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  • Writer's pictureMichael Roman

Tamana Island

The nearly five-hour flight culminated in a rapid descent onto Tamana's airstrip, marking the beginning of my journey on this small island. From the vantage point of the plane, Tamana appeared shockingly different from the other atolls I had seen before. Unlike the familiar crescent-shaped formations with partially enclosed lagoons, Tamana seemed to lack any such feature. The absence of a lagoon left me wondering how the islanders accessed their daily sustenance, pondering whether they had to venture out into the open ocean for their food.

As we drew closer, a prominent white steeple pierced the skyline, standing tall above the coconut tree line. A symbol of the missionary influence on local life, the steeple served as a visual beacon, guiding visitors like me to the heart of the island's community.

Upon landing, the steeple's commanding presence seemed to welcome us all, casting a sense of authority and reassurance over our arrival. With a mixture of anticipation and curiosity, I prepared to disembark the plane and immerse myself in the unique rhythms and traditions of life on Tamana Island.

Unlike my arrival in Abaiang, where the airfield was deserted, it seemed as though the entire population of Tamana had gathered to welcome me. As the plane taxied towards the terminal, I could see my head teacher, all six of my fellow teachers, and their families waiting eagerly. The rarity of the plane's arrival, occurring only once a week, likely contributed to the large turnout.

As we approached the terminal, I spotted Zenida waiting in a kiakia, accompanied by a group of Tamanan women. By the time the plane had come to a halt, she and numerous other islanders had already made their way onto the airstrip. With the opening of the cabin door, a rush of hot air greeted me, signaling the warmth of the island's embrace.

Descending the plane's steps, I was met by Zenida and Kiati, my new head teacher, who greeted me with smiles and warm welcomes. The sense of hospitality and community spirit was palpable, filling me with a sense of gratitude and excitement for the journey ahead on Tamana Island.

The island's remote location, far removed from the central islands like Tarawa, meant that its climate was vastly different from what I had grown accustomed to. As I stepped off the plane, I was greeted by a dry, sweltering heat that enveloped me. The air was parched, carrying with it a dusty haze that hung over the landscape. The once lush greenery had faded to shades of brown, withered by the prolonged dry spell that had gripped the island for the past few months.

Amidst this arid landscape, Ari'i, the island council driver, emerged to greet me, his presence a welcome sight amidst the desolation. With a friendly smile, he swiftly grabbed my bags from the airplane and motioned towards a waiting blue pickup truck. I could see my fellow teachers and a group of children gathered inside, their faces eager with anticipation as they awaited my arrival. With a sense of both excitement and trepidation, I followed Ari'i towards the truck, ready to embark on this new chapter of my journey on Tamana Island.

The brief journey from the airstrip to the school compound, spanning just two minutes, served as a stark reminder of the compactness of life on Tamana Island—truly one of the world's smallest inhabited islands. The airstrip, located in Bakarawa, belonged to the northern village, while my school, the government station, and the Protestant church were situated in Bakaka, the central village. Barebuka village, positioned at the southern end, completed the island's modest geography.

The historical legacy of colonialism loomed large over Tamana, as it did over much of Kiribati. During the British colonial era, government stations were established to oversee colonial affairs, coexisting alongside traditional island governance structures such as the kauntira n unimwane (elderly men's council) and te maneaba, which managed local affairs. Missionaries, upon their arrival, often erected churches within these government centers, intertwining religious and colonial influences.

Though Kiribati gained independence from colonial rule in 1979, the vestiges of this dual system of governance persisted upon my arrival on Tamana. It was evident that the island's way of life remained deeply rooted in its colonial past, serving as a poignant reminder of the complex historical forces that shaped its present reality.

Tamana Island was home to ten distinct village groups, each with its own unique identity and communal traditions. Regular meetings were held within their respective uma ni waa, or canoe houses, serving as hubs for social interaction and community decision-making.

In Kiribati culture, communal affiliations held significant importance, shaping the identity and relationships of individuals within the society. Unlike the emphasis on individualism prevalent in the United States, Kiribati prioritized collectivism, where the collective "we" held greater significance than the individual "I." This collective mindset fostered a strong sense of belonging and interconnectedness among community members, as they worked together towards common goals and shared responsibilities.

In essence, the fabric of Kiribati society was woven with threads of collectivism, where the strength of community bonds and shared endeavors formed the cornerstone of everyday life.

On Tamana Island, the layout of the land reflected the intricate balance between the practicalities of daily life and the deeply rooted spiritual and familial connections of its inhabitants. The living side of the island, situated on the left, served as the bustling heart of social activity. Here, one could find a vibrant tapestry of community life, with houses, churches, tan maneaba (meeting houses), stores, and tan uma ni waa (canoe houses) dotting the landscape. It was a bustling hub where people gathered for meetings, worship, commerce, and socializing, embodying the lively spirit of Tamana's residents.

In contrast, the right side of the island held a more sacred significance, serving as family bush land. Here, amidst the tranquil foliage, lay family burial plots and sacred spaces where the spirits of the island were believed to reside. It was a place steeped in tradition and reverence, where the ties of kinship and ancestral connection were honored and preserved. This side of the island carried a solemn air, a testament to the profound respect and reverence with which the islanders held their ancestral heritage and spiritual beliefs.

Together, these two sides of Tamana Island formed a harmonious whole, each playing a distinct role in the island's cultural and spiritual landscape. They stood as a testament to the rich tapestry of life and tradition that flourished within the bounds of this small yet vibrant community.

As our truck traversed through the bustling streets of Tamana's middle village, Ari'i, whom I would later come to regard as a site uncle, provided me with invaluable insights into the layout and landmarks of Bakaka, my government village. He pointed out that the major intersection we had crossed marked the boundaries of Bakaka, serving as both its beginning and end.

Bakaka, the heart of community life on the island, was home to essential institutions such as the government station, primary and junior-senior secondary schools, a co-op store, the clinic, and the church. As we pulled into the primary school compound, located a mere 100 meters from the intersection, Ari'i gestured towards Zenida's house, indicating its proximity. He then informed me that the clinic was just another 50 meters down the road.

The knowledge of being in close proximity to another volunteer, especially one as familiar as Zenida, brought a sense of comfort and reassurance amidst the unfamiliarity of my new surroundings. With Ari'i's guidance and the warmth of community hospitality, I felt increasingly at ease as I embarked on this new chapter of my journey on Tamana Island.

Upon arriving at my new house, I was greeted by a young man named Meekei, who was waiting on the steps with a warm smile. With practiced efficiency, he handed the baby to one of my fellow teachers and proceeded to unload my bags. As I took in my new surroundings, I couldn't help but feel a sense of awe at the sight of my new residence—a remarkable split-level house that exceeded my expectations.

The house boasted an enclosed porch, providing a perfect spot for drying clothes, as Zenida remarked, albeit in jest about the rarity of rain. Moving further inside, I discovered a spacious bedroom with wall shelves and a sizable living area on the upper level, offering ample space for relaxation and storage. Descending to the lower level, I found a well-appointed kitchen, bathroom, and even an indoor water pump—an incredible luxury facilitated by the proximity of the well just a few meters away from the house. It felt as though I had stumbled upon Kiribati housing heaven, with every amenity at my disposal.

Before I could fully unpack and settle in, Kiati extended a warm invitation to join the teachers and their families for a welcome feast at the school's maneaba. It was a gesture of hospitality that further underscored the sense of community and camaraderie that permeated life on Tamana Island. With a grateful heart, I accepted the invitation, eager to partake in the warmth and camaraderie of my new colleagues and neighbors.

My welcome lunch on Tamana Island presented a stark contrast to the one I experienced in Abaiang. This time, the atmosphere was characterized by a concerted effort to communicate in English, with Kiati graciously offering to translate whenever needed. The pervasive shyness among the I-Kiribati was palpable, making Kiati's presence invaluable in breaking the ice and facilitating interaction.

In Kiribati culture, shyness often served as a valid excuse for avoiding situations one felt uncomfortable in. It was not uncommon for individuals to cite shyness as a reason for refraining from speaking, participating, or engaging in various activities. This reluctance to draw attention to oneself, even if proficient in English, was evident in the reluctance of some to speak the language. Saying "I mama" (I am shy) became a familiar refrain, masking underlying complexities of social dynamics.

I observed instances where individuals chose not to speak English, not due to inability but rather to avoid appearing superior to others who didn't understand the language. This nuanced social dynamic added an interesting layer to my welcome feast, where I encountered minimal shyness among the attendees. The shared sense of camaraderie and warmth transcended any barriers, fostering an atmosphere of inclusivity and mutual respect that resonated deeply with me.

As I entered the maneaba, Meekei, who was four years my senior and had two children of his own, graciously invited me to join his family. We engaged in conversation, seamlessly switching between Kiribati and English as needed, relying on our respective broken language skills to communicate. Despite the language barrier, our interaction flowed smoothly, fostering a sense of camaraderie and mutual understanding.

Meekei's children, curious and intrigued by my presence, were fascinated by the unfamiliar sight of facial hair and the hair on my legs—features uncommon among the I-Kiribati. Drawing from my past experiences with the Mauri Mafia, I welcomed their inquisitive touches and playful exploration with ease.

As other members of the community drifted in and out of the maneaba, I observed fleeting glances and hesitant approaches, eventually giving way to warm embraces and curious gazes. Welcoming whoever dared to approach, I found myself surrounded by a sea of children, each eager to connect and interact in their own unique way.

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