Building a Wall: Climate Change in Kiribati
Building a Wall (originally printed in The Big Issue Australia, Jan 2016 edition)
By Marita Davies
One of my favourite memories in Kiribati is walking along the beach with my cousin a few years ago. We were on the outer island of Marakei – the island of our grandmother – strolling at sunset for the sake of spending time with each other. I hadn’t seen Kairo for years. We were only three months apart in age and in our early teens we had been incredibly close. Our close friendship was put on hold when he returned to live in Kiribati at 15 years old while I stayed in Australia.
Meeting up once again on Marakei ten years later, we walked along the sand, throwing shells in to the ocean and kicking old coconuts along the shore.
As we walked along the beach, our conversation flowed: at first catching up on life to in the end, looking out to shore and talking about the ocean. Like every I-Kiribati citizen, conversations usually end up including a conversation on the ocean, the horizon, the sun and the height of the tide.
We sat on a rotten coconut tree trunk that had collapsed due to its roots losing stability in its earth below. It had fallen towards the ocean, creating a precarious bridge that connected the island to the ocean – the sandy shore providing a soft landing below should one lose their balance.
‘I wonder when this tree fell’ I wondered out loud, not really expecting him to answer.
Kairo looked at the state of the tree. ‘I think maybe 4 months ago?’
It was then I looked up and realized that there were multiple trees that had all fallen down into the ocean, their heads drowning in the lapping waves.
‘Why are there so many trees that have fallen into the sea?’
Kairo looked at me seriously and said ‘On Marakei, the rule is that every time a ghost is seen on the island, you cut a tree to fall into the ocean. You do this to protect your family.’
‘Oh my god. Seriously? There are so many trees!!’
Kairo laughed ‘No you fool, they fall by themselves! The higher the water rises, the more land it takes with it. These trees are dying from the land being washed away and sea water rotting them!’ He laughed, finding it hilarious that I was so gullible to the ghost theory.
I jumped off the tree trunk and grabbed him into a headlock. We then heard my Mum calling so we wondered back to the family house.
That night as I lay beside my Mum, I couldn’t sleep. Hearing the waves beat up against the shore – only 10 metres away – I suddenly realized that I found the erosion of the land a scarier prospect than the ghosts.
I spoke to Mum the next day. ‘Mum where did the land use to reach out to?’
Mum pointed out to the beach ‘About a year ago the land was about one metre further out than where it sits today. The sea is pulling it away.’
Thirty two of the thirty three islands of Kiribati sit just 3 metres above sea level. I’ve been coming to the islands since I was a baby to visit my extended family and in all honesty, on each visit, I’ve felt at peace when looking out towards the ocean. To stand on the land is almost like hovering above the ocean and to me, the saltwater has brought calmness and perspective. Kiribati has always sat so close to the sea level that I can’t even remember the exact moment I realized that the land was under threat. I can’t even fathom the thought of Australia disappearing and I suppose I just assumed the same of my mother’s country.
There are particular conversations with my family that have made me realise that whilst Kiribati is beautiful with its coconut trees and happy faces, the prospect of the country disappearing is very real.
I remember having lunch with my uncle one day when I initiated a conversation with him. He speaks limited English so he was often quite shy around me.
‘It’s hot today’ I started.
‘Yes, very hot’
‘Hotter than yesterday’
‘Yes, the sun is getting closer every day.’
I stopped. We had only spoken two lines each but his last line struck a chord with me. This man; a fisherman who spoke hardly any English, had lived in Kiribati all his life and hadn’t heard of the phrase ‘climate change’ had suddenly summed up the environmental concern that everyone around the world is facing. But with no politics, no fanfare, just ‘the sun is getting closer’.
Kiribati is changing.
The conversation that really hit me over the head was one with my own mother, back in Australia, almost a year ago.
I had been asked to contribute a short film to a climate change festival in Melbourne. Without any budget to get to Kiribati, I decided that my best bet was to use some dodgy footage I’d collected in Kiribati over the years and interview my Mum.
With a tight deadline and only four hours to film, I was somewhat rushed in my interview. My relationship with my Mum is one of mutual respect, with moments of love, then hilarity and then annoyance at one another infiltrating each of our conversations. This day was no different.
‘Mum we need to make sure that climate change is our main topic. We don’t have time for you to start talking about other things in Kiribati. Sorry to push but we don’t have time to yak about anything and everything.’
Even looking back on this conversation to my Mum is embarrassing. At 29 years old, how could I still be so bratty?
We started our interview for the camera and Mum was fantastic. Her knowledge and love for her home country was evident, but also the way she explained things was so simple but poignant. Mum is the perfect ‘go-between’ of Kiribati and Westernised thinking. Kiribati culture and traditional ways ground her, but – after living so many years in Australia – certain things such as her work ethic and parenting have been forced to be Westernised. For example, she has the ‘I-Matung’ (white man) annoyance of things that don’t run on time. The slowness of ‘island time’ frustrates her. Mum also has to patiently deal with me when I don’t show the traditional ‘respect’ that Kiribati parents are usually given in the islands.
Understanding my rush, Mum started speaking quickly about the wall that surrounds our house in Kiribati. Slowly built with my mothers’ bare hands over the past 25 years, the wall is made out of concrete and rocks. It creates a boundary line around our home, making a distinct separation between the house and the ocean. The wall stands steadfast against a rising tide. As the water has risen over the years, Mum has added more layers on the wall as well as strengthening the sides. The wall has been there for so long that it is just another part of the house, just like the veranda, the withered hammock and the frangipani tree out the front.
So while I was filming, Mum kept going into detail about the build of this wall and I grew impatient.
‘Mum, stop talking about the wall. We’re off topic. Stay on the climate change subject.’
Believing me, Mum apologized and then went back to speaking about ‘climate change’ in Kiribati.
I cringe now even thinking back on this. You would think that as a Kiribati citizen myself, I would be able to understand what my Mum was trying to say about Kiribati climate issues and yet in my ‘professional opinion’ I just assumed she was off-topic.
Later on whilst thinking about this conversation – my brain finally caught up. I’d been having climate change conversations for years with all my I-Kiribati family: the fallen coconut trees, the sun getting closer, the wall protecting our house. I just hadn’t paid attention because no one had mentioned the ‘climate change’ phrase.
Reflecting on this, I apologized to my Mum in the best way I knew how. I wrote a book.
Teaote and the Wall* is a children’s book about a woman who tirelessly builds a wall to protect her home from rising sea waters. There is no mention of ‘climate change’, environment or anything political. It is about hot, hot suns and tremendous waves – just how Kiribati people talk about their land. It is about a woman and her fight to save her home. My mother’s name is Teaote.
This book is about climate change but also a reflection on the way I-Kiribati people see climate change. It is about doing what it takes to fight for your land, your culture and your heritage. Teaote and the Wall was written with my family and ancestors in mind and paying respect to their boundless knowledge of the Pacific ocean and their land. It is not about politics, it is a dedication to Kiribati storytelling and how we can learn from it.
Right now in my life, I am constantly thinking of what lies ahead for Kiribati. How will the future generations of I-Kiribati people live? Will the land be submerged underwater? Will they be relocated to another country – forever labeled as ‘climate change refugees’? Kiribati is a piece of land but it is also a way of life and culture that is unique to any other in the world. If I can’t recognize the power storytelling and the advice my elders are passing onto me, how can I expect my future children to understand?
Scientists are predicting that Kiribati will submerge underwater within 50 years and the world is looking on to see if this is true. 50 years isn’t much time at all, but the Kiribati people are fighting for their land and are raising their voices and I am determined to stand with my people.