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Aspects of Kiribati

A typical Gilbertese (Kiribati) island of the Gilbert Group shown below normally consists of a strip of land, an encircling belt of reef and a lagoon. The strip of land, covered with coconut palms is almost on the same level as the high tide. The highest points are scarcely more than a man's height and comprise sand dunes formed by a wave stronger than the others - or are shovelled-up heaps of earth left by people who have been digging a pit in which to plant babai. The islands of Makin, Kuria, Nikunau, Tamana and Arorae have no lagoon.  

  Makin and Butaritari Abaiang Tarawa Maiana Kuria Aranuka Marakei Abemama Nonouti Beru Tabiteuea Nikunau Tamana Arorae Onotoa












The above interactive map provides aspects of the sixteen islands of the Gilbert Group.

A typical Gilbersese village is clean and tidy with the ground covered by a white layer of coral fragments. Rows of huts line each side of the road and these are sometimes concealed amongst breadfruits and pawpaw (papaya) trees. The open-sided huts are pleasant and well ventilated and are all built on the same model. Every family has three: a house, a kitchen and a store room. The house is simply a rectangular roof some six feet above the ground, thatched with pandanus leaves and supported by four posts. At about table height, there is a very springy floor made of flexible laths. Between the roof and the floor, coconut-frond mats act as blinds and wind breaks which are rolled up during the day.

The maneaba is the centre of the village and next to the war canoe, it is the masterpiece of Gilbertese culture. Like the houses, it is built in a rectangular shape and the architect is normally a village elder who has learnt his trade through experience and from tradition in his family. The construction of the maneaba is undertaken in strict accordance with rites and rules which are always carefully applied.

The maneaba is well adapted to the island climate and to its function. Its roof is supported on shoulder-high stone pillars and all who enter have to stoop. The Gilbertese are very comfortable in the maneaba. It is wide, cool and airy and in it the people feast, dance and sleep - sometimes all at the one time. There are no constraints in the maneaba. Here, you might even see a Gilbertese bringing in his grandfather's mummified body to honour the dancing and the skulls of defeated warriors were traditionally lined up.

Villages and districts both have their maneabas. They are divided into two groups with different names for those in the south and the north. Some names, such as Maungatabu - sacred mountain - clearly indicate a Samoan origin. Each maneaba has a name, traditions and a personality. All the way around, the maneaba is divided into places and each family has a set position in official gatherings. A stranger who is guest in another maneaba enters it under the same beam as he would in his home maneaba. Anyone, who belongs to several families, chooses the least cluttered place to sit. As far as official feasts are concerned, there is a strict code of etiquette to observe. One clan supplies heralds who announce what the shares of food will be; another family is responsible for distributing the food. The portion of honour belongs to such and such a family and in sharing out the food a fixed order of precedence is strictly followed. The least mistake for the slightest forgetfulness is taken as an insult.

Fish is a very necessary part of Gilbertese life. There are no markets and each man fishes on his own account. Catching fish is a problem which is only solved through determination and use of intelligence. The well populated islands consume an enormous amount of fish with one family using up to 20 kilos in two days.

The islands don't always have the same share of facilities. Some have no lagoon while others have the villages badly placed if they wish to send canoes out into the ocean. A different type of fishing is required from one day to the next as the fish are always on the move. Sometimes, there is no canoe, sometimes no net or no line. Most often, the fisherman fails in some way: in health, in determination or in courage. On some islands, many of the young men do not sail a canoe any more and all fishing is done using a net from the shore. Under these circumstances, their families are often forced to eat nothing but the smaller fish.

The fishing ground might be the shore, the lagoon, or the open ocean. There are different types of fish in each place. The best place to fish is normally the rocky line of reefs around the island. In the coral chambers and grottos there are a thousand types of fish. This area is also usually the most impossible to reach because of the great breakers which constantly batter against the reef. The patches of rock scattered about the lagoon are also rich in fish. The best fishing ground, however, is in the open sea within about ten miles around the island. The farther away from the reef one goes the less chance there is of good fishing.          

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(E-mail: -- Rev. 18th April 2003)