Rising Tides Can’t Stop the Dancing in Kiribati

Dancers at the president's celebration on Maiana Island.
Dancers at the president’s celebration on Maiana Island.

When I walked into Tarawa Island’s only air-conditioned coffee shop I was expecting to escape the 90° F heat, enjoy an iced coffee, and—if the Internet signal was strong enough—send an email. Instead I found myself face-to-face with the president of Kiribati. That chance encounter soon turned into a three-day journey to President Anate Tong’s home island of Maiana.

Tong invited me to attend a botaki, or traditional celebration, to mark the end of his final term, which concludes at the end of this year. I was taken aback and honored by his invitation—I had no idea I would have the chance to talk with him in a coffee shop, let alone travel with him to visit his home island.

Tong has spent the past twelve years raising international awareness of the effects of climate change on the low-lying islands of Kiribati. The sea level is rising, and, as a result, staple crops are dying, the wells in many villages are now contaminated with sea water, and the narrow land continues to erode. Kiribati remains one of the world’s least developed countries, so it’s been difficult for the government to help communities adapt to these changes while also addressing the people’s basic needs.

The combination of already significant development challenges and the destruction caused by climate change have made life more difficult on the islands. But as I would soon learn, the people’s sense of humor, spiritual heritage, and traditional ceremonies—like the botaki organized for the president—are very much alive.

Just two days after our meeting in the coffee shop, I was on a police speedboat for the two-hour journey to Maiana with the president’s cabinet. As we approached the lagoon, the water transformed from cerulean blue to a turquoise so bright, it reflected a greenish-blue —> Read More