Training: A Question of Family
Working and living on an isolated Pacific atoll can be challenging -- most people don't speak English; there are few medical resources; obtaining foods for a healthy diet is difficult; and it's hard to blend in. Fortunately, all Volunteers go through a three-month, pre-service, training to help them adjust to their country of service.
During most of training, each "trainee" in our group lived with a host family. Upon meeting my host parents, I was immediately considered a son, although I was treated more like an important visitor. My "mother" made a special effort to prepare food that she thought I would like, and although much of her cooking was enjoyable, I soon tired of eating canned corned beef and cold pancakes for lunch. My "father" was always willing to practice language after dinner. The small room where I slept amounted to half of their thatched roof house. In the other room, no less than eight people slept on the floor.
My family would often have visitors, mostly relatives, whom after much urging might eat dinner and stay a night, a few days, or maybe a couple of weeks. In Kiribati culture distant relatives are considered as close as a brother or a sister. A cousin might stay with his relatives for as long or as short of a time as he wishes.
During the second stage of our training the eleven people in our group lived with the host families on Maiana. Our six hour voyage by yacht to this outer island was fantastic. The sea was calm. Most of us saw flying fish for the first time, and dolphins chased our vessel for twenty minutes. We arrived in the early evening -- just in time for the botaki (feast) that had been planned. In the maneaba (meeting house) there was singing, traditional dancing, and plenty of food for the celebration.
The next morning we rode around the island, as is the custom, in a flatbed truck. Once that task was completed, we were allowed to go home with our new host families. The houses on Maiana had no electricity, flush toilets, or running water. My personal area was a small buia (a raised platform not much larger than a double bed).
Because my host father was the captain of a ship, he was usually at sea. Mother instructed me in weaving a mat from coconut palm fronds. My sister taught me how to quickly clean fish. At night I went hunting for crabs with my brother. Grandmother would fix the crabs for lunch the next day. She also showed me how to make bread using a local oven -- a large wooden box placed over hot coals. My uncle took some of us snorkeling and fishing in his outrigger canoe. A neighbor taught me how to play some Kiribati songs on the guitar which I brought. The whole community took it upon themselves to help teach us the Kiribati culture.
After five weeks in Maiana training was almost finished. We had learned what to do in case of illness and how to prevent it. The technical aspects of our jobs were understood, and we were starting to feel more comfortable and accepted. Our increasing proficiency in the Kiribati language enabled us to communicate more effectively.
Training was concluded with the official swearing in, but our work had just begun. After eleven weeks working as a group, we were each assigned to our individual posts. There was little information given about the communities we would become a part of. It was time to rely on our training, draw upon our own resourcefulness, and rely on the cautious idealism that each of us possessed.
On that small airplane on its way to the little island of Kuria, I couldn't help think of what was in store for me. My self-confidence was riddled with questions of effectiveness and acceptance. Stepping off that plane was a leap of faith -- jumping out into an exciting new world. It's a place which I've grown to love.
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