After three dizzying days at sea, I was relieved to step off the boat in Tarawa, Kiribati. I’d just spent six weeks on the remote Pacific island of Banaba–a place so isolated that currently there is no phone, internet, or mail service.
Being off the grid for more than a month was difficult for me, but it was even more difficult for my friends and family, who were convinced that I’d gone missing, developed a tropical illness, or died while I was away.
But while it’s almost unfathomable for us to imagine weeks without any communication with the outside world, I learned while on Banaba that most people on the island haven’t heard from their relatives in 10 or 20 years. Some haven’t heard anything from their families since they moved to Banaba in 1979, nearly 40 years ago. That’s the reality for those on Banaba today.
The Banabans’ only interaction with the outside world is a small cargo ship from Tarawa Island that arrives every few months.
The Banabans’ only interaction with the outside world is a small cargo ship from Tarawa Island that arrives every few months—and even the arrival of this cargo ship is uncertain. When I departed for Banaba in January, I expected to stay on the island for two or three weeks, based on my rough understanding of the boat’s scheduled journeys. I didn’t expect the boat to be delayed an entire month.
I don’t have the same carefree patience as an islander. A year ago, being stranded for weeks on an isolated island with no communication would have terrified me. But after living in the Pacific for six months, I have gradually learned to worry less about time constraints. Nothing here follows a set schedule, and a month-long delay is a normal occurrence. Rather than worry, I was excited to use the extra time to explore more of the island and meet people.
With only about 200 residents, Banaba feels like a ghost island. Most of it was destroyed during nearly 80 years of phosphate mining between 1900 and 1979 by the British. The Banaban people were displaced to Rabi Island in Fiji in 1945, but several hundred returned to Banaba to protest the mining in 1979. Today, they live on the small remaining sliver of inhabitable land, amid toxic, decaying colonial houses, unrehabilitated land, piles of scrap metal, and no infrastructure or technology.
With only about 200 residents, Banaba feels like a ghost island. Most of it was destroyed during nearly 80 years of phosphate mining.
Naturally, after growing up in the fast-paced, productivity focused culture of the Western world, it is an extraordinary experience to live completely off-the-grid with no technology, running water, or electricity. On Banaba, my focus shifted from “working” and “producing” to connecting to the people around me, learning as much as I could about their culture and daily lives, and integrating into life in the village. I knew I wouldn’t be able to write or publish anything in weeks, maybe months, but there was nothing I could do to change that.
So I explored. I met nearly all of Banaba’s residents. I interviewed families, photographed the island, and wrote. Some days I was invited to spend hours playing cards, Scrabble, or Bingo with my neighbors in the community maneaba, or meeting place.
Normally, I would’ve seen playing games as a waste of time, but I soon realized that these hours spent together were far from wasted. They serve a purpose—this is how relationships within the small community are established and maintained. In a small, subsistence-based community, social networking, relationship building, and sharing are extremely important for the success and survival of the village.
Within a few weeks everyone on the island knew me by a nickname they’d given me, “Nei Janny,” or “Miss Janny.” In Kiribati, I’m used to being called “te i-Matang,” or “the European,” as foreigners are usually called, but on Banaba everyone knew me by name, even the littlest children. I couldn’t walk down the street without happy shouts of “Mauri Janny!” or “I love you!” I have never felt more welcomed, and I’ve never laughed more in my life.
Living on islands without access to technology makes completing a “digital storytelling” project quite a challenge, hence the infrequency of my posts. However, the isolation and lack of information flow to and from these communities makes it even more important that their unheard voices are circulated. Over the next few months, I will share many of the stories I have collected from these resilient, isolated communities.
Janice Cantieri is a journalist and researcher from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who is on a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship to document the stories of displacement and adaptation between the Pacific Island nations of Kiribati and Fiji. She is following the stories of the Banaban Islanders, residents of a phosphate island in Kiribati, who were displaced to Rabi Island in Fiji by the British Phosphate Commission in 1945 and have been separated from their ancestral homeland for the past 70 years. She also follows the stories of i-Kiribati on the Tarawa Atoll, who are currently facing the possibility of migration and displacement to Fiji and elsewhere in the Pacific as the sea level continues to rise and inundate the low-lying islands, which are only 2-3 meters above sea level. She is telling the stories of the Kiribati people, their culture and heritage, while also documenting the adaptations, challenges, and innovations they have developed in response to the changes they have faced using a combination of written stories, images, and video.