TARAWA/CANBERRA, 24 AUGUST 2020 (THE GUARDIAN) —The image flew around the world, far ahead of any understanding of what it represented.
In the grainy picture, the Chinese ambassador to Kiribati was being welcomed onto the atoll island of Marakei. A row of young men lay face-down on the ground, their backs forming a path for the ambassador and his colleagues to walk across as they disembarked from a plane.
A video shared on Facebook showed that as the ambassador got close to the end of the line, young men ran eagerly to join and extend the row further. The mood was celebratory.
But the response to the photo was immediate outrage. The moment was described as a “disgrace”, “shameful”, “humiliating”, and a violation of human rights.
Some assumed those on the ground were children and others joked about China “walking all over” the people of Kiribati.
Stories and discussions were framed in terms of geopolitical anxieties viewing it as a form of Chinese colonialism and patriarchal culture and ignored the agency, voices and cultural rights of i-Marakei to greet and host dignitaries according to their own customs.
As women, writers, and scholars of i-Kiribati descent, we felt it would be useful to address some of these issues.
Kiribati is not unused to headlines. The archipelago nation – around 115,000 people spread across 32 low-lying atolls and one high island, and spanning an area of 3.5m sq km, roughly the size of India – is on the frontline of climate change. Its leaders have become recognised over the years for lobbying for global climate policies and action.
But this single image has catapulted Kiribati – specifically the atoll of Marakei – to intense global attention.
Rae Bainteiti is an I-Kiribati youth leader whose grandmother is from Marakei. He said the picture that became a controversial debate topic, “is a stern reminder that sometimes, the global community needs to respect cultural protocols and social responsibilities that the land accords to their guests before commenting”.
Marakei is an island steeped in stories and strong customs. It is known throughout Kiribati as the “women’s island”.
An enclosed circular atoll, four female spirits protect Marakei and its people from intruders. Every visitor must first complete what is called te katabenin – an anti-clockwise journey around the island, introducing themselves to the female spirits, and leave behind an offering.
The custom of Marakei is based on respect for female ancestral spirits, and decision making is made by elders of all genders – te unimane ao te unaine – in the traditional meeting house or maneaba.
The practice of forming a path of human bodies for an honoured guest to walk across is mostly seen at weddings. It is understood as a cultural act that follows the way of the land or what is known broadly as te katei ni Kiribati.
At weddings, the bride or groom arrives and processes across the backs of his or her new male in-laws.
It is a great honour for the family on the ground and if someone declines to walk across them the insult is immense: akin to being seen as excrement to be avoided from stepping on.
Clearly it was adapted here for another kind of guest and to signal a new relationship.
We understand the Chinese ambassador was uncomfortable participating in the procession, but culturally and politically, to decline would have caused damage to his relationship with the people of Marakei and Kiribati more broadly.
Teaote Davies, mother of co-author Marita, and whose own mother Terira was from Marakei, said: “That decision was not decided by some people having a cup of tea … it must have been voted on and it was unanimous. I’m a child of Marakei but I stand outside of te maneaba. My opinions don’t matter, te unimane and te unaine have spoken.”
Choosing this particular protocol was not particular to China and, indeed, we received confirmation from Teriba Tabe on Tarawa who had talked to members of the ministry of environment, lands and agricultural development who accompanied the ambassador, that an Australian high commissioner received a similar welcome at the opening of a junior secondary school on Marakei some years ago. Australia had funded one of the buildings. There is also an image circulating on social media of Taiwan’s ambassador being greeted in a similar way on Marakei in 2011.
As Rae Bainteiti described: “If you decline, they will insist – if you keep declining, it is an offence to the whole island”.
The media frenzy that circulated in response to the image potentially diminishes Marakei custom, culture and agency.
It instead privileges geopolitical anxieties over Kiribati’s turn from Taiwan to China, an international but not culture-specific sense of diplomacy, and an Australian and American sense of territoriality.
While Kiribati is clearly caught in a geopolitical tug-of-war, cultural rights and cultural self-determination matter, and are a source of i-Kiribati pride.
This is an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of Pacific customs and to reflect on how cultural practices are adapted or changed over time.
As long as they do not promote or condone violence, cultural and spiritual rights are also human rights.
The choice to welcome and host visitors in this way is in the hands of i-Marakei elders and communities. What is out of their hands, and requires far more regional and global support, is prevention of the devastating impacts of climate change on all the islands….PACNEWS
Katerina Teaiwa is Associate Professor in Pacific Studies at the Australian National University and descends from the islands of Banaba and Tabiteuea in Kiribati
Marita Davies is an Australian based writer who descends from Marakei and Tabiteuea. She is author of the children’s book Teaote and the Wall