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Our Heart Is on Banaba: Stories From “The Forgotten People of the Pacific”

"Our heart is in Banaba, not in Fiji," said Burentau Tabunawati, 76, pictured on the left with his wife Toanigeri, 69. Image by Janice Cantieri
“Our heart is in Banaba, not in Fiji,” says Burentau Tabunawati, 76, pictured on the left with his wife Toanigeri, 69. Image by Janice Cantieri.

“Our heart is in Banaba, not in Fiji,” Burentau Tabunawati explained, sitting cross-legged in his home in the Fiji capital, Suva City. “I am 76 years old, but still, in my mind and in my heart, I am on Ocean Island.”

Tabunawati was born on Banaba, also known as Ocean Island, a coral island once rich in phosphate deposits in the central Pacific. But like many Banabans, he’s spent decades living in Fiji. That’s because Tabunawati, along with the entire population of Banaba Island, was displaced during World War II.

After the war, many Banabans thought they would be able to return to their homeland. Instead, they were relocated to Fiji in 1945. Decades later, the Banabans remain a displaced people, who will commemorate the 70th anniversary of their displacement in December with a week-long celebration on Fiji’s Rabi Island.

Over the coming months I’ll be interviewing Banabans about the history of their displacement and its impact on their sense of community, culture, and identity. I’ll be talking with elders like Tabunawati who remember Banaba, but also to the nearly four generations of Banabans who have grown up in Fiji, more than 1,000 miles from their ancestral homeland.

A Little-Known Story

The Banabans refer to themselves as the “Forgotten People of the Pacific,” and their story combines war, internment, colonization, forced displacement, and global demand for phosphate, used to produce fertilizer and industrial chemicals.

The British annexed Banaba into their then-colony, the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, in 1900. (These thirty-three islands, including Banaba, are now the independent Republic of Kiribati.) That year, the the Pacific Phosphate Company, later purchased by the British Phosphate Commission, began mining the island after signing mining leases on Banaba for the next 999 years.

Between 1942 and 1945, Japanese forces occupied the island and divided the Banaban community, sending them to internment camps on Nauru Island; Kosrae, now part of the Federated States of Micronesia; and Tarawa, now in the Republic of Kiribati.

Tetiro Noere, 78, has spent nearly 70 years in Fiji. She still recalls what it was like for the Banabans during the Japanese occupation, and says that many of the Banaban people died from starvation or were tortured and killed by Japanese troops.

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Tetiro Noere, 78, who was taken from Banaba to a Japanese internment camp on Nauru Island during World War II. Before her family could return to Banaba, the British Phosphate Commission relocated them to Rabi Island in Fiji. Image by Janice Cantieri.

During the war, Noere and her family were taken to the internment camp on Nauru Island, where they faced extremely difficult living conditions.

“There was no food. There were no shops, we had to survive by ourselves,” she says. “We were getting our food from the pumpkins and the small amount of plants that grew on the island, but our hair was falling out because of what we ate.”

Noere and her family survived as best they could while the fighting continued. After the war, Noere and her family, like many Banabans, thought they would finally be able to return to their home on Banaba.

But the British Phosphate Commission commenced phosphate mining on Banaba as soon as the war ended. And instead of returning the community to their homeland, the colonial government gathered the Banabans on Tarawa, where they tried to convince the elders to move to Fiji with promises of food and housing.

Despite the promises, the Banaban elders, who made the decisions for the community, were still reluctant to go. Ted Otiong, 79, was just a boy when the commission proposed relocating the community to Fiji, but he remembers that everyone, especially the Banaban elders, were very upset.

“We were put into what was like a refugee camp [on Tarawa]; we all stayed together,” he says. “We were shown beautiful houses in Fiji and told that the coconuts grew large there, but nothing could convince our elders to decide to go to Fiji. The British government told us we had to leave, and that there was no boat back to Banaba, only to Rabi in Fiji.”

 

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Ted Otiong, 79, and his wife Tebwebwe. Image by Janice Cantieri.

A Forced Relocation

On December 15th, 1945, the colonial government relocated the entire community to Rabi Island. The Banabans were left in army tents in the middle of cyclone season.

“There were no wooden houses, no two stories, nothing. Just a tent,” Tabunawati told me during my visit to his home. “This was how the Europeans treated the Banaban people.”

Many Banabans feel the British Phosphate Commission used the displacement of the island’s population during World War II as an opportunity to expand their mining operations.

The Banabans’ new life on Fiji was difficult, Tabunawati and Otiong recall. The climate in Fiji is much different than on Banaba, so the community had to learn to plant new crops and adjust to life in a completely foreign environment.

“After a few years on the island, we found that life here was very hard, because we were not used to planting cassava, eating banana, or different types of food on Rabi,” Otiong explains. “We really wanted to go back.”

There are now multiple generations of Banabans who have been raised in Fiji, and have still not had the opportunity to return to Banaba. Many of them, especially elders like Otiong, still wish to return to their ancestral homeland—not individually, but as a community.

Returning to the island, however, is too expensive for many families. It’s an especially challenging prospect for Banaban elders, who rely on their children and grandchildren to care for them. And the younger generations have families and responsibilities in Fiji, so a return to the island would be difficult.

Even if the community were to return to Banaba, most of the island was left virtually uninhabitable by the almost eight decades of phosphate extraction. The mining ended in 1979, when most of the phosphate deposits were depleted.

“It’s a very small island, and now most of the island has been mined, it’s like going to the moon,” Otiong says.

But that hasn’t kept many Banaban elders from imagining a return to Ocean Island. “Even if there weren’t any houses left on Banaba, we would still want to go back,” Otiong says. “It’s a sad story, but we can’t help it.”

I’ll be sharing more perspectives from other Banabans, young and old, about their experiences in future posts. But first, I’ll be traveling to Tarawa, Kiribati, to explore a different story of relocation: that of a community facing potential displacement as a result of rising seas associated with climate change.

Comments

  1. Linda
    Auckland, New Zealand
    November 7, 7:15 pm

    I have met a few wonderful, warm-hearted Banabans who live on Naitauba Island in Fiji, which is a half day boat journey from Rabi. It’s meaningful and important that you are making their story known through your sensitive research and with this blog. Thank you. I look forward to hearing more from you. Would be wonderful if you could attend the 15 Dec Celebration and write about that..

  2. nukai
    fiji
    August 14, 1:51 am

    Thak you so much Janice for taking this up to National Geographic magazine..the world need to hear our story.tekeraoi

  3. Tekaai
    Lautoka, Fiji Island.
    December 28, 2015, 2:00 am

    Janice, great job. As a Banaban youth, I enjoyed what you have done to our people (Banabans). I look forward to see more amazing and wonderful stories of the “forgotten people of the Pacific……but i reality, it hurts….. Tekeraoi .

  4. JIOPE.Rusiate.V
    Tarawa Kiribati
    December 7, 2015, 10:13 pm

    Yes, this is a very good output of the great study. Good on you Janice. Keep it up and hope to see more hopefully.

    Tekeraoi.

  5. Mary Blakelock
    Suva
    October 18, 2015, 2:17 am

    Janice,
    i enjoyed reading your stories of the Banaban people. I am interested in their history as I teach in a Suva school where 20% of the school population is made of Rabi children. I am researching behavioral problems of Rabi children in the attempt to come up up with recommendations to help them feel a sense of belonging in their school and improving retention rates and consequently enabling them to excel at secondary and tertiary education. Your stories are an insight to the difficult history of the Banaban people in Rabi and helped me understand the psychological and social challenges that they are currently facing in Fiji. Thank you for these stories.

  6. Eta
    Suva
    October 16, 2015, 6:57 pm

    An amazing work and a super informative source of information. but there is only one Elder in Suva, I believe is at August street Toorak, Karoro Tekenimatang he is one of the pure Banabans alive.
    So it will be really great if you go and visit and listen to his stories…
    thanks and take care and may GOD bless your journey ahead of you

  7. Brynley King
    Australia
    October 15, 2015, 10:07 am

    Such an amazing article! x

  8. Grant McCall
    Sydney, Australia
    October 14, 2015, 9:20 pm

    Excellent research project: more needs to be known about the Banabans and what they experienced. Please try to get to Rabi around the 15 December commemorations and you will get a very good picture of the past and present of this heroic surviving population, who almost became an archaeological mystery as they nearly disappeared. There is a piece of Banaba in everyone alive today in Australia and New Zealand as that island’s phosphate developed the agriculture of those countries: a small piece, but a piece nevertheless and it should be acknowledged. Your research and writing should shed some light on Banaba and the Banabans.
    And, given the multiple abuses they survived, they are surprisingly welcoming people, with positive and energetic outlooks on life of various alternatives.
    You will learn, but also enjoy, your work.

  9. Grant McCall
    Sydney, Australia
    October 14, 2015, 9:19 pm

    Excellent research project: more needs to be known about the Banabans and what they experienced. Please try to get to Rabi around the 15 December commemorations and you will get a very good picture of the past and present of this heroic surviving population, who almost became an archaeological mystery as they nearly disappeared. There is a piece of Banaba in everyone alive today in Australia and New Zealand as that island’s phosphate developed the agriculture of those countries: a small piece, but a piece nevertheless and it should be acknowledged. Your research and writing should shed some light on Banaba and the Banabans.
    And, given the multiple abuses they survived, they are surprisingly welcoming people, with positive and energetic outlooks on life of various alternatives.
    You will learn, but also enjoy, your work.

  10. Ken Sigrah
    gold coast Australia
    October 14, 2015, 7:52 pm

    Janice, you have done well to start an article like this when I think in my mind that since we Banabans “The Forgotten People of the Pacific”, have no chance of getting our story be told anywhere else but for you to take it up to National Geographic magazine, that is massive for us. To be honest Stacey and I tried years ago to get this story to National Geographic but with no avail. Now you have just done that making our wishes come true by telling our story yourself. We will never forget your beliefs by the way you tell our story and this article of yours will be a reminder for our future generation that there are people who still care and that you have proved…very anxious to see the next chapter. Teke raoi.

  11. Ken Sigrah
    gold coast Australia
    October 14, 2015, 7:51 pm

    Janice, you have done well to start an article like this when I think in my mind that since we Banabans “The Forgotten People of the Pacific”, have no chance of getting our story be told anywhere else but for you to take it up to National Geographic magazine, that is massive for us. To be honest Stacey and I tried years ago to get this story to National Geographic but with no avail. Now you have just done that making our wishes come true by telling our story yourself. We will never forget your beliefs by the way you tell our story and this article of yours will be a reminder for our future generation that there are people who still care and that you have proved…very anxious to see the next chapter. Teke raoi.

  12. Lori
    Charleston
    October 14, 2015, 5:00 pm

    Janice, I have enjoyed reading both of your articles published on National Geographic. You are an amazing journalist and writer. Both articles are extremely well written and your passion for this controversial subject is evident in your personal research and documenting capabilities. I look forward to reading and learning more about this topic from you in the near future… Amazing job girl!!

  13. Lori
    Charleston
    October 14, 2015, 4:59 pm

    Janice, I have enjoyed reading both of your articles published on National Geographic. You are an amazing journalist and writer. Both articles are extremely well written and your passion for this controversial subject is evident in your personal research and documenting capabilities. I look forward to reading and learning more about this topic from you in the near future… Amazing job girl