The Kiribati culture has greatly been preserved by the isolation that comes with being at the heart of the Pacific Ocean. It is complex and diverse, with each island unique having its own unique story to tell of its own traditions, history and place. Many people remain true to the century old traditions and practices that define what it means to be I-Kiribati.
As I-Kiribati; the value and respect for family, guests, friendship, the elderly and the importance of family & community gatherings and meetings in a mwaneaba (a traditional community meeting house), remain important facets in the culture of Kiribati. People still live in extended families where everyone supports each other. As a traveller, learning some local words and being observant of the cultural norms and customs, and a show of respect and understanding of the Kiribati traditional ways can help preserve this beauty.
Christianity also plays a vital role in the Kiribati culture today ever since it was introduced during the 1800s, hence accepted as an integral and important part of the Kiribati culture and livelihood of the Kiribati people today.
The way of living in Kiribati is very simple, where people plan their living according to the day, without worrying about their future, living with the moto “Tomorrow is another day.” Survival revolves around strength, motivation and ambition to live within that particular day. Daily lives revolve around the rise and fall of the tide, dictating fishing conditions and timing and availability of transport. Sustenance is from the sea, coconut, breadfruit trees and taro pits.
The Kiribati way of life is reflected in the social organization of families, who join together to form clans (te kaainga) that function, according to a set of rules and roles. Household chores are divided by gender, with men fishing and collecting toddy and doing heavy construction tasks, while women handle child care and chores, cooking and keeping house, basically controlling domestic chores. While women may fish and often collect shellfish in the lagoon, only the men may go out fishing in the ocean. There is a clear status of ranking in each household, usually headed by the oldest male unless he is too elderly or too sick to be active in which case the next oldest male then heads the family. It is important for the survival of the group that each member fulfils the roles and responsibilities assigned to him/her and this forms their daily livelihood.
The one thing in common for the Kiribati community is that they all gather under a mwaneaba to meet. The mwaneaba is a traditional community meeting and socail hall which is the most imposing and significant building in Kiribati. It’s for large meetings and community functions. The mwaneaba was and remains the most important institutional symbol and foundation of community life in Kiribati where matters of political, social, economic and religious life are discussed and resolved with the leadership of the Unimwane (elected elders) and Christian leaders. It is also a place of festivities, accommodation, storage and safe refuge from violence.
Another favorite Kiribati architecture is the traditional outrigger canoe – Te Waa. The outrigger canoe is considered a pride of ones family. The canoe would be used as a work horse – patched, worn, repaired – used for fishing, transportation, for fishing and for racing as a sport. The Kiribati racing canoe is a wonderfully elegant piece of engineering, achieving a fine balance between wind, ropes and sail. Reputed to be the lightest and fastest canoe in the Pacific, and a testimony of the ingenuity of the people of these sparsely resourced atolls. The annual event of racing as a sport has helped sustain and revive the future of the Kiribati traditional sailing canoe.
The traditional dances of Kiribati or ‘te Mwaie ni Kiribati’ are a unique form of art and expression. The movement of the feet, hands and of course the whole body imitates the movement of the frigate bird and the Pacific golden plover bird while walking and flying. The costumes are made out of local materials. The dancing in Kiribati is just as traditional as the music. There are eight specific dances in Kiribati: Te Buki, Te Ruoia, Te Kabuti, Te Tirere (stick dance), Te Kaimatoa, Te Bino (Sitting Dance). Although distinct, each of these dances share common theme of mimicking the movements of the birds. These bird-like dance moves typically involve outstretched arms, jerking head movements and feet movements. The mwaie dance is known to consume the dancers and the singers who sometimes break down during and at the end of a performance due to the emotional intensity of the songs. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote of the Kiribati mwaie (te ruoia) that was performed on one of the northern Gilbert Islands (Butaritari Island); he quoted, “Of all they call dance in the Pacific, the performance I saw on Butaritari was easily the best…Gilbertese dance appeals to the soul: it makes one thrill with emotion, it uplifts one, it conquers one: it has the essence of all great art: an immediate and far from exhausted appeal.”