Mauri everyone! Kiribati language week was from Sunday 11 July to Saturday 17 July, and is a time to celebrate and engage with the language of our Pacific neighbours. (We’re a week late, but still committed to bringing you this celebration of Kiribati language).
Kiribati is a three hour flight from Fiji, located where the equator meets the prime meridian line, and is the only country in the world traversed by the international date line. To learn more about the beautiful micronesian archipelago of Kiribati, I caught up with Kaai, who is a Kiribati student at the University and serves as secretary of the newly established Otago Kiribati Islands Students’ Association (OKISA).
The theme for Kiribati language week this year is “the home is where we nurture our children towards a healthy, responsible, loving, and prosperous future,” said Kaai. “For us Kiribati people, we believe that a child’s first education is at their home, with their family. Children learn the meaning of family importance and family values, taking care of their family, knowing how respect works according to the social order, for example respecting elders.”
We talked about how respect works for I-Kiribati (people of Kiribati). “Respect works in so many different ways. We respect our elders, who are very important to us. In the family, when an elder is working, you’re obligated to help them with the work, or take the job from them and let them rest. Apart from elders, when you have guests visit your home, they should always be invited inside, they shouldn't be left at the door. It’s common in Kiribati that when guests are invited inside, they sit in front of the door, which I find funny. It highlights the guest recognising that it’s not their place or their home, and this is their boundary. But for the host, it is their job to urge guests to come inside and sit in the living room,” said Kaai. “We offer them tea, coffee, even cigarettes.”
Kaai talked a bit about their journey to scarfie central, and how different Otago is to Kiribati. “I never realised how small Kiribati was until we learnt geography in primary school back home. We tried arguing with our teacher, ‘look at all this land, we can’t be that small’, I find it funny now. I come straight from the islands, straight from Kiribati, straight to Otago, so I’m used to being a minority, which I think others can relate to. I came last year during Covid so it wasn’t what I was expecting. The transition was big and I had to adapt immediately. I’m getting used to it though,” said Kaai.
“The biggest difference between the education here and back home is the technology. In the islands, we’re using chalk on blackboards; here, everything is online. That was a big adjustment for me, and I kind of had to figure everything out on my own.”
We talked about some of Kaai’s favourite things in Kiribati culture, one of them being dance. “Our dance is what makes Kiribati stand out from our other Pacific brothers and sisters. Instead of being smooth and fluid, our movements are very strict and completely different,” said Kaai. “The dance also imitates the bird of our country, the frigate bird, which holds the same meaning to us as the kiwi bird holds to New Zealand.”
“An interesting thing about Kiribati are the plants and trees of our islands back home. One plant, the pandanas tree, is important to us. We use the roots for medicine, and the leaves are used for weaving mats, and for making the roofs of our local houses,” said Kaai.
Kaai also talked about climate change and how it’s affecting Kiribati. “Our country is facing this problem very critically. My people back home are planting mangroves on the seashores as a direct solution, as well as building sea walls. These aren’t very effective, but that’s all we can do. Our government and the leaders of our country are calling on big countries to let them know that climate change is seriously affecting low lying countries in the Pacific region, and calling on them to reduce gas emissions,” said Kaai.
“In a matter of time, who knows if our country will still be here or not. Kiribati Language Week is important to us because if our country does disappear, at least we still have our language and culture,” said Kaai. “It’s difficult to think about, especially having family back home. I go throughout my day and have these thoughts pop into my head, like what will happen in twenty years time? Where will we go? It’s scary,” said Kaai.
Kaai also discussed how they stay connected to their culture being so far away from home. “We gather together and practice dance, maybe for an event, which is the closest thing we have to our culture. Gathering together and celebrating, sharing the stories of our families and our situations back home also brings us close to our culture,” said Kaai.
“We usually like to hang out with our people. At Otago, there aren’t that many of us, but we still manage to get involved as much as we can in Pasifika events. We’re still trying to push for the recognition of Kiribati, which is why we’ve just made the Kiribati students’ association,” said Kaai.
“OKISA have decided to do vlog interviews for Kiribati language week, which will be uploaded on our Instagram page, @okisa.otago,” said Kaai. “We’re celebrating online more than in person, since the language week clashes with Re-O week. So we’re trying to do phrases of the day, posting on our Instagram story, little challenges, stuff like that,” said Kaai.
Here are some common phrases and useful words to use to celebrate and recognise Kiribati language week.
Hello: Mauri, pronounced as meh-oo-rhi
Goodbye: Tia boo, pronounced as Sa-bo
Please: Taiaoka, pronounced as Dai-aw-ka
Thank you: Ko rabwa, pronounced as Ko ra-bah
I’m sorry: Kabwara au bure, pronounced as Kah-Bah-Rah Aau Bu-rhe How are you: Ko uara? Pronounced as Co Wah-rha
Good luck: Tekeraoi, pronounced as De-keh-rah-oi Come here: Nakomai, pronounced as Nah-co-ma-ee