Te taetae ni Kiribati (Kiribati language) and wellbeing in Aotearoa New Zealand

Te taetae ni Kiribati (Kiribati language) and wellbeing in Aotearoa New Zealand

Rose Namoori-Sinclair is from Tabiteuea Island in Kiribati. She is currently working as UN Coordination Specialist – Kiribati. Her extensive research background, as part of a PhD research with the Pacific Studies Programme within Va‘aomanū Pasifika at Victoria University of Wellington, has focused on the health and wellbeing issues of Pacific women. We asked Rose some questions about the significance of te taetae ni Kiribati (Kiribati language) in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Ko na mauri (hello) Rose! Why is Kiribati language important to you?

For me, te taetae ni Kiribati (pronounced “Kiri-bas”) is the most important art form above anything else. It contains all our knowledge of arts, of how and why we do things, and just about everything in our culture. It is how we interpret and pass on our histories and stories.

Close up of a woman, showing her dress and a belt made of coconut, shell, and palm frond
Female dance belts of coconut, shell, and palm frond, July 1999, Kiribati, by Tony Whincup, type C print. Te Papa (O.033028)

I was recently reminded of the power of te taetae ni Kiribati by a respected unimwane (cultural elder), Baitika Toom, a former Honourable Minister in Kiribati who now lives in New Zealand. The community relies on him a lot as a cultural patron. He is knowledgeable and very clever when it comes to interpreting our language and our sayings. He talked to us at the Kiribati Federation Aotearoa’s Enhancing Family Wellbeing workshop in Blenheim in February 2020 about our cultural knowledge and skills and how they enhance family wellbeing.

In this workshop, we shared many sayings in Kiribati. For example, a kind of joke, ‘e bwata am kaue’, which in English translates as ‘your flower is dead’, has connections to healthy relationships. You might hear ‘e bwata am kaue’ used in a conversation between two jealous and competitive women over a person who they share affection for. It means the relationship is poor, not healthy. It is usually said as a joke. But, Toom reminded us to look at other layers of meaning where ‘e bwata am kaue’ may encourage us to attend to the wellbeing of our family, to go home and attend to our wife or husband, have good relationships, and maintain healthy wellbeing.

Humour and joking are an important part of the Kiribati language and communication, but it may be expressed differently depending where you are from. Some jokes are considered more risky than others.

Even today, there is still plenty to learn from the Kiribati language and sayings and how to relate them to our health and wellbeing. There are deeper layers of meaning we need to look for and understand. People like our unimwane Toom are a key source of knowledge who we need to learn from.

Five arm bands are displayed on a white background. They are a combination of grey and cream. The arm bands have red string to tie them to the arm.
Arm bands, 1990, Kiribati, maker unknown. Gift of Leonie Smiley, 2002. Te Papa (FE011707/4)

What is the significance of language and culture for I-Kiribati (the people of Kiribati) in Aotearoa New Zealand?

Some new migrants think that English is more valuable, which is true, but so is the Kiribati language. They ask, “How can I get a job in New Zealand by learning the Kiribati language?” Our young migrant parents need to appreciate that the Kiribati language and culture are important and need to be maintained in our new home, and do not let it sink among other cultures.

Untitled, 2007, Bikati, Kiribati, by Tony Whincup. Gift of Tony Whincup estate, 2017. Te Papa (O.046172)

For me, here in New Zealand, our language and culture help define and sustain our identity as Kiribati people. They help us express our feelings and concerns in life. As a health and wellbeing researcher, I find that our language is a valuable tool that gives me access to layers of information about our communities. A deep understanding of language and culture is important for informing policy. I can analyse our stories and concerns and put them at the centre of development policies. I can give voice to our women so they are heard by policy makers, and we can better deliver work that help them in their daily lives.

One special project that Kiribati communities completed in 2015 was ‘Boutokaan te mweeraoi: a conceptual Framework for enhancing I-Kiribati wellbeing’ (PDF: 587 KB). Using Kiribati concepts and language, we developed a guide to inform I-Kiribati practitioners and mainstream organisations working with families affected by domestic violence.

Untitled, 2007, Bikati, Kiribati, by Tony Whincup. Gift of Tony Whincup estate, 2017. Te Papa (O.045943)

Where in New Zealand is Kiribati language use strong?

Churches play a key role in maintaining our language. They are one of the few places where our community meets regularly and uses our language together. In Wellington for instance, our Kiribati church services occur monthly and we encourage our young people to read the bible, to speak, dance, and sing in our language. Otherwise, we only gather as a community on Independence Day (July 12) or at one or two other annual events. This is not enough, we need to do more.

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