The next mission
After being introduced to Dr. Steven Ybarrola, chair of the Anthropology program, he suggested we meet for further discussion. At the time, I had no idea what Anthropology was. All I knew was that he took an interest in what I was doing with the international students on campus. He informed about Anthropology and more specifically cultural anthropology. Broadly, it was the study of humanity, and anthropologists did something called fieldwork. Anthropology in the Pacific was seminal in the formation of Cultural Anthropology. Fascinated I asked enquired more until he asked. “Have you ever thought about going back to Kiribati?” Dr. Ybarrola seemed to know exactly what my heart desired. “Your work seems to tie in well with applied medical anthropology.”
Though global warming weighed heavily on my mind, HIV/AIDS weighed even more. Before leaving Kiribati, I spent several hours in the hospital with my Maiana family. Teresia, my Maiana host mom, was not doing well. Thin, frail, with little energy, doctors said her lungs were failing. I spent most of the time outside with family seemingly just waiting for the inevitable. In between store runs, I would wonder the open walkway corridors with my brother. “She doesn’t want to be here. She wants to be home, in Maiana, on her land.” He would tell me repeatedly. “People don’t come here to get better, they come here to die.”
On one of our walks I saw a man I thought I knew in a wheelchair. Still and alone, in the middle of an empty walkway, I gravitated towards him. I felt Atiia’s hand grab my bicep, “No, don’t.” My brother whispered in my ear, “He has AIDS.” I don’t know why this shocked me, I worked with people living with HIV and AIDS for years in the states, but it did. How could HIV/AIDS be in Kiribati? How could I, after almost two years, not know anyone living with it here? Who was that man, and why did Atiia have so much fear? Questioning everything that happened in that split second and balancing it with why I was in the hospital in the first place, I avoided confrontation and I walked on the opposite side of the courtyard towards the family.
“There is an applied anthropology program at Oregon State University that holds interests in your HIV/AIDS advocacy. I think you should investigate it for next year. I and many faculty members would be happy to write recommendation letters for you.”
My international HIV/AIDS advocacy was what I was known for in some circles on campus. Through undergrad and beyond, I experienced much joy and pain from working with adults and children living with HIV/AIDS. At Central, I partnered with volunteers working for the Kiribati HIV/AIDS Taskforce to reduce social stigma in Kiribati.
I applied to Oregon State University’s Applied Medical Anthropology program for two reasons. To continue my service to Kiribati, and to see my family one more time.