The first thing you notice when visiting Kiribati are the kids. Kids everywhere: babies on the breast, toddlers on the hip and hundreds of school kids running along the road. Running, playing, swimming and laughing. Kids are always within sight: on the back of trucks, high up in the coconut trees and playing in the puddles left over from the recent rains or high tides.
In the longest stretches of puddles, it is a safe bet that a mini sailboat competition will be taking place. A huddle of small brown bodies, all crowded around a collection of vessels bobbing on top of an unsteady pool of water. These mini boats are made from whatever their creators can get their hands on: soft drink cans, plastic water bottles, pandana leaves or random pieces of discarded plastic.
While simple at first, the construction and thought process in creating these tiny vessels are beyond the years of their makers. Laughing and splashing in the puddles while they watch these tiny sailboats race, the Kiribati kids create boats with surprising agility and balance. On the other hand, perhaps it’s not a surprise that these small, improvised boats are constructed with such engineered consideration.
“With a daily soundtrack of tumbling waves, Kiribati life starts and ends with the sun rising above and falling along the distant ocean horizon.”
Living on some of the smallest habitable lands in the world, it is difficult to find a spot anywhere in Kiribati where one can’t see the Pacific Ocean. With a daily soundtrack of tumbling waves, Kiribati life starts and ends with the sun rising above and falling along the distant ocean horizon.
Land and water encompass small island life, so it is natural that the Kiribati people have created a vehicle that allows them to utilise the resources of both elements.
A country’s mode of transportation can often mirror a place, its people and its culture. From dog sleds in Alaska to bicycles in the Netherlands to tuk-tuks in Thailand—the avenue in which communities travel and transport goods helps us understand their culture. From just a glance, an onlooker can assume whether locals travel by road or water, whether they have access to petrol, how small their roads or trails are, and even how flat or mountainous their land is.
For thousands of years, Polynesians, Melanesians and Micronesians have journeyed across the vast Pacific allowing them to become master navigators, discoverers and fishermen. For Kiribati—the canoe (or te wa as it’s known in Kiribati) is more than just a boat—it is a significant piece of architecture with a remarkable history. With 33 individual islands making up the nation of Kiribati, te wa is a necessary apparatus to travel, communicate and share supplies between each island.
Living remotely on coral atolls in the Pacific makes travelling between neighbouring islands necessary as it has been for thousands of years. However, with only natural materials found on the islands, te wa was always going to be a resourceful and imaginative vessel, engineered to travel with speed and finesse.
To watch a canoe craftsman at work is to witness a skill that has been passed down through generations. The maker—regardless of whether the vessel be for himself or for a client—forms a personal relationship with te wa. Each canoe is marked out and measured using the hand span of the maker and without a screw or nail holding it into place. It is an intimate process that requires time and patience.
Days before the spirit level, the maker would position his workplace on land and face out to sea. The straight line in the horizon where the ocean meets the sky is his level. Even before the canoe is introduced into the saltwater, its destiny to sail towards the horizon is already decided.
Kiribati has maintained a traditional family structure where men take on the role as the head of the family and women become the carer and home maker. Because of these hunter/gatherer roles, the canoe is seen as male domain. Still to this day, it is expected that the male will provide for his family and therefore the family’s relationship with the canoe is held to the highest esteem. Of course, the idea of the male being the sole owner and sailor of the canoe is outdated and one that will surely change in time.
Traditionally women were not allowed to take part in the construction of the canoe nor were they allowed to take it to sea by themselves. However, women hold a significant role in the creation of te wa, which cannot be understated—they provide the string that holds te wa together.
Te wa is bound by string made from dried coconut husks. Women, usually sitting in a circle, would tightly roll fibres of coconut husks along their thighs to form perfectly bound rope. Although this may seem like a menial task, it can take years to perfect the process of drying the husk, separating it and then coiling the husk to create an almost unbreakable thin twine. This rope holds riggers against raging tides and also holds fast when the salt water threatens to destroy even the toughest steel.
While men discover islands and fish for their family’s dinner, the women’s rope provides the strength that holds the man’s boat together. Each role is equally reliant on the other.
The final part of the building process is the naming of te wa. The name predicts the luck and character of the boat. A man will often stroll the shores, looking out to sea and abstain from eating food until the name is decided. It is a serious decision and once made, the canoe is ready for its maiden journey to sea.
“The canoe is part of who the Kiribati people are—it is their culture, their respect for the ocean and their family member all encompassed into one structure.”
With thousands of years venturing throughout the Pacific, te wa symbolises everything the Kiribati people have achieved. The canoe glides through the current and sails harmoniously with the wind. The creation of such a vessel is evident throughout the entire Pacific. Neighbouring island nations each have their own canoe, which has allowed them to follow tidal passages, and voyage and explore the largest ocean in the world. From ancient warring islands, to British colonisation of Kiribati, to the current rising sea waters—the traditional creation and design of te wa is more symbolic than ever.
The canoe is part of who the Kiribati people are—it is their culture, their respect for the ocean and their family member all encompassed into one structure.
The immediate future for Kiribati is uncertain. Rising waters and effects of climate change threaten to dismantle Kiribati way of life. But with each saltwater puddle left behind, there will be a child building their own te wa out of an empty soft drink can. They will laugh and cheer as they watch it float upon a splash of water and Kiribati and its culture will hold strong.