Stranded Far From Home in Kiribati

Stranded Far From Home in Kiribati

By Patsy-Anne Wootton

Patsy-Anne began her Palms Australia placement as a Secondary English Teacher/Mentor in mid-January 2020 at St Joseph’s College, Kiribati.  The first three to six months are challenging on so many levels.  It is a time of cultural transition, where learning a new language, understanding the cultural context, and building important relationships as well as undertaking her teaching role requires considerable resilience, patience and flexibility.  Patsy has unfortunately had to return to Australia for a medical assessment. Below we share her early thoughts and experience of living and working remotely in Kiribati.

My decision to apply for a posting to Abaiang atoll in Kiribati was driven by a couple of factors. I have to admit, the opportunity to live in a remote Pacific island community was the main attraction. I have travelled throughout the Pacific since my early 20’s, but ‘travelling through’ and ‘living in’ are completely different experiences. Rather than observe Pacific island community life, I wanted to live it!

Total immersion

Abaiang is a two-hour speed-boat ride from Tarawa, the main island and living at St Joseph’s College in the village of Tabwiroa has been a total community immersion experience. A few days after I arrived I was invited as part of the St. Joseph’s community to the funeral of one of a teacher’s mother. The solemnity of the occasion, with its mix of Catholic and i-Kiribati cultural practices and the comings and goings of mourners from around the island was my first experience of Kiribati communal response to life, or in this case to death.

Me in the church in Koinawa

A big achievement

The first ‘botaki’ I participated in was the Welcome of Teachers to the school year. I was given gifts and surprisingly, provided with gifts to give to other teachers who I hadn’t even met. The events of the evening were quite baffling to me – the long introductions, the speech making, the songs and the outrageous dancing activities. A few months later, with a dozen or more community gatherings under my belt, I am kind of getting the hang of it and I am comfortable addressing large groups of people in a culturally appropriate way. For me, that is an achievement!   It’s a significant step in feeling part of this community. A lot of the time I have felt quite isolated from the people I am surrounded by – not understanding the conversations, the gossip, the constant hilarity; having different cultural expectations and views of education and of course having had completely different life experiences. The realisation that I now know what to expect and how to behave in community gatherings has been important for me.

A Ground-Breaking ceremony for the beginning of construction of an Eco-Lodge that is being planned at Tabwiroa by the school. These three Form 6 students are dressed in traditional Abaiang costume doing  a dance which incorporated the movements of little birds on the beach -plovers or dotterels.

Cultural differences

At times during my posting I have felt that the people I work with, the students I teach and the villagers that I interact with really don’t care if I, a teacher from overseas, am here or not. However, when I returned from a week on neighbouring Marakei over the Easter break and walked home from the airport, familiar faces from the village and the people from the school community shouted greetings, wanted to know about my holiday, told me it was nice to see me home, greeted me as someone they knew. My absence had been noted perhaps I had even been missed! The nuances of affection and friendship and acceptance are just culturally different.

The completion of the Stations of the Cross in Ranawinni, Marakei at Easter

COVID-19 closes Kiribati borders

In the background of my slow assimilation into the community has been the impact of COVID-19. At first COVID-19 was something going on in the rest of the world, but when we received news of positive cases in Fiji, the problem that had been ‘out there somewhere’ suddenly seemed to have zoomed in (almost) to our little corner of existence. Then when the Kiribati borders closed, those of us here were suddenly part of the crisis. In actual fact, despite my new experiences, my very basic understanding of island community living and the feeling that I was becoming part of it all, it wasn’t until there was no way of leaving Kiribati that I fully understood the concept of what it is to live on a remote island in the middle of the Pacific and why family and community are so important. They are all you’ve got!

Remote and isolated is a little bit daunting

With this sense of being stranded, although life continued relatively stress-free with no new regulations, restrictions and controls, I became acutely aware that I had a limited safety net. Despite wanting to live the romantic dream or experience the adventure of being isolated in the Pacific, when it really came to the point it was a little bit daunting. I saw all the toothless grins of the adults around me in a different light. The nagging little ache in my tooth, if it progressed, could mean that I lose the tooth. Surfing at Marakei, I was hyper-conscious that if I injured myself seriously, treatment would be a big problem. I saw a young girl with a bamboo brace on her broken arm and did a double take. Then when I discovered a lump in a place where lumps shouldn’t be, I began imagining how big it could grow until I could get it biopsied, removed and treated. I was worried! Remote and isolated could have heavy consequences and that is a simple fact of life, of Kiribati life. It was then, quite unbelievably, that a seat became available on a medi-vac flight back to Australia and I grabbed the opportunity to depart.

An authentic taste of island community

Me, Sister Lucy and Taare

Waiting at the airport with the other returning Australians, I was acutely aware of privilege. Of the luxury of being able to return from living on a remote island in the Pacific to the medical services and facilities of Australia. Of the difference between myself and one of the teachers I had left in Abaiang who had some women’s troubles that were being treated with massage. I was also very conscious from listening to conversations of the government workers and business men who were also leaving, talking about their ex-pat community and their social gatherings throughout the year on Tarawa, that the Kiribati life that I had been living was quite different from their lived experience in this country. Even if so far it has only been for three months, my time at St. Joseph’s living- the only i-matang in the area – in my little house on school campus, stumble-bumbling through celebrations and social events, conversing in basic i-Kiribati in the village, being included in day to day activities, in meetings and school sports, my holiday at Easter with a nun – all of this has given me a real taste of life as a member of this island community. And I like it!

Featured image: The staff at St Joseph’s College Abaiang, Kiribati

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