Customs of Kiribati
Marriage and Family
Some marriages are still arranged, but most people now choose their spouses. To make his intentions known, a young man sends a relative (usually an uncle) to tell the young woman’s family 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. To avoid potential disgrace, a couple sometimes chooses elopement, which is accepted as a common-law marriage. For a church wedding, the bride usually wears her best dress and the groom often wears a borrowed suit. Upon marrying, 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.
Large families are highly valued due in part to the dependence of most people on subsistence agriculture. Families need help 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 receive great respect.
With land inheritance traditionally divided among one’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.
The typical home has a thatched roof, stick walls, and a coral rock floor. Woven coconut-frond mats cover the floor, while pandanus mats are used for sleeping. There is usually a separate cook house.
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 flavorings, apart from curry powder, which is used almost exclusively with raw fish.
To eat, I-Kiribati sit cross-legged on mats woven from pandanus leaves. The mats are placed either 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; plates, spoons, and hands are used for eating. Traditionally, men eat first, and women and children eat in a separate area after the men finish. One is expected to eat all of the food on one’s plate, and it is considered a compliment to the cook if one has a second helping. People converse freely during a family meal, but in the maneaba (meeting house), 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. But mealtimes may depend on the arrival of fresh fish—regardless of the hour, day or night, fresh fish necessitates a meal (although on some islands eating fish for breakfast is believed to make one lazy). Fish is served in a variety of ways: fried, baked, in soup, or raw.
To get someone’s attention, I-
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 while walking or talking.
An integral part of socializing is visiting other people’s homes. Most people entertain on their buia. Guests may be invited to play cards or relax. To show respect, the host dusts off a place for the visitor to sit or puts 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 center 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.
The most popular sports are soccer and volleyball. Although children might 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 skillfully maneuver them in changing winds.
A game unique to
Holidays and Celebrations
On religious holidays, such as Easter and Christmas, I-
The country’s independence from the
Source: Encarta Interactive World Atlas