Visiting Banaba For The First Time by Stacey King

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Visting Banaban for the First Time




The following article appeared in the 'Banaba/Ocean Island News' Issue No. 24 Published April, 97, and relates to the Secretary's work with a Japanese Documentary Crew in the making of a Banaban documentary for Japanese television. The 75 minute story goes to air in Japan as a Holiday Special on NHK on Monday evening 5th. May, 1997.

I was asked by my Banaban and Japanese companions after we left Banaba about the article I would write for the newsletter on our recent adventures. I explained that I felt it would be extremely difficult to put into words such a moving and highly emotional experience. I also added that I felt it would be very hard to share such an episode with others, especially for those who have never been there. My two Banaban companions and stars of our upcoming documentary - Thomas Teai and his son Donald both unanimously told me that ‘I must!’ They went on to insist that if was ‘my duty’ to tell others of our experiences on Banaba. I don’t know if it was because of our TV Director’s new Banaban name - Tikiraoi Aoto, but he also insisted that I had to write about the event. So here I am trying to put into words an experience that once again seemed to greatly impact on my life. As many of our readers will already know, I have studied the history of Banaba for years, conducting many interviews in the process, and had dreamt of visiting the island one day. Because of restrictions with space, I have broken my story into two Parts, writing only about our Banaba leg. Mr. Aoto has insisted that he could put together another documentary on what went on ‘behind the scenes’ on what he insists has been the hardest and most adventurous trip he has ever experience in his long career that has taken him to more than 60 countries. I hope I do the story justice! Stacey


Setting Sail

We left the main wharf in Tarawa at 6pm on Tuesday 25th. February, aboard ‘F.V. Kaneati’. The ‘Kaneati’ a fishing vessel measuring just under 100 foot in length had her hulls filled with our luggage and Island cargo, together with 34 Banaban passengers who were returning to their island. Also accompanying us on our trip was two Deputy Secretaries from Kiribati Government’s Home Affairs Department. Our own party consisted of our three man Japanese crew - Director; Tikiraoi Aoto, Kato Takayuki, Sound Recordist and Yasuhito Shimamura, Cameraman. By this stage of our journey Manabu Kitaguchi had already returned to Tokyo due to work commitments, while the Japanese Interpreter who we had prearranged to join us on the Banaba leg, also unexpectedly had to fly out for Tokyo as well. I suddenly found myself as a co-ordinator for a Japanese crew with a Director who spoke very little English, while the other members of the crew were only conversant in saying - ‘Hello’. Luckily for me Rabi Magistrate, Thomas Teai and his son Donald who were chosen to tell the story of the Banabans through the eyes of a father and son, spoke excellent English. For those who have seen the 1975 BBC documentary - ‘Go Tell The Judge’ will remember Thomas as the young Banaban man who was Secretary to the Rabi Council of Leaders at the time, and grandson of the well known Banaban elder - Tito Rotan. Our readers may remember Donald as the young Banaban who was sponsored by THE BODY SHOP last November, to attend their Melbourne workshop. He spent a week at our home prior to the event.

All At Sea

As we happily sailed into the setting sun heading south towards the equator, the Banaban singing carried on the sea breeze wiping across the small front deck of the ship. We all settled down to make ourselves comfortable around the kava bowl and an expected thirty six hour journey across to the homeland. Our ship seemed to gently rock its way through the relatively calm swell, while your intrepid editor found herself suddenly succumbing to the first waves of seasickness. I was to spend the rest of my journey quietly dying on a Banaban mat on the floor of the ship’s fly bridge surrounded by Banaban women and children. During my ordeal that night, I member opening one of my blood shot eyes to see the blazing light of Shimamura’s camera filming me in all my glory. I was to sick to argue, but shuddered at the thought of my revolting sickly image broadcast to millions of viewers back in Japan… I was sure to make a good impression!

Later the following afternoon the word went out that our expected arrival time on Banaba would be well ahead of schedule. This was due to the assistance of ocean currents and good weather This great news boosted my nauseated spirits enough for me to stand on the fly bridge and welcome the coming event. How can I describe the isolation one feels when you look out in all directions to see nothing but a wallowing mass of endless water. It wasn’t until I heard the mention of the word ‘birds’ that I could again drag myself back up onto my feet, as I knew that the birds flying out to our ship were our first real indication that the island was close. Sure enough, Banaba appeared as a tiny speck drifting on the horizon of a magnificent sunset. As I savoured the moment, my nausea quickly forgotten, we slowly drew closer. Unfortunately for us it wasn’t close enough though, as the day’s light seemed to suddenly sink below the horizon. Once again word went out that we would have to drift off the island for the night, and wait for first light to land the next day. So close, but yet so far, as I spent another night huddled under the fly bridge as rain squalls moved across the island and our ship. One of the larger Banaban girls travelling with us ended up soaked and I moved over on my sleeping mat so she could find a dryer place to sleep. We made a great pair, our bodies tightly sandwiched together behind the navigation and steering equipment on the bridge. My new friend spoke no English, but under the circumstances no conversation was necessary as her large, soft body smothered me from the chill coming off the incoming rain squalls.

Land at Last

At first light we made our entry towards Home Bay. Out of the blue, two small dolphins appeared swimming under the very bow of the ship almost as an official ‘Welcoming Party’ to the island. I tried to tell our Japanese film crew standing on the front forward deck, but they were completely unaware of the dolphins swimming right under their feet. As we drew towards the protection of the Bay, the dolphins disappeared as quickly as they had arrived. For our party, our most important first task was to make our ‘offering’ to the sea to appease the legendry Goddess - Nei Tituabine. This was necessary to protect us in the waters surrounding Banaba, especially before attempting to land. Tobacco is the traditional offering, each of us eagerly tossed overboard a pack of cigarettes and a box of matches. There has been a lot written about disembarking and embarking arrangements on Banaba over the years. Of course, in the years during mining the ship’s would tie up on one of the mooring buoys off shore in Home Bay. But nowadays there is no such luxury. Our ship being to big was unable to enter the islands boat harbour, and I was soon to find out that the small aluminium dingy hanging from the davit on the main deck was our landing craft. For some reason I expected to see a flotilla of similar type vessels come out to meet us, but was soon to discover that our dingy was it…THE ONE AND ONLY landing vessel. Amazing when you realised the extend of not only the film equipment, passengers, luggage and general cargo (I’d noticed a treadle sewing machine and push bike amongst some of our deck cargo) we were carrying, but we also had at least 20 drums of fuel lashed to our deck as well. Once again my imagination was working overtime as I thought about having to be lifted via the davit into our tiny awaiting craft. Happily the crew removed some boards away from a hole cut in the side of the ship, and we were able to crawl through the space into our wallowing overladen dingy. It was great to be in that small boat, sitting on a pile of suitcases and other assorted luggage, while our amazing cameraman - Shimamura captured our experience, and the expressions of excitement…or was that relief… on our faces!

My First Impressions

It was great to see the Banabans elation at seeing an old friend like Thomas Teai arrive on the island. Thomas’ last trip to Banaba had been over 20 years ago during the time of the UK Court Case and the Judges’ visit to the island. He seemed to have an endless supply of relatives living there as well, and Donald was busy meeting them all. After the formalities were over, the island’s only car, a 4 wheel drive jeep, whizzed us up the road to the old ‘Banaba House’ Guest House. Somehow for me, my arrival on Banaba seemed a very familiar experience. I had the incredible feeling that I had been there before, a sense of de-je-vu as my eyes took in the immediate scenery and matched them with the mental pictures carried in my mind for so many years. After a welcomed rest in a very comfortable bed and my first taste of food in two days, we were straight down to business, planning filming schedules and working out what locations we needed to visit. I must add here, that one of the few legacies from BPC days is great plumbing and sewerage! Thomas was adamant that before any work began we had to make a visit to one of the only surviving Banaban te bangota’s (ancestral shrines) to again leave an offering for Nei Tituabine. This time to ask for protection whilst on Banaba. The Island Manager, and Kiribati M.P., Burimone Biara led us down a walking track through the old Recreation Club grounds, down past the old open air cinema and down towards the site just above where the old Uma village would have been located. I wondered where Burimone was taking us when we left the track and made our way through the thick scrub. After a short distance we came across a small clearing covered in coral pieces and a large square shaped rock. Pieces of long stick tobacco were already laid across the stone, and we once again laid our packets of cigarettes and box of matches around the shrine, while Burimone made a few incantations. Now this important task was over we were ready for the real work to begin, safe in the knowledge that we had the blessing of Nei Tituabine.

My Days of Discovery

Over the next five days on Banaba we were busy filming at various locations. One of these was a very important event for Thomas and Donald as we walked up behind the Hospital compound, and up past the heavy equipment shed, and where I’m told the old phosphate stock piles used to be located. Here the road stopped, and once again we headed off the track, and moved towards the overgrown forest of pinnacles and the location of Thomas’ family village of Buakonikai. I’ve often heard about the heat generated by the mined out fields on Banaba, but I have to add here that as we weaved our way through the bases of the pinnacles amongst the overgrown, we found ourselves sheltered from the hot sun. Also due to the recent rainfalls there was an abundance of flowering shrubs everywhere, assaulting our senses with beautiful colour hues and heady scents, that seemed in such contrast to the ugly tortured shapes of the pinnacles. Burimone and his wife Alofe were our guides and seemed to know exactly were we were going. We walked for quite a while deeper into the surrounding limestone forest until we came around a bend to find an old concrete bunker at the end of our path. The bunker was wedged into the base of the surrounding pinnacles and we were informed that this was the old explosives bunker where the dynamite had been stored during the years of mining. At the side of the bunker we began our climb up through the pinnacles working our way to the summit. Here there seemed to be a flower strewn walking trail along a ridge that gave us a wonderful view overlooking the old site of Buakonikai village. All the time Shimamura filmed the experience, his heavy camera precariously balanced on his shoulder. When our Director ordered him to climb further out on to one of the higher sharp rocks, I had to ask, if the company paid ‘danger’ money for this sort of thing. ‘No’ I was informed, all part of a day’s work, and seeing Shimamura was young, good experience for him.

A visit to Buakonikai is a sobering experience, where the full extent of eighty years of phosphate mining really takes it’s toll on you. I listened intently as Thomas told his son the story of where the family’s village had been located, and how lush and beautiful it had been. As Thomas spoke I had the mental pictures of all those beautiful old black and white photos running through my mind, trying to picture the reality of what was now before me, and the handful of stumpy palm trees growing high up atop the stony pinnacles in pure rock, even after three years of prolonged droughts.

I couldn’t help but notice the emotion in Thomas’ voice as he replied to one of Aoto’s many questions - ‘How could anyone do this to another human being? This was our village our home! Our identity! What have we done to deserve this?’

I had to admit as his words rang out across this devastated area, my own emotions were raging. The feelings of anger and sadness were all consuming standing there as I had to ask myself the very same questions. Questions that came back to the same old answer - Man’s greed and phosphate.

We all silently left the area, each of us locked in our own thoughts and overwhelmed by the flood of emotions we had all experienced. We returned to the Guest House for a cool shower and welcomed rest, feeling very drained. It was a day that would leave such an impression on all of us, and prepare us for more explorations over the coming days.

Mixed Emotions

The only way I can really describe my first two days on Banaba is of feeling extreme emotions of pure elation; at finally seeing and arriving on Banaba for the first time. Complete joy; at meeting with the Banabans and seeing how much they still treasure their island. Amazement; seeing the lushness of unmined areas, and nature’s efforts in trying to restore vegetation amongst the mined out areas. Anger; at the state the island has been left in from so much mining, and the overall awareness of the extent of man’s greed. Sadness; when I realise my family’s own involvement in destroying the island, while at the same time they loved the place so much. Yes, it can be a very hard journey that assaults your senses, and I’m sure most new comers will have many of the same thoughts when they visit the island for the first time. But what I found was amazing amongst all the devastation, was that special MAGIC that so many old BPC spoke about over the years, and every Banaban dreams of, it’s still there! The best way to discover the magic for yourself is to walk the island, especially on your own. Late on the afternoon of our second day, I took off for a walk while the rest of the team were busy filming around the old company buildings in Uma.

I’ve always had a great fascination for the old Banaban villages, with Uma village being of great significant to my own family history. I headed off down towards Uma beach and the vast expanse of what can only be described as Banaba shrub. Today the shrub consists of tall silhouettes of dead trees, while the lower bushes have survived. To anyone seeing Banaba for the first time and not knowing the history of the place, these areas along Uma’s - Sydney/Solomon Point, Tabiang’s - Lilian Point, and all around Canoe passage at Tabwewa, just look like Banaba scrub, but for me they signify important, and wonderful places. Old Banaban villages that have been captured in old photograph collections. The essential part of a Banabans life and his heritage. Our Japanese team weren’t interested in filming these areas, and I suppose why should they be. After all they don’t look particularly interesting today, and especially after I reminded them that the invading Japanese army destroyed each one of these precious coastal villages.

So off I wandered, down onto a wonderful pristine beach at the back of Solomon Point, and the location of the old Uma village. Amongst the reef, small rusting pieces of old ship wrecks are still evident through the beautiful, crystal clear water. The sand is pure white and changes to flotsam and jetsam (small pieces of bleached coral and shells) along the shore line. I walked as far as I was able until the high tide and the overhanging areas of coastal pinnacles blocked my way along the beach. I then walked up towards an old camp situated right on the beach, and followed a trail along the back of a cottage. Here I noticed the planting's of tapioca and other vegetables. Since the droughts have broken, the Banabans are clearing small plots all over the island for vegetable growing. All around this area right along the edge of the beach are graves marked with concrete headstones and small crosses. For some reasons my instincts told me these were old Gilbertese graves. Further along other graves were grouped, this time minus the crosses, and these I assumed to be old Ellice graves. As I made my way further along this coastal trail I came across a very tall concrete monument, and was excited when I saw the inscription to Dr. Matsuka who had been the doctor with the Japanese labourers who had arrived on the island in 1909. He died on Nauru in 1911. I was to discover from my Japanese companions at a later date, that what appeared to be Japanese writing on the monument was in fact Chinese and they were unable to decipher the message on it. I decided to leave the beach area and soon found myself on a wider track leading up towards the back of the sporting oval. Here the sounds and the smell of the island quickly assaulted my senses. The overwhelming sense of isolation and silence are only broken with the intermittent sound of the waves breaking down on the reef, as they carrying up on the gentle gusts of sea breeze. The thick canopy of trees seem to overhang the track in many places and I knew from my studies that I was in the area of the old European and Banaban cemeteries. I was so enjoying my walk and the sense of ‘belonging’ I felt that I was reluctant to stop and head back. I realised as I saw the last of the sun’s rays breaking thought the surrounding vegetation, that it would soon be dark and no one knew where I was. But Banaba is such a safe, wonderful place, where I feel so much at home, that I don’t hold any fears of getting lost. I knew it wasn’t a good idea to move off the tracks though as the forests of pinnacles seem ever present. It appears that in the last few years of mining, nothing was missed, even around the roadway near the Guest house, the mining has eaten right up to the edges of the roadway leading to the hospital. Reluctantly I turned for home, and arrived back at the guest house just on 6pm a very happy and contented person.

Experiencing the Magic of Banaba

From that moment my appreciation of Banaba only grew. There was no more curses at the ground under my feet, thinking about what had been, but now I seemed to see the reality of what Banaba was today. I began to notice the way in which the Banabans living there in the old Company buildings took such pride in their homes. There was no rubbish laying around the island, and even the old Company facilities were all cleaned out, and tidied up. Large rolls of old steel cables were all neatly stacked in the corner of one of the old sheds. The visit to the old Trade Store was also impressive. Many will remember the size of the old Store. It is huge! Well over the past 18 months the Banabans have started their own small co-op store in the front of the building near the old Post Box. The old counters and shelving have been utilised, and even the old cash register (the keys stuck long ago) is still used. I’ve never seen such a neat array of stocked shelves. Across the road from the Trade Store and hanging off a huge tree was a very large bell. Is this the very same BELL that our old BPC people have referred to in the past? And what was it’s true function? Whatever the meaning of the bell, it still hangs there in all it’s glory. I was soon to find out that the money that keeps the Banabans supplied with food on the island, is only given in wages. Wages that are well and truly earned in the maintenance and up keep of their beloved homeland. The paths and walking tracks are all cleared by hand, while every Friday working bees are held to clean out all the rubbish from the old buildings. The rubbish is being buried down by the site of old Tabiang village. When you realise the limited resources these people have, it is a real credit to them to see the amount of work that has been done. The only things they haven’t been able to remove are the old rusted out chassis of some of the old buses, trucks and machinery. They have no way of moving and disposing of these big objects. It was also interesting to see lots of old mooring buoys stacked neatly along an area at the top of the boat harbour. I wondered if it was possible to reuse them.

The True Inhabitants of Banaba

The other thing that really strikes you about Banaba is the overall health and appearance of the Banabans who live there. I know my friend Manabu mentioned in his article about his concerns over the amount of imported food. Unfortunately Manabu could only stay on the island while the supply vessel off loaded, and this wouldn’t have given him enough time to spend time in Banabans homes on the island. Also when you realise the island only receives 3-4 supply shipments a year, I can imagine the amount of incoming imported food supplies looks large. In fact, I’m certain this is not the case at all. In the store there is plenty of the usual bags of rice, powdered milk, bully beef etc., but what impressed me was the fact that the Banabans spend nearly everyday out fishing. And what varieties of fish they seem to have… just like the old stories you read about in the history books. The other exciting aspect of the diet there is the fact that the inhabitants seem to grow and eat a lot more types of green leafy vegetables, and even watermelons. They also eat the vegetables raw, which I haven’t seen on Rabi. Because of the introduction of Fiji roots crops on Rabi, the Banabans haven’t acquired the taste as much for other different types of vegetables, but this is now starting to change. It was great to see the Elders on Banaba especially munching away on fresh green leaves, that they will proudly tell you they can produce for the table, within 3 weeks when the rain comes. There’s an abundance of chickens and fresh eggs (no mongoose on the island like Rabi), and fat healthy pigs that I had to admit tasted very nice. I even had the opportunity to taste sweet dried pandanus fruit, which was prepared in the traditional Banaban way, and very delicious. The other fruit that I must admit I took a likely to was green mangoes. The Banabans did oblige by finding me what they considered overripe fruit, but the green mangoes I must admit really begin to grow on you. The Banabans use them like a green salad vegetables and the coconut vinegar is a nice accompaniment. I’ve often heard them referred to on Rabi as Rabi apples, but before Banaba had never been game enough to try them. I’m hoping to use them in our salads back home next summer. The other thing that Banaba seems to have changed for me and after traveling with Japanese and Banabans for 5 weeks is my new liking for raw fish.

(To be continued in Part Two - Coming soon!)


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