My time volunteering

In 1970, I was sent to the Gilbert islands, as they were then, now Kiribati. I had no idea where they were, but flew to Fiji, then North to the main island, Tarawa, then waited for a trading boat to take me down through some of the other 17 islands until we got to my home for the year, Beru. It is one of the smaller islands, just 8 miles long, 100m wide, 2m above sea level, a large "C" shape with a lagoon, all protected from the Pacific waves by an encircling coral reef.  No phone. No radio. No internet. All news from home came via the trading boats which would call every 6 weeks or so. 

Me and my fellow volunteer, Jeremy, both 18, were the only two non-Gilbertese on the island and taught at the high school.

The impact of my placement

The island relied on us two volunteers to run the school, with the 6 Gilbertese teachers, but all the teaching was done in English. We were also called upon to settle village disputes and referee football and netball matches, as they would accept our decisions without question, leading to far fewer interminable discussions.

My unforgettable moments

So many. The island was superficially Christian, and we were allowed to do nothing at all on Sunday, but we soon realised that there was an underlying belief in the power of the ancestors over everyday life. They were everywhere, and nothing could be done without their permission. The school pastor could not go out in his newly-built fishing canoe for weeks, until ceremonies had been completed and it was authorised by the ancestors. We ourselves were put under some sort of spell by a wild old woman who lived in a shed by the ocean, so that we were able to dance a very complicated old dance at a village feast. I don't understand how, but we were able to complete it correctly, before collapsing.

There was very little food, basically just rice and bread fruit, and every day, at precisely 6 o'clock, as the sun sank into the lagoon, the whole school would gather at the shore to sit and wait for the school fisherman, Tetaake, to arrive after his day fishing out on the ocean. As he came closer, we would all shout, "What have you got? Tuna? Shark? Flying fish?" He would generally reply "No, nothing today" which meant more rice and bread fruit for dinner. He wasn't a very good fisherman. Although he was suspiciously fat.

Being on the equator, every day was the same; the sun rising at 6am, directly overhead at noon, and setting at 6pm. This meant that there was no real concept of time passing, no months, no seasons, no years, so no birthdays. The students had no idea how old they were, and some of the "16" year olds looked more like 25. It also meant no holidays, so every so often, we would simple announce a holiday, and the whole school would decamp to the village "maneaba", or thatched hall, for a few days of singing, dancing, story telling, and playing cards. Miraculously, Tetaake would find some fish, normally tuna and shark, so we were able to properly enjoy our feast. The Gilbertese are naturally musical, and the singing and dancing was spectacular.


The impact my placement has had on me

I know it's a shocking cliché, but I do think that I "went a boy, and came back a man". It was utterly life changing, and led me to a career in teaching that I don't think I would have had otherwise. I still look back on that year as being one of the most memorable, and important, of my life.


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