A story from the perspective of someone living in Kiribati. In 2016 I went to Kiribati on a university funded trip to research the impacts of climate change and to do some ethnographic research.
For me, dawn was the best time of day. In Kiribati, dawn was spectacular. Sitting in the middle of the equator and the international date line, the experience of dawn in Kiribati was unique, I was sure of that. The clouds parted like the lips of a warm smile as the orb of the sun rose over the Pacific Ocean. I could stand with my feet deep in the sand, watching from the safety of the beach as a new day awakened. The orb of the sun burst forth from the deep, blue sea with confidence, shedding the darkness of the night. The morning was a time of hope, renewal, magic.
I had grown up in Kiribati on the island of Kiebu. My family had grown up here, my children schooled at the local primary school and my wife and I formed friendships with the three hundred people on this special island, It was an island that was as delicate as a shard of glass, perched on an ever-changing ocean. But it was paradise. As I watched the sun yawn over the sky I thought of the many people on the many islands of Kiribati that were witnessing the same beauty that I could see unfolding. From any vantage point, this view was incredible. Standing on the shoreline of the island that I was born into made this spot special for me. But that did not make it any more special for anyone else. Each person on my island, the island of Kiebu, had a particular connection to this place that could not be described in words.
The contours of this island were etched into my brain like the creases on my palms, Over may years the same movements had created patterns in my brain. This meant that I knew the quickest way from my house to the beach where I now stood, from the beach to the well to the Babai plantations where I spent my late mornings and afternoons.
As time swayed by, the sun spread rose from its bed in the ocean, a symphony of reds, oranges and yellows exploded in the sky.
The ocean. My father was a fisherman. I can still remember the tune that he would whislte each time he went fishing. It was so distinct, the rising and falling of his voice, that I could whistle it to you now without hesitation, But I do not remember much else about the adventures that my father had whilst fishing, I suppose that this is because he ended his sea voyaging prematurely. I was twelve when he told me that the fish had swam out of the ocean. He said that fish had lost interest in the sea surrounding the islands of Kiribati and instead decided to migrate south to Australia. He told me that the fish were curious animals that were always looking for action and Kiribati was a very peaceful place. Those were his words. Now I look back and I realise that what he was referring to was the fact that overfishing by hungry international companies had drained our oceans of fresh catches. I often thought about trying to explain this to my father but the look of certainty that he had on his face when he told me that story made me feel very sad.
I decided to sit down and watch the sunrise; my feet were getting tired from standing. I had spent all of yesterday standing in the Babai plantation, making sure that the compost adequately surrounded each plant. Babai are magnificent plants – they are small trees that grow in pits and each Babai trunk is surrounded by a thick circle of compose that is there to support the plant. Each Babai plant has a complex system of roots and sprouting from each root is the babai vegetable that is eaten. Nothing beats Babai cooked in a thick coconut sauce….ooh I am salivating now just thinking about it! The Babai is a staple of my diet, My wife complains that I ask her to cook it too often but I know that she is just teasing me. When I do the cooking, she will ask me to cook Babai as she loves it as well. The leaves of these trees are useful for thatching roofs and making other useful materials. We actually built our house from the material of the pandas and coconut tree, but we have friends who have used the Babai for walls of their houses.
I became a Babai farmer because my uncle was a Babai farmer. I wanted to be a fisherman, but as I told you , the fish dried up. Fishing has become even harder than it was during my father’s age, because now we have hotter oceans as well as more crowded oceans. I listen to the radio, I know about climate change. What frustrates me is when people come here and think that I do not know. I do. I am educated; my wife and I met at university in Suva, Fiji, studying commerce. We could have stayed in Fiji but we decided to go back to my island to raise our family just like I was raised. We do not regret it, but when our children are old enough, we will give them the same chances that we had. For now, they are lying carefree lives on an island that has given us so much.
My wife and I, we try to decipher the facts that have led to the changes that my family has observed in our land and our ocean. Pollution from the other places in the world has changed our paradise. There is not a ‘place’ to point the finger at, but I know that we did not cause this change. Having the big fishing companies and hitter average temperatures have both driven the fish from Kiebu and stopped me from becoming a fisherman. I asked my uncle if I could carry on his tradition, as he was the most successful Babai farmer on our island. He was more than happy to pass on the shovel; he and my father were old now, But things had become hard in the Babai world as well. I looked down at my feet and wriggled my little toes in the sand. I had been standing for ten hours straight yesterday, trying to drain out the salt water from the Babai plantation that was closest to the shoreline. You see, when the salt table rises salt water seeps into our plantations. The babai trunks sit within a circle of compost that sits in a pit that is filled with beautiful freeh water. But we have noticed that the pit closest to the shoreline has become salty. How long before this happens to the others as well?
I gazed out at the sea, watching the shore lap against the beach. There was nothing I loved more than watching my children smash and giggle in the sea, their hair wet with water, sand in every nook and cranny. The sea was our beginning, our life, but it could also be our end. How far would the ocean rise? Could it cover my Kiebu? Could it submerge my Babi plantatins? My family?
I will tell you something my uncle told me. One night every week, after dinner, my uncle would leave our house and go and sit on the log that I am sitting on now and watch the ocean for the night.
I asked my uncle, ‘Why do you watch the ocean over night?’
My uncle was a man of great wisdom, He had large, busy eyebrows, broad shoulders and a broader smile. But he did not smile as he told me this. He looked at me carefully and said,
‘I watch the ocean to make sure that it doesn’t sneak up and cover us whilst we sleep. If I watch it, it won’t cover us.’
As I think about these words, I look over at the wall of sandbags that we laid down last January to welcome in the new year. We etch in the highest point that the water has reached each month now and I feel sad to say that every month so far, we have had to raise the line a little higher. It is now July and my uncle no longer watches the ocean like he did before. He and my family sit in the Maneaba and talk of the old chiefs of the island, smoking, drinking sweet tea and playing Canasta. They don’t trust the ocean as they once did. I want to explain to them that it is not the fault of the ocean, there is something else that is happening, something bigger than us.
The sun has fully risen now, It was quite a sight that morning, the bus were brighter and even more cheerful than yesterday. I suppose that this means that they will be even better tomorrow. So I will come again.