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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

Straight out of Tamana

I left Tamana shortly after Christmas. The overwhelming amount of people, cars, and things in Tarawa always carried a certain level of culture shock. The different kind of life lived there compared with life in Tamana was overwhelming at points. With each return, I felt I was watching the growth of poverty in an economically impoverished nation. No longer solely defined by economic factors in my mind, I saw poverty differently. It was more defined by distance.

Those who lived in Tarawa joked about us living backward lives. We lived without electricity and running water. We didn’t have access to buses, cold drinks, or computers. That, however, didn’t make us backward or lesser of people.

My connection to others in Tarawa was non-existent. If I had no money, I could not survive.

On Tamana, we survived by communal affiliations and natural resources. I may have seen things differently if I lived on Tarawa, but I didn’t. All I knew was Tarawa volunteers needed money to live.

Turiia, a resident of the southern village, moved to Tarawa, hoping to find a job and start a new life on the big island. She relocated to a house of ten people. Only two worked. Pitying her situation, another household of relatives took her in.

“Family is family, we had to help,” her uncle stated. Deeply ingrained notions of kinship obligations and social responsibility were not lost in Tarawa; they were complicated by money.

“When there was no money, life was easier. If hungry, you fished. If tired, you slept. If sad, you talked to people. Here, money feeds you. It pays for your life. Your life belongs to money. If you don’t have money, you don’t have life. We had to help her.”

Overstaying one’s welcome was a common occurrence resulting in resentment, and forcing individuals to return if not attending school or economically contributing to the household. This was life on Tarawa.

Though life in Tamana centered less on money, it did have its place. Money paid for school, church offerings, and imported materials. Ironically, canned mackerel in tomato sauce was one of the most popular imported items. The canned fish carried a level of prestige fresh fish did not have.

Wild fish was free and everywhere. Canned fish was limited and came with a price. No one went hungry in Tamana, the sea, and the land provided. Fishing in Tarawa was difficult. Polluted waters created unhealthy environments, forcing fishermen to venture beyond the reef. Some got lost at sea, trying to feed their families and bring in a source of income.

I saw great value in the Tamana lifestyle. Outer island living did not demand unsafe practices for survival. Life was not backward, it was familiar and comfortable. After almost two years in the outer islands, life in Tarawa was discombobulating. Too fast, too different, and too expensive; I was proud to be a volunteer from Tamana.

Before leaving, I reconnected with my Tarawa family. We had another pizza night with Coke and sweets for everyone. Rubenang surprised me with her version of dessert, bananas on top of vanilla ice cream!

With a liking for sweets and no teeth, this was her mother’s favorite dessert. Staying up all night, telling stories, my family brought me to the airport before the sun rose, and promised to pick me up when I returned in three months. Saying goodbye again felt different. It felt as if I left another piece of my heart with them.

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