September 2018

A view of Kiribati

I know I shouldn’t, but I always experience a moment of doubt, followed by wonder and joy, that a pilot can actually find Tarawa – a small, slither of land looking very lonely in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, writes Sister Meg Kahler.

BY Meg Kahler SGS

That small, slither of land is the capital of the Republic of Kiribati and home to half of the nation’s population (about 55,000 people). And like its neighbour Nauru, it is a living example of the complexity of the impact of colonisation and international politics – and a people who have few options other than to get on with life on a vulnerable coral atoll.

I didn’t ever think I would say a quiet “thank you” to Roman Quaedvlieg, the man the Australian media refers to as the “disgraced” former chief of the Australian Border Force.

Early in September, Mr Quaedvlieg featured in the news with some different views regarding a politician’s story about au pairs and visas. In a news report on the ABC’s website there was a link to a reflection Mr Quaedvlieg had written about a visit he’d made to the Australian immigration facilities on Nauru. I was struck by his description of Nauru and its inherent summary of the history and experience of many Pacific island nations. Here’s part of what he wrote:

“Up on the unprotected ridge of the island the full extent of the 1960s and 1970s pillaging of its only natural resource was in glorious view. The surface phosphate of the island, deposited over millennia by seabirds, had been comprehensively strip-mined to meet the voracious demand of foreign powers in Britain, Germany, Australia and New Zealand for prime agricultural fertiliser. I looked at the desolate remains, a surreal landscape of jagged limestone pinnacles. A barren landscape of spires bearing testament to the callous greed of colonialism. In the dead centre of this almost extra-terrestrial expanse was the nearly-constructed new prison, courtesy of a foreign aid deal with Australia.”

What stood out for me, apart from Mr Quaedvlieg’s descriptions of the appalling conditions that refugees and asylum seekers are kept in so that we can feel ‘safe’, were the almost incidental comments about the country itself – its history, development and place in the world. Nauru and Kiribati have much in common in that regard. Actually, many countries in the Pacific share much of this.

As part of my most recent trip to Kiribati, I attended the annual conference of leaders of religious congregations in the Pacific, held in Suva, Fiji. There were representatives from some of the smallest and most vulnerable Pacific nations – Wallis and Futuna, Cook Islands, New Caledonia, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Solomon Islands and many more. I was struck by how little I knew about these countries, their cultures and histories. And yet, they are some of Australia’s nearest neighbours. Most of them have small populations and are isolated island nations that exist without using many resources from the wider world.

The conference focussed on the urgency of dealing with climate change because, for most nations in the Pacific, time is not on their side. The impacts of climate change are very real to them now.

Most Pacific nations know intimately the lived reality of Mr Quaedvlieg’s description of Nauru – once known as Pleasant Island. Nauru had something the world wanted and eventually someone came to get the phosphate that had been deposited over thousands of years by millions of seabirds. But when the phosphate ran out the companies left, leaving the Nauruans with a desolate landscape, useless buildings, cranes and ports – and millions of dollars. Along with the resources, the money has also run out.

Many of the nations of the Pacific continue to live with the impacts of colonisation and exploitation. Most of them exist with limited resources – physical and financial. I have often said that Kiribati has no bargaining chip on the world stage. Most Pacific nations don’t have one either. The politics of the region is a complex web, often driven by forces from outside.

We have been hearing more about Australia in the Pacific recently, but that seems to be more a response to the rising influence of China in the region; not because Australia has developed a sense of the Pacific common good. In the latest ministerial debacle, the Australian Government did away with the Minister for International Development and the Pacific. Our new Prime Minister also decided not to attend the Pacific Islands’ Forum earlier this month in Nauru. Australia seems to periodically forget that it is located in the Pacific.

Australia’s nearest neighbours struggle. My recent week in Kiribati highlighted many aspects of Pacific island life – its challenges and its strengths. Visits to the Mental Hospital and the School for the Disabled were testimony to a country struggling to care for some of its most fragile. The whole country had a few days without the internet. Imagine the outrage if that was to happen here in Australia? Many places still have no electricity, but there are more and more solar panels appearing. It’s easy to buy morikoi, a fish very much like snapper, from the women who set up on the side of the road to sell the bounty of their husband’s work for $1.50 a kilo (best served with breadfruit chips!).

Day-to-day life in Kiribati is certainly life at a different pace – one very focussed on meeting the needs of extended family living in an equatorial climate and poorly resourced country.

The great lesson that I learn from Kiribati is to find joy in what is held in common. The capacity for the Kiribati people to laugh, sing and dance is enormous. Their culture holds them together. Most people live on a piece of land shared with extended family and this is a precious resource. A shared meal, people working together, a delight in song and dance, caring for many – like the islands that so miraculously appear in the ocean expanse, are cause for wonder and joy.

Meg Kahler

Good Samaritan Sister Meg Kahler was elected to the leadership team of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan in 2017. She has been a regular visitor to Kiribati since 2004.

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