The kids are always the first to spot what’s coming. They have safety in numbers, proceeding in a pack out of the palm shadows to the edge of the beach to eventually wave abundantly at us I-Matang in our funny hats riding ashore in a rubber boat with wheels.
Mao was the eldest, tall and teethy, with a dramatic swath of black hair. She didn’t know what we wanted, but we didn’t know what we wanted either. We rowed ashore because it’s what you do when you anchor off a village; this one just happened to be far off the well-sailed paths and they seemed baffled by our sudden appearance. We were at the very northern tip of Abaiang, an atoll just 30 miles from Tarawa, the main island of western Kiribati.
Overloaded ramshackle ferries make daily trips between Tarawa and Abaiang, but they don’t venture this far north into the atoll. Our electronic charts faded to a nondescript grey about five miles before we arrived, but we maintained a good lookout and picked our way through the coral bombies to discover a dreamy, Bahamian-looking sand bar to hold our anchor, just to the east of Ribona Village.
Mao led us down the beach to her family’s cluster of berus, where her father was extracting copra from coconut shells alongside tidy piles of unhusked coconuts framing his working hut. To imagine the homes of Abaiang, take the concept of a vast estate and shrink it down to island-size, where each little thatch-roofed hut is a functional outbuilding, essential for living and creating income. Every task has its own beru, for cooking, for washing dishes, for sleeping, for chilling, and for working – in this case, turning coconuts into dried, salable copra to sell or exchange for rice, yeast and flour, clothing and school fees for Catholic amounts of children.
Mao nodded us down the main road, a well-tamped dirt footpath along the shore. We passed beneath stately breadfruit, ubiquitous palms, and thatch-roofed compounds, some with cunningly constructed stick fences and woven pandanus-frond walls delineating boundaries and protecting pumpkin patches from the wandering pigs. Many huts had new 40-50 watt solar panels clinging to their palm roofs, one of the only signs of Western culture other than clothing drying on lines and the occasional plastic fishing buoy, sawn in half to make a dipping bucket for the well.
We paused awkwardly at every person we came to on the road, but if anybody spoke any English, they weren’t sharing with the group. By now, we had accumulated an envoy of at least 15 kids, who kept asking our names. That was the extent of their conversational English. Then we met Kaurabi, who emerged from a beru clutching a baby who he made greet us with a wave of its tiny clutched fist. “This is Rosary,” he introduced us to his son, who came to him in a dream, he explained. The tale was convoluted, the English a challenge, but the story we got was that he and his wife had been married for eight years, with no children forthcoming (which is pretty much the worst thing that can happen to you if you are a Pacific Islander. Not having children, Brian and I have been on the receiving end of deep concern, confusion, and pity from many islanders.) Then one night, he dreamt about a baby boy and was instructed, in the dream, to name him Rosary. Voila, the adoption came through and here’s his baby boy, a ready-made Rosary.
We congratulated him on his excellent fortune and he informed us that we were going the wrong way around the island. This was disappointing: all along we’d felt that we were instinctively moving toward the center, some sort of hub, which is usually the church.
“No, your first time here you must go to the right,” he said gravely. If we kept going to the left he wasn’t sure what might happen, but he wasn’t willing to risk it. This island was already pushing its luck, we were soon to learn.
We followed him back down the track and to the right. Our envoy had melted away with the crafty silence children summon when they’ve reached the edge of their world. Kaurabi delivered us to an older woman, named Tam, seated on the ground, sorting pandanus leaves. After much discussion, with inquiries about if we’d brought a gift and if we were willing to wade in water up to our waist – no higher, he assured us – we set off again, the wrong way, Tam in the lead, taking a short cut she’d deemed sufficient enough to appease the spirits.
We hung a right at a pit full of taro, each fat, stalky plant rooted in an individual, carefully woven basket filled with precious soil and floating in a pool of fresh water, an example of the origins of hydroponic agriculture. We traversed north, down a narrow raised path, surrounded by towering leaves of taro that would make fantastic umbrellas. Others were just shoots beginning to root in their baskets, and some pools were just empty brackish brown pits. “Those belong to lazy I-Kiribati,” Kaurabi said, laughing. He and Tam joked that with I-Matang at their backs they could easily be attacked, and he fake strangled this woman old enough to be his grandmother (or great-grandmother, considering the Catholicism.)
We emerged on the windward side of the island, though Kaurabi told us this wind was unusual (which may be why they don’t get a lot of visiting sailboats like us.) Tam veered off the path and we followed her to the beach. At the tide line, she bent and patted grainy pink sand onto each cheek, then gestured emphatically for us to do the same.
Kaurabi’s translation was scattered and imperfect. He was reaching for language that wasn’t there to describe their particular belief, that this was a special place to come and greet the spirits and ask for safe passage on the island. With sand on our cheeks and a tiara of green weeds vined around our heads we were now recognizable to the local gods.
“So we’re good to go?”
Yes. No chants from Tam, no arms raised to the heavens. If any sacred words or prayers were spoken, they were silent ones. Tam wove a tiara for her own head and I interpreted this as a positive sign that we weren’t the butt of some ongoing I-Matang joke.
“And now, I will show you climate change!” Kaurabi announced. We continued, counterclockwise around the island. Tam didn’t speak a lot of English, but one word she knew was “broken.”
“The island is broken.” She showed us where seawater has risen so high it had breached the beach and created a substantial channel and estuary that hadn’t there when she was a girl. The birds seemed to love it – herons, plovers, terns were all busy working the falling tide – but they were generations ahead of the vegetation and other supporting life that forms an estuary. Here there were just salt-soaked palms, pandanus, and breadfruit resembling leafless grey sticks protruding from the water, all dead or close to it. It looked like Florida after a hurricane. Broken.
The problem might not be so dire if the island weren’t so narrow. We could practically see through the trees to the calm waters of the lagoon on the other side. Pretty soon, this estuary would carve a path through to the lagoon, slicing Ribona in half. Homes had already moved. Others perched on the edge, playing chicken with the tide. They showed us where they’d tried to construct a seawall with sand bags to hold the water back, but it didn’t last. The sand bags were overrun and ragged, ravaged by the rising water. Kaurabi waded past his knees, standing a football field away from the high water mark, his estimate of where high tide used to be when he was a boy.
And when Rosary is his age, 40 years old, where will it be then? The paths we took through the taro were the highest points of Ribona, raised ribs on an emaciated terrain that will soon be fully submerged.
Kaurabi and Tam were so deeply concerned they were compelled to take the first I-Matang to sail to the island in years on a walking tour of the destruction, but when it came to what to do, they were just praying for a miracle. With Rosary in his arms, miracles may have seemed within the realm of possible solutions.
“Everyday I pray to God to save us,” Kaurabi said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen and we don’t know what we’re going to do. So I pray, so God doesn’t forget us.”