Language & Culture

Kiribati has evolved as a result of sparse geography - a landscape of seclusion and beauty, which is no surprise given the country has the biggest water to land ratio in the world, with land masses of which 32 atolls and 1 ocean island scattered across the pacific equatorial region. Although part of a wider pacific island community, it offers a unique, complex and beautiful culture and language ; and much of this has been maintained because of this isolation. As a traveller, learning some local words and being observant of cultural norms and customs shows respect for the local community and can help preserve its beauty.


English is widely spoken in Kiribati, and as a visitor you will have no problems communicating with the local people. Nevertheless, using some local words is certainly appreciated by the local community, and will put you in good stead for making new friends.
Note: in Kiribati language, "ti" is pronounced "ss". For example, "Kiribati" has to be pronounced "Kiribas".

Mauri Hello / Welcome - this is the word you will hear and use most while in Kiribati - an embedded sign of the friendliness and welcoming nature of the Kiribati people.
Eng Yes - also commonly used is “Ngaia”, which means “okay”
Iaki No
Ko rabwa Thankyou - Kiribati is a very polite and friendly society, and using “Ko rabwa” is always appreciated.
Taiaoka Please - very useful in Kiribati and great to create a polite impression of guests with the local community. Can also be combined with “ikai” (here) to ask the bus driver to stop for you ; or if you need to squeeze past someone in a crowd..
Ngkoe You (the person you are talking too)
Ngai I (yourself)
Tiabo Goodbye

Download our language guide (including Chinese, German, Japanese, and English) …click here

For more information on the I-Kiribati language:

Traditional Government

The traditional ruling system differs from region to region, but based mainly on the chiefly ruling system and the Unimwane (maneaba) system. The chiefly ruling system was common in the central and northern Gilberts, while the Unimwane (maneaba) system was used in the southern Gilberts. In the chiefly system one person enjoys the powers and privileges over his subjects and resources. In pre-colonial times the islands from Makin to Abemama were ruled by families of “Uea” (high chiefs), who were based on Butaritari, Abaiang, Tarawa and Abemama. The southern islands from Nonouti to Arorae were ruled by councils of Unimwane who meet in the maneaba to discuss and address all kinds of social, economic and political issues. In this system the Unimwane, which consists of the head of each kainga  (extended family), is the most powerful and sole decision-making body in the community. The decisions made by the Unimwane are believed to be the best because they are the outcome of careful deliberation among the oldest, wisest and most experienced members of the community.

The chiefly system of the central and northern Gilberts gradually disappeared because it was incompatible with the new Christian belief and democratic form of Government that was introduced into the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. On the other hand, the Unimwane (maneaba) system, due to its similarity with the western democratic model, was encouraged and has continued to be the dominant traditional form of authority throughout the country.

Interface between Local Government and Traditional Political System
The leadership role of the Unimwane is well appreciated and continues to be respected by the society and hence central government. The modern legal system is indeed crucial to the maintenance of peace and order in Kiribati, but there are many instances where modern law fails to provide a solution to certain situations, and this is where the community under the leadership of the Unimwane intervenes to provide the solution. To avoid confrontation between central government and the traditional leaders, it is therefore resolved that the Unimwane association must be represented in local government, not as an elected councilor but as a nominated member who assists, advises and in many instances instructs Council to make the required decisions.

Councils and other institutions cannot disengage themselves from the Unimwane who basically hold the power in his hands when it comes to community support and/or resources. On Abemama island the Unimwane association is particularly strong and influential in decision-making. Although the Unimwane association is represented by a single member on the Council, such a member has the full support of the Unimwane Association of Abemama.

Culture and Customs

The culture of Kiribati has greatly been preserved by the isolation that comes with being in the middle of the pacific ocean. Although missionaries begun to arrive on the shores in the 1850’s, much of the traditions and beliefs of the people have remained the same, while the adoption of Christianity has created its own interesting history (see our history page...). Today many of the outer islands live in very traditional ways, and are always very welcoming of guests. Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati, is more influence by development and globalisation – however spend a little time on Tarawa and you soon find out that beyond the busses, nightlife and shops people maintain traditional customs, values and way of life.

The essence of community is common – people form community through sharing of objects, environments and spaces, and this is a lot in Kiribati. With many people in a small place, people share the natural resources that they live off. The I-Kiribati people often live in close quarters with their extended family, and living and working in harmony with neighbours and family is of high importance. Few things go unnoticed in a small community, and privacy becomes a premium. As each family still fends for itself, things such as the best places for fishing, handicraft techniques and other skills are kept within the family. While today’s international companies might think they invented ‘strategic intelligence’ and the ‘knowledge economy’, the I-Kiribati have been doing this for centuries.

The Maneaba and Celebration
The maneaba was and remains the most important institutional symbol and foundation of community life in Kiribati.  Its importance is related to its function as the center of social life, where matters pertaining to the social, economic and political life of the community are discussed and resolved with the leadership of the Unimwane.

Beside the traditional function as a community hall, court of judgment/reconciliation, and sanctuary for all, the purpose of the maneaba has considerably widened to include shelter for the sick, storage facility for copra, fundraising venue, and more

At the centre of community life is the Maneaba – a rectangular structure used as a meeting place for the village community. This is where traditional meetings are held, including celebrations known as botaki. The I-Kiribati hold a very special celebration for the 1st birthday of their children, especially for their first born child. Other big botakis include weddings and the 21st birthday. All of the extended family will contribute to funding the botaki.

Celebration is something the Kiribati people certainly love. Any visitors to Kiribati in the Christian events of Easter or Christmas will see many botakis, and as much traditional dancing and singing as one could ever wish for. The same goes for Kiribati Independence Day (the 12th of July), when there is competitions in dancing, choir, singing, and various sporting event including traditional wrestling, canoe and miniature canoe racing, and Oreano, a sport involving throwing large heavy balls toward the other team and hoping they can not catch it.

Daily Life
Traditional daily life in Kiribati is revolves around living off the resources of the island – this might be taking the sailing canoe out to catch fish for the daily meal, cutting toddy to drink, harvesting coconuts or breadfruit, or weaving craft from the leave of the coconut tree. The island and surrounding sea provide everything, from food, shelter, clothing, furniture, or medicine. In much of Kiribati, particularly the outer islands, this traditional lifestyle is everyday existence, governed by the extended family unit and the island council. Even in the more developed South Tarawa, you will see the men climbing coconut trees to cut toddy every morning, and see traditional dancing and singing at celebrations and botakis.

Modern and Traditional
It is difficult to draw a line between the modern culture of Kiribati and the traditional as the two are intricately interwoven. Christianity was bought to Kiribati in the 1850’s and has been readily adopted, and now adds an extra layer. Globalisation, development and rapid population growth have heavily influenced the capital of South Tarawa, though you will find traditional kia-kias next to brick houses. Behind the busses, bars and restaurants there is still traditional values, beliefs and customs. You might find the Kiribati youth working hard on the sporting field, with sport taken very seriously. At the same time they are quick to break into laughter. Endeavours on the sporting field might be followed by a traditional style meeting, where the young people practice traditional speeches, leadership and ritual ; this is part in keeping with their norm, and also practice for the formal environment they will soon encounter as adults in the Maneaba.

In contrast, on the outer islands you will find people living traditional lives, the same way they have for centuries. To add to this, different islands have cultural differences and customs - for example, in Abaiang there is one islet that has a custom of doing the traditional island welcome anti-clockwise, while every other island in Kiribati has a clockwise traditional welcome.

To see suggested Cultural Experience itineries here
Download our local customs guide here

For more information on Kiribati Culture:
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