The narrow dirt roads that twist and turn their way in and out of the villages of South Tarawa, the main island and capital of Kiribati, offer quite a particular view: little huts by the sea made from palm sticks and leaves, dogs, chickens and pigs running around freely, and of course, the usual flocks of naked giggling kids here and there. Those kids, born in a tropical paradise and raised on the eternal now, can sure point at an i-matang when they see them. You walk past them; the i-matang, the white stranger, and they follow you. They won’t let you walk any further. They gather around you, squeals and chuckles exploding like fireworks. You are well within bounds to call them touchy. They take your hand, look at it curiously for a while, and give it a squeeze, too hard a squeeze. ‘You are real’ is what you can almost hear them thinking. How can you look so different from me and yet be so…like me? Of course, the i-matang is in desperate need for some Pacific sun to tan her pale skin, but you can learn one thing from her: we come from the same place.
The mechanism of market economy is fairly recent for Kiribatians, whose official currency, besides the Australian dollar -used in the capital of the country and happily ignored everywhere else- is barter. They trade goods for other goods and services, like chickens for clothes, fish for some help with the thatching of a new hut, rice for coconut toddy and so on. By all means, a subsistence economy. We are now in front of a country that the Western expert, untrained in the art of primitive living, would call “poor”. What is poverty, anyway, and which are the parameters we are using to measure it? Do we equal poverty with high crime rate? With hunger? With lack of economic security? Do we ever think that the poor may not feel poor at all? Are we, maybe, just throwing the word “poor” around without any real understanding of its meaning?
Kiribatians don’t work in the sense that we do. They work hand in hand with nature. They kill their animals for meat (old style, you know? No industries, no money, no factories involved. Only them and their food, nothing in between). Of course they don’t have work schedules, and their physiological functions are not dictated by external conventions but synchronized with their inner clocks. They build their houses with their own hands and share life and laughter with their fellow villagers. Who needs material wealth when you can respectfully take what you need from nature? They certainly don’t have the need for advertising to tell them how to feel about their bodies and choices either. You never have to learn what the words jealousy, shame, resentment or greed mean when you are born in a society that encourages you to feel good about yourself. No one ever expects you to be somebody you are not in a society where small is enough.
After their classes, children generally play with each other in large groups. Age isn’t really a factor, but they tend to hang out with their grade-mates as the whole village attends the same elementary school. Gender is definitely not an issue either: you can see the girls playing football, running around barefoot, and getting as messy as boys (the Pacific is not quite the right place to come look for fragile princesses). They also usually play with sticks, stones, and scraps of whatever discarded materials they can recycle into their very own personal toys. The further away you get from the capital, the rarer entertainment devices like TV sets, telephones, and radios become. Surrounded by the sound of giggles, the grown-ups of the village weave palm leaves into mats and curtains for their huts, exercise, play volley-ball or table games -depending on what the mood calls for-, go swimming and fishing, climb coconut trees to bring down precious sap that will later be distilled into toddy, and get together to enjoy each other’s company. Sometimes you can see them just sitting around in complete silence. Sometimes there’s no need for words to fill the air.
In the Tarawa atoll, most villages and islets north of South Tarawa don’t even have electric power: you learn to wake with the raising sun and the first crow of your nearest rooster, you go about your day and go to bed when your eyes get tired after hours of reading under the moonlight. To detox from all our usual daily distractions is not an easy task, but you too get used to the silence and contemplation as you realize that mobile phones and laptops don’t really have a place in an island like this. It’s almost as if they were incoherent, unnecessary tools from another time. Without their aid, you get more easily familiar with the phases of the moon, the behavior of the weather, the way the collective mind of birds is always in tune with the sky and other, maybe truer, aspects of our immediate reality.
Kiribati: for travellers, not tourists is the slogan of the Kiribati Tourism Board. And behind those words hide a statement, a warning, and maybe even a proud “this is who we are” declaration of principles. There is only a handful of primitive paradises left in the world today, untouched, undisturbed by the interests of Western economic powers and left to their own self-determination. Some others have not been so lucky along our History, but they are a part of it too. Not too many explorers have the courage to venture into the deep heart of this remote archipielago, but if you let yourself be swallowed by it and spat back into a dimension that doesn’t belong to you anymore, you are sure to come back with one message: don’t forget about your roots.