Updated: May 16, 2020
It was small and round with no lagoon, but after four and a half hours of flying, seeing Tamana from above was a relief to my eyes. All atolls I had seen before were thin and narrow, crescent-shaped with a partially enclosed lagoon. Tamana did not have a lagoon. The white church steeple visible from 200 feet above the Earth indicated a robust religious presence on the island.
When we landed, it seemed the entire island came out to greet the plane. Flights to Tamana were rare, and plane days drew crowds.
The island’s climate was much different from the northern islands. The air felt drier and hotter. The land was dusty, and what grass there was, was sparse and brown.
“Hey! Welcome to Tamana,” Corey, shouted as she approached the plane. A fellow K-27 volunteer, she had been living on the island for almost two months.
"How was the trip?"
Long, we had to land in Tabetuea to refuel.
"Yup, Tamana is a bit further away than Abaiang, she joked. You'll get used to it. All your teachers are here to welcome you, come on, let's go!"
Tauro, the island council driver, grabbed my bags from the and pointed me towards a blue pickup truck filled with people. Walking towards the truck, Corey told me that they were my fellow teachers. We loaded up my bags and jumped on for a trip around the island, just like we did in Maiana.
With just three villages, Bakarawa, Bakaka, and Barabuka, the island was smaller than I had pictured it to be. Riding through the northern village of Bakarawa, where the airfield was, I saw familiar housing structures and large maneabas.
Under British colonial rule, a government station was established in the central village. I knew we were in Bakaka when I saw the large white church I had seen from the air. Unlike Abaiang, there were no Catholic, Latter-Day Saint, or Seventh Day Adventist Churches; the only religion practiced here was Protestant. The pastor was very proud to be an entirely dry and Protestant island, telling me that his ancestors stoned Catholic Missionaries who tried to convert them to a different religion. I hid the fact that I was Catholic.
In 1979 British colonialism ended, but despite the twenty-one-year absence of colonial rule, colonial past remained alive and well.
“That canoe house belongs to Nanton, that one is Bonnonano’s, that’s Bareoti’s, and that one belongs to Nei Marau,” Corey yelled as we passed through the village. Each village group had a canoe house. “Because we live in the government center, we belong to Nei Marau.” Our communal group composed of mostly government workers who were not from Tamana. Our affiliation defined us as much as we defined our affiliation.
We turned into a cool breeze and a beautiful white sandy beach at the end of the southern village. Ekuator’s meeting house was the last house before crossing over.
“You just saw the living side of the island, now the spirit side,” a voice yelled. The living side housed all the facets of island life — houses, stores, maneabas, and the church. The other side of the island was all bush. Here, burial plots, spirits, and animals resided.
The road was bumpier. Overgrown vegetation blocked the small path that led through. It was clear that not many came to this side of the island. Exiting at the end of the airstrip, we crossed back over to the northern village before heading home.
The only intersection marked the beginning of Bakaka village. “And just over there,” Corey shouted, “is where Bakaka ends,” pointing to the church. Roughly fifty meters from the intersection was the primary school compound, and Corey’s house was another 30 meters down the road.
Biita, son of Tauro, husband of a fellow teacher and next-door neighbor, was sitting on the steps holding an infant in his arms. With an infectious smile, he approached the truck.
“Come, let’s look at your new place!”
The first room was an enclosed porch, a perfect place to park my new bright orange bicycle! Down the narrow hallway and to my left was a bedroom, complete with shelving and mosquito net hooks! Past this room, an enormous room, furnished with a table. This was the perfect room to place my blow-up plastic chair, I thought. The upper level was covered wall to wall with thick woven pandanus matting, covering thousands of raised dried palm spines.
On the right, an opening to the lower level. Past the three steps, and to the right, was a wooden food cabinet. On the opposite end, a bathroom and a Tamana (water well) pump. I couldn’t believe it; I had indoor plumbing! I felt like I had died and gone to heaven.
Miss Uriane, my new headteacher, was a young woman in her 30s with children of her own. Like Mr. Patrick, she spoke perfect English with less of a British accent. “Mike, come over to the school maneaba when you are done laying out your bags so we can have a little lunch with you and introduce you to everyone’s families.” Everyone spoke in Kiribati, and if I was not able to understand, Miss Uriane was more than willing to translate. Biita was six years older than I and had one small child of his own. He invited me to sit with his family when I entered. We chatted in both Kiribati and English since both of us had broken Kiribati and English skills; we fell back on our first language when needed. Obsessed with my leg hair, a rare thing in Kiribati, his son petted me, attracting others to join. Eventually, I was covered with children.
Photo Credit: Jane Resture