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When Supporting Your Family Means Losing Your History: A Banaban Elder Reflects

Tekia Kaitarawa, a village elder or unimane in Uma Village, feels that his limited cultural knowledge makes him unfit for the role.
Tekia Kaitarawa, right, and his wife Mareta Kaitarawa. A village elder, or te unimane, Kaitarawa feels that his limited cultural knowledge makes him unfit for the role. Photo by Janice Cantieri.

Uma Village, Rabi Island, Fiji—As a Banaban village elder, or te unimane, Tekia Kaitarawa’s neighbors look to him for advice, leadership, and cultural knowledge.

But Kaitarawa doesn’t feel up to the role.

“They refer to me as an unimane within the village, but I still feel that I am not secure with my knowledge of the culture—what I know is through observation,” said Kaitarawa, 63. “I feel I am not rich in that knowledge.”

The Banabans have lived as a relatively-isolated community within the larger Fijian culture since their displacement from Banaba, a phosphate island in the Central Pacific, to Rabi Island in 1945. But to pursue higher education and employment opportunities, many people leave Rabi for the larger, commercial cities of Fiji.

While migration allows Banabans to pursue those opportunities, it also forces them to speak a different language, learn a new culture, and live as a minority within a larger Fijian population.

That has been Kaitarawa’s experience. He left Rabi Island in search of work in 1976 and did not return until 2010, after he retired. Working as a schoolteacher throughout the Fiji islands allowed him to provide for his family, but it also separated him from life on Rabi and the ability to gain sufficient knowledge of his family genealogy, the Kiribati language, and traditional skills he feels he needs in order to be confident as an unimane.

“I feel like I have to start over again relearning the culture, just to be equipped to be among the elders in the village.” –Tekia KaitarawaTweet this

“The job opportunities in Fiji have good impacts but have hindered my knowledge and understanding of the Banaban culture, language, and everything,” he said. “I feel like I have to start over again relearning the culture, just to be equipped to be among the elders in the village.”

On Rabi, every man over the age of 60 holds the role of unimane within his village. The most important cultural knowledge for a Banaban unimane is understanding his family genealogy. This knowledge is essential for elders to participate in village discussions with confidence, dispute land claims between family clans, and maintain a family’s historical role in the village. To ensure that each family is equally represented in village meetings, it is important that each unimane is able to speak on his family’s behalf.

Recently, Kaitarawa wanted to serve on a board of elders that helps the island’s magistrate decide matters of land ownership between families. But he thinks he’s unprepared to participate, he says, because he feels his knowledge is insufficient.

“We can’t be on the panel unless we know our history. I wanted to apply, but I can’t, because I’m not knowledgable on those matters,” he explained.

Kaitarawa has tried learning as much as he can over the past five years, but most cultural knowledge is passed down within families, with very little written down. In addition to family genealogy, this knowledge includes traditional skills like natural healing and medicine making, special fishing techniques, weaving, te kauti, or the traditional magic rituals, and song-composing. Each family in a village usually specializes in one or more of these traditional skills and each family’s skills, in turn, contribute to the village as a whole.

But within families, cultural knowledge is usually shared only with one child who the parents feel would best “keep the culture,” Kaitarawa explained.

“There’s a disadvantage in how our stories and cultural knowledge are passed down from before, because sometimes the person with the knowledge can keep the story to themselves,” he said. “So one person might be rich with all of that knowledge and culture, while the other brother or sister might be less informed.”

“I would give anything for the second chance to relive those years with my mother and grandmother just for the chance to learn that culture.” –Tekia KaitarawaTweet this

Kaitarawa’s family knowledge was passed down from his mother to his niece, who was able to learn the family’s history, traditional skills, and stories. Today, Kaitarawa regrets not spending more time with his mother and grandmother to learn this knowledge while they were still alive. Most of the remaining elders who could teach Kaitarawa about the culture are losing much of their own knowledge as their memory fades.

“I would give anything for the second chance to relive those years with my mother and grandmother just for the chance to learn that culture,” he said.

Kaitarawa feels that “it would be more proper if I had something in writing to know that I am ready to be called te unimane,” he said. “The history and culture should be well recorded in a book, because the only way I’m learning now is through observation.”

Kaitarawa plans to continue learning as much as he can about his culture and family, but the sources of this knowledge on the island are limited. It’s a familiar tension for many Banabans who, in the decades since the displacement, have struggled with balancing providing for their families and keeping their family history and culture alive.

Janice Cantieri is a journalist and researcher from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who is on a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship to document the stories of displacement and adaptation between the Pacific Island nations of Kiribati and Fiji. She is following the stories of the Banaban Islanders, residents of a phosphate island in Kiribati, who were displaced to Rabi Island in Fiji by the British Phosphate Commission in 1945 and have been separated from their ancestral homeland for the past 70 years. She also follows the stories of i-Kiribati on the Tarawa Atoll, who are currently facing the possibility of migration and displacement to Fiji and elsewhere in the Pacific as the sea level continues to rise and inundate the low-lying islands, which are only 2-3 meters above sea level. She is telling the stories of the Kiribati people, their culture and heritage, while also documenting the adaptations, challenges, and innovations they have developed in response to the changes they have faced using a combination of written stories, images, and video.