Like many Australians, until seven years ago I had never heard of Kiribati, let alone understood the various climate change issues impacting the country.
That was before I was given the privilege of visiting the tiny Pacific nation as part of a Catholic Education Diocese of Wollongong (CEDoW) delegation. I didn’t know what to expect from this visit and had no idea I was about to embark on a life-changing experience. I’m not sure whether it was the friendliness of the locals, the heat, the remoteness of its location, or the sound of singing that echoed through the air as the local women swept the paths early in the morning before the heat took hold of a new day, but something about these islands and its people reminded me of my home town. Growing up in a remote part of northwest Victoria, an area often dogged by drought, mice and locust plagues, I understood what it was like to be at the mercy of Mother Nature and the difficulties that came with living in a remote area. Not knowing if my journey through life would ever bring me this way again, I savoured each and every moment of the experience that would be permanently etched in my memory.
This year, unexpectedly, the spirit of the Pacific called my name again, presenting an opportunity to return to the place I hold close to my heart and to rekindle relationships that had been built during my time here in 2009. Looking out the window on the flight from Fiji to Kiribati, my attention was drawn to the enormity and the power of the water below. It was difficult to believe that the turquoise coloured ocean that looked so exotic and enticing, was the demon of destruction and hardship on a group of islands that had managed to provide shelter and provisions for its inhabitants for thousands of years. From my bird’s eye view, the tiny islands making up South Tarawa looked like a long skinny snake slithering across the water, emphasising the isolation and vulnerability of its residents at the mercy of the mighty Pacific Ocean.
Kiribati, which at its highest point lies just two metres above sea level, is described by former President Anote Tong as “the most vulnerable of the vulnerable”. Considered one of the least developed countries in the world and the poorest nation in the Pacific region, this warrior at the frontline of climate change is continually attacked by rising sea levels and king tides, resulting in contamination of their fresh water supply, destruction of the sea walls and frequent flooding of villages. The people of Kiribati face the realistic possibility of losing their homes, their culture and their identity to climate change. The K.A.P (Kiribati Adaptation Programme) predicts that by 2070, normal tide levels in Kiribati will rise between 2.6m and 3.1m during storm surges, leaving the islands uninhabitable.
Although the majority of residents live in impoverished conditions and face destruction on a regular basis, this is a country rich in culture and spirit. In Betio, a city on South Tarawa which has the population density comparative with Hong Kong, housing is so cramped it resembles Merry Beach Caravan Park over the summer holidays. As we made our way around the islands - our ears were greeted with the sound of laughter and traditional song. Passing by schools and maneabas (a common building for gatherings) the air was filled with angelic voices in perfect harmony. School children immaculately dressed in bright coloured uniforms beckoned us with an enthusiastic “mauri” (hello), as we passed them on the streets. Locals regularly invited us into their homes to share a meal of fresh fish and rice and the generosity of spirit was extended to me through the gift of a blouse (tibuta), which an elderly woman had spent days sewing and smocking by hand. Here is a country with so little, yet its people so willing to open their homes and share what they had with the strange I-matangs (white people) that had come to visit.
After thirteen years, Kiribati have recently had a change a government and while former president, Anote Tong worked tirelessly to generate international awareness around the impact climate change is having on Kiribati, the new government has turned its attention to the domestic development of residents, focusing on decentralisation, food security, infrastructures and education, to improve the standard of living and help them survive climate change. Over recent years the education system has suffered a shortage of teachers, which has resulted in a decline in literacy and numeracy standards and the quality of the English language. The government realises that the survival of its people depends on an improvement to the quality of life, which can be achieved through a better education.
On my last visit our delegation was granted an audience with the former President who said, “for years the people of Kiribati have been screaming at the world to listen to their cries for help”. Well Mr Tong, we have heard your cries and have taken a stance in solidarity with the people who opened their hearts and homes to teachers and staff throughout our diocese for fifteen years, through the introduction of a proposed Teacher Immersion Project. The project held in partnership with CEDoW, Australian Catholic University (ACU) and the Kiribati Catholic Education Office involves teachers from CEDoW working with both ACU students and Kiribati teachers over a three-week period as in-school practicum supervision, mentors and tutors.
There’s no doubt that the people of Kiribati are in serious trouble, with no easy solution to the problems they face but, knowingly or not, we have all contributed to the demise of this Pacific nation and have an obligation to respond to their needs. What the future holds for them no-one is sure and we can’t undo the damage that has already been done. We live such privileged lives and the introduction of the Teacher Immersion Program provides an opportunity to stand side by side with these courageous warriors, so they know we are at one with them on the front line.
If anyone would like more information regarding the Teacher Immersion Project, please contact Neil McCann at CEDoW on 0409379955.
By Josie Cooks - Community Development Officer