Kiribati
Lifestyle

Because Kiribati lies on the Equator, its climate is warm and mild. These houses of wood and palm leaves are all that are needed for shelter. The mild climate allows a variety of tropical fruits to flourish, including coconuts, bananas, and papayas.

Family & Marriage

The family occupies a central role in society. I-Kiribati live in extended families, and adoption of children by relatives is common. Adoption can be based on a verbal agreement or a bubuti, a request that cannot be turned down. If a couple cannot have children or desire more, they can adopt one from a relative by making a bubuti. The bubuti custom also provides social support for people, since it gives the opportunity to request both items and services.

Large families are highly valued, this is partly because most people are dependent on subsistence agriculture. Families need help with fishing, collecting coconuts, and working in the babai (a taro-like starchy root crop) pits. Women are responsible for housework, cooking, and childcare, but some women also help men take care of the babai pits and collect coconuts. Women catch shellfish and go net fishing, but usually only men fish from canoes and boats. The oldest man heads the household, and the elderly are treated with great respect.

With land inheritance traditionally divided between a family’s children, family plots are becoming increasingly smaller and the government is encouraging people to have fewer children. In many families, children now share the land rather than dividing it.

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Most I-Kiribati live modestly and are resourceful. This is evident in the way that they use every part of the coconut tree. The fronds are used for making mats, midribs for building houses, sap to make alcohol or for sweetening, the nut to dry and sell as copra or for use in cooking, and the oil to make soap or to refine for body oil.

The typical home has a thatched roof, stick walls, and a coral rock floor. Woven coconut-frond mats cover the floor, while mats woven from pandanus leaves are used for sleeping. There is usually a separate house for cooking.

Some marriages are still arranged by the family, but most people now choose their spouses themselves. To make his intentions known, a young man sends a relative (usually an uncle) to tell the young woman’s family that he wants to propose. This gives her family time to prepare before his parents actually come with their request. A long engagement is preferred by the bride’s family so they can weave sleeping mats for their new son-in-law and his family. The groom’s family gives rolls of cloth to the bride’s family in exchange for these mats.

A young woman’s virginity is important and must be proven on the wedding night, although to avoid potential disgrace, a couple sometimes chooses elopement, which is accepted as a common-law marriage. For a church wedding, the bride wears her best dress and the groom wears a borrowed suit, since he otherwise has no use for one of his own. After marriage, a woman lives with her husband’s family to learn from his relatives how to be a good wife. If a man dies, it is common for an unwed brother to assume his place in the marriage. Divorce is handled by the family and not by the courts.

Diet and Eating

I-Kiribati grate coconut into tea. They use coconut milk to sweeten breadfruit soup or combine it with curry powder to marinate raw fish. Coconut sap, or toddy, is rich in vitamin C and the coconut trees are cut twice daily to release the sap which is collected by young boys. Cutting toddy is a skill passed down through generations, and boys take pride in both the yield and quality of toddy. Boiled over a slow heat, toddy forms a thick, sweet molasses called kamaimai. This is used instead of sugar to sweeten drinks, or it can be made into a hard confection. Fermented toddy becomes an alcoholic drink known as kakioki.

Locally caught fish, breadfruit, pandanus, papaya, and babai are eaten regularly. Pork and chicken are usually eaten only at feasts. Imported rice and flour are daily staples, and in urban areas more and more imported canned food is being eaten. Meals are cooked over an open fire and are either fried or baked. Because hardly anyone has a refrigerator, salt is used as a preservative and fish is dried in the sun. Salt and sugar are the only two distinct flavourings, apart from curry powder, which is used almost exclusively with raw fish.

The I-Kiribati sit cross-legged on pandanus mats to eat. The mats are either placed on the ground or on the family’s buia, a raised platform with a thatched roof but no walls. Bowls of food are passed around and spoons and fingers are used for eating. Traditionally, men eat first, and women and children eat in a separate area after the men finish. It is good manners to eat all of the food on one’s plate, and it is considered a compliment to the cook if a second helping is accepted. People converse freely during a family meal, but in the maneaba people refrain from conversation until the dishes have been cleared and everyone is relaxing.

The morning meal is light and may include bread and a cup of tea or fresh toddy. Midday and evening meals are larger and include fish, rice, and coconut. Mealtimes may be dictated by the arrival of fresh fish, and regardless of the hour, a fresh catch can instigate the preparation of a meal. Fish is served in a variety of ways: fried, baked, in soup, or raw.

Socializing

I-Kiribati greet each other with Mauri (“Blessings”). A more informal greeting is Ko na era? (“Where are you going?”). Except at official gatherings, people do not usually shake hands when they greet. Instead, they nod their heads upward when saying “Mauri”. Handshakes are used to send someone off (such as to study overseas) or between people who have not seen each other for some time.

To get someone’s attention, I-Kiribati call out Neiko (“Woman”) or Nao (“Man”), even if the person’s name is known. People address each other by their forenames in informal situations—a tradition which even extends to children, who address their parents in this way. A person’s family name is often their father’s or grandfather’s forename. In more formal situations, the titles Nei (“Miss” or “Mrs.”) and Ten (“Mr.”) are used before one’s forename to show respect.

Members of the opposite sex do not display affection in public, but people of the same sex often hold hands or put their arms around the waist of a friend whilst walking or talking together.

An integral part of socializing is visiting other people’s homes. Most people entertain on their buia (porch). Guests may be invited to play cards or relax. To show respect, the host may either dust off a place for the visitor to sit or put down a clean mat. By accepting offers of refreshments, guests demonstrate their appreciation of the host’s hospitality. A cigarette of tobacco hand-rolled in pandanus leaves is often shared by the group. A host might also call to a passerby to join the group. It is considered rude not to immediately accept such an invitation, even if one has something else planned. The length of one’s stay depends on what the host has prepared. One may sit for only a few minutes or stay for hours chatting over a pot of tea.

Arriving unannounced for a casual visit is common and is a part of daily life. On southern islands, it is customary to call out from a distance for the male of the household before approaching the doorway or the buia.

The home is where casual visiting and talk or card playing take place, but not formal entertaining. Special occasions (such as a first birthday, wedding, rite of passage, or farewell or welcoming celebration) are celebrated with a botaki (“feast”). This is held in a maneaba and requires a written invitation, delivered a few days in advance. Every village, most churches and even some family groups have a meeting house. These maneabas (mane means “to collect” or “bring together,” and aba means “the land” or “people of the land”) are the centre of community life, and there are strict traditions regarding their construction, seating arrangements, and members’ duties. When visiting one for the first time, it is customary to bring a block of tobacco to be divided among the older men. For some occasions, a cash donation is required.

Recreation

The most popular sports are soccer and volleyball. Although children may play on the beach at low tide, people do not swim for pleasure or take part in water sports other than canoe racing. I-Kiribati outrigger canoes are among the fastest in the world and require precision and balance to manoeuvre them skillfuly in changing winds.

A game unique to Kiribati is called oreano. A soccer-sized ball made of a heavy stone wrapped in coconut husk fibre is thrown between two teams of ten players. A team scores if the opposing side drops the ball; the first to get ten points wins. Playing bingo and cards are favourite forms of recreation, and videos are gaining in popularity. Recreational dancing (called “twisting”) is popular. Traditional storytelling dances are reserved for special maneaba occasions. Costumes are as important as the performance itself. Many families have their own distinctive dance styles, which have been passed down through generations.

Holidays and Celebrations

On religious holidays, such as Easter and Christmas, I-Kiribati attend a religious service and then a feast in the maneaba, where different families perform local dances. No gifts are exchanged on holidays, and no birthdays are celebrated, other than that of a family’s first son.

The country’s independence from the United Kingdom in 1979 is celebrated on Independence Day (12 July). The first Monday in August is Youth Day, and 10 December is celebrated as Human Rights Day.