On frigatebird’s wings

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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

up
there
she floats
wings spread apart
such grace
majesty
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
with
scented words
from
eitei’s wings

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

The rising seas of Kiribati

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Traditional and modern meet on the water in Tarawa lagoon

In April of this year I spent some time in Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati, researching a story on Pacific Islands and sea-level rise for a National Geographic special issue on climate change. Much of the content of that issue, on sale in November, is now available online, including my Kiribati story.

When a story, long in the production works, finally sees the light of day (or the light of a computer screen) it brings a flood of memories of people met, places seen, food eaten (sand worms!) and all the many experiences that a writer gathers up, like a fishing boat trolling through rich seas.

Fishing is a fact of daily life in Kiribati, of course. I remember standing in the check-in queue at Nadi airport, in Fiji, en route to Tarawa, and striking up a conversation with a Kiribati man who was getting boxes of kava root weighed, to see how many he could include in his luggage allowance. (Finely ground kava root, mixed with water, is a mild intoxicant that looks like mud and tastes like cardboard, and is hugely popular among Kiribati men, who down vats of the stuff every night while listening to karaoke at kava bars.)

I asked the man if he was a fisherman. He looked at me quizzically as if not quite grasping the word.

“Do you catch fish?”

He grinned. “Every man can catch fish,” he said.

So they can, and do. Every day I watched men (and sometimes women and children) setting nets near the shores of Tarawa lagoon, then walking around splashing the water to scare fish into them. More serious fishers make overnight or multi-day trips to other atolls. I hired one group of fishers to take me to Abaiang Atoll, and recorded some of that experience in my story. On the way, we stopped beside a huge commercial tuna fishing vessel that was anchored in the lagoon to buy a few skipjack to use for bait. While we waited, an old man in a traditional outrigger canoe—known in Gilbertese as a wa—paddled past with the same idea. That’s him in the photograph above.

I enjoyed seeing his feather-light handmade craft next to the industrial steel of the Japanese vessel, both painted the same lagoon blue.

Traditional ways and modern ways rub shoulders uneasily in the islands. Perhaps they do everywhere. Climate change brings into sharp and painful focus the inescapable influence of the industrialised world on remote islands. Remote geographically, but not atmospherically, as we are now all aware.

At the Paris climate summit in December, island leaders will try once more to sheet home the responsibility of the powerful developed nations to assist small island states to cope with the effects that global warming is already having, and will continue to have as the seas rise.