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Kioa and Rabi

Chef Lance Seeto
Sunday, November 01, 2015

What would you do if you were forced to move your entire community because rising sea levels had reduced your beautiful island into a tiny rock, barely enough for everyone to live? Or if outsiders had come to your island and decided to kick your people off because they discovered rich minerals they wanted to mine for their own purposes? This is the story of the Tuvaluan and Banaban people.

Climate change and mankind's insatiable exploitation of our planet's resources, is having a devastating effect on the South Pacific's low-lying atolls. The need to move entire communities sounds like a crazy idea, but rising sea levels and the impact of over mining has turned this unthinkable nightmare, into a reality.

While many industrialised nations argue over what can be done to help, Fiji has played a critical role in ensuring their survival. Nearly seventy years ago, in quite different circumstances, two native people were uprooted and transported to new island homes in Fiji; the Tuvaluan people of Kioa and the Banabans of Rabi. Tonight's episode is their story of displacement, resettlement and ultimately -survival.


In December 1945 at the end of World War 2, the people of the island of Banaba in Kiribati were forced to move to Rabi Island, after decades of phosphate mining decimated their island, first by the British, and then the Japanese.

Two years later, in October 1947, part of the population of Vaitupu, an island of Tuvalu, bought and settled another Fijian island, Kioa, just kilometres away from Rabi. It's hard to imagine being forced to move to a far away place through no fault of your own. But the advancement of the industrialised nations has a price. And it's usually the native populations who pay the ultimate sacrifice.


Soon after it was discovered that Banaba Island, previously known as Ocean Island, was rich in A-grade phosphate, the British Government annexed the island and mining began.

Phosphate deposits are the result of guano, or bird poo, left behind by nesting sea birds and a rich source of plant fertiliser.

Within a decade, the British were keen to have the islanders removed so that their home could be mined more extensively. By the time the mines were depleted and operations ceased in 1979, twenty-one million tons of phosphate had been removed — much of it, scattered across the farms of Australia as fertilizer for crops. The need to grow food for one nation was to effectively destroy the island home of another.


Kioa Island is a Polynesian community in the midst of a Melanesian country. Visiting Kioa will feel like you have left Fiji and travelled about 1000 kilometers north to the islands of Tuvalu.

The story of Kioa is very different to that of the Banabans. Not only did the Kioans choose to leave Vaitupu, but only a part of the community made the journey.

Facing overpopulation and a scarcity of land due to rising sea levels, the community decided that it would buy the freehold title to Kioa island in June 1946. At first, no one had wanted to make the move from Vaitupu.

Eventually 35 people volunteered to journey to an island they knew was empty. They arrived there on the afternoon of October 26, 1947, and half of the group trekked to the other side of the island at sunset, following the tracks of wild pigs through very dense bushland.

In the first years of settlement, they had to clear the land, construct houses one by one for each family group, and plant crops. They started their entire community from scratch.


Our first stop onboard the Reef Endevour was Kioa. Greeted by a flotilla of canoes, this ceremonial tradition is a representation of past warriors greeting navigators returning from searching the waters of the Pacific.

Once upon land, we are garlanded with a flower head dressing representing the beauty of the land, as the entire village prepares to entertain us in their own special way.

If you have never been to these islands, you feel like you're visiting another country. The singing, dancing, language and foods are different, even though these communities are within Fiji's borders.

One of the first things I noticed on Kioa is the plastic bottles tied to many of the shorter coconut trees.

At first I thought they were for watering the tree, but as the elders were only too happy to show me, this was a major source of their tea, honey and homemade wine; coconut toddy!

The sap from the tree is allocated over days and weeks.

If removed quickly, the delectable clear sap can be turned into a hot tea just by heating it, but cook it for longer and it caramelises into a rich, darked red honey that is used on toast in Kioa. But leave the bottle on the tree for a few weeks and the sap ferments into vinegar-like wine that is potent.

Who needs to buy beer on this island when nature provides an organic wine to enjoy! I'm sure many people will start attaching bottles to their own trees once they see tonight's episode. The trick is to find trees that are not too high and have flowering branches; the source of the coconut sap. Of course, this natural food gives me plenty of ideas for tonight's recipes!


The first thing to notice on Rabi is the language; English is not as common and many of the young speak their native Gilbertese tongue. Coerced and forced to move off Ocean Island because of exploitation of their phosphate, the protection of their culture and language is of utmost importance.

According to the Rabi community's founding myth, the Banaban elders were shown photographs of a town with two-storey houses and told that this was Rabi, their new home. It wasn't, it was Levuka, the old capital of Fiji.

Tricked into believing that they were moving to an established and better-equipped town, they agreed to go; only to find a virtually barren island. It's easy to understand why they want to ensure the survival of their culture. Rabi is now their only home. Even their food is slightly different, with raw fish at the heart of their ancestral diet.

The Banabans were taught that eating raw fish straight from the sea was an ancestral connection to life and vitality; they were right!

Raw fish as in the Japanese and Tongan diet, offers a rich source of minerals that is also very good brain food; it is just something that Fijians never learnt to appreciate more!

Today, on both Kioa and Rabi, descendants of the relocated islanders acknowledge that their new Fijian homes provide abundant food and water, sustaining far larger populations than their home islands ever could, and give young people access to greater educational and economic opportunities. But they are both well aware that the protection of their own culture and diet is paramount, and whilst they are Fijian by citizenship, the descendants are keen to show tourists the unique beauty of their ancestry.

* Lance Seeto is the award winning chef based on Mana Island, and is Fiji

Airways' Culinary Ambassador and host of Fiji TV's Taste of Paradise. Sunday 7.30pm only on Fiji One and online at

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