Living among the ancestors (and people with no teeth)

As most of you know 11th November is Remembrance day.

In Kiribati, it is also Remembrance day but they take it to another level. On the 11th everyone goes to the graves of their deceased family members and decorates the grave. They clean the area, decorate it with coconut leaves and balloons and then cover the grave with colourful material.

In Kiribati there are a few cemetaries but it is also quite usual for the grave to be at the family home. When driving along the road on Tarawa you can usually see decorated graves alongside the family houses.

My grandfather Burabura died in 1992. Whilst he was sick for quite a while we’re just realising that it is a very high possibilty that he died of undiagnosed diabetes. Health problems are a huge problem here especially in regards to the amount of sugar everyone consumes. Although I’ve known this all my life, I am still shocked when I see my Auntie plop 3 tablespoons – yes TABLESPOONS – into her cup of tea. Unfortunately I am the odd one out when I have my tea with no sugar. Everyone else stares in horror as I sip away while they’re busy dissolving all the tablespoons of sugar in their cup.

Now I know I keep banging on about how beautiful the islanders are but I honestly do think that they are genetically blessed. Majority of them all have perfectly straight white teeth, their skin is smooth and unblemished, thick hair and many of them only face vision impairment later in life. Oh how I wish I received all of these features, alas I was an odd looking teenager with glasses and braces. Oh and I hacked my hair off at 14 yrs old so I looked like Ernie from Sesame Street but that doesn’t matter. Lesson learnt. Actually another feature of the Kiribati people I can’t get over is their night vision. In Marakei I would be scuffling about, feeling my way in the dark when everyone else would be recognising each other 50 meters away. But for all these wonderful features, the annoying thing is the I-Kiribati people really know how to stuff it all up. Especially their teeth. At 20 years old everyone’s teeth are perfect, white and straight. At 40, they have no teeth left. All fallen out due to lack of care and a ridiculous diet of over consumption of salt and sugar. Due to Kiribati being in the middle of the Pacific they don’t have the resources to grow herbs and spices so their simple diet of fish, coconuts, rice as well as imported flour all they can use for flavour is salt or sugar. And use it they do.

  • A pot of tea for four people? 8 tablespoons of sugar.
  • A cup of water for a toddler? 1 tablespoon of sugar
  • Every mouthful of fish? 2 large pinches of salt.
Diabetes anyone? More like for a whole country. So, what are the answers? Well of course education. My family are only discovering now that my grandfather most likely died of diabetes. Most people on the island only realise that they have diabetes when they have to get a limb amputated. It’s hard to educate the people on health when the struggle for food is on a daily basis. It’s also a very big (and almost not worth fighting for) battle to try and stop all the imports of crappy food from China and Taiwan (actually to be honest Australia also contributes significantly to these shitty, unhealthy imports). Of course there are other health problems on the island (obesity/STD’s/HIV/alcohol abuse) and they all need to be looked upon. But from my own experience diabetes isn’t spoken about at an early enough age and yet it’s seems like it’s the easiest fixed. Okay not easiest fixed but I’m sure you’d all agree that by educating everyone to not put 3 tablespoons in their cup of tea will increase the country’s health rate dramatically. Any medical people out there want to discuss this further? I’d love to be pointed in the direction of some health reports of Pacific Islanders.

So, back to the 11th. On this day Auntie Bebe, myself, my uncle Nauni and my cousin Teresa all cleaned up Burabura’s grave and decorated it.

Nauni and Bebe decorating the grave

After we cleaned the grave we all piled into the car and drove to the cemetery where Nauni’s father is buried. We had to hurry because a mass was due to start at 5pm and just like every other I-Kiribati person, we were running late. So we all piled into the car and ran to fix up the grave before Mass started.

At the cememtery you lay down colourful material and then leave it. The next day people are welcome to take the material from the grave, in fact it is somewhat of a compliment if someone takes it because it means that you have chosen material good enough for others to take it. Sharing does wonders for the ego 🙂

Nauni's fathers grave (bottom right)

Check out the cemetery! I spoke to an Australian priest who now lives on Kiribati. He said this was the most wonderful way of bringing the present together with the past. It was beautiful to see everyone come together to acknowledge their deceased.

Cemetery on the waters edge

We weren’t actually attending the service and since we were late we were rushing to finish decorating the grave before the mass commenced. We also knew there would be a procession from the church to the cemetery. This procession would be making its way up the road that we needed to exit from so we needed to get out of there quick smart. Annoyingly, for the first time ever, the procession started on time which meant we embarrassingly got stuck in the middle of the procession! I don’t know if this is allowed but I got this on film. My auntie was absolutely mortified. Oops!!

Despite some glaring looks from the priest and the embarrassment of parking in the middle of the procession I loved this whole afternoon. Taking the time to take care of my grandfathers grave made me feel closer to my ancestors. I suppose it’s hard to find the time to give respect to your ancestors – especially if you didn’t know them well in the first place.

It’s just sad to wonder whether I would have gotten to know them better had they stayed alive just a few more years and I seriously believe that Burabura would have had the family been more aware of his health problems.

I suppose each generation learns from it’s predecessors. Well, here’s hoping.

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Gen says:

    Really interesting! I know this is a bit old (from 2003) but the World Health Organisation did some research into the major risk factors in ten Pacific Islander countries (page 4). http://www.who.int/hhr/activities/indigenous_peoples/whosubmissionto2ndUNPFII.pdf

    Might be worth trying to track down their findings!

  2. Thanks for this Gen! The world health organisation has some really good reports and statistics. Although it doesn’t seem very recent which is disappointing, the material is really interesting and still very relevant. I pulled this bit out of the link you posted

    ‘The latest in these, held in February 2003, addressed the current availability of data in respect of tobacco and alcohol use, physical inactivity, consumption of fruit and vegetables, high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes. The workshops aim to help these countries develop a plan for establishing a surveillance system for these risk factors, for managing and analysing the data, and for turning the data into policy and programme action. In due course, it will be possible to compare the distribution of risk across adult Polynesian and Melanesian populations.’

    This is exactly what I was trying to say in the post. Too hot for a lot of physical activity, lack of fruit and veg – these lead to obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure.

    On another link, I saw that contraceptive prevalence on the island is at 36%! Dad just recently got back from Kiribati and he noted that ‘Kiribati people are really good at making more Kiribati children’. There are children everywhere, broken relationships everywhere and not enough contraception. This is for a whole other post but thanks for putting me onto the WHO. Very helpful!

  3. Just to say hello again and how much I like your posts and pics from South Tarawa! Looking forward to reading more posts soon :O)

  4. PasifikaObserver says:

    Another great read! I’m officially a fan 🙂

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