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The traditional sanctity of the maneaba or meeting place and the authority of the unimane (old men) still pervade and dominate the Kiribati village community. The intervention of outside forces has made an impact on the traditional social organizations. However, their effectiveness as agents as social control still depends on a reciprocal relationship with the older men of the village or the island. Ecclesiastical or political matters cannot be separated from the traditional fabric of the society. Commercial bodies like public co-operatives and private co-operative enterprises and new social institutions also depend on their success on the village or island authorities to ensure the usefulness in the community. In practice, the determination of their identification and the embodiment with the community is the prerogative of the unimane who will accord the appropriate sanctions. The implementation of decisions by the latter rests finally with the younger generations who will ensure that village projects are accomplished to avoid shame if such projects are not successfully completed.

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Te Maneaba or Mwaneaba

Of the 33 islands which now comprise the Republic of Kiribati, the 16 islands of the Gilbert Group plus Banaba are the important ones culturally speaking. These islands are generally homogenous although in the past some of them, notably Abemama and Butaritari were ruled by paramount chiefs. In a formal sense, there are no longer any systems, these having been abolished by the British Government during the colonial period. However, their influence as unimane and great landowners has a continuing strong influence in local politics.

The village household is the most important unit, and within that unit the most important person is the unimane. He is the symbol of a traditional I-Kiribati, understood by the village people to be an elderly man who was usually not well educated in the modern sense but is normally a source of wisdom and pride in the community. He does not have to be physically involved in village projects. His role is that of a ceremonial figure as well as an executive in the management of community affair.

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~ Animation of Kiribati family structure images ~

The traditional notion of the unimane will no doubt change and signs of change are already apparent. As more educated and retired civil servants return to their rural villages, they will take their position as unimane in the village maneaba. Their role as decision makers will gradually become more broadened not only in dealing with traditional functions but also including contemporary matters relating to the village. This enrichment of wisdom with knowledge, experience and pragmatism augurs well for the development and formation of an effective and viable basis for village organizational leadership.


In almost every island in the Gilberts, there are unimane associations. These are groups of traditional leaders, comprising mainly leading old men on the island, which meet periodically to discuss matters of interest to the local population. Unimane Associations are creations of the island communities as a response to achieve collective consideration and consensus on issues which confront the people. The omnipresence and authority of the unimane association are indisputable, and attempts to disregard or counteract the decisions of these traditional institutions can often generate serious ramifications in the island community.

Unimane associations have representatives on the Island Council, the church committees, the co-operatives and the school committee. Their membership and therefore their strong influence infiltrate into the socio political fabric of the village. The Island Council do not necessarily represent nor reflect the views of the majority of the Island people, and co-option of unimane membership to the council ensures a rapport with the populace. Unimane are ascriptive leaders in their own right and they do not as a matter of traditional pride and ethic seek elective or achievable offices such as council membership. It is unimaginable though not impracticable for an unimane to seek or want leadership or status in the community. Such office is self-endowed and bestowed.

The power of unimane associations has been exercised for constructive and good purposes to protect the traditional rights of the island or village people against unpopular measures put forward for the Government or agencies and other organisations. In some rare cases, unimane associations have made decisions in respect of individuals or groups which belongs to the island as a form of sanction.

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During the 1978 general election it was believed that the unimane of Beru met to decide on the two island candidates for nomination to become the island member of the national legislature. There were more than two candidates who wanted to contest the election. However, on the advice of the unimane association, two candidates were nominated unopposed. The other interested candidates were made to pull out. On another island Marakei, in the northern district the island council was unconstitutionally dissolved twice due to the agitation of the unimane. Whereas in Butaritari following a decision by the unimane association, the loading of copra on board the ships was boycotted unless there were increases in the labour rates.

Although unimane associations do not have formal recognition in the constitutional framework of the state, their rather special traditional role in the village has given them the respectability and status to be involved indirectly in the administration of justice on the island. Usually the unimane constitute the membership of very important government organs such as the lands court and the magistrates court. The lands court is involved in the adjudication of land dispute which the unimane are well qualified to handle because of their traditional knowledge about land ownership and social structure in the islands. Ignorance of the formal law seems to be of secondary importance in their role as island magistrates where their judgement is more than often based on moral rather than legal consideration.

There is no doubt that the unimane association is the most powerful traditional political unit in the islands. Its source of strength is derived from its own authenticity. This source of strength is being undermined by modern forms of political and social organisations. The ultimate destiny of unimane associations as an influential institution in the village will depend entirely on how the village people will respond to the cultural tidal wave that is sweeping over their basic traditional way of life.


Christianity has become a very powerful influence in Kiribati society since the arrival of the foreign missionaries from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in 1852 and from the Sacred Heart Mission in 1888. These pioneering religious organisations have been followed more recently by other religious groups, including the Seventh Day Adventist, the Baha'i, the Church of God and the Mormons.

Generally, I-Kiribati are devoted Christians or at least their readiness to contribute to the recurrent costs and development projects of the Church has resulted in the successes of the principal sects throughout the country. The great psychological impact of the religious teachings has converted the majority of I-Kiribati. However, this has not implied total disregard of traditional God by the people. Sorcery is still practised amongst the local Christians especially during cultural festivals when opposing teams try to outplay each other. In spite of discouragement from the churches sorcery continues to remain and active aspect of village culture. Some of the Kiribati pastors and catechists are known to be serving more than one God!

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Catholic Church, Teaoraereke, Tarawa

Church feasts are well-respected days of the year in the villages. Each church will congregate at a particular village to observe the feast. At the same time, the different village parishes will contribute money to the church in addition to their more traditional activities. Feasts have been used to generate community spirit and togetherness and to instill a competitive nature or titles and cultural exhibition to the benefit of the church represented.

Another strong factor in favour of the churches was their early involvement in education and community development. Before the complete absorption of the Churches' Primary Schools into the state education system in 1977, the Catholic Church had maintained its own Primary and Secondary schools while the Protestant Church had already yielded control of Primary education but continue its Secondary schools. It has often been remarked that the Church schools, in particular the Catholic schools which were run by the expatriate missionaries were relatively superior in quality to other schools in Kiribati. The Catholic Church has retained its Secondary schools at Tabwiroa and Taborio and a post-primary schools in vocational subjects at Teaoraereke. The latter schools have attracted a lot of interest from Protestants as well as Catholic families. The Kiribati Protestant church has appeared rather reluctant to upgrade its Secondary school at Rongorongo, Beru, in the southern Gilberts, which has resulted in an exodus of some pupils to Catholic and other Protestant schools at that level.

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Old Parliament House, Bairiki, Tarawa

The Mormon had demonstrated how I-Kiribati tend to patronize a Church which offers material benefits to its members. In an attempt to increase its numbers, the Mormon Church has helped some of the local people in building their houses as well as in providing relatively inexpensive education and thus attracting a lot of supporters mainly from the rural areas. The lure of overseas education at Mormon Educational institutions in Tonga and Hawaii at the Brigham Young University has become a great incentive to join this new church in Kiribati.

The churches have already assumed a priority place in the community, ahead of the national government and the Island Council. Indications are that they may well supersede the normal traditional forms of authority - the unimane and the maneaba - in the villages.     

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Jane Resture
(E-mail: -- Rev. 10th November 2003)