Words and Waters

By Jheri St. James

“Hi Gary. My name is Bonnie McQuiston. I am a Peace Corps Volunteer in the country of Kiribati. I know your brother Bob, and he told me about the Common ground 191 project you are doing. I just finished viewing your website about the project and it looks amazing. What a wonderful thing you are doing. I apologize for not getting in contact with you while I was home for Christmas, but life was extremely hectic (in a good way), trying to spend as much time as possible with family and friends, as I won’t be home again for another year and a half. It looks as though you can also send the materials to me here that I would need for the soil collection. I would love to help out in any way I can. Please email me the details when you get a chance. Right now I am in the capital, Tarawa, where email access is not a problem. January 27th, though, I will be heading back home to my outer island, Abemama, where communication becomes a little more difficult. So if possible it would be best to work out the details this week. I look forward to hearing from you. Sincerely, Bonnie McQuiston.”

Kiribati horizon

Kiribati desert landscape

“But indeed, it is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of the air, that emanation from the old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.”
-- Robert Louis Stephenson

* * *

The Republic of Kiribati (prounounced “Kiribas”) is an island nation located in the central tropical Pacific Ocean, about halfway from Hawaii to Australia. It comprises 32 atolls (which are ring-like coral islands and reefs that nearly or entirely enclose a lagoon) and one raised coral island dispersed over 1,351,000 square miles, straddling the equator and bordering the International Date Line to the east.

The name Kiribati is the local variant of “Gilberts,” derived from Kiribati's main island chain, the Gilbert Islands and its former colonial name, the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. Some of the islands of Kiribati, especially in the remote Line Islands, were formerly used by the United States and Great Britain for nuclear testing. The Gilbert Islands were granted self-rule by the UK in 1971 and complete independence in 1979 under the new name of Kiribati. The US relinquished all claims to the sparsely inhabited Phoenix and Line Island groups in a 1979 treaty of friendship with Kiribati.

n 2002 Kiribati passed a controversial law enabling the government to shut down newspapers. The legislation followed the launching of Kiribati’s first successful non-government-run newspaper. Kiribati was admitted as the 186th member of the United Nations in September 1999. It maintains cordial relations with most countries and has close relations with its Pacific neighbors, Japan, Australia and New Zealand; the latter three providing the majority of the country’s foreign aid. Taiwan and Japan have specified-period licenses to fish in Kiribati’s waters. The capital and largest city is South Tarawa.

There is no foreign land. It is the traveler only that is foreign (Ibid)

A Native Hut in Kiribati

Kiribati has been inhabited by Micronesians, speaking the same Oceanic language since some time between 3000 BC and 1300 AD. Invaders from Tonga and Fiji later introduced Polynesian and Melanesian cultural aspects, respectively, and intermarriage tended to blur cultural differences, resulting in a significant degree of cultural unity. The islands were first sighted by British and American ships in the late 18th and 19th centuries and from that time Western whalers, merchant vessels and slave traders visited the islands, introducing diseases and firearms.

Of Kiribati’s 32 atolls and one island at least three exist in each hemisphere. Banaba (Ocean Island) is a raised-coral island which was once a rich source of phosphates, but it has been mostly mined out. The rest of the land in Kiribati consists of the sand and reef rock islets of atolls, or coral islands, which rise at most 6.5 feet above sea level. The soil is thin and calcareous, making agriculture very difficult. Kiritimati (Christmas Island) in the Line Islands is the world’s largest atoll, Based on a 1995 realignment of the International Date Line, Kiribati is now the easternmost country in the world, and was the first country to enter into the year 2000 at Caroline Island, which at that time was renamed Millennium Island.

Two small uninhabited islets, Tebua Tarawa and Abanuea, disappeared underwater in 1999. The islet of Tepuka Savilivili no longer has any coconut trees due to salination. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that sea levels will rise by about 20 inches by 2100, and a further rise is inevitable. It is thus likely that within a century the nation’s arable land will become subject to increased salination and will be largely submerged. With few natural resources, and the exhaustion of phosphate deposits, copra and fish now represent the bulk of production and exports. Tourism provides more than one-fifth of GDP. Kiribati receives foreign financial aid from UK and Japan and exports and imports from and to Australia, USA, France, Japan, Hong Kong, and Germany.

Every one lives by selling something,
Whatever be his right to it. (Ibid)

* * *

Earth’s oceans make up just .02 percent of the planet’s total mass. This means the vast lower mantle could contain many times more water than floats on the planet’s surface. In different trials, Japanese researchers have concluded that there may be more H2O deep underground than in all oceans, lakes and rivers combined. “Our results suggest that the lower mantle can potentially store considerable amounts of water,” said Motohiko Murakami of the Tokyo Institute of Technology. “The presence of water in the crystal structure of deep earth minerals would be expected to soften the minerals and change their flow behavior,” he added. That in turn could affect how the innards of the planet mix and shift over time, and could indirectly affect conditions and forces near the surface, such as plate tectonics.

Gary Simpson, architect of the Common Ground 191 project, often talks about plate techtonics, and the huge life force of Mother Earth, her soils and her liquids, during the gathering process of soil samples from the 191 nations in the United Nations. It is becoming apparent that sands from island nations like Kiribati may actually become extinct.

Kirbati Children

Our sand collector in Kiribati was Bonnie McQuiston, a Peace Corps volunteer working at the Barebutanna Primary School on Abemama Island. It came from the Kariatebike Village on Abemama Island. She said, “The sand was taken from the land of the former king,” a comment that resulted in much interesting research, and many literary results:


The most famous and unusual of the Gilbertese was King Tem Binoka of Abemama. Robert Louis Stevenson described him in his book In The South Seas. In 1889 the great writer saw him at close quarters, for he became Stevenson's host on Abemama. Some old men today remember him and show where Stevenson’s guest house was. It stood about two hundred paces to the east of the royal palace, in the bush, and was built in two days. Stevenson, accompanied by his wife, his brother-in-law and a Chinese cook, was looking for solitude and health in the sunny Pacific Islands. He observed the islanders with perception and a lively sympathy. He was able to talk about them in a very fair way because he both liked and understood them. Stevenson spent four months in the then Gilberts (now Kiribati); two at Butaritari and two at Abemama.

Interior of the Tem Binoka's harem

Here is his description of Tem Binoka:

There is one great personage in the Gilberts: Tembinok' of Apemama: solely conspicuous, the hero of song, the butt of gossip. Through the rest of the group the kings are slain or fallen in tutelage; Tembinok' alone remains, the last tyrant, the last erect vestige of a dead society.

The white man is everywhere else, building his houses, drinking his gin, getting in and out of trouble with the weak native governments. There is only one white on Apemama, and he on sufferance, living far from court, and hearkening and watching his conduct like a mouse in a cat's ear. Through all the other islands a stream of native visitors comes and goes, travelling by families, spending years on the grand tour. Apemama alone is left upon one side, the tourist dreading to risk himself within the clutch of Tembinok'.

And fear of the same Gorgon follows and troubles them at home. Maiana once paid him tribute; he once fell upon and seized Nonuti: first steps to the empire of the archipelago. A British warship coming on the scene, the conqueror was driven to disgorge, his career checked in the outset, his dear-bought armoury sunk in his own lagoon. But the impression had been made; periodical fear of him still shakes the islands; rumour depicts him mustering his canoes for a fresh onfall; rumour can name his destination; and Tembinok' figures in the patriotic war-songs of the Gilberts like Napoleon in those of our grandfathers.

Harem and little son of Tem Binoka on board  the Equator passing from Aranuka to Abemama.

Stevenson’s journey to the Pacific was prompted by his search for a climate beneficial to his health. Born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1850, he inherited weak lungs that kept him constantly in “the land of the counterpane” during the winter. His father granted him the right to become a writer, but only after attaining a law degree, so Stevenson further debilitated his health through work and worry, finally graduating and passing the bar at age 25. Then began his travels seeking healthy climates—Fontainebleau, Barbizon, Grez, Nemours—and joining artists’ colonies. During one of these journeys, he met Fanny Osbourne in 1876, following her to San Francisco via Monterey, California, where his health failed again. Once he recovered in May 1880 he married Fanny, 10 years older than he, with a son from a previous marriage. Books written between 1880 and 1887 included: Treasure Island; Kidnapped; the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; A Child’s Garden of Verses; and Underwoods.

In 1890 he purchased 400 acres in Upolu, one of the Samoan Islands, where he established himself with the adopted name “Tusitala.” Becoming active in local politics, he was convinced European officials appointed to rule the natives were incompetent and through A Footnote to History he was able to achieve the recall of two of those officials. “I used to think meanly of the plumber,” he said, “but now he shines beside the politician.” During the evening of December 3, 1894, straining to open a bottle of wine, he asked his wife, “Does my face look strange?” and collapsed beside her, dying within a few hours, at age 44. The natives insisted on surrounding his body with a watch guard during the night and on bearing their Tusitala (Samoan for “Story Writer”) upon their shoulders to nearby Mt. Vaea, burying him on a spot overlooking the sea. His epitaph tablet reads:

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

Fanny and Robert Louis Stevenson with Nan Tok and Nei Takauti at Butaritari, Kiribati.

* * *

“ . . . Home from the sea . . .”, the sea—comprised of waters possibly emanating from deep within the earth, the sea—rising to blot out island nations like Kiribati. Water is continually moving around, through, and above the Earth as water vapor, liquid water, and ice. In fact, water is continually changing its form. The Earth is pretty much a "closed system," like a terrarium. That means that the Earth neither, as a whole, gains nor loses much matter, including water. Although some matter, such as meteors from outer space, are captured by Earth, very little of Earth's substances escape into outer space. This is certainly true about water. This means that the same water that existed on Earth millions of years ago is still here. Thanks to the water cycle, water is continually being recycled all around the globe. It is entirely possible that the water you drank for lunch was once used by Mama Alosaurus to give her baby a bath. There is a theory that much of Earth's water came from comets hitting the planet over billions of years.

Where is Earth's water located and in what forms does it exist? About 97 percent of all water is in the oceans. Three percent of all Earth's water is fresh water. The majority, about 69 percent, is locked up in glaciers and icecaps, mainly in Greenland and Antarctica. Of the remaining fresh water, almost all of it is below your feet, as ground water. No matter where on Earth you are standing, chances are that, at some depth, the ground below you is saturated with water. Of all the fresh water on Earth, only about 0.3 percent is contained in rivers and lakes—yet rivers and lakes are not only the water we are most familiar with, it is also where most of the water we use in our everyday lives exists.

Over 99 percent of all water (oceans, seas, ice, most saline water, and atmosphereic water) is not available for our uses. And even of the remaining fraction of one percent, much of that is out of reach. Considering that most of the water we use in everyday life comes from rivers, we generally only make use of a tiny portion of the available water supplies. The vast majority of the fresh water available for our uses is stored in the ground.

Of the world's total water supply of about 332.5 million cubic miles of water, over 96 percent is saline. And, of the total freshwater, over 68 percent is locked up in ice and glaciers. Another 30 percent of fresh water is in the ground. Thus, surface-water sources (such as rivers) only constitute about 22,300 cubic miles, which is about 0.0067 percent of total water, yet rivers are the source of most of the water people use.

* * *

Kings come and go; words are either recorded and remembered, or forgotten. Water remains in whatever form we put it in. The soil which we collect in our art project could conceivably be submerged in water at some point in time, say at another shifting of the earth’s axes.

We thank Bonnie McQuiston for her efforts on our behalf. Here is a picture of her. She writes: “One picture of the beach (at high tide) where the sand was taken from. It is the king’s land. The present “king” of the island is don Tokataake, in the picture with me and his wife Lynette, from the Solomon Islands. Although the king no longer has any political power, he still holds the title for land rights purposes. Don’s great great great great (?) grandfather was the famous King Binoka of Abemama Island (and later all the central islands of Kiribati during the 1800’s) described by Robert Louis Stevenson in his book The South Seas.  Let me know if there is anything else you need.”

"There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy."
- Robert Louis Stevenson

The beach in Kiribati—note percentage of
water versus land in picture

“Just a quick note to say mauri and let you know that I’m headed out on a ship today back to Abemama for my last term! It’s a strange feeling knowing that I’ll soon be leaving this beautiful country I’ve grown to call home over the past two years. I will be spending these last three months soaking up all the culture I can, hanging out with loved ones here, and just enjoying every last minute. I’ll be back in Tarawa May 2nd. Then I fly out May 10th to Fiji. About six of us will be in Fiji together for about a week, then we all go our separate ways traveling and heading home. After Fiji, I’ll be traveling to Vanuatu for three weeks, then New Zealand for two weeks and HOME on June 20th!! I hope you are all doing well. I miss you and can’t wait to see you all when I return home. Ti a bo, Bonnie.”

Robert Louis Stevenson was not the only visitor to Kiribati to be moved by the culture and the people, the soil and the water, the “subtle something, that quality of the air, that emanation from the old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.” Bonnie McQuiston was another. Perhaps they drank the same water…

P.S. Bonnie wrote the following after seeing the draft of this entry: “Jheri, everything looks great. You really told Kiribati’s story well. Thank you for all your hard work in sharing this unbelievable country with others who may not have ever heard of this place otherwise.

“There are two words for peace in Kiribati. Some say “te rau” (which is also the word for “my friend” or “my boyfriend/girlfriend”) and some say “raoi” (which also means “good”).

“Te Mauri, Te Raoi, ao Te Tabemoa” (Health, Peace and Prosperity—a common Kiribati saying at the root of the culture’s affinity to sets of threes.)

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