THE PEOPLE of Kiribati (pronounced “Keer-e-bus”) are becoming climate refugees. In 2014, President Anote Tong consulted the experts and made a judgment call: the Kiribati nation would purchase 2,200 hectares on the Fijian island of Vanua Levu. They would be forced by rising seas to abandon their ancestral homeland.
According to projections, Tong conceded the country had “reached the point of no return.” Sea levels were rising and showed no signs of slowing down. First, their drinking water would become contaminated with the salty brine of the ocean. Next, crops would be devastated, and their economy would be destabilized with the loss of arable land. Eventually, with a population of 117,000 people spread over 33 islands, no Kiribati would escape the effects of rising tides. Rather than import earth to build up their islands, Tong chose to pursue “migration with dignity.”
Throughout this tumultuous period in the small island’s history, one resident of Kiribati was being faced with a few difficult decisions of her own, decisions that, unbeknownst to her, would lead to the possible preservation of the Kiribati language and culture. Tereua Kainitoka moved to Kiribati from Fiji in 2005, when her father, a Methodist minister, was reassigned to Banaba Island. Five years later, it was there that she met two missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Kainitoka was surprised not only that the missionaries could communicate in the Kiribati language, but they brought with them a new scripture, the Kiribati translation of the Book of Mormon. As she met with them, she began to feel the truth of their message and was faced with a new decision: should she forsake her Methodist upbringing and join the Church? Kainitoka said, “I knew that I had felt the Spirit of God. I knew the Book of Mormon was true. And I knew that I had to be baptized. It didn’t feel like I was leaving my religion—just adding more to what my family had already given me.”
After her baptism, Tereua encountered both immediate opportunity and opposition. She had just turned eighteen, and some friends and a missionary couple began helping her apply for BYU–Hawaii. Her parents were still understandably skeptical of her new religion and choice of school, a school that was more than 5,000 kilometers away. After much prayer and debate, it was decided that she would attend. Once there, she chose to major in intercultural studies: peace-building communications. When asked why she chose such a major, Kainitoka responded,
My life up to that point had been about adapting and building relationships with people from around the world. I realized there were ways I could communicate with people that went beyond language. The missionaries, the people of Fiji, and the people at BYU–Hawaii all helped me realize I wanted to do this as a career. Through the Spirit, I felt like [this] was my calling in life.
After Kainitoka graduated, her close friend Charleene Tiatia was attending BYU in 2018. At that time, as missionaries returned home from the Marshall Islands/Kiribati Mission after contact with the Kiribati language (sometimes referred to as Gilbertese), they were eager to learn more. But unfortunately no college in the world offered Kiribati courses. So, the Center for Language Studies (CLS) officially began surveying student interest. When Instructional Programs and Language Assessment Coordinator Dave Nielsen reached out to Tiatia about teaching Kiribati, she knew exactly whom to call.
“I was nervous when she asked me to apply!” said Kainitoka. “I was like, ‘Me? A college professor?’” But the idea began to grow on her. Eventually, Kainitoka chose to submit an application to BYU in the hopes of becoming the first professor of Kiribati on any college campus in US history. Kainitoka’s language classes would offer an unprecedented step in teaching and actively preserving the Kiribati culture. When the call came offering Kainitoka a position as an adjunct professor, she explained, “I was really worried about moving all the way to Utah. I had never really left the islands. And the program was so young. With so few students, they didn’t know if it would even last more than a semester. My husband and I definitely prayed about it a lot.” However, upon receiving their answer, Kainitoka and her husband James Oliphant decided to make the move to Provo.
Now, with two semesters behind her, Kainitoka is getting comfortable in the classroom. In fact, one of her students is a missionary who taught her after her baptism. She said, “My students are the main reason all of this is now possible. Each of them played a key role in where I am right now. I’ve never been prouder as an I-Kiribati to have come to meet students who have so much enthusiasm and love for the culture and language of Kiribati!”
Her enthusiasm has not gone unnoticed. On September 30, 2019, by invitation of the Church, the current president of Kiribati, His Excellency Te Beretitenti Taneti Maamau, attended Kainitoka’s Kiribati 330 class on campus. The class had practiced a cultural program, including singing, dancing, and reading stories for weeks, in preparation for the visit. One assignment Kainitoka had given her students was to write and illustrate picture books in Kiribati to send to displaced schoolchildren. After the program, President Maamau took the stage and told the students that he was “grateful for their efforts in preserving his people’s language” and called BYU a “leading edge” university.
Though the future of the Kiribati islands remains unsure, one thing is certain: at BYU Kainitoka has found friends to help make sure her culture and language will not be lost with her homeland.
For more photos from the President’s visit, turn to pages 16–17, or to read the BYU Magazine or Church News story, visit https://magazine.byu.edu/article/keeping-kiribati-afloat/ or https://www.mormonnewsroom.org.nz/article/kiribati-president-visits-church-headquarters-
—ZANDER SMITH, ENGLISH ’20