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The independent republic of Kiribati consists of a chain of islands in the Pacific Ocean straddling the equator and includes three major island groups - Gilbert Islands, Line Islands, and Phoenix Islands.
Kiribati is an island nation located in the central tropical Pacific Ocean. It is composed of 33 atolls and one raised coral island, The name Kiribati is the local pronunciation of "Gilberts", derived from the main island chain, the Gilbert Islands. Kiribati became independent from the United Kingdom in 1979.
Kiribati is made up of mostly low-lying coral atolls surrounded by extensive reefs. Rises in sea-level from severe storms, and climate change can cause extensive flooding and erosion and contamination of soil by salt.
Twenty-one of the 33 islands of Kiribati are inhabited. Most of Kiribati’s population of 94,000 lives in the Gilbert Island group.
The capital is Tarawa and the population of 65,000 is mainly Micronesian. English is the official language, the Australian Dollar is the nation’s currency.
The Kiribati people are of Micronesian stock, a very lovable race - very easy-going and have no regard for time. They live for the present and do not necessarily worry about the future. Each day is taken as it unfolds, and there is always tomorrow if things are not done today. Orphanages and places for elderly or very sick people are unheard of as there is always someone to look after them. The family is the most important grouping in Kiribati society.
Due to its lack of natural resources, Kiribati is one of the poorest countries in the Pacific. Land is limited, soil is often infertile and agriculture is mainly limited to subsistence production. The modest size of the islands, their remoteness and their dispersal over a large area of the Pacific ocean also contribute to a lack of economic development.
The main source of revenue is the issuing of licences to distant fishing nations (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, United States) attracted by the large resources of skipjack and yellowfin tuna available in the immense Exclusive Economic Zone of Kiribati. Copra, live fish and seaweed are the main exports.
The three groups of islands forming today's Kiribati (Gilbert, Phoenix and Line Islands) were settled more than 2,000 years ago. The original settlers were from South East Asia. Later invasions came from Fiji and Tonga.
The first European to come across the islands was the Spanish explorer Pedro Fernandez de Quiros who spotted Butaritari (in the Gilbert group) in 1606.
· Overcrowding on the main island of Tarawa and associated problems (i.e. lagoon pollution)
· Threat of rising sea levels.
European contact began in the 16th century, from whalers, slave traders and merchant vessels. Kiritimati Island (pronounced Christmas Island), was discovered and named “Christmas Island” by Captain James Cook on his third Pacific voyage on the eve of the 24th December 1777. In 1820 the western group of islands was named the Gilbert Islands, after a British captain named Thomas Gilbert.
The arrival of the first Missionaries also marked the beginning of Christianity in Kiribati and during the late 1850s. The first arrivals were the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) (commonly refered to as the Boston Missionary Society), who stopped in Butartari on their way to the Marshall islands in 1852. In 1857 ABCFM missionary Hiram Bingham and his wife Clarissa arrived in Abaiang. Later the ABCFM was taken over by the London Missionary Society (LMS). The Boston Missionary Society first set foot on the island of Abaiang. The second wave of Christian Missionaries were Roman Catholic priests of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart who landed on the island of Nononuti in 1888.
Christianity was indigenised, and became an integral part of the Kiribati culture. The first i-Kiribati priest was ordaned in 1978 and later became Bishop of the Kiribati diocese.
Kiribati has evolved as a result of sparse geography - a landscape of seclusion and beauty, which is no surprise given the country has the biggest water to land ratio in the world, with land masses of which 32 atolls and 1 ocean island scattered across the pacific equatorial region. Although part of a wider pacific island community, it offers a unique, complex and beautiful culture and language ; and much of this has been maintained because of this isolation. As a traveller, learning some local words and being observant of cultural norms and customs shows respect for the local community and can help preserve its beauty.
The culture of Kiribati has greatly been preserved by the isolation that comes with being in the middle of the pacific ocean. Although missionaries begun to arrive on the shores in the 1850’s, much of the traditions and beliefs of the people have remained the same, while the adoption of Christianity has created its own interesting history. Today many of the outer islands live in very traditional ways, and are always very welcoming of guests. Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati, is more influence by development and globalisation – however spend a little time on Tarawa and you soon find out that beyond the busses, nightlife and shops people maintain traditional customs, values and way of life.
The essence of community is common – people form community through sharing of objects, environments and spaces, and this is a lot in Kiribati. With many people in a small place, people share the natural resources that they live off. The I-Kiribati people often live in close quarters with their extended family, and living and working in harmony with neighbours and family is of high importance. Few things go unnoticed in a small community, and privacy becomes a premium. As each family still fends for itself, things such as the best places for fishing, handicraft techniques and other skills are kept within the family.
Traditional daily life in Kiribati is revolves around living off the resources of the island – this might be taking the sailing canoe out to catch fish for the daily meal, cutting toddy to drink, harvesting coconuts or breadfruit, or weaving craft from the leave of the coconut tree. The island and surrounding sea provide everything, from food, shelter, clothing, furniture, or medicine. In much of Kiribati, particularly the outer islands, this traditional lifestyle is everyday existence, governed by the extended family unit and the island council. Even in the more developed South Tarawa, you will see the men climbing coconut trees to cut toddy every morning, and see traditional dancing and singing at celebrations and botakis.
English is widely spoken in Kiribati, and as a visitor you will have no problems communicating with the local people. Nevertheless, using some local words is certainly appreciated by the local community, and will put you in good stead for making new friends.
Note: in Kiribati language, "ti" is pronounced "ss". For example, "Kiribati" has to be pronounced "Kiribas".