Never heard of Kiribati? Neither have lots of people. Yet millions of your tax dollars are injected annually into this tiny Pacific nation of thirty-three atolls of which only two are habitable—and, my word, are they inhabited, with around 50,000 people crammed onto the thin wedge-shaped chain of coral reefs and two main islets that make up the largest atoll, Tarawa. It thickens out a bit at the point of the wedge, facing south-east, but even at its widest, if such a thing as the Australian quarter-acre block existed on Tarawa, you’d have the eastern Pacific at the front gate and the western Pacific at the back.
Asking people whether they’ve heard of Kiribati is made harder because even if they’ve read the name (most likely in some doomsday list of islands allegedly threatened by rising seas) they don’t recognise it from the pronunciation. You don’t say ki-ri-ba-ti, phonetically, you say kiri-bus. The main town on Tarawa is Betio, pronounced bay-so. This divergence between orthography and pronunciation—though no wider than with some English words when you think about it—is characteristic of the national language, Gilbertese. Kiribati is a rough transliteration of Gilbert, the colonial name of these islands. It was bestowed in honour of Captain Thomas Gilbert, who sailed through the atolls in 1788 on his way home to England from delivering a shipload of convicts to Botany Bay. The Gilbert Islands (along with the nearby Ellice islands, now Tuvalu) were declared a British protectorate in 1892 and a colony in 1916. In 1978, as shreds of red were disappearing all over the map of the world, the Union Jack came down and the independent Republic of Kiribati was inaugurated.
Australia is now the nation of influence in Kiribati. In the current financial year Kiribati will receive around $27.9 million from “Australian Aid”. (What a patronising name that is—pure Lady Bountiful distributing largesse, something we can do only because we are lucky enough to be better off than other countries thanks to resources we acquired through no merit of our own. If we had proper notions of humility and stewardship of the earth’s abundance we’d call our “aid” something like “Australia sharing”. When I wrote to Julie Bishop suggesting this title she did not reply.)
Whatever you call it, the people of Kiribati—the i-Kiribati—certainly need that money. Kiribati is desperately poor, there is no industry, no arable land (the ground is all white coral dust) and the few fish from the ocean beyond the lagoon that make their way into the local market rather than being carried away by Korean or Taiwanese trawlers constitute the exiguous protein element, along with some chicken and pork, in the local diet. There are several supermarkets, but the limited stocks on their shelves (which look like a Soviet GUM in the old days) are frequently past their use-by date, either because of dumping by exporters or because they’ve sat too long on board slow itinerant ships or on the wharf at Betio. Essential services such as health are basic or inexistent. Diabetes, death in childbirth and infant mortality remain a scourge. Folk medicine is still practised, its nostrums handed down in families.
It is hard for Australians, who even if they are poor are miles better off than the average citizen in Kiribati, to picture the degrading level of poverty of truly destitute countries and the stoic resignation to the cruel fact that, as one “expat” candidly remarked of the local people in a Pacific state, “If they get really sick they don’t go to hospital to get better. They just die.”
Nor in Kiribati is there the foreseeable prospect of earning money, as in other Pacific islands, through tourism. The logical place to start would be Tarawa, but who would want to open a resort by its mephitic lagoon, foul with sewage? Kiribati is also inconvenient to get to, with only one flight a week from Brisbane, island-hopping to Honiara and Nauru on the way; or two a week from Fiji, three hours to the south. Cruise liners never call. Yet the potential is there. Many of the atolls are picture books of classic Pacific beauty with palm-fringed beaches and pale turquoise water. The scarlet-streaked western sky as the sun sets over the lagoon at Betio is breathtakingly lovely. A pity about the state of the lagoon itself.
Before pollution—which is so bad because there are too many people on Tarawa for the limited sewerage facilities—the then Gilbert Islands were paradisal, a place of friendly people (Kiribati is still a place of friendly people in spite of their privations) and tropical seascapes, with the equatorial climate made less harsh by the trade winds that blow gently every evening. This was the agreeable world described in A Pattern of Islands, which anyone over a certain age who did Year 12 English Expression in Victoria will remember as a “set book”. The author, Arthur (later Sir Arthur) Grimble, was a British colonial official posted to Tarawa in 1923. Republished in 2011, the book breathes his affection for the place. (Sir Arthur’s recollections were somewhat schmaltzily transferred to the screen in a 1956 film titled Pacific Destiny, with Denholm Elliott as the author and peaches-and-cream Susan Stephen as his plucky wife Olivia.)
A few people visit Kiribati to see relics of the Second World War—bunkers, rusting guns and tanks, shipwrecks and skeletons of fighter planes are all still there. Red Beach on Tarawa was the scene of horrific carnage in three battles in 1942 when American forces tried to dislodge the Japanese, who had invaded the Gilbert Islands three days after Pearl Harbor and dug themselves in. For the year or more they were in control the Japanese behaved with characteristic brutality, beheading seventeen New Zealand coastwatchers and five other foreign nationals, though they seem to have left the local people alone as long as they behaved. The ruins of the Japanese HQ sit deserted and roofless beside Tarawa’s one main road.
Australia gives 45 per cent of all the “aid” Kiribati receives. China has its eye on the place, and until a diplomatic spat in 2003 had a satellite tracking station there. Beijing’s emissaries flounced out when Kiribati decided to recognise Taiwan instead.
The principal export of Kiribati is its people. Australian taxpayers’ money is used, among other things, for training i-Kiribati technical teachers so that they can teach the courses that will give their students Australian-recognised qualifications with which to get jobs outside the country and subsidise their families at home. (In addition to this useful work the educational agenda imposed by Canberra reflects the new and de rigueur ideological imperialism of the West towards deeply traditional communities by placing a certain intrusive emphasis on “gender quotas” and female “empowerment”, but that’s the price of international development handouts nowadays.) It seems to be hoped that one day the beneficiaries of technical training will acquire the expertise to establish income-generating ventures in Kiribati itself or develop schemes of reef reclamation to ease the overcrowding, but as yet there is little sign of the former and none of the latter.
The Kiribati legislature has a modern parliament house modelled on a traditional maneaba or meeting hut, with roofs vaguely reminiscent of the Sydney Opera House. The Japanese built it in 2000 to say sorry. The forty-six MPs debate in well-cushioned comfort. Their constituents tend to live in humbler edifices of pandanus wood, coconut leaves and less traditional materials such as cement sheeting, concrete or tin, generally without running water (though invariably illuminated after dark by the flicker of satellite television on a plasma screen). There are a few more substantial structures such as offices, warehouses and churches (as a result of intense missionary activity in the nineteenth century most i-Kiribati are Christians, with about half Protestant and half Roman Catholic). There are several one-star or less hotels and noisy bars (in one on certain evenings you can choose between a karaoke version of, say, “Ring of Fire” and a congregational rendering of “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” lifting the roof of the Presbyterian church next door). Short-term “expat” advisers and educators usually stay in the hotels, with the permanent ones and the Australian high commissioner living in the kind of bungalow you’d see in Darwin with windows opening onto the lagoon, though quickly shut if the wind is in the wrong direction. Such colonial buildings as there were have not withstood the battering of time and weather.
One long road runs all the way around the atoll, passing from islet to islet and along narrow necks of land on a causeway. It was first constructed in colonial times to give coherence to the villages scattered here and there around the atoll. The road is constantly under repair but always in disrepair. A heavy rainfall will wash away what was done the day before, leaving potholes like moon craters. There is no shortage of cars. The Japanese send shiploads of motor vehicles that no longer meet the standards of their internal market and these are snapped up by the i-Kiribati. There is though a shortage of spare parts. The cars are driven till they fall to pieces and are abandoned where they stop.
Junk abounds. In Betio a large and superannuated English Electric generator rusts by the roadside like a piece of progressive public art. There is a regular rubbish collection (paid for by New Zealand) but evidently that is not enough to, as municipal exhortations against littering always put it, keep Kiribati beautiful.
And yet in spite of everything Kiribati remains beautiful, and could be much more so. It is a shame that nature’s beneficence to this atoll-state has not been reciprocated by the consumer society.
Christopher Akehurst is a periodic contributor to Quadrant, Spectator Australia and Kairos, and editor of Organ Australia.