Kiribati (pronounced Kee-ree-bass, with a short “a” sound) is a nation comprised of 32 atolls and one raised coral island in the Pacific Ocean. The eastern-most country on the planet, it was the first location on Earth to welcome the new millennium, and plays an important role in many of its developing issues.
Kiribati is the local pronunciation of “Gilberts”, the name of the country’s main island chain, the Gilbert Islands. These were first settled by Micronesian peoples over 3,000 years ago, who absorbed cultural elements brought by invaders from Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa to form the I-Kiribati ethnic group that inhabits the country today. Kiribati remained largely unknown to the West until the early 19th century, when it was named for British captain Thomas Gilbert; British settlement of the islands began in 1837, and led to formal colonization in 1892. Japan occupied Kiribati during World War II, and Tarawa Atoll, home to the country’s capital, became the site of one of the fiercest battles of the war, between Japanese and US forces. The country became an independent republic in 1979, and joined the UN twenty years later.
Kiribati has few natural resources; the phosphate deposits that provided most of the country’s wealth during British rule have largely been exhausted, and exports today rely upon copra and fishing. Foreign aid constitutes up to 50% of GDP, and is critical to the economy. Tourism is an important supplement as well; however, the majority of the population is employed in agriculture. Unfortunately, Kiribati is particularly prone to the devastating effects of climate change, as publicized by the country’s current president, Anote Tong. Rising sea levels pose a severe threat in the form of erosion and salinization of arable land; two uninhabited islets have already disappeared, and one has been rendered incapable of coconut production by soil salinity. Drastic action to counter these problems is needed, or the country may well become uninhabitable within the next hundred years.
Kiribati has a low employment rate, which means that it will be difficult for foreigners to find paid work here in most fields; however, educators and health professionals are in relatively high demand. Volunteer work has long been important to Kiribati’s development; although the US Peace Corps recently suspended operations in the country, other organizations continue to offer ways to contribute to its society while experiencing the unique culture and friendly outlook of its citizens. Rugged and remote, Kiribati is far from most stereotypical tropical paradises displayed in tourist brochures; for the adventurous traveler, this can be an excellent opportunity to experience a mode of living far removed from high-tech Western society.
English is co-official in Kiribati, but outside the capital it is often mixed with, or replaced by, Gilbertese. A Micronesian language, this has several dialects, including one spoken in Tuvalu and one in Fiji, home of a large I-Kiribati expatriate community. For anyone traveling outside of Tarawa, including most aid workers and volunteers, learning a few Gilbertese phrases will be essential.