When I walked into Tarawa Island’s only air-conditioned coffee shop I was expecting to escape the 90° F heat, enjoy an iced coffee, and—if the Internet signal was strong enough—send an email. Instead I found myself face-to-face with the president of Kiribati. That chance encounter soon turned into a three-day journey to President Anote Tong’s home island of Maiana.
Tong invited me to attend a botaki, or traditional celebration, to mark the end of his final term, which concludes at the end of this year. I was taken aback and honored by his invitation—I had no idea I would have the chance to talk with him in a coffee shop, let alone travel with him to visit his home island.
Tong has spent the past twelve years raising international awareness of the effects of climate change on the low-lying islands of Kiribati. The sea level is rising, and, as a result, staple crops are dying, the wells in many villages are now contaminated with sea water, and the narrow land continues to erode. Kiribati remains one of the world’s least developed countries, so it’s been difficult for the government to help communities adapt to these changes while also addressing the people’s basic needs.
The combination of already significant development challenges and the destruction caused by climate change have made life more difficult on the islands. But as I would soon learn, the people’s sense of humor, spiritual heritage, and traditional ceremonies—like the botaki organized for the president—are very much alive.
Just two days after our meeting in the coffee shop, I was on a police speedboat for the two-hour journey to Maiana with the president’s cabinet. As we approached the lagoon, the water transformed from cerulean blue to a turquoise so bright, it reflected a greenish-blue tint onto the clouds above. On the shoreline, the unimane, or council of elders, were lined up to greet us.
Before heading the the maneaba, the community meeting space, the president sent an elder to make an offering to the island’s powerful spirits in order to protect the new visitors—me included. Tong explained that once, when this precaution wasn’t taken, a guest became violently ill and had to be taken off the island.
With a triangular roof over an open-air gathering space, the maneaba is the center of Kiribati village life, used for both formal and informal meetings and celebrations. When our party entered, we were seated cross-legged at the end of the maneaba reserved for guests of honor. (Guests, and especially foreign visitors, are given the highest honor and respect and are welcomed like family in Kiribati.)
Then drum beats blasted through the speakers and the dancing began. A line of girls wearing grass skirts, floral garlands, and ribbons danced across the maneaba as boys wearing woven pandanus leaf skirts filtered in from the opposite side. A line of dancers slowly made their way toward us and placed garlands on our heads. Each movement in these dances is deliberate and follows a long tradition of dancing in Kiribati. Dance groups spend hours practicing routines that are often specially choreographed for large events like this one.
Traditional botaki celebrations are a huge community effort and each family is responsible for contributing a basin of food for the community to share. After the dance, families filtered in one by one, carrying basins of fish, rice, babwai (the local taro), breadfruit, papaya, and young sprouted coconut. With so much food, this process took almost an hour.
After the feast, the real party began. The i-Kiribati are especially good dancers and find watching foreigners dance extremely entertaining. The unimane also love making people laugh, especially by inviting guests to dance in front of the crowd.
In this case, the old men succeeded in their mission—I am a horrible dancer. Hundreds of villagers watched and laughed as I attempted to keep up with elders who were dancing ever-more outlandishly. But it was all good-natured, and despite being the subject of many jokes throughout the celebration, I felt welcomed and accepted into the community.
After the fun, as we drove to the island’s airstrip, I was reminded of the stark reality of the rising water in Kiribati. The road through the villages at the tip of the island was lined with dozens of dead breadfruit trees.
Looking at the leafless branches, I felt deeply grateful to the families on Maiana. Each had provided a basin of food for our celebration, even though a significant portion of their own food supply has been depleted with the loss of these trees. But even as these changes unfold, the laughter, happiness, and vibrant culture on Maiana has not been lost.