The Banabans of Fiji

It's a safe bet that few if any of the honeymoon vacationers and scuba divers who fly to Taveuni, Fiji, on resort holidays will have heard of Rabi Island. Although only 20 kilometers of open water separate Taveuni and Rabi, they could be on opposite sides of the Pacific.

The Rabi people originated on Banaba, formerly known as Ocean Island, a tiny, six-square-km raised atoll between Tarawa and Nauru in the Gilbert Islands, presently part of the Republic of Kiribati. Banaba was once rich in phosphates, but from 1900 to 1979 the deposits were mined out by British and Australian interests.

In 1942, the Japanese landed on Banaba and removed the inhabitants. When peace returned, the British implemented a plan to resettle all 2,000 surviving Banabans on Rabi rather than repatriate them to their ravaged homeland.

Today some 4,500 Banabans live among large coconut plantations in the northwest corner of Rabi Island. Their language is Gilbertese, and the social order that of the Gilbert Islands. Most Banaban houses are devoid of furniture, with personal possessions kept in suitcases and trunks. The cooking is done outside in thatched huts.

In 1997, British producer Jeremy Cooper traveled to Banaba to make a BBC TV documentary titled Coming Home to Banaba. It's worth visiting Cooper's Banaba website if you're curious about these little known corners of the Pacific, and you can explore further by following the site's links.

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