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Located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is a country that, to most people’s surprise, is shockingly large.
It only has a population of 120,000 people, but it stretches over 3.5 million square kilometers of ocean.
On top of all that, almost everyone mispronounces it.
Learn more about Kiribati, the surprisingly large country with a very odd spelling, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
We might as well start this episode with the elephant in the room, and the question that many of you might have. How the name of this country is pronounced.
The correct pronunciation is Keerebass.
Now, if you looked at the title of the show you probably said to yourself that it was pronounced “kir-a-bat-i”. If that is what you thought, I am not going to fault you for it, because by all known laws of grammar and pronunciation in the English language, that is how it should be pronounced.
…but it isn’t.
The letters -ti form an ‘s’ sound in the Gilbertese language. Hence, what should be Kiribati is pronounced Keerebass.
However, it gets far better than just the name of the country. The largest island in the country is Kiritimati Island. How do they spell “Christmas”
If there are any kids listening to this, if you are ever in a spelling bee and get the word “christmas”, spell it like this and then get really angry and indignant when they say you got it wrong.
So, with that out of the way, let’s talk about the country of Kiribati.
Kiribati is one of only four countries in the world that is made up entirely of coral atolls. The others being Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands, and the Maldives. With the exception of Banaba Island, which is a raised coral atoll, most of the country is no more than a few meters above sea level.
Unlike most island countries in the Pacific which consist of one island or an archipelago of islands, Kiribati consists of three large island groups. The Gilbert Islands, the Phoenix Islands, and the Line Islands.
As a result, the country spans an unusually large distance, especially considering that it is a pretty small country.
It is both north and south of the equator, and it is on either side of the 180-degree meridian. That means that the country lies in both the northern, southern, eastern, and western hemispheres.
Kiribati spans three different time zones. If you ever look at a world map of time zones, you’ll notice that there is a spot where the international date line is just far to the east in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
This is entirely due to Kiribati. It used to be that Kiribati straddled the International Date Line, which made for a logistical mess inside the country when one part of the country was always in a different day from the other part.
In 1994, they took their two easternmost time zones which used to be -10 and -11 hours UTC and moved them such that they were now +13 and +14 UTC.
These two new time zones didn’t exist before, so now the Line Islands in the +14 UTC time zone are the first place to usher in the new year, every year.
The distance from the easternmost point of Kiribati, Caroline Island, to its westernmost point, Banaba Island, is approximately 4,500 kilometers or 2,800 miles.
A country’s territorial waters extend 12 miles off the coast, but each country can also claim what is known as an Exclusive Economic Zone which extends out 200 miles where they can control the marine resources.
If you look at countries by the size of their Exclusive Economic Zone, Kiribati would be the 12th largest country in the world.
The Phoenix Islands Protected Area, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site is the size of California and it is one of the largest world heritage sites on Earth, as well as one of the largest marine sanctuaries on the planet.
One other thing about Kiribati which I should note is the demonym used for the country. A demonym is just the word used to describe people from that country in English. In English, most country demonyms involve adding a suffix to the country name: MexicAN, JapanESE, AustraliaN.
However, Kiribati is one of only two countries where the demonym is one where you add a prefix instead of a suffix. So someone or something from Kiribati is known as an I-Kiribati.
I bring this up because as I start to talk about their people, it is going to sound weird if you don’t how this is different….and, by the way, the other country is Vanuatu.
The islands of Kiribati, in particular the Gilbert Islands in the west, were probably settled around 5,000 to 700 years ago, depending on the island. This was part of the original Micronesian migration.
Geographically, Kiribati is often grouped with Micronesia. However, given its location, it has had influences from both Polynesia and Melanesia. The Polynesian influences come from invasions from Samoa and Tonga, and the Melanesian influences mostly come from Fiji.
The population of Kiribati is heavily lopsided with 90% of the population living in the Gilbert Islands, and 52% living on the island of Tarawa, which is also the capital.
The Gilbert Islands were named after a British captain, Thomas Gilbert, who passed through in 1788.
They had limited contact with Europeans through the 19th century, but the contact they did have that had spurred conflict between different clans and islands.
In 1892, this conflict was used as the pretext for declaring the islands a British protectorate by the ship captain Edward Davis. He literally went from island to island and got the chiefs to agree.
In 1916 it became part of the crown colony of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. The Ellice Islands are today known as Tuvalu.
The islands became part of the British Western Pacific Territories which an administrative division that managed many British Pacific islands.
In World War II, the Gilbert Islands were occupied by the Japanese. This resulted in one of the most important battles in the Pacific campaign, the Battle of Tarawa in November 1943. It was one of the first major battles in the central Pacific and the first where the Americans faced stiff resistance to an amphibious landing.
After the war, the British began the process of decolonization and giving independence to most of their colonies.
In 1974, in a referendum, the Ellice Islands voted to separate themselves from the Gilbert Islands, and they went on to become the country of Tuvalu, of which I have previously done an episode.
In 1979, the Gilbert Islands became independent and selected the name Kiribati.
Oddly enough, the name of the Gilbert Islands in the local Gilbertese language isn’t Kiribati. It is “Tungaru”. Kiribati is the word in the Gilbertese language for Gilberts. They went with Kiribati instead of Tungaru so it was more inclusive of the Phoenix Islands, Line Islands, and Banaba Island.
Kiribati became a member of the United Nations in 1999, a full twenty years after independence.
I mentioned that there are three island groups in Kiribati. The Gilbert Islands have the vast majority of the population.
The Phoenix Islands which lie to the east, is mostly unpopulated. There is only one island with people, Canton Island, and that has a population of only 20 people, which is down from 60 people just 20 years ago.
The United States actually claimed the Phoenix Islands when Kiribati become independent, but later renounced the claim.
The Phoenix Islands are very difficult to visit, which I know because I have researched what it would take to visit.
The rest of the population lives in the Line Islands.
The biggest of the Line Islands, in terms of both population and area, is the aforementioned Kiritimati Island.
Kiritimati Island is the largest coral atoll in the world by exposed land area. In fact, it alone is responsible for 47% of all of the land in the country.
Of special note in the Line Islands in Fanning Island.
Fanning Island is the only place in the country which is visited by cruise ships. Why do cruise ships only visit Fanning Island?
It is because it is the closest foreign country to Hawaii. The United States has a law known as the Jones Act which prohibits ships that are not flagged, manufactured, and owned by US citizens from traveling between US ports.
There are basically zero cruise lines that can meet this criteria, so if you want to sail from Hawaii to California, you have to stop in a foreign country somewhere along the way. Either this will be somewhere in Mexico if you are going to Southern California, or else it has to be Fanning Island.
Fanning Island is 1,100 miles or 1,800 kilometers away from Hawaii, so you have to go far out of your way to get there. But, for some cruise ships, it is their only option.
There isn’t much of an economy anywhere in Kiribati. The entire economy for the country is only about $187 million dollars a year, with a per capita GDP of $1,600 per year.
As is the case with all atolls, there is very little in the way of land or resources. The biggest money makers are coconuts, selling fishing rights, seaweed farming, remittances, and aquarium fish.
There is very little tourism to Kiribati given its remote location. The only flights to Kiribati are from other small island countries.
One big future problem is if the sea level should rise. Because pretty much everything in the country is less than two meters above sea level, even a small rise in ocean levels would make most of the country disappear.
There are already plans in the works for resettlement of the entire population if this should happen.
When I do episodes on small countries, I will usually through in some small anecdote about a visit I had, as I’ve pretty much been to most of the small countries in the world.
I have been to Kiribati…..sort of.
In 2007 I flew to Tarawa with the intent of spending four days there before heading to Fiji. I was flying in from the Solomon Islands, with a brief stop on Nauru.
At the time, Americans needed a visa to visit Kiribati. It was the only country in the Pacific that had that requirement at that time. Getting a i-Kiribati visa wasn’t easy because they don’t have many embassies.
So, when i was in Fiji I made a special trip to the Kiribati Embassy in Suva. I rented a car, drove all the way across the island, and showed up at the Kiribati embassy right when it opened.
I had been in touch with the minister of tourism, so I knew what I had to do and I had everything ready to go. The people at the embassy processed it quickly, and I was on my way.
The problem was, unlike most countries that put a sticker in your passport, Kiribati just used a rubber stamp and a ballpoint pen. Before I arrived in Kiribati I was in the Solomon Islands where I went to one of the outer islands and got caught in the rain.
Everything got wet, including my passport.
When I arrived in Tarawa, I found that the ink from my visa had bled off the page. You could still sort of tell it was a Kiribati visa stamp, but the ballpoint pen ink used for the dates it was valid was gone.
When I presented my passport, they wouldn’t let me in the country. For the only time in my 13 some odd years of traveling around the world, I threw a fit.
I was stuck in the middle of the ocean and they were going to send me back to the Solomon Islands, which was the exact opposite direction I wanted to go.
Eventually, the airport manager stepped in, apologized, and told me that the flight to Fiji I was supposed to be on four days later was going to be there in six hours, and if I was willing to wait, I could get on that flight.
I said sure and wrote a tersely worded email to the minister of tourism, the guy who helped me get my visa, telling him what happened.
When I finally arrived in Fiji, I sent the email and headed to Hawaii to begin the next leg of my adventure.
Unbeknownst to me, the minister of tourism forwarded my email to the president of Kiribati.
About 3 months later, Americans didn’t need a visa to go to Kiribati anymore.
I haven’t returned to Kiribati since then. You pretty much have to go there on purpose as it isn’t along the way to anywhere else. However, I would very much like to go back to visit it properly.
Given its remote location, and its lack of a modern economy, Kiribati has changed very little. It hasn’t been overrun with tourists and there are no megaresorts anywhere in the country.
If you ever do visit, just make sure you pronounce the name of the country correctly.
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
The executive producer is Darcy Adams.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
Today’s review comes from listener decreasingentropy over at Apple Podcasts in Canada. They write,
Fantastic, interesting and informative
David Lee Roth once sang “Now take the traveller and the tourist, the essential difference is, the traveller don’t know where he’s going and the tourist don’t know where he is”. Leave it to Gary to try to make travellers of the rest of us. These are fantastic snippets of information that are designed to inform us of where we are and why. Great job! Good enough that I went to patreon.com
Even though I have just joined the completionists club, unfortunately I am still waiting to hear about something that is nothing that controls everything. And no, I’m not talking about Rockefeller.
Thanks, decreasingentropy! First of all, let me formally welcome you to the completionist club. You will find that the Canadian chapter has all of the amenities of the American club, the only difference being that they serve poutine and caesars, and there will usually be a party to watch the Grey Cup.
As for nothing that controls everything, the only thing I can think of might be a vacuum? There are two reasons why I haven’t done an episode on vacuums. The first reason is that I haven’t gotten enough pressure to do it, and the second reason is that the topic literally sucks.
Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read the show.