There are just some countries that are more known than others. This one gained its independence the year I was born. However, we’re both about as equally known. (Ok, maybe Kiribati has a slight leg up on me.) Regardless, many people—and especially Americans—have barely heard of this country, much less even know what side of the world it is in. Heck, even I had to look up the correct way to pronounce it (it’s “KEER-uh-bahss” if you were wondering). And because of this, it’s one of the few countries that have given me trouble in finding information about its culture and recipes. It’s the second country I have had trouble finding a bread recipe for (Bhutan was the other). On the other hand, essentially everything I learned about this country was new information.
The name Kiribati is their local pronunciation of the word Gilberts, which is what the British named these islands when they controlled the island group. (The “ti” sounds like “s” in the local language.) Kiribati is located in the South Pacific (or sometimes called Oceanea). It consists of 33 atolls (ring-shaped islands usually made of reef or coral) and reef islands and one raised coral island (the island of Banaba is the only true island in this country). The islands of Western Samoa, American Samoa, Fiji, Tonga are to the south; Tuvalu and Vanuatu are to the southwest; Nauru is to the west; Federated States of Micronesia and Marshall Islands are to the northwest. And the Line Islands (the eastern end of Kiribati) are a little over 1300 miles due south of the Hawaiian Islands. The equator and the International Date Line runs through Kiribati, even though they petitioned to have the date line moved so that the Line Islands can be on the same date as the rest of the country (the Phoenix Islands and the Gilbert Islands ). They enjoy a tropical climate with a rainy season between November and March and a dry season between April and October. Because of the soil makeup, there are limitations on the numbers and kinds of plants and animals that live here.
Originally, the people living on these islands were Micronesians who had explored eastward and settled here. Other islands in this area (Fiji, Tonga, etc.) also moved (rather, invaded) this area as well. Eventually, they stopped fighting each other and had makeup intermarriage, and after centuries of this, the ethnicity of all of these island groups began to merge. Europeans had major explorations throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, and several of these ships happened to sail past these islands by chance and just stayed. The British eventually took control of these islands and named them the Gilbert Islands after the British captain, Thomas Gilbert. They in turn added in more islands to their holdings, and it became the Gilbert & Ellice Islands as it advanced to crown colony level. (The Ellice Islands became Tuvalu a year before Kiribati gained its independence.) Early during WWII, the Japanese occupied the Tarawa Atoll until the US Marines arrived and told them to get out (more or less, with the only way they knew how to). During the 1950s and 1960s, the US and UK used Christmas Island (also spelled Kiritimati—remember “ti” says “s” in the Gilbertese language) as a testing grounds for nuclear weapons. In July 1979 (a few months before I was born), the Gilbert Islands gained their independence and became known as the Republic of Kiribati to the rest of the world. The people became known as the I-Kiribati. About ten years into their independence, they began to address problems of overcrowding by making people move to other lesser-populated islands. In recent years, the government of Kiribati has been quite vocal about the effects of climate change, especially since two islands were lost in 1999 due to rising sea levels. In fact, they have even started asking other nearby countries to accept their people as refugees due to climate change. Some climate scientists predict that the island nation could be swallowed by the sea within the next 60 years. Other people aren’t so sure on the timeline. It’s certainly a cause for debate. But if you doubt climate change, talk to some of the people who are directly impacted by its effects here.
The capital is located on the Tarawa Atoll, most widely known for the Battle of Tarawa during WWII, which left over 6000 Japanese and Americans dead at the end of the day. Essentially, the island is divided between South Tarawa and North Tarawa. Causeways have been built to get between the islets. The actual governmental buildings are located on South Tarawa, along with other vital business, financial, and the few higher educational institutions they do have.
Kiribati’s soil makeup along with the fact that the country is made of reef islands means there are very few natural resources and is thus one of the poorest countries in the world. It’s also one of the least developed. There is an important fishing industry that keeps Kiribati’s economy alive along with some tourism dollars added in there. They also depend of some minor agricultural production as well, mostly in copra, breadfruit, sweet potatoes, taro, and various vegetables. However, the country has to depend quite a bit on developmental assistance from other countries and organizations.
Because Kiribati was controlled by the British for so long, the dominant religion is Roman Catholicism, although the Kiribati Uniting Church maintains a fairly substantial number of practitioners. You’ll also find a number of Protestant faiths as well as Bahá’í and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
English is listed as an official language along with the local dialect called Gilbertese (which is written in Roman letters). English is pretty much only used on the largest island of Tarawa and often used as part of code mixing (mixing the two languages) on the other islands. Gilbertese is interesting to me because it is a verb-object-subject language (in comparison, English and Romance languages are subject-verb-object languages.) There are only a few other languages who fall in this category, namely Malagasy (spoken on Madagascar and Comoros), a few languages in Indonesia, Fijian, and Mayan languages. There are actually Gilbertese speakers not only in Kiribati but also on Fiji, Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu.
I have a feeling this country is going to be a challenge just because there is limited information on some of the things larger countries have readily available. Like, by now I usually have found at least one or two albums to put in my Spotify playlist. But not so for Kiribati. I have nothing there. Usually, I have been able to find at least one recipe for a bread or cake or pastry or even a mention of this. But not so for Kiribati. (I had to expand out to Micronesia since many I-Kiribati are ethnically Micronesian. And I’m still surprised that for a country that was controlled by the British for so long that there are no bread, cake, or pastry recipes posted online anywhere? I’m still looking, but still… Sheesh.) So, it will certainly be a research challenge, but I’m up for it but have my backups ready.
Up next: art and literature