On frigatebird’s wings

tevi 4
Tevi Teaero on the reef in South Tarawa

Meet Teweiariki Teaero—poet, artist, lexicographer, educator and candidate for parliament in Kiribati’s upcoming elections.

Teweiariki—Tevi, for short—was an invaluable source of Kiribati traditional knowledge for me when I was in Tarawa researching my story on sea-level rise for National Geographic’s special issue on climate change. His account of the trinity of marawa, karawa and tarawa—sea, sky and land—formed a key part of my narrative.

I was especially interested in the way that I-Kiribati think of marawa, the sea.

“We do not see the ocean as a separating entity, but a connecting entity,” Tevi told me. “As a mother that provides food, and as a highway to be travelled.”

I had read similar statements in the work of renowned Tongan scholar Epeli Hau’ofa. In his influential essay “Our Sea of Islands,” Hau’ofa said that Pacific Islanders “were connected rather than separated by the sea. Far from being sea-locked peoples marooned on coral or volcanic tips of land, islanders formed an oceanic community based on voyaging.”

Hau’ofa distilled this idea into a single memorable formulation: Pacific peoples do not view their world as islands in a far sea, but as a sea of islands.
Clearly, Tevi and Epeli are paddling the same canoe.

In a photo essay that accompanies my story on National Geographic’s website, I quoted a line from one of Tevi’s poems, “Song of Rising Isles.” It is a poem of optimism, neatly reversing the prevailing (but inaccurate) notion that the atolls of Kiribati—not to mention those of Tuvalu, Tokelau and Marshalls—are “sinking isles.”

But it was another poem of Tevi’s that I cherished as I tried to express something of the soul of the I-Kiribati in the words I was writing. “On Eitei’s Wings” evokes the high-soaring frigatebird, Kiribati’s national bird. With Tevi’s permission, here is that poem:

On eitei’s wings

she floats
wings spread apart
such grace
on the wind
like a kite
but free

come now pen
give me wings
that i may fly
let me go
so i may hover
and then soar
on eitei’s wings
and rain abau
scented words
eitei’s wings

– Teweiariki Teaero, from the collection On Eitei’s Wings, 2000
abau means “my land”

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