Last Tuesday, the 6th of December, Brad asked me to solve an issue with a tractor on the island of Teraina while the Kwai would take a trip around the other islands in the group.
So, for the first time in my career on the Kwai, I found myself surrounded by surprised locals, on the beach of a remote tropical island, staring at the Kwai as she set sail towards Fanning Island. What happened since then is hard to put down in words, but I’m gonna try it anyway.
I was invited by the KUC community, with Mareta Faletoise as their leader, to stay at what they here call ‘the motel’, probably because the building has kind of a bathroom an toilet facility. My bathroom and toilet facilities however were the nearby beach. Do as the locals do, I say. My sleeping quarters were simple and appropriate to the climate. It turned out that the KUC leader had offered her quarters for my stay. Soon it turned out that I was considered a guest of honor (because white and oversees). This meant that I was offered a prominent spot during the daily gatherings in the nearby m’aneaba, community house. Twice a day, I found myself in a circle of local men, dressed in lava-lava, sharing meals of mostly local food. After the men finished their plated it was time for the women and children to gather around the trays of plenty. I became aware of the fact that I was living in the world of National Geographic. Colourful and laid-back to the extreme. Life on Washington island is based on community life, and people count on one another for any and all of their needs. Some are fishermen, some cut copra, others prepare smokes (very important!), and many others are involved in food preparation and child-care. All conform community style.
What yours is, is mine, and v.v. Even my kids.
My knowledge of the Kiribati language is restricted to uttering simple greetings or exchanging small messages, but soon I was forced to upgrade my language skills, because most people were too shy to talk English. This is how I learned about the “King Rat”, a dancing Pastor, and the “Taboos during the Marooroo”.
The King Rat, I learned, is the tradition that you have to treat every
(ordinary) rat with respect. My Aborina woke me up in the middle of the night, saying:”Ben, the rat bite my hand”. Alarmed as I was, I quickly grabbed the solar light and switched it on. And there was the King, on top of a pile of clothes, looking at me in disdain. “Stupid rat, get out of here”, I called. But no, I could not address the King like that. The Kiribati tradition (and I had this confirmed by “the old man Tetaake”) tells that If you treat the rat as I just did, he will come back the next night and bite the bottom of your feet, so you have trouble walking the next morning.
The Taboos during the Marooroo, I learned during one of the evening gatherings in the m’aneaba. The Marooroo is an old tradition of spoken word.
Prominent men stand up and start rambling about daily life issues in speeches that can last as long as half an hour. The longer the speech, the more respect you earn. In between the speeches there are other aspects of the night’s function, like local dance and singing, and of course a copious meal. After everybody had had their share of the meal (this night we shared a roasted island pig), I asked if I could feed one of the dogs on the other side of the village house, because she looked very pregnant and very, very hungry. Yes, I was granted that permission. So I stood up and walked straight across the m’aneaba field. Giggling all around. This was not done.
But how could the I-matang know. He was obviously a foreigner. Okay, I wont do that again.
The dancing Pastor, was a once in a life time experience, I guess. This happened during my own farewell-party, yesterday. After a group of local girls had performed their dance, the Pastor appeared, and performed a solo dance, dressed in traditional style, waving her hands and shaking her hips.
I will never forget this evening. Especially because I managed pulling it
off: my first speech in Kiribati language.
The last day of my stay I drove around the island on a “rebwerebwe”, motorbike, and visited some of the villages in the bush. Especially the most remote settlement of Abaiang caught my attention. In a clearing amidst the jungle of palm-trees were living a hand full of families. Most of the strong and healthy men were involved in climbing trees and cutting copra, hence their lean and muscular bodies. One of them though had another approach.
This man, I will call him Merry Chubby, was the link to the Kwai. He invested in boxes of goodies, that he sells out to the village members in trade for coconuts. One lollypop, two coconuts. One Chow noodles, four coconuts. His palm-tree hut was filled to the rim with bales of copra, each in a value of a hundred and something AUD. Thanks to Merry Chubby, the locals can afford a “piece of the modern pie”, in trade for the items that grow in abundance, coconuts.
Later that same day I returned to Abeiang to show them the PITEBA press, that my friend and long-time Kwai carpenter, Jacko, offered me. This press is an invention of a Dutch farmer who wanted to improve life of African people, but it became very popular among “hippies”, all around the world.
The hand-press is designed to turn any kind of suitable seed into oil. The directions said “copra”, so I put it to the test and performed a demonstration in the middle of the Teraina bush. Surrounded by the local men, women and children, I felt like an aid-worker, showing them how to turn their beautiful copra into oil. Two coconuts, and ten minutes turning of the handle, resulted in a quarter of a coke-can of pure, cold pressed coconut oil. The result went around in the circle of curious people and ended up in the long black hair of the ladies and girls. What a reward! The press I offered gladly to the “unim’ane”, who will celebrate his 50’th birthday next week.
It’s midnight now, and we are underway to Fanning Island, where we will quickly load another forty passengers for our last leg to Christmas Island.
We are in a hurry because we received the news that there are other cargo ships on their way to Christmas. And who arrives first gets to use the jetty first. GO Kwai GO!