughter. I longed to understand their conversations and express my gratitude for their hospitality, but the language barrier remained insurmountable.


Before succumbing to sleep, I made a mental note of the words "kiakia" and "bwia," symbols of my newfound home and the central hub of family life in Kiribati.  The Kiribati language's simplicity, with only 13 letters comprising 5 vowels and 7 consonants, belies its nuances. Vowel placement and pronunciation are crucial, especially for foreigners, or I-Matangs, who often struggle with mispronouncing consonants.


A simple mispronunciation can lead to confusion and misunderstanding. For instance, the word "bwia" (pronounced bwee-ah), referring to a family living room-like structure, takes on a completely different meaning if the "w" is not pronounced. Pronouncing it as "bua" (pronounced boo-ah) can give the impression of being lost or misplaced.


One of my village mates experienced this firsthand when he mistakenly pronounced "bwia" as "bua." His host family misinterpreted his words and believed he was lost, leading to much sympathy and confusion among family members as they tried to locate him.


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