Ages ago I used to work in London. I had a great marketing job, lovely flat and a company car. Then, out of the blue I got the chance to move to Tarawa, a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific and the capital of the Republic of Kiribati (which became the setting for Food of Ghosts). It is a place so remote, last year the world tourism organisation ranked it the third least visited country in the world. My friends said it was madness to go. But I was fed up with the pollution and noise of London, the frenetic pace of life, working and sleeping and working and sleeping. I imagined I was going to a tranquil place of paradisiacal beauty (think The Blue Lagoon). I imagined somewhere with no traffic or pollution. I imagined peace and quiet and a kind natured people – nature’s gentleman and women. I resigned from my well paid job, handed back the company car and headed for paradise.
the people there have the highest rate of diabetes in the world, major contributing factors include heavy tobacco and alcohol consumption, physical inactivity, and poor nutrition. These are exacerbated by rapid urbanisation, and spreading consumerism
50% of the population carry the Hepatitis B virus
leaking septic tanks, open defecation, poor hygiene education and a lack of toilets, all contribute to the pollution of water supplies
according to World Health, the country has highest infant mortality rates in the Pacific, Organisation figures in 2010 recorded (at 52 deaths per 1000 live births). Major drivers being, along with perinatal conditions and pneumonia, diarrhoeal diseases – caused by inadequate water supply, poor public hygiene and unsafe drinking water
the population, which is growing rapidly and largely unchecked, will more than double in the next 20 years
the people of the low lying island nation are predicted to become the first “climate refugees”.
68% of women in Kiribati have been physically or sexually abused.
Get the picture? In a nut shell, South Tarawa was as far from paradise as I could have imagined: polluted, overcrowded, cramped and noisy, with some shocking problems. But I grew to love being there. Why? Because despite all the very serious problems facing the people of Kiribati, they are a very kind and hospitable people. It is also a very safe place, if you are a visitor. I discovered a traditional culture with wonderful story telling and incredible dancing and singing (and, yes, I also discovered some unspoiled beautiful beaches). Finally, I learned never to judge a place or people by appearances – or statistics. I stayed five years on South Tarawa and it became my home, which is something I never once felt in London. I think feeling “at home” when you are a foreigner is probably about as close as you can get to being on paradise on earth. What do you think? What’s your idea of paradise? Have you ever wanted to get away from it all? If so, where would you chose to go?
The wonderful photographs are by award winning New Zeakand photographer Tony Whincup. And if you want to more about life in Kiribati today, check out Marita Rose’s blog. Marita writers very honestly and engagingly about her experiences of life on South Tarawa. Her blog really is worth a read: http://thelittleislandthatcould.wordpress.com/2013/05/27/paradise-on-earth-welcome-to-the-pacific/
Finally, the YouTube clip below gives you a good idea of some of the problems the people of South Tarawa face today and what it is like on the island. Is it how you imagined? Do you sympathise with the plight of the people living there?