top

REPUBLIC OF KIRIBATI

GUARDIANS OF THE GILBERTS

 

Following the journeys of Robert Louis Stevenson, June Knox-Mawer travelled to the Gilbert Islands (Kiribati) where she met the French Catholic priests of the Sacred Heart Mission at Marakei, Abaiang and Tarawa - the guardians of the Gilberts.

 

           

'On Marakei, it is Father Bermot; on Abaiang, Father Jolivet and Father Michenaud - also Sister Emelda.'

So was my itinerary summed up for me by the French Catholic Fathers of the Sacred heart Mission at Tarawa the night before I sailed for the northern islands. I was sipping a whisky with them round the big table in the Father's study and listening to their talk of the war in the Gilberts.

'The Japanese treated us quite well,' the oldest of the priests told me, an ascetic-looking man in his seventies. 'Food was scarce. So was clothing. The Gilbertese women forgot about the missions and went back to their grass skirts.' He laughed. 'We cooked native scraps for ourselves and managed to keep alive.' He leaned forward and wagged his finger to secure my attention. 'But perhaps the strangest story of all is this. At the outbreak of the war there was a Japanese resident on Tarawa who was a close friend of all the Fathers, a regular visitor here to the Mission. So when war was declared, the Fathers invited him to their house to be their 'prisoner' for the duration. Then when the Japanese invaded, their Japanese friend moved back to his own house and asked the Fathers to move in with him to be his prisoners for the rest of the war! We felt of course we had to stay on at the Mission, but the friendship certainly helped in the days to come.'

Then he remembered I was to start on my travels the next morning. 'But the Fathers at Marakei and Abaiang can tell you much more about the old days. Father Jolivet especially. He has been in the Gilberts for almost forty years - a wonderful man!'

Before I left, letters of introduction had been produced, and with them photographs. Among them was the diminutive face of an old lady in white nun's veiling against a background of tropical leaves and flowers. 'That is my aunt. She came to the islands sixty-four years ago and she has never been home to France since then. Now she is ninety-two. She will die with the Mission - but not for some time.' he chuckled. 'You should see her weeding and planting the gardens, pushing her wheelbarrow like a young girl. The garden is her passion, next to the souls of the people of her island. It is in the south of the group, so sadly you will not meet. But, everywhere you will find the same spirit.' With a smile, he added in French, 'We are the true guardians of the Gilberts, you see!'

The phrase stayed with me and illuminated the first extraordinary impact of both Marakei and Abaiang. Out of the lonely sea, with its hidden traps of reefs and currents would come the usual floating spar of land, the cluster of village roofs, brown figures running over the sand. But above all this, rising out of the palm-trees like a mirage of home, the tall stone towers of an elaborate church. The effect was so unreal, one almost expected them to be washed away with the title like sand-castles.

Marakei came first. From the moment of landing, surrounded by a throng of cheering children, the sight of the tall steeple behind the beach drew me like a magnet. The boat was calling to load copra and house-thatch. 'Should take about six hours,' I was told by the captain, a cheerful Schutz-like character, exotically tattooed about the arms and chest. 'See y'round the other side!'

Without my asking, my band of escorts, shouting and singing, marched me towards the Mission. As we walked, an elderly lady in one half of a black dress, took me by the hand to establish herself as my special guide. We had exchanged names - hers was Watia - and all kinds of animated sign language by the time we reached the Church, the children surging ahead. A round-faced young man with spectacles, wearing shabby slacks and safari jacket, stood in the arch of the door, the Father Bermot of my letter of introduction. He smiled shyly, apologized for his halting English. Being the only European in the island, he spoke almost entirely in Gilbertese, apart from school lessons. Conscientiously he recited the facts for me. About two thousand people lived on Marakei. Some three hundred children attended Catholic school, aged from six to sixteen. The Sacred heart Mission had been on the island for sixty years.

'And the Church?'

'About the same. But the steeple is - not strong.' He pointed to the huge bell, suspended on a frame by the door. 'We take it down, before it all falls. But the bell, the bell is strong. It came from Savoy.' He beamed, tapped his chest. 'Like myself.'

We went inside where the dreamlike effect continued. The place was bare of seats and carpeted with native mats. but gold fleur-de-lys patterned the walls, painted a dark blue and beginning to peel in places. A double staircase curved up either side to the choir gallery. Heraldic shields carved in wood, hung from the stonework, inscribed with the outlandish Gilbertese village names. I have a famous predecessor at Marakei,' Father Bermot told me as we walked back to the old wooden bungalow where he lived. 'The great Father Sabatier. He was here fifty years. He was the expert on Gilbertese history. You know his book, of course, La Poeme de l'Isle. He shrugged his shoulders. 'Myself - I am a photographer only. Wait - I show you.'

It was hard to concentrate on the precious boxes of slides with so much noise outside. Every now and then beaming, curious faces peered in at us, turning to gabble a commentary on our doings to the others who were waiting to inspect the visitor. Eventually we went out on to the verandah, and were surrounded by a swarm of female butterflies. While we were inside, the young ladies of the village had been dressing up in their dancing costumes. How they fluttered out from the bushes, shrieking with joy at the surprise of it, bright skirts of dyed palm,-fronds flying to and fro, flowery garlands rustling, coronets of pandanus leaves slipping askew as they bobbed and pranced around us.

Father Bermot, rather pink in the face, tried to round up the flock and reduce it to order. Behind his back at the far end of the verandah, a buxom group held each other up, dissolved who was performing a solo dance directed at the Reverend Father, hips swaying, bare arms coquettishly outstretched to flutter her bracelets of paper flowers. Delighted at the excitement, more people poured across the lane from their houses; passers-by stopped open-mouthed, and men on bicycles laden with sacks of copra lurched madly from side to side as they peered back at the spectacle.

In the end, we took refuge in the school hall. 'They are good people,' Father Bermot said breathlessly over the shoulder as we hurried across. 'Dancing is the way of life, an art-form also.' We paused in the doorway to collect ourselves. He took his glasses off to polish them, his round face suddenly young and vulnerable. 'Sometimes the young girls like to - how do you say - tease? A man alone - to them that is a strange thing. But they are good people, good people. And now here - here is our Christmas practice.'

Inside, hasty attempts at composure were also taking place, the men seated on the floor on one side, the women on the other, and children in front. Babies lay on any available lap, and village dogs panted in the shade of the thatch. An old man formally accepted my presents of stick tobacco as we went in, dividing them up and passing them round. Another elder tottered forward with two ancient chairs but we took our seat on the mat in front. A handsome youth in shorts stepped forward, clapped two short sticks together, and a powerful flood of singing poured forth. As the voices soared, the sticks beat out the tempo, and all eyes followed the chalked words on the blackboard.

I nanoni uneia man
I nanon aia kumete
Ti na na notia iai
E wene e mariri....

A thirteen-letter alphabet produced the strongest effects. I reflected turning to Father Bermot for a translation of the harsh-looking syllables.

'It is a Christmas song composed by the conductor,' he whispered.

In the place for animals
Lying among the feeding stuff,
We shall see Him there
Shivering with cold...,

The singing rose and fell. Past the bamboo screens the village lane glittered chalk-white in the heat of noon. The cluster of small boys playing together in the dust made only the smallest of shadows under that equatorial sun. One of them was rubbing a piece of flint into a grooved stick. The others watched intently. Then as the first shower of sparks flew up they sprang into a war dance, a naked piping circle of male triumph, while alongside two little girls went on threading bead necklaces with lofty unconcern.

Father Bermot nudged me back to attention. Speeches of welcome were being made. In such places as Marakei a sightseer is a guest, and I was on the process of being handed over to my next host, a small bald-headed man named Timote. I said goodbye to Father Bermot and walked with my new friend to his home at the other end of the village.Timote was the Chief Magistrate and obviously a man of standing on the island. As we passed by, people greeted him with respect. His house was the usual thatched roof over a concrete floor, surrounded by a waist-high screen of coconut reeds. But there was a clock in the corner and, in addition to the ancient sewing machine treasured by all the islanders, a table with papers on it, three cane chairs and a bench. Miraculously, lunch was spread out for us on the mat. Timote's wife, a plump little woman with fine eyes, was about to set out on her bicycle to fetch beer for us from the co-operative store.

I asked Timote about his work. Was there much crime on the island? He scratched his head thoughtfully for a moment.

'Las' week there was two drunk and disorderly,' he said in his slow careful English. He thought again. 'Some peoples have trouble paying the land-tax.'

We ate some excellent fish cooked in coconut milk, and drank the beer brought by his wife while he told me about the local superstitions, how each village still had its own guardian spirit. The god or the goddess resided in a certain stone and on this the people regularly placed gifts of stick tobacco, to keep his or her favour towards the village. It was hard to say what happened to the gifts. Certain elders with magical powers were said to have communicated with the spirits, and no doubt collected them on their behalf.

When it was time to go, Timote's wife pedalled off down the road on her bicycle again. Not much later she returned with a bundle of beautiful brown and white mats under her arm.

'Choose the one you like,' I was instructed. 'The other is for Mr. Macdonald.'

So Misi Maketonolo was remembered again in the Gilbert and Ellice. 'I was his book.' Timote explained. 'Once I saved his life. Too long story for now. But we have same tattoo done to the arm, Gilbertese-style. He will tell you.'  

And what message was I to give him?

After some consideration Timote found a sheet of foolscap on which he wrote, 'Dear Mr. Macdonald, Konamauri Timote.' This invokement of the traditional blessing on his former master was obviously all-sufficient. The hours were going by and I thought of my instructions to be 'round the other side'. In the lane Watia was waiting for me with outstretched hand. Having tactfully left me to my courtesy calls, she was now ready to resume her duties as official guide, leading me round to the other landing beach where the government launch bobbed at anchor in the bay.

Here fresh society awaited us, the society of the maneapa. Up till now I had only visited these central hives of Gilbert and Ellice life on formal occasions. Now I was the traveller, the passer-through. I had a couple of hours to wait while the crew, behind schedule as usual, loaded on the last of the copra. The proper place for such people was the maneapa, the communal meeting-place, and into it I was led, or rather thrust by Waitia.

Inside the long thatched shelter some twenty or thirty people sat or lay about on mats in the shady light, talking in groups, or resting alone. It seemed a calm and open kind of place, with that odd mixture of private and public that only Pacific island society seems to produce. Because this was the maneapa, with certain rules of etiquette, carefully observed taboos, and its own protocol of seating places for ceremonial occasions no one crowded round the stranger or stared. The necessary greetings and explanations were made on my behalf by Waitia. Then I too settled down on a mat and let myself be lapped around by the cosy tide of comings and goings, the murmur of talk, the soft shuffle of feet from sand to mat.

Where does she come from, and where does she travel to? the questions would go.
'From Tarawa, and now northwards to Abaiang.'
'Aiya!' Exclamations of interest and curiosity. And her husband, her children?
'In Fiji, where she lives.'
And now she will stay and rest with us?
Till the boat leaves only.'
'Aiya!'

Through half-closed eyes I watched the women with their smooth round faces, brown hands in constant play with their long black hair, gracefully twisting in this way and that, plaiting and braiding it, piling it on to their heads, then turning loosely to one side with the tortoiseshell bomb worn by them all. On the other side sat a family group, the mother rolling out sinnet string against one plump thigh, the father peacefully smoking, a toddler dozing against grandmother's shoulder.

Somebody brought me a mug of sweet toddy. A young man who spoke English sat down with us and translated the questions and answers about home and family, Great Britain and Queen Elizabeth. With a smile Watia pointed out to me a pale young girl lying on a mat behind me, an embroidered pillow under her head. An older woman was sitting next to her, feeding a bottle of water to a very small bundle of flowered cloth.

'That baby is new,' I was told. 'I was told. 'It only came two days ago. The girl is just fifteen.'

It was all rather different from the kind of maneapa scene described by Captain Charles Wiles on his tour of the Gilberts in the 1840s. I had scribbled down a few extracts from the formidable tomes entitled Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition before leaving Fiji, and now all I had to do to compare impressions was to turn to the back of my battered notebook and find written "The maneapa was full of shouting, gesticulating crowds, catching hold of the Europeans to express their joy at the visit, with many of dexterous theft of the barter tobacco we had about us. The clamour was deafening, the heat very oppressive and with the smell of rancid oil off the natives' bodies became almost stifling .... When detected in their thefts, they would simply hold up their hands with open palms and laugh.' (Captain Thomas Gilbert, who gave his name to the islands, had noted that the people 'appeared facetious', as he sailed picturesquely through in his red-painted ship - 'that colour being the most pleasing to the natives of these parts'.)

The maneapa described by Wilkes was about twice the size of the one I sat in, 120 feet long, 45 feet wide, and about 40 feet up to the ridge pole. I pictured the confrontation between the perspiring American sailors in their shirt sleeves and straw hats, and the wiry little Gilbertese in their extraordinary full-dress regalia - a kind of body armour worn from the hips to the back of the head and made of woven coconut fibre 'as stiff as a coat of mail'. Netted sinnitt covered their arms and legs, and their headdress was a helmet of the skin of the porcupine fish, perfectly round, the tail sticking up from the centre, the two fins as ear guards. 'They were evidently in the habit of having severe conflicts with one another and war seems to be one of the principal employments.' The women, on the other hand, wore only the smallest of fringed girdles. They were remarkably small, with a 'lively expression of countenance', and if struck by the men, struck back.

But thinking of the nineteenth century and white visitors to the islands, one's mind always came back in the  end to the same two people, especially here on Marakei where they too were entertained in the maneapa, perhaps here on this same site. He was a dark, emaciated man in white duck trousers, yellow silk socks, dirty white canvas shoes, a shabby white jacket dignified by a gold watch and chain. I had only to close my eyes to see him leap down the path 'like a grasshopper', ahead of an equally extraordinary figure. A short and sturdy lady, she wore a blue mauve dress covered by a big black lace cloak, on her head a turban of spotted veil, in her feet scarlet stockings and shoes, much cut about by the coral, while the number of rings that covered her hands flashed bravely in the sun. Much else accompanied them, including a young Englishman with spectacles (known to the Gilbertese as 'mata-galahi' or 'glass eye'), a Chinese cook, a number of native hangers-on, and a vast mountain of personal effects including photographic equipment, mosquito netting, medicine bottles, a typewriter, recorders and guitars, packets of garden seeds, and the magic lantern that produced what the natives believed to be phantoms of the dead. For the Stevensons were by now South Sea residents, cruising from island to island in the search of Louis' good health that was to take them finally to Samoa. But they did not stay long at Marakei. Fanny thought the people savage, ugly and unintelligent.

Even worse was the local white trader who set himself up as their guide there, one Peter Grant, 'the most hideous ruffian ever beheld, hook-nosed, wrinkled, and coarse-lipped, and usually too drunk to have any articulate voice at all'. Since Wilkes' visit such white men had become a familiar ingredient of Gilbertese life, beachcombers, escaped convicts, runaway seamen, whose drinking, fighting and raping turned the group into a hell of blood-shed and disease and apparently helped to reduce the population from over sixty thousand to less than half.

Like me, the Stevensons had paid their visit, not only to the maneapa but to the local church. It was a far more fragile structure then, than even today's, 'built of wattled coconut leaves, and a belfry of braided leaves with a bell that looked as though a breath would disperse it'. Soon they were on their way back to Abemama in the centre of the group, where they lived on shore for a few months, and calling on their way at Abaiang. I looked forward to meting them again there.

Back in the present, I wondered how much longer it would be before we ourselves cast anchor and started out in that direction. I looked at the stacks of belongings crowding the maneapa, tin boxes, empty bottles, primus stoves, rolled mats and baskets. I had imagined that everyone, like me, was waiting to board the boat. By now I should have known that Gilbertese look of people on the move, the look of Bedouins and gypsies, even at rest. After an hour, the maneapa began to clear, and new arrivals took their places. The sun had gone down and twilight was creeping along the beach. The strong smell of local tobacco drifted through the maneapa. The old man sitting alone in the corner lit up a hurricane lamp and brought out a crumpled copy of the Colony's news-sheet for his evening read. The men from the ship, their pirate cloths tied round their heads, swung the last of the heavy sacks on to the weighing-hook  set up on its tripod in the middle of the white coral beach. Then came the empty benzene drums, rolled down the slope to the waiting whaleboat. Last of all, we passengers were taken aboard, including a pig that lay in the gangway and refused to budge, panting and groaning like a great black seal. The launch gave an owl's hoot twice in farewell, and we wheeled away northwards into the dusk.

It was a Sunday when we arrived at Abaiang. We closed in on a low green island set between the turquoise of the lagoon and the paler blue of the early-morning sky. From a distance it had looked unbelievably like an English medieval village. The green of the palms was massed so thickly together they could be oaks or elms, the thatched roofs clustered around the tall square turrets of a church with a clock tower. Then closer to, one saw the open sides of the little houses. The rising sun glinted on the top-most crests of the coconut palms, throwing long spokes of shadow over the sand - and that was rarely a gold or silver as in the songs, but a pearly beige that echoed exactly the thatch of the houses. Three figures stood fishing on the end of the shore. Three white birds wheeled from end to end of the island. Somewhere a cock crowed, but most people must have been still asleep.

When the smoke of breakfast fires was rising cheerfully from the houses, I went down the gangway with the landing party. Captain Benson pointed out to me the Fathers' House, three-storey provincial French, next to the Church.

'They should be glad to put you up at the Convent with Reverend Mother.' I hoped so. This time our stay was for three or four days, as house-thatch from the villages was to be loaded as well as copra. 'Anyway, there's always a bunk for you on board, remember,' he called cheerfully in his sing-song mixture of English, German and Polynesian.

But there was no question of that. Word about me had already come from Marakei. Father Jolivet assured me, and Sister Emelda was looking forward to some European company. First, this morning though, I was to be his guest. He scrutinized me smilingly, as we sat down together in a large untidy room in the front of the house, an old stout man, with white hair and spectacles. A worried look came over this pendulous face as he waved his hands at the clutter around us. These naughty children - the servants here! I must apologize for the untidiness.'

From outside came the roar of a motor-bike.

'Ah, Father Michenaud is here!' He buttoned up a crumpled white jacket and began toddling vaguely to and fro collecting glasses and ice and a tin of beer.

'So our visitor is here already,' exclaimed the wiry figure who sprang in through the door, brushing the dust from patched old trousers and shirt. Father Michenaud was some twenty years younger than Father Jolivet and his exact opposite with his quick blue eyes and explosive manner. Conversation spurted along in a mixture of French and English. We sat down around a table covered with a velvety-soft old Persian rug in the style of a sixteenth-century painting. Father Michenaud waved a hand at the otherwise spartan setting - the shelves crammed with old magazines and dusty theological works, a desk in the corner piled with account books, tracts and files, two deckchairs on the matted floor. 'What do you think of our study, heh? Can you believe Father Jolivet has been here for thirty years, myself for sixteen only. Or rather here, there and everywhere in the Gilberts?'

What made them feel their isolation most strongly, they said, was the mail problem. Overseas papers were their only contact with the outside world apart from a rare letter from any family left at home. Time magazine was ordered air-mail, but the last copy came in October, over two months ago. The last batch of Catholic daily papers sent from France arrived in August.

They shook their heads like disappointed children.

'It's like being shipwrecked' said Father Mifhenaud, smiling wryly.

Otherwise they had no complaints. Occasionally one of them fell sick. 'But one can be sick anywhere. And our Sisters are very good nurses.'

'It is not a job. It is a vocation only,' said the younger man with an incisive frown.

We drank a glass of beer together. They took it in turn to tell me about the Abaiang people, drawing on their Gauloise and talking in the easy alternation of people who live lonely lives together.

'One never really knows the Gilbertese,' Father Jolivet mused. 'One can get quite close, but always the shutter comes down. How it goes is this - for the first year they watch and wait, judging you, summing you up. Then very slowly they begin to relax, to trust. Finally there is a relationship.'

'But how can one say we ever really understand them, and they us?' put in the other priest. 'We are two completely different cultures. But they are good people. They try hard. Their sole problem is lack of will. That is the climate of course, the isolation from the rest of the world, also the Micronesian way of life which has not the social disciplines, the tabus of the Polynesian system with all its rituals, its caste system of chiefs and so on. Life here is reduced to the simplest elements.'

We sat looking out at the view through the open windows, the insolent flame trees, huge and brilliant, and beyond them the passionless glitter of the Equator. Father Jolivet left us for a moment and Father Michenaud went on to describe life on Abaiang as compared to the southern islands. It was all a question of rainfalls - up to 120 inches annually in the north, down to a sparse forty in the lean and hungry lands below the Equator. The character of the people varied with the climate. In happy-go-lucky Abaiang there was usually plenty of food. But sometimes drought came, even here. Yet the people never thought one day ahead.

'They will eat for today, throw away when they have finished. The money from copra they will spend at the store, that very day, all, all of it, in one lump. Not like the south. There they put it all away in a chest with their belongings, and use a little every day, always keeping something behind.' He paused, then repeated the old man's words. 'But they are good people. Maybe, as some say, we have only created a race of daylight Christians - superstition has such a very strong hold on the Gilbertese. But they come to confession like children.' He smiled. 'I remember one man saying to me, tapping his chest, "I feel light afterwards, Father, as light as a bird!"'

'She will see, she will see for herself,' said Father Jolivet from the doorway, transformed from a shabby old man into a patriarch with his white lace surplus and long purple stole. 'You will come to Mass with us, yes?'

Yes indeed, if they would take in a failed Anglican, was my reply.

'Well, here you will be Katorika, like the rest of us.'

He placed a hand on my shoulder, and led the way out across to the wedding-cake church, coated with white lime and coral. Father Michenaud hurried behind, hastily donning his own rather crumpled robes. At the top of the steps I was left alone under an archway edged with shells and adorned with carvings of the Sacred Heart and Ancher, symbols of the Mission. Inside the door a line of people paused by a huge conch shell of holy water. Most were already seated on mats in the long shadowy nave, a rustling sea of black heads. I sat down on a bench along the back wall. An old Gilbertese man in white appeared carrying a kneeling-form which he placed in front of me with a friendly nod. A bell rolled out overhead. Up at the front Father Jolivet emerged and sat down near the altar on a chair which had been placed inside the low trellised rail. He sat sideways in the congregation, and one by one the people filed forward to kneel at the rail and whisper in his ear. This was Confession in the Gilberts. No closed boxes here, but the same combination of public and private life as in the maneapa. Last of all went the children, small girls in neat cotton frocks with hibiscus flowers behind their ears, thin little boys in large new shirts and lavalavas, holding their bibles importantly before them. I wondered what kind of sins they had to tell to the Father. Most returned with a gay smile on their faces. Father Jolivet's expr3ession never changed, a grave and motionless profile, the white head inclined at a sympathetic angle.

A second bell began to ring and fresh reinforcements flooded in. There were babies who rolled about on their backs, toddlers crawling and clutching at rosaries and trying on discarded straw hats, dogs who sniffed eagerly to and fro, scenting out friends and enemies, while the buzz of the Gilbertese responses wove in and out of a rich flood of song.

After the service Father Jolivet took me up the church tower. I had told him I had been to see the church at Marakei with its steeple. To which he replied scornfully, 'But ours has a clock - and it goes!'

Go it certainly did, whirring and wheezing behind an elaborate casework at the top of several flights of steps. The clock seemed as breathless as we did - or rather, I, for Father Jolivet was perfectly composed after the climb. There was a sort of grinding cough from the mechanism's innards. The giant heartbeat quickened to a palpitation. With a final mighty effort it shook out the chime of one.

'A famous French maker, this clock has,' said Father Michenaud, checking his watch with the whirring wheels. 'You can imagine what a work it is to keep all that going in a climate like this!'

He began galloping down the steps again. 'They have lunch at one at the Convent. Far too hot to walk - Why not take a ride on the back of Father Michenaud's bike?'

It was, and I did, arriving in a swirl of dust. Sister Emelda, waiting with folded hands, looked as immaculate as one of the plaster saints. I suppose it was because I had been expecting an old and wrinkled Mother Superior that her prettiness came as such a surprise - a round tawny face, small features, and wide green eyes with long black lashes, all framed in the white veil and robes of the Order.

'Did y' think y'd arrived at the French Foreign Legion?' she cried in a rich Irish brogue. She saved her hand at the white fortress-style buildings around the central compound, the crenellated walls and slit windows. She burst into a loud girlish laugh and took my bag. 'Well, it's a tough life in the islands!'

But inside the little trellis house behind, shaded with oleander and frangipani, all was calm and feminine order, - order in the neat side room prepared for me with clean sheets on the trestle bed, water bowel and towel on the side-table, and new mats on the floor, order too in the lunch we sat down to together. I felt guilty at such cossettings.

'Are you sure I'm not inconveniencing you, Sister?'

She shook her head violently. 'If you knew what it was to have fresh female company, from home too!'

Such encounters in such settings distil an immediate, subtle rapport hard to imagine under different circumstances. We both began to talk as if our lives depended on it. Her real name was Maureen O'Boyle, she told me. She had never imagined as a child she was to become a mission nun. None of the rest of her sisters had taken holy orders. 'And me the tomboy of the family, a wild, naughty little girl forever climbing trees!'

I asked her how often she went home to Ireland.

'Once every ten years - and I've been here for twenty.' She noticed my look and grinned. 'Probably it's the veil that makes me look younger. Do y' know that last time I was home I couldn't recognize some of my friends. People age a lot in ten years. I didn't mind at all the thought of coming back here. The only hard thing was leaving my mother. She said she'd never see me again. And it's more than likely she won't - she's getting on now, and none too well.'

Two sturdy girls with long thick plaits came in to clear away the remains of the grilled pork and breadfruit.

'They're my best girls,' said Sister with a tender look. One felt beneath the gaiety of sensitivity, a softness that belied another remark - 'Oh, all the love in me's been dried up in the tropics! I'm hard now, to be sure!'

As we drank our coffee, the sound of voices came from outside the window, a gentle knocking on the shutter.

Sister Emelda fluttered towards the door, shaking out her veil. 'Never a spare minute! If it's not the school, it's the dispensary, or the hospital - or the dear Fathers. What a life!' She turned with her flashing smile. 'If it wasn't for the lord, sure I wouldn't be doing it!'

With instructions for me to have a good lie-down till she was back, she was gone.

I lay down obediently in my little room and slept. The sound of singing woke me. I thought at first it was the same bee-like drone of children's hymns that had sent me to sleep. But no, this was something different and strange - a voice alone, a man's voice, a kind of chanting, harsh, guttural and passionate. It seemed to come from somewhere outside, quite close. But where? I opened the shutters. The light was already fading. I had slept longer than I meant. Silence - and then again that same hoarse warble from the disembodied voice that seemed now to come out of the air above. I looked up, looked again, and saw a pair of brown legs high up in the nearest palm tree. From one hand hung a basket - the rest was hidden in the branches.

'He is collecting his toddy-drink from the nuts' said a small voice behind me in broken English. A very young Gilbertese nun in a grey veil and robe smiled back at me. 'He must sing a song to his tree. It is Gilbertese custom. You have been told of this?'

I had been told, and I had read - Stevenson. Of course. But to hear for oneself that weird singing, that faint echo of the old pagan world, was a very different matter.

'What are the words?'

'Nonsense words, nowadays. In the old days, a prayer to the spirit of the tree maybe.'

The little nun was Sister Bernadette of the teaching Order of St. Teresa. Her Gilbertese name was Ratei. With Sister Emelda came another older Gilbertese nursing sister, Maria, and two of the senior girls from the school who were introduced with some formality as princesses, Nei Arenbonto and Nei Bautake. After supper, we all sat round to talk.

'Why not some masculine company, too, to meet our guests?' suggested sister Emelda. The master from the boys' school, or the magistrate perhaps. Maria, you go across to ask them.'

She shook her head. 'Te anti,' she said in a low voice. 'I am afraid.'

'Ghosts, spirits,' translated one of the princesses. Her eyes rounded. 'We believe.'

'Besides,' said Ratei 'neither the magistrate nor master would go out anywhere after dark. No one would.'

It was true, Sister Emelda agreed. Haunting and acts of sorcery were matter-of-fact things to the people of Abaiang. The devil and all his works, was a phrase with very real meaning. 'I know this because we at the Mission have to deal with such cases - possession for instance. I myself have seen a young boy with his body distorted, screaming out in languages unknown to him, mixtures of Latin and French - speaking in tongues as it is called. It is a very strange thing that the Gilbertese name for Lucifer, or the devil, is Newe-ni-Kabane which means Tongue-of-all.' She went on in a lower voice. 'It's the dark side of the Gilbertese. There is despair, or hysteria, madness even, closer to the surface than one could ever imagine. A girl can believe she has been jilted by the spell of rival, and turn into a raging mad woman. Or a man may kill himself believing he is the victim of some enemy. It is all the same thing - tabunea, sorcery.'

'But the dead are the worst,' whispered the younger princess. 'Like Bakororo, the woman of the rock. She used to wash her clothes by the rock, until she died there in childbirth one day. Now she puts a spell on any pregnant woman who walks there, to deform her baby.'

'And Rukunini' added another louder voice. 'He disappeared into the sea while he was building the wall. Now he comes back every day at sunset to try to finish the wall. He turns human beings into stone for it.'

'And Naka who catches the spirits of the dead in a net. He waits for them on the ocean beach before the third day, before they can fly away North!'

The crescendo of horror ended in laughter. But I was reminded of Stevenson's phrase - 'Ever and again there ran among the crowd that laugh which every traveller in these islands learns so soon to recognize - the laugh of terror.' That too was at Abaiang, where he visited the local sorcerers to hear his future foretold through the magic of knotted palm leaves and incantations 'in the old tongue'. Despite the Sunday School misses who boarded the boat to sing hymns, and the educational revolution begun there by the missionary Bingham, Abaiang was still best known for its devil-work, it seemed.

To sooth myself that night I turned instead to Stevenson on the toddy-singers. 'Right overhead the song of an invisible singer breaks from the thick leaves; from further on a second tree-top answers; and beyond again, in the bosom of the woods, a still more distant minstrel perches and sways and sings. So all round the isle, the toddy-cutters sit on high and are rocked by the trade, and have a view far to seaward, where they keep watch for sails and like huge birds utter their songs in the morning....'

In the evening I heard the singing again, and every other morning until I left. The sound became as familiar to me as the sights of Abaiang itself - the babai pits where the red sarongs and brown faces of the gardeners glistened among the huge green leaves of the taro plants like some Douanier Rousseau scene; the girls drawing water from the stone-lined well; the games of bingo in the maneapa played with cowrie shells and presided over by a gigantic bare-breasted mistress of ceremonies.

In the Convent school the children were practising dances for the Christmas concert. Tiny girls patiently balanced shells on the backs of their outstretched hands, to learn the correct statuesque posture of the Gilbertese dance. In each classroom a sea of smiling faces rose to greet us: 'Good afternoon Seester and Missus!'

Down in the field the older girls were making mats and baskets and hats, feverishly concealed from the Sisters whose Christmas boxes they were to be. I was presented with a most beautiful cream and brown mat called a kamoa-ni-mata - pattern-of the-eye, because of the bulls-eye design of the weaving. 

Then on the last day, we had a visitor, a young V.S.O. who had been helping to build a road on one of the southern-most islands in the Group, Tabiteuea. He was a bony Scot in his late teens, burned red by the sun, nervous and overstrung in his manner, who could talk of nothing else but the stories of that remarkable island. That night it was very hot and we sat out in the convent maneapa - a small thatched building - to listen to him talk. Sister Emelda and I went there most evenings watching the sunset, the huge bonfire in the sky dying down in a smoky haze of amethyst and rose. It had been a favourite spot of Father Sabatier's, she told me, and I could well imagine the venerable priest reclining on his mats on fine evenings compiling notes on Gilbertese custom.

Now the young Scotsman, Andrew, sat there, telling us tales of the Tabiteuea people who some called the Irish of the Pacific, because of their fighting ways. In the old days the wars had been between the North and South of the island, and he had seen the same old weapons - long  sticks embedded with the barbs of the stingray - still used today when blood grew heated and an old feud sprang to life again. Death ceremonies were long and elaborate, feasting and presentations going on around the mat-covered body. And superstition again - he had himself talked to a man whose friend had died for no reason, except that the te anti of his dead brother had come to tell him his life would end in two weeks time at midnight - which it did. Andrew told us how he had also seen the famous giants of Tabiteuea - sixteen piles of huge stones on a hilltop, each fifteen foot high, were all that remained of the magical 'army' built to put fear into the enemy's hearts as they approached over the horizon. And, most unforgettable of all, he had been allowed to see and handle the bones of Kourabi, the giant war chiefs who conquered north Tabiteuea. They were kept in a casket, covered with turtle shell, and ceremonially washed and dried by his guardians.

We were late going to bed that night. Andrew disappeared with his mosquito net into the little sleeping-house adjoining the maneapa. But it was an hour afterwards when Sister Emelda put her head round my door to say goodnight. She had been settling a quarrel between two of the boarders. 'The usual thing! The older girl's aunt has just died. Now her best friend refuses to sleep next to her because tonight is the third night after the death and she's quite certain the spirit of the aunt will be visiting her niece. In the end I found a braver friend who'd keep her company! Would you believe it?'

After only a few days in the Gilberts, I said I would, especially as the night had become stormy with black clouds skidding across the face of the moon. But all was not yet over. We had not been asleep for more than an hour or so when I was woken by the flicker of a light moving across the rafters. Then came a violent knocking on the door. Sister Emelda and I met in the darkness of the front parlour, both in our nightdresses, she with a shawl over her head and a candle in her hand.

'Someone's out there with a hurricane lamp,' she whispered. 'Who is it?' she called in a clear voice.

I was too frightened to open my mouth at all. 'It's me, Sister,' came a hoarse voice. 'Andrew,' There was the glimpse of a white face through the trellis-work. 'Sister, what did we do wrong in the maneapa tonight?'

'Wrong?'

'There's a voice of an old man speaking in English and French going on all around me. He seems angry - something to do with the maneapa -'

'It's my maneapa,' said Sister firmly. 'You have nothing to fear. Go back to bed now and be a good boy.' 'But it's something uncanny going on. I don't like it. Can't I come into the house?'

Sister's voice was even firmer. 'Certainly not. Now stop dreaming and go to sleep.' Slowly the lamp faded away. Sister Emelda looked at me helplessly. 'What could I do?' Imagine a man in the Mother Superior's house!' She shook her head. 'Too much pork, I think. And too many Tabiteuea stories.'

'Perhaps Father Sabatier didn't like them,' I managed. We giggled nervously. Then she patted my hand, blew out the candle and glided back to bed. But there had been a look of bewilderment on her face. I lay awake, still fearing that frightened voice, while the palm-leaves rattled like sabres outside the latticed walls. The low roar of the wind and the sea across the quarter-mile-wide raft of land, sounded like the last ring of echoes from the outside world.

None of us slept much, which was perhaps why there was an extra air of sadness about our goodbyes in the morning - that vague melancholy peculiar to the tropics. Andrew was taking a lift with us back to Tarawa. He didn't want to talk about last night so the topic was closed. Sister Emelda handed me a farewell present of a very old Gilbertese sword she had hung up on the parlour wall. 

'I hope it doesn't cut our friendship,' she said with a laugh.

I said we were bound to meet again somewhere - I would certainly be back again on another visit, or she would come to Fiji. 'You'll send me the books you promised, though,' she called from the gateway.

I nodded and waved. I would certainly send her the books. I would just as certainly never see Maureen O'Boyle again.

Tarawa Island

Jane's Kiribati Home Page

Pacific Islands Radio Stations

Jane Resture's Oceania Page

Jane's Oceania Travel Page

(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 3rd March 2015)