Kiribati - Orientation

Identification. Almost all of the citizens of Kiribati have at least some I-Kiribati ancestors and have inherited land rights in the Gilbert Islands. The indigenous inhabitants of Banaba (Ocean Island) speak a Gilbertese dialect and practice a variant of Gilbertese culture but consider themselves a separate people politically. Most of the Banabans have lived on Rabi Island in Fiji since 1945. Another Gilbertese dialect is spoken on Nui in Tuvalu. The Gilbert Islands were named in honor of Thomas Gilbert, a British captain whose ship sighted some of the islands after transporting convicts to Australia in 1788. In default of a generally acceptable indigenous name, it was decided at the time of independence to adopt "Kiribati" (pronounced "kiribass"), the local respelling of "Gilberts," for the new nation. The poetic "Tungaru" usually connotes the ancestors and their savage or superhuman feats.

Location. The Gilberts comprise sixteen inhabited coral reef islands and atolls between 3° N and 3° S and between 173° and 177° E. The territory of the Republic of Kiribati also includes the raised coral island of Banaba, about 400 kilometers west of the Gilberts, and the Phoenix and Line Islands lying as much as 2,800 kilometers to the east. The average annual rainfall diminishes from north to south. The islands south of the equator and Banaba suffer from periodic droughts.

Demography. According to the 1985 census, Kiribati had a total population of 63,883. The average population density for the Gilbert Islands, which have a combined area of 279 square kilometers, was 219 persons per square kilometer. The growth rate averaged 2.0 percent per annum in the 6 ½ years between censuses. A third of the population was enumerated in the urbanized area of South Tarawa.

Linguistic Affiliation. I-Kiribati and Banabans speak a single language, usually known as Gilbertese. Linguists agree that Gilbertese belongs to the Oceanic Branch of the Austronesian languages, and its closest relatives are the other Nuclear Micronesian languages: Trukese, Ponapean, Kosraean (Kusaian), and Marshallese. The more distant connections of Nuclear Micronesian within Oceanic Austronesian are still being debated, but they seem to point toward the southern Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, with the languages of San Cristobal and Malaita as perhaps the strongest candidates. The pioneer American missionary, Hiram Bingham, Jr., devised a written form of Gilbertese based on the Latin alphabet that is still in general use, having undergone only minor modifications.

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