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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.

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; the word bubuti is never used lightly. If a couple cannot have children or desires more, they can bubuti one from a relative. The bubuti custom also provides social support for people, since one can request both items and services.

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.

Most I-Kiribati live modestly and are resourceful. For example, they use every part of the coconut tree: fronds for making mats, midribs to build houses, sap to make alcohol or to use as a sweetener, 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 pandanus mats are used for sleeping. There is usually a separate cook house.


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, also known as toddy, is rich in vitamin C; coconut trees are cut twice daily, and the sap 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 candy. 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 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.


I-Kiribati greet each other with Mauri (“Blessings”). A more informal greeting is Ko na era? (“Where are you going?”). It requires a response, even if a vague one, such as “to the store” or “to the north.” 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 work or 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 given names in informal situations; even children address their parents by their given names. A person’s family name is often their father’s or grandfather’s given name. In more formal situations, the titles Nei (“Miss” or “Mrs.”) and Ten (“Mr.”) are used before one’s given name 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 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 Kiribati is called oreano. A soccer-sized ball made of a heavy stone wrapped in coconut husk fiber 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 favorite forms of recreation, and videos are gaining 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, other than a family’s first son’s birthday, no birthdays are celebrated.

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.

Source: Encarta Interactive World Atlas