Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Kiribati

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Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in [[{{#explode:Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Kiribati| |6}} {{#explode:Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Kiribati| |7}} {{#explode:Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Kiribati| |8}}]]
As a Peace Corps Volunteers, you will have to adapt to conditions that may be dramatically different than you have ever experienced and modify lifestyle practices that you now take for granted. Even the most basic practices— talking, eating, using the bathroom, and sleeping — may take significantly different forms in the context of the host country. If you successfully adapt and integrate, you will in return be rewarded with a deep understanding of a new culture, the establishment of new and potentially lifelong relationships, and a profound sense of humanity.
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See also:

Living Conditions and Volunteer Lifestyles by Country Pre-Departure Checklist
Staging Timeline

For information see Welcomebooks

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Few countries in the world offer the level of mail service we consider normal in the United States. If you come here expecting U.S. standards, you will be in for a lot of frustration. Mail can take weeks or even months to arrive in Kiribati, though mail leaving Kiribati seems to be more reliable than mail arriving in Kiribati. Some mail may simply not arrive. Often mail is delayed because of a canceled flight or weight restrictions on international and domestic carriers. Although we do not want to sound too discouraging, communication can become a very sensitive issue when one is thousands of miles from family and friends. We think it is best to forewarn you about the reality of mail service in this part of the world. Advise your family and friends to number their letters and to write “Airmail—via Fiji” on envelopes.

Despite the potential delays, we strongly encourage you to write to your family regularly (perhaps weekly or biweekly) and to number your letters. Family members typically become worried when they do not hear from you, so advise them that mail is sporadic and that they shouldn’t worry if they don’t receive your letters regularly. (If a serious problem were to occur, Peace Corps/Kiribati would notify the Peace Corps Office of Special Services in Washington, D.C., which would contact your family.)

Airmail packages sometimes take weeks to arrive and occasionally don’t arrive at all. Surface mail takes anywhere from four months to one year or longer. Packing items in plastic containers, aluminum foil, or sturdy plastic bags is prudent because of rats, ants, heat, and humidity. You are responsible for paying any customs charges for personal items.

Past Volunteers have enjoyed receiving candy, dried fruit, homemade cookies packed in tins, spices, canned potato chips, anything dehydrated, nuts, small packages of condiments and other foods (soup mix, powdered eggs, and macaroni and cheese), books, tapes, batteries, balloons, trinkets for kids, card games, newspapers, comic books, magazines, beach toys, photos, personal voice recordings, hair-care products, underwear, film, clothing, teacher stickers for students’ work, good pens, and fish recipes.

It is difficult to receive packages sent via airmail from the U.S. directly on the outer islands. To increase the likelihood of getting through, packages should be in large envelopes (NOT BOXES) and weigh no more than two pounds. Otherwise, the package will be held up in South Tarawa. Larger boxes can be forwarded to your island from Tarawa, but you will be responsible for the additional costs incurred.

Your mailing address during pre-service training will be the main Peace Corps Office mailbox:

“Your Name,” PCT

PO Box 260

Bikenibeu, Tarawa

Republic of Kiribati, Central Pacific

Mail can be sent to you at this address during your entire two years of service. However, once you have a site placement, you will have a local address on your island and it is generally better to have your mail sent directly to you there rather than depend on the Peace Corps/Kiribati office to forward it.


Local and overseas telephone, fax, and e-mail services are available on the capital island of South Tarawa. Public phones in South Tarawa operate only with a locally purchased phone card. All of the outer islands have some form of electronic communication with South Tarawa, but it varies widely from place to place and is not always easily accessible to Volunteers. The government is expanding phone service to the outer islands and has completed the installation on at least five of them, but it will take some time before all of the islands have this service.

The government maintains a CB radio-telephone link with each island, located at the government council station. Volunteers can place calls to the Peace Corps office or other locations in South Tarawa by CB radio-telephone at certain times of the day, but these calls are not private. The police station and the health clinic on each island have CB (shortwave) radios, which can be used by Volunteers in an emergency. There are also private or church-owned CB radios on many islands that will be made available for emergency communication if needed. The Peace Corps provides satellite telephones on the most isolated islands for Volunteers. Not every Volunteer has one, but most islands do. These phones can only be used for official communication. In many places on the outer islands, it is not possible to call the United States. However, in an emergency, Volunteers may be authorized to travel to South Tarawa to communicate with family members.

Computer, Internet, and E-mail Access

Internet services became available in Tarawa in 1998. The Peace Corps office has two computers with reliable Internet access available for Volunteer use.

The few Volunteers assigned to Tarawa can make use of a personal computer and may want to bring a laptop computer. Volunteers stationed on the outer islands will need an alternate power source (e.g., solar panels) as the outer islands generally do not have electricity. For this reason, and since you will not know your island of assignment before you arrive, we don’t recommend that Volunteers bring laptop computers.

Housing and Site Location

All Volunteers in Kiribati are required to live with a host family during training. Volunteers are also assigned a host family, with whom they will live for the entire two years of service. This includes Volunteers living in South Tarawa. Understandably, many Volunteers have difficulty adjusting to this because it means giving up the independent living to which they are accustomed. Household rules, especially for women, are likely to be completely different and feel very restrictive compared to life in the United States. Yet, in most instances, the rewards are great. Living with a family makes it easier to learn the language, offers a much greater understanding of the culture, and ensures a safer and more secure environment for the Volunteer. Much of a Volunteer’s life in Kiribati will be based on interactions with his or her host family, which provide an entrance into the community.

Volunteers in Kiribati are placed on all of the islands in the Gilbert group. The greatest need is on the outer islands, and that is where almost all Volunteers are assigned. Most of the houses on the outer islands are made from local materials.

Houses have stick walls supported by larger posts in the ground and a thatched roof. Windows have no glass and are cut from sticks. There is usually a socializing buia (a raised platform) next to the house. All houses also have a roki (bathroom), which is either inside the house or nearby. The roki will have a water-sealed pit latrine. Bathing consists of dipping a cup in a bucket and pouring it over you. Clothes are washed by hand in buckets. Water is drawn from a nearby well. Volunteers sleep under mosquito nets. Peace Corps/ Kiribati provides heavy-duty wire fencing (referred to as security wire) to be installed in the Volunteers’ housing.

Living Allowance and Money Management

The local currency is the Australian dollar (AUD). The current exchange rate is approximately $1.12 AUD to the U.S. dollar. As a trainee, you will receive a walk-around allowance in the local currency that will be just enough money to buy some stamps, a snack, and an occasional soft drink. Your host family will provide all of your meals. Once you are sworn-in as a Volunteer, you will receive a modest monthly living allowance paid in the local currency. Included in this is the equivalency of $24 (USD) for two days’ leave. Volunteers accrue two days of annual leave for each month of active service as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Since the amount of the leave allowance is legally fixed in U.S. dollars, it must be adjusted monthly to reflect any changes in the exchange rate; therefore, the exact amount may vary slightly.

Directly after you are sworn-in, you will receive a settling-in allowance to purchase household items such as pots, pans, and a stove.

Traveler’s checks and U.S. dollars may be exchanged for local currency at the Bank of Kiribati or at a hotel on South Tarawa.

(The bank offers a better rate for converting traveler’s checks than U.S. currency.) There is no restriction on importing currency into Kiribati via traveler’s checks, foreign bank notes, or other instruments. There are several branches of the bank and three operating ATMs in the country where access to local and U.S. bank accounts is possible. These are all located on South Tarawa. As the ATM machines are sometimes down, the bank can also process cash advances on credit cards and debit cards. Trainees and Volunteers may not accept payment for any services or work done other than the allowances received from the Peace Corps. They may not engage in any activity for personal financial gain, and they may not receive payment for photographs or writing while serving in the Peace Corps.

Food and Diet

The diet in Kiribati consists mainly of locally available products (fish, coconut, breadfruit, chicken, pork, and occasionally eggs) and imported rice. Most Volunteers have a diet that is very high in carbohydrates and quite repetitive. On the outer islands, other imported foods are available, such as corned beef, curried chicken, limited canned vegetables, cheap cookies, and basics such as flour, sugar, and rice. The closer the outer island is to Tarawa, the more variety is typically found in the stores. In Tarawa there are a number of stores with imports from Australia, U.S., Fiji, and Indonesia. These items tend to be very expensive, sometimes three or four times what they might cost in the U.S., but most Volunteers are willing to spend a little extra money for some specialty items. Since eating in Kiribati is a significant social activity and a vehicle to personal relations, you may find it necessary to demonstrate your friendliness and willingness to accept local customs by eating food that you would prefer not to eat. It is often difficult to refuse food in Kiribati without offending your hosts. They will watch you eat and wait for you to announce that the food is delicious.

Kiribati is not an easy place for vegetarians. Local dishes are often filled with fish, pork, or chicken. Many dishes are prepared with canned meat. Most vegetarians who come to Kiribati add some fish to their diet, and some eat chicken. Finding other sources of protein is often difficult or expensive. However, some vegetarian Volunteers have managed to find food to their liking and have taught their communities about their eating habits. This helps alleviate awkward situations when someone offers food that you do not eat. During food shortages on the islands resulting from drought or waiting for the next boat to arrive, the choices for vegetarians are even more limited.


Transportation in developing countries is not the same as in the U.S. International flights to Kiribati and domestic flights to the outer islands are subject to frequent delays and cancellations. As of January 2007, Air Pacific flies twice a week from/to Fiji. Our Airlines also flies from Brisbane to Majuro and back twice a week, stopping in Tarawa to collect passengers for Majuro on the way up and for the Solomon Islands and Brisbane on the way down. Air Kiribati is the national airline and has at least one scheduled flight a week to each of the Gilbert Islands. At the time of this writing, there is only one Air Kiribati plane in operation and often this plane is down for service or unable to fly due to poor weather. It is hoped that Air Kiribati will have another plane in operation soon.

On Tarawa, minibuses provide transportation from one end of the island to the other for a fare that varies from 55 cents to $1.40 (AUD) depending on the length of the ride. On the outer islands, trucks can be hired for groups or for longer distances. Most Volunteers purchase a bicycle in Tarawa, which is shipped to their outer island. The Peace Corps will provide each Volunteer with a safety helmet. Though there are a number of boats that service the islands, Volunteers rarely travel by boat any more. For safety reasons, Volunteers are only permitted to travel between islands on vessels of the Kiribati Shipping Line or the SuperCat (a large catamaran). Volunteers must have advance authorization from the country director to travel by sea and must always bring a life vest (provided by Peace Corps).

Air transportation costs for official purposes, such as scheduled in-service trainings, during your two years of service are calculated based on your site and included in your living allowance. Approved travel costs for medical purposes or other unforeseen official travel will be reimbursed separately.

Geography and Climate

The Republic of Kiribati is one of the smallest countries in the world. It is composed of 33 atolls scattered over more than 2 million square miles of ocean, yet its total land area is only 264 square miles. Kiribati is located in the central Pacific, near the point at which the international dateline intersects the equator. The islands are in three main groups: the Gilbert, Phoenix, and Line Islands and Banaba Island.

Kiribati is tropical, with an average daytime temperature of 91 degrees Fahrenheit that varies little from season to season. Rainfall varies greatly, ranging from 40 inches yearly near the equator to 120 inches in the extreme north and south. Banaba Island, the central and southern Gilbert Islands, the Phoenix Islands, and Kiritimati Island are also subject to severe droughts that may last many months.

Social Activities

Just about any social gathering in Kiribati is called a botaki. These range from having a few friends over for dinner to a week-long island-wide festival. The average botaki is held in a mwaneaba (meeting house) where people sit in a large circle around the floor. The older men and guests usually sit in front with the women and children sitting around the edge of the mwaneaba behind the men. Almost always, speeches are given, some prayers are said, and large amounts of food are eaten. Groups of people also stand up and sing songs. Often, Volunteers are asked to sing as a group. If there is a generator or other power source available, loud music is played and people are invited to dance in the middle of the mwaneaba. If you are asked to dance, it is typically considered an insult if you decline. Botakis are held for a variety of reasons, including a first or 21st birthday, first menstruation, engagement, wedding, anniversaries of buildings or people’s arrival on the island, and any holiday. The biggest national holiday is in July when Kiribati celebrates its independence from Britain. This is a week-long national holiday. Other holidays include International Women’s Day, Easter, National Youth Day, Human Rights Day, National Health Day, Christmas, Boxing Day, and New Year’s.

You will not have much privacy in Kiribati. Because you are new and different, people will constantly be curious about what you are doing. Often a neighbor or child will just stop by your house to say hello or to watch you. This is not viewed as offensive in Kiribati culture; people are curious and often want to get to know you better. Through training and time, you will learn how to deal with social interactions and still keep some time for yourself, although this is not always easy to do.

Friendships and relationships are viewed differently in Kiribati than in the United States. Men and women who are not married are never supposed to be alone together and do not display affection in public. You will be required to observe these cultural norms. It is very unusual for anyone to live alone outside of a family group. This is another reason that Volunteers are assigned to live with families.

Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior

There are different standards of professionalism on Tarawa and on the outer islands, but they are still not the standards you are probably used to at home. One of the difficulties of finding your place as a Peace Corps Volunteer is fitting into the local culture while maintaining your own cultural identity. In time, you will realize you are an I-Matang (all foreigners are from Matang, the mythical land where the sun sets); you are no longer just an American nor are you an I-Kiribati. You are something different, something new, made up of elements of both cultures plus your own psyche.

You will be working as a representative of a government ministry and you will be expected to dress and behave accordingly. While some of your counterparts may dress in worn or shabby clothes, it is probably a result of economics rather than choice. The likelihood is that they are wearing their “best.” A foreigner wearing ragged, unmended clothing is likely to be considered rude and ill-mannered.

Personal Safety

More information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is outlined in the Health Care and Safety chapter, but it is an important issue and cannot be overemphasized. As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (oftentimes alone), having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Kiribati is generally a country with a very low crime rate compared to most other countries in the world. But alcohol changes the behavior and the rules in many ways.

Some I-Kiribati will drink to excess rather than in moderation.

Because alcohol consumption can be a significant factor affecting individual safety, Volunteers need to be cautious of others who are inebriated and aware of their own behavior.

Many Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon, and incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, although most Kiribati Volunteers complete their two years of service without major personal security incidents. The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help Volunteers reduce their risks and enhance their safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive in Kiribati. At the same time, you are expected to take responsibility for your own safety and well-being. Women should never travel alone after dark in the outer islands—even walking from one village to another or to your school. Women should also not go biking or jogging by themselves in isolated areas, and should never go walking in the bush alone.

Rewards and Frustrations=

One of the few predictions one can safely make about being a Peace Corps Volunteer is that it will never be entirely predictable. You can learn from the experience of former Volunteers, but there are certain to be times when you are confronted by situations that are completely new and wholly your own. How can you prepare yourself for this? There are no easy tricks for dealing with the unexpected, but we can tell you something about the kinds of situations you are likely to encounter and how other Volunteers have handled them. Psychologists have shown that people do better in unfamiliar situations if they prepare themselves by imagining how they will feel and starting to adapt to the probable tensions and frustrations.

Cultural adaptation is one of the most important aspects of your service. Here are some characteristics that are critical for adapting to a new culture.

A good sense of humor. A sense of humor is important because there will be much to cry or get angry, annoyed, embarrassed, or discouraged about, and the ability to laugh about things will be your ultimate weapon against despair.

Lowered expectations. Americans abroad too often undertake tasks that are unrealistic. If you set your goals too high and refuse to adjust them to the realities of what can actually be accomplished in a foreign environment, you are going to be disappointed. Experience shows that Americans who are less goal-oriented or task-driven, and more able to relax and ride with events, tend to be more effective and enjoy themselves more overseas.

The ability to fail. The ability to tolerate failure is critical because everyone fails at something overseas. Ironically, however, those most likely to be selected to go overseas are those who have been most successful at home. Some people sent abroad will have never before experienced failure. If you have little tolerance for failure, you will be in trouble, as will those who work or live with you.

Patience, flexibility, and self-reliance. Although the Peace Corps staff will work hard to support you in your service, resolving the many challenges you will face will often depend on your own ability, determination, and strength of commitment to Peace Corps service.

If you have all or most of these characteristics, you are likely to do well. However, there will be other adjustments for you to make. People who thrive on an urban lifestyle of restaurants, bars, plays, movies, concerts, and shopping will likely find the calm and quiet of Kiribati life somewhat difficult.

The pre-service training staff, composed of I-Kiribati language and cultural instructors and some American staff, will give you a detailed picture of what to expect once you move to your permanent assignment. You will also meet former and current Volunteers who have worked in both the education and health projects in Kiribati. Following are some of the issues that may arise once you have settled in.

Isolation. The name “Peace Corps” is somewhat misleading. It implies a coherent company of Americans who work together when, in fact, most Volunteers work with citizens of the host country rather than other Volunteers. A Volunteer’s work is often solitary, without the support one gets from working with people who share a common background. There will be times when you will feel very much alone, especially in contrast with the intense togetherness of most training programs.

Constant scrutiny. Paradoxically, although you will often feel alone, you might also feel that you are never alone—that you are always under scrutiny, and that there is never a moment when you are not representing the “image” of the Peace Corps. In the United States, we work at a job, and then we go home and take off our shoes and relax. But from the moment you begin Peace Corps training, it may seem as if you live in a fishbowl. Even those who initially find this exhilarating eventually can find it irritating and burdensome.

Privacy vs. intimacy. While some Volunteers live in the same village as other Volunteers, all Volunteers are assigned a Kiribati host family. Such an arrangement has the advantages of companionship and support, but it also places you in intense relationships with people not entirely of your own choosing. You may have had a similar experience with a college roommate, but then you were able to get away from each other for periods of time. This will not be possible in Kiribati, and the enforced intimacy, even with a compatible colleague, could wear on both of you.

Homesickness. If you have formed warm attachments to other people, you may react to separation from family and friends by becoming sad and lonely. This feeling is not unique to the Peace Corps. One may have gotten homesick after going away to college or joining the military. And because you are so far away, any trouble at home—such as the illness of a parent or the dissolution of a romance—can become magnified and distorted. Sometimes the opposite occurs. Disturbing news from home may be minimized as a Volunteer attributes feelings of tension to problems in the immediate environment, when the real source of the distress is thousands of miles away.

Unfamiliar customs. Ideally, meals are a time of relaxation, but in a new country they may be a perpetually unsettling challenge. The available food may not only be strange in type and appearance but it may be unpalatable. Yet since eating is a significant social function and a vehicle to personal relations, you may feel obligated to demonstrate your friendliness and willingness to accept local customs by eating food that you don’t want. What you decide in each case will be the result of balancing several factors—the requirement for courtesy, the limits of your own tolerance for new foods, and realistic concerns for your health.

Procedures for washing, sleeping, and elimination may also differ dramatically from what you are used to. Sexual customs and accepted dress may appear excessively strict in some respects or embarrassingly free in others. You might find your tolerance of noise and dirt different from what you imagined it to be.

In all these aspects of daily life, you may feel yourself pulled in opposite directions between your accustomed life and that of your hosts. At times, your life may seem to consist of a series of minor nagging frustrations. Such frustrations can accumulate, and you might finish a long day of hard work feeling exhilarated and happy and yet be inexplicably exasperated because you don’t have a paper napkin to wipe your mouth.

Culture shock. Your initial reaction to Kiribati is likely to be one of delight and curiosity, similar to how a tourist would react. But working in a foreign country is another matter. The differences that strike you as fascinating at first will become commonplace and invisible, and you might become aware of more profound differences between you and the people with whom you work. For example, when talking to an I-Kiribati in English or the local tongue, you might suddenly realize that although you are using the same language, you do not understand each other. Words like “democratic” or “clean” or “soon” may have different meanings for each of you. You might be mystified to find that local people who consider themselves democratic and who talk with sincerity about their struggle for freedom and independence can, at the same time, treat subordinates, women, children, or other people in what strikes you as a harshly authoritarian manner.

Such a breakdown in communication may be heightened by misperceptions you and your host may have of each other. You may feel that the host is not talking to you but to a fantasy of what Americans are like. Similarly, you may be addressing a preconceived image of your host derived from cross-cultural area studies. In either case, the result is a failure to understand each other and a consequent sense of frustration.

At times it is difficult to remember that all people have a common humanity, and that merely knowing a person’s nationality does not tell you whether the person is skillful or inept, constant or mercurial, honest or dishonest, industrious or lazy. There is a temptation to fall back on glib cultural stereotypes, but much of the success or failure of a Volunteer’s work depends on his or her ability to understand the language and culture sufficiently well to make an accurate assessment of individuals. It is not an exaggeration to state that every successful Peace Corps project begins by identifying a particular host country national who is competent, reliable, understanding, and dedicated. A deep conviction that you share a common humanity with your host that transcends any cultural differences will be a big help.