Bridget Kennelly began her teaching and mentoring role at Immaculate Heart College in Taborio, Kiribati in January 2019 and finished her placement in March 2021. Below Bridget reflects on culture, in particular Kiribati culture, as the world celebrates Cultural Diversity on May 21.
Culture as defined by Oxford Languages are the ‘ideas, customs and social behaviour of a particular people or society’. Cultural diversity (as a noun) is defined by ’the existence of a variety of cultural or ethnic groups within a society’. Australia, therefore, by definition is uniquely very culturally diverse due to the large ethnicities who have come to this country.
Kiribati cultural traditions
The culture of Kiribati is so rich and the citizens are filled with such pride when demonstrating aspects of their culture such as traditional dance and song, and using natural resources in skills such as weaving, toddy cutting, cooking, and fishing. I feel so privileged to have been invited to take part in many parts of the culture over my two years living and working in Kiribati. Some of my favourite times were spent lying on te buia (local open-walled raised hut) listening to Sr Maata and the Bursar, Tierina, tell me many stories of Kiribati customs, always with hilarious anecdotes attached. Oral story-telling is also a large part of the culture in Kiribati and I could have listened for hours!
Amongst their 32 atolls and 1 island which make up the Republic of Kiribati, some special traditions and rituals exist which may differ to other atolls, however there are many ways of doing things which are unique to the whole country. At Immaculate Heart College, students came as boarders from all over Kiribati, some have a voyage more than 10 days by ship away (Kiritimati Island in particular).
Traditional customs and practices, still in very defined gender roles, are passed down through the generations in a family. Males would be taught skills including fishing, toddy cutting, dancing, building, whilst girls would be taught skills including weaving, string making, dancing, sewing and cooking. For some, the passing of these cultural skills will ensure a livelihood for them in the future. Knowing the traditional ways of constructing a local house is a skill well sought after in a village, as it is seen as bringing bad luck to the family living there if the house is not constructed correctly. Selling of thatch and woven mats are also valuable ways of earning an income. Dancing is strictly taught from a very young age with precise head and hand movements stressed. I have witnessed some iKiribati people become so visibly emotionally overwhelmed while dancing that they can be known to scream out or faint, which is a testament to how much the dancing is a part of their very being.
There are also occasions which are very important. First birthdays (due to the very high infant mortality rate), first menstruation celebrations, engagements, weddings, deaths. All come with very particular rituals. Birthdays (aside from first and twenty-first) were not a big event, many students were not aware of their birth date. Adoptions of newborn babies within a family is also common practice, and arranged marriages also occur.
The risk of increased westernisation
The problem which increased westernisation brings, is a risk to strong cultural practices. However, the government of Kiribati is realistic and proactive. In the school curriculum, there is a subject called Kiribati Community Studies, which is a core subject up until Form 5 (Year 11 Australian equivalent). This subject ensures traditional skills and customs are not lost with the increasing western influence. Students are not only taught the skills of generations before, but are taught to critique and question the value of these skills. It comes down to, ‘How much is culture worth?’; You can buy a western synthetic mat to sleep on for $15 or make your own from the dried pandanus leaves… by being aware of the risk to culture, and that the ‘cost’ of culture is invaluable, is the first step in taking steps to preserve it.
When a country’s traditional ways are becoming threatened due to westernisation (different foods, materials etc entering the country), the passing of traditional skills is a precious gift within a family. A lot of cultural practices are based on natural resources. For a family with a limited income due to limited employment opportunities, to be able to use resources as a livelihood can provide adequately for a family in terms of food, shelter and as an income.
The future of Kiribati
Many iKiribati people are working abroad for increased employment opportunities to financially support their families back home, studying abroad to access broader tertiary opportunities or migrating due to seeking better living conditions (escaping overcrowding, polluted water and polluted environment). The future of Kiribati, due to their precarious position regarding fresh water, land erosion etc leaves questions such as, ‘How do they keep their identity and culture strong if or when they migrate?’. I think the answer can be a shared responsibility. As the welcoming host country, we can promote cultural diversity, and value differences. Australia is so fortunate to have so many cultures coming together in one society, and with that comes such rich traditional practices. Let us help play our part in keeping Kiribati culture, and those of other countries alive and well so we do not see such unique customs disappear.