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Week of 12.12.08

Reporter's Notebook:
Mona Iskander in Kiribati

The journey from New York City to the tiny island nation of Kiribati (pronounced KIR-EE-BAS) was not an easy one. It took myself, producer Karla Murthy, and field producer Abby Leonard several days to travel to the other side of the planet, including stops in Los Angeles and Fiji. So, after finally arriving in the country's capital of Tarawa, it felt great to step out of the plane, albeit to a gush of hot and humid air.

After gathering our luggage and camera equipment and passing through a customs counter with hand-written signs, it finally hit me that we really had arrived. Only a few weeks earlier, I'd never even heard of Kiribati.

For the next seven days (give or take, considering the 18-hour time difference with New York City) we would be meeting people from different parts of Kiribati society and reporting on the effects of climate change on this low-lying coral atoll located in the equatorial Pacific.

Tarawa is so narrow that on any given spot, you will always see both the lagoon and the ocean. On the ocean side is the penetrating deep blue of the ocean; on the lagoon side, a striking light sapphire.

Mona and Karla pause to take a picture with their guide and translator, Linda Uan, and a village leader from Buariki.
Mona (right, in front) and Karla (left) pause to take a picture with their guide and translator, Linda Uan, and a village leader from Buariki.
We settled into our rooms at Mary's Motel, which, to our delight, had air conditioned rooms and hot water. Driving our little Toyota Corona on the left side of the road, we had to adjust to the oversized speed bumps every few yards. There are no stop lights or stop signs on the island.

During the week, we passed village after village, crowded with people who seemed to be living on top of each other. The local Kiribati homes are simple, built from coconut or pandanus trees, but they're squeezed onto the only available land they have.

Overpopulation and pollution are major problems in South Tarawa but much of our reporting would take us north, where the land is more pristine and relatively untouched by manmade development. There we saw the effects of rising sea levels up-close. An entire village had relocated inland over a period of many years due to the threat of flooding. Group leaders shared concerns about diminishing food sources, and their frustration at the paltry attention their plight receives from the international community.

A young I-Kiribati girl watches over NOW producer Karla Murthy's shoulder as she shoots footage.
A young I-Kiribati girl watches over NOW producer Karla Murthy's shoulder as she shoots footage.
In the days we spent reporting on climate change, we also learned some facts about Kiribati that only added to its uniqueness. A young country that only gained independence in 1979 from Great Britain, Kiribati does not have an army, nor does it allow guns anywhere on the island. Even the police force is unarmed. The one main hospital on the island has a large number of Cuban doctors, who have come to help with the lagging health care system. Kiribati medical students also train in Cuba to become doctors.

Religion is a powerful force in Kiribati, with twelve different Christian denominations represented on the island - and one Bahai' temple.

To the local residents, we weren't just covering news; we became the news. People were fascinated that three women from America had made the long journey to their country. We were on the radio and featured in the local paper. Some were appreciative that we were reporting on the changes to their country; they hoped we might bring attention to their small island.

We also made history. On one of the last days of our trip, we were granted permission to film a session of the Kiribati Parliament. No one had ever filmed inside of the Parliament building before.

Mona and Karla carrying camera gear from a small motor boat to the remote village of Buariki.
Mona and Karla carrying camera gear from a small motor boat to the remote village of Buariki.
Later, we were told that we would have the opportunity for a short interview with the country's president, Anote Tong. President Tong was actually gracious with his time, speaking to us for close to an hour.

Many people on the island had told us that Tong was very down-to-earth, living in a very modest home with his family. Like most people on the island, Tong had a very laid back, relaxed attitude. And like many in Kiribati, he wore flip flops during our interview.

As the days passed and our trip came to an end, we had become fully accustomed to Kiribati time. That meant taking frequent breaks during the day to escape the blistering sun. At the end of one of those last days, during a glorious sunset and a rare and refreshing light breeze, I was able to reflect on our last few days and all the people who had taken the time to speak to us.

Young and curious I-Kiribati children take a look at field producer Abigail Leonard's photos.
Young and curious I-Kiribati children take a look at field producer Abigail Leonard's photos.
We spoke to struggling families in South Tarawa about the hardships of the changing world around them. We talked with churchgoers one Sunday afternoon about how religion had helped them deal with change, and we learned from our trusted fixers, Linda Uan and John Anderson, what the effects of climate change would mean to the broader country.

Few outsiders ever make it to this forgotten island, but hopefully our story will bring the proud land and its people a little closer. For my crew and me, it was definitely worth the trip.

THIS WEEK ON NOW
Paradise Lost

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Video: Washed Up?

Reporter's Notebook: Mona Iskander

Photo Essay: Islands of the South Pacific

Feedback Forum

Update: Paradise Lost, Revisited


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