When I last posted, I was in Fiji waiting for my flight to get to Kiribati in time for the elections. Since arriving on Tarawa on the 11th October, I then made my way to the outer island of Marakei to join my Mum’s campaign as a candidate to be the local member of Kiribati parliament.
Before I go into the ins and outs of politics and how this little republic chooses to govern their group of islands I should probably say that it has been absolutely wonderful coming back. Whilst I’ve always loved Kiribati, I have now come back a little older, more travelled with more life experience and probably most importantly, I have come on my own this time as opposed to coming with “white” family members or friends. This time it’s just me which has enabled me to somehow not hide behind being an “imatang” (white person) or as a tourist and actually try really hard to learn the language and culture. The Kiribati people love ‘imatangs’ and show them the highest amount of respect with them always being fed first at every function (with the biggest plate of food), always given the best seat on the bus and people always coming up to say hello on the street. Whilst I am seen as being tanned in Western Countries, I am considered to be white here. However as I am here just by myself and am usually with family members and not with any other ‘imatangs’ I am being treated more as a local which I am really enjoying.
I arrived on Marakei – one of the numerous outer islands of Kiribati – three days after I arrived on Tarawa, the capital and main island of Kiribati. I suppose like various towns, suburbs or states, each island is known for it’s particular traits. Marakei (which is the island my grandmother is from) is known for being the womens island. There are four statues of women that protect the north, south, east and west points of the island. The first time you arrive on Marakei you must drink the water from the well (hello diarrhoea) and then travel to each statue, introduce yourself (name, your parents names, your grandparents names) and then ask for their blessing to welcome you on the island. You then have to place some tobacco on each statue – I still have no idea why the statues like tobacco, you don’t ask, just do. It’s a bit like taking the … anyway, it doesn’t last long because there’s usually a little kid waiting to take it back to their grandparents as soon as you’ve placed it on the statue anyway. You then must venture out to the sea at low tide and dig into the sand. If the water is clear then you are welcome. If the water is red then it is a warning sign that you should leave the island and you’re not welcome. I actually did this wrong and dug at high tide so all I got was the sea water that flooded into the hole. So I don’t really know whether I was allowed to be on the island or not but I assumed it was okay since Terira (grandma) and her sisters were known to be the hottest ladies on Marakei in their day and the island loved them so I’ll just ride on Terira’s grass skirt tails and hope that I don’t have a hex put on me.
Along with being the womens island, Marakei is also known for it’s black magic. The old women have a reputation for putting curses on people, putting spells in peoples food and they still use traditional island medicine. After I drank from the well a few days later I got diarrhoea and threw up quite a lot of fish and rice. Obviously I felt shithouse but the women from the village gathered around me, rubbed my body with coconut oil while one of the women dug her thumbs into my calves. They explained that this was for the upset stomach. Before I had a chance to ask whether it would help my delightful bowel problems, the woman then – I’m sorry, this really isn’t nice blog material, if you really don’t want to hear more about my health issues, I completely understand and urge you to skip along to the next paragraph – … the woman then poured more coconut oil down my knickers and pressed on a pressure point inside my bum crack! Yes, you read right and I cannot believe I am writing this in my blog, but that’s Marakei life and the life I came to experience. Needless to say, I went through this massage and embarrassing routine 3 times and after that I was right as rain. So there’s something you’ve learnt from me, next time you have diarrhea, just pour coconut oil down ya bum and get someone to press about 3 inches down from your coxic bone. Easy.
I was to stay with the team of family members my Mum had with her to help her with her campaign: my cousin, his wife, her cousin, my mothers cousin, my uncle and the big boss – Terira. People would see the white girl and would point and say ‘Is she a person or is she I-Kiribati? Persons stay in the hotel. Why is she staying in a local house?’ We all were staying in a little hut was made out of Pandana tree leaves and coconut trunks all tied together with rope made out of coconut husks. We had no running water, no electricity, the kitchen consisted of a small stove lit with kerosene and 2 basins to wash the 3 plates and 3 cups (no cutlery, hands only). We washed the clothes and food with washing powder, all shared 1 bar of soap and had the luxury of being allowed to use the toilet at the house across the road had built (a cement toilet seat inside a small covered hut). However, no one really used it except for when girls wanted to shower in private. Due to no running water, everytime we wanted to use the toilet we would have to walk to the well, collect water and cart it back and forth to the bathroom to fill up the 2 basins in there. Mum splashed out big time for me and bought some toilet paper. Oh and there was also a pig tied to the tree next to the well so whenever you used the well, you had to compete with a pig nipping at your heels asking for food.
Each morning we would wake up at first light and do the house work. We would light a fire to boil water, sweep the area around the house and cook a huge pot of rice to feed everyone during the day. Breakfast consisted of tea and doughnuts from the little shop down the road. Here, doughnuts are more like bread rolls but a little sweeter than plain bread and cost 20c each. Certainly not rolled in sugar and cinnamon. After breakfast the sun was fully up and too hot to work so more often than not, we would rest again, sleeping or playing cards. Due to the weather being so hot, throughout the day you would do one job and then find yourself so exhausted after the tiniest job. Walking 300 metres to the store to buy 8 tea bags (1 for each of us) would make you sweat so much that you’d want to have a shower and then fall asleep for another hour. You’d then get up again, walk 1km to get a bucket of drinkable rain water and then rest again. Time always goes slow in Marakei even when you try your hardest to do as much as you can. Usually around 3 or 4pm everyone perks up again. The women begin cooking for the nights dinner, children are bathed, men go out fishing, collect firewood, collect totti (a drink from the coconut tree – I’ll explain in another post) or find more materials to fix the house.
This was most days but also Mum was working hard on her campaign. On Marakei this is a lot of talking to families, speaking to respected elders in the community and visiting schools. However, you have to time it right because if you go in the middle of the day it’s most likely that the people you’re supposed to be speaking with are asleep. The island takes about 1 hour to ride around on the motorbike (Marakei is in the shape of a ring with the lagoon in middle and the ocean on the outside) so we couldn’t all go with her all the time due to us only having one motorbike.
Right, so onto the political side of things. I must explain to you that the reason that I didn’t go straight into the election news here is that I believe it’s necessary to try and understand the way of life in Kiribati – especially the outer islands. Also, I should probably say that my comments and opinions on this blog are my own and don’t represent anyone else’s opinions. I chat to a lot of people but won’t put anything on here or mention them if they don’t want me to. I assume you think this already but I suppose i just wanted to make it clear before I start ranting and raving about Kiribati way of life, political systems, public opinion and whatever else. This blog is for my own findings and is my own opinion of what I observe.
After long chats with elders, relatives, Mum and my Dad (who knows the political system and culture in Kiribati better than any book or website I’ve come across) as well as being here, I’m beginning to realise that although Kiribati is disappearing under water, this major issue doesn’t really come up much in local elections. Life on these islands is constantly about day to day survival – i.e. how do we stop the rain coming in from that side of the hut? Where can we go to catch tonights meal? How will we cook if we haven’t got kerosene or matches? Where can we store the food so that the dogs don’t eat it? How can we stop the water splashing into our house?
So while we can all see that the waves are threatening their way of life, it is hard for the I-Kiribati people to change their way of thinking and plan for the next 100 years. I’m always asking my family whether they know that Kiribati is under threat and they always answer with the same thing ‘when climate change comes, I’m going to run away’. How do you tell them that it’s already here? They see the ocean rising but they don’t see their life, culture and home at risk. Most families don’t have bank accounts because when they get paid they spend it straight on feeding their family. Many people don’t save money because all they know is that when you have money you spend it and wait for the next pay day.
So elections. I think I’ve drawn up pretty much the most basic table of a political voting system in the world. But hey, when I first started this website I promised that I wouldn’t get too big for my boots nor would I treat people like idiots if they cant understand what I’m on about. I think this is right but I’m not really too sure as the system is a bit hazy. Most websites have variations on this but they didn’t seem to match up to what actually occurred here in the recent elections. So this is how I saw things happen. For a second opinion, I went to my Auntie Bebe who is a news reporter for Air FM the biggest radio station in Kiribati and is also on the board for the parliamentary election committee. She’s given her okay for this little table so I’m going to take that as being good enough for me.
Each candidate registers their name for candidency 1 month before the election. Whilst they may have an alliance to a particular party once they are in parliament, all candidates are independent.
Public register to vote 2 weeks before election (not compulsory)
Public votes for 2 members on the ballot paper
The candidate with the most votes is through to parliament
The candidate with the least votes is taken out of election
The remaining candidates go through to the second round
Election date is set exactly 1 week after the first election
Candidates campaign for one more week
Public vote but must vote for only 1 candidate
Candidate with the most votes is the second member of parliament.
Members of the newly elected parliament nominate at least 3 candidates for presidency
Candidates are given approx 2 months to campaign for their election
Public vote to decide their President
Unfortunately, my Mum didn’t get voted through although she did make it through to the second round and put up a good fight against the candidates. Mum was the only female candidate and Marakei have never had a female member before. I think this time was to plant the seed that for the island that is known as ‘the womans island’ they need a female member. However, she put up a good fight and in between the 1st round and 2nd round her votes rose over 5%. She was against the 2 current parliamentary members – neither of them won the first round – so it was always going to be tough. That’s okay, she did great and we’ll see how things go on four years. If she wants to try again, she certainly had the figures to indicate that she could do quite well. Mum’s main issues that she wants to address is domestic violence (there is a rant in another post coming up about this, be warned), womens rights, electricity for the island and transportation of supplies. I attended a few speeches made by other candidates and the biggest issues they brought up were transportation of supplies between Tarawa and Marakei. The island relies a lot on fuel. Fuel for the fishing boats, transportation around the island and generators to supply electricity. A lot of the time not enough fuel is delivered to supply the whole island or the ship simply doesn’t come.
These issues are ones that effect the lives of the locals on a day to day basis. The fact that their country is disappearing doesn’t seem to be a major factor in the local elections and I suppose this is fair enough. Climate change, erosion and rising tides is an issue that must be addressed in parliament and I’m not entirely convinced that the new parliament will be able to rise to this occasion. Anote Tong – the country’s president for the past 8 years – has been a fantastic ambassador for Kiribati in regards to getting Kiribati noticed on a larger scale. However, being in Kiribati right now it seems that a lot of people aren’t happy with Tong’s parliament on a local scale. Unemployment is just as bad as it always is, domestic violence occurs in some form in every family that I know and the amount of I-Kiribati people getting lost at sea due to faulty fishing vessels is at an absolute high. Of course no one is perfect but it will be hard for Kiribati to find an answer – someone that will help solve the local problems as well as get the same attention that Tong has received for the country. At the moment we are waiting for the new members of parliament to nominate their presidential candidates. Just over half of the current parliamentary members were voted back in which is a major swing away from current parliament so it will be interesting to see if Anote is voted in again (lets assume he’ll be nominated again).
I suppose the most disappointing thing is that in local elections it is expected of each candidate to in a way ‘buy’ people’s votes. Family loyalty is a huge thing so it helps to have a lot of family but there were a ridiculous amount of people/families that would turn up at our house asking for a pound of rice, tea bags, a bag of sugar, fish, coconuts and whatever else they want/need. Kiribati people share anyway but the disappointing thing is that if you didn’t have these things on hand to give them, you could be assured that they would go back to their family and say ‘this person didn’t give me what I wanted. Our family isn’t going to vote for them’. Plus it is also incredibly rude in the culture to ask for more than what you need or things you don’t need. As sad as this is, this is how it works right now and it is the same for every candidate. Many families test each candidate this way and will generally go for the candidate that can provide them with the most food/kava/fuel at the time. Again, this goes back to my opinion that I-Kiribati people think short term and always in survival mode. They don’t plan for the unforeseeable future because it is a big enough struggle to plan for the foreseeable future. I-Kiribati people are the happiest, friendliest, funniest and warmest people I have ever met. They are incredibly friendly to outsiders, always smile, love telling stories and making each other laugh. It is an interesting time for them since more people around the world are watching this country disappear and are concerned at how the country will survive in 100 years time while the locals struggle to do so on a daily basis.
I’d love to hear some feedback/opinions on this so feel free to comment on the blog or contact me on twitter @thelittleisland.