Island of Rambi in Fiji

The small island of Rabi (pronounced Rambi) lying in the north east of Fiji is one of two unique islands which are inhabited by non Fijians, the other being Kioa. We visited Rabi and found the islanders, who are of Banaban descent from Ocean Island, to be welcoming and extremely friendly. Ocean Island is a tiny island about 1.5 miles in diameter which lies about 1100 miles NNW of Fiji in Kiribati.

In 1900 an English prospector, Albert Ellis, discovered that Banaba Island (Ocean island), was rich with A-grade phosphate. The British government annexed the island and mining began by the Pacific Phosphate Commission (later the British Phosphate Company.) What followed was likely typical of the worst aspects of colonialisation and exploitation. Consequently the Banabans went from being a wealthy and prosperous people to being extremely poor.

It wasn't long before the company wanted the islanders moved so that the whole of the island could be mined. However the British government rejected this request and mining continued along with the negotiations between the Banabans and the Government for the next 40 years. Allegedly the Banabans had been asking for a new home since early 1940 stating that they wanted an island where they could continue their culture and promote their way of life for the generations to come. As if destroying the environment by callous mining wasn't enough, during WWII the Japanese invaded Ocean island and killed many of the inhabitants. After the war the island was declared as being ‘uninhabitable' and a new island (Rambi), was purchased for the Banabans from Fiji by the British government. Many of the islanders were re-located to Rambi and as part of the deal they were granted royalties of 15% of the proceeds from the mining.

They arrived on Rambi, an uninhabited island, in December 1945 during the cyclone season and had to live in tents on the beach and were given supplies for 2 months. They had little or no knowledge of how to plant crops or how to become self-sufficient in their new environment. The original plan was to be a trial period of just 2 years with the option for people to go back to Ocean island if they wanted. They were given autonomy to run the island and styled the government on their island back home. There are now 4 villages on Rambi – all named after villages in Ocean Island which were destroyed by the Japanese. We understand there are only 2 or 3 of the original Banabans still alive and living on Rambi.

The islanders voted to become part of Fiji in 2006 and the administration was shared between the Fijian government and the Rambi council. When we visited we were told that Rambi is now under the administration of Fiji – the Rambi Council had been disbanded – apparently due to some mis-management of their funds. It was quite difficult to get the true picture of how Rambi's funds have been managed and distributed to the community – it seems that although everyone has a right to benefit from the mining royalties, only the people in the main villages actually experience any benefit. Judging by the very basic facilities and housing, money is not in abundance, and relative to other islands in Fiji that we have visited, Rambi seems very poor. Nevertheless the people were warm and friendly and did not show any resentment with respect to the past.

There are 4 "bus trucks" which run along the one road which runs down the west side of the island – this is the main transport for the children to get to school. There are a couple of old buses which are lying broken and rusting – apparently these came from Japan but were totally unsuitable for the terrain. Each village has it's own generator which supplies electricity to each house for 2 hours a night and all day at Christmas. In the outlying areas there is no power at all so when it's dark – it's dark! Farming and fishing are the main sources of income – many farmers are now growing yangona (see flotsam on Kava), which has taken the place of Copra (coconut) production as the main crop income and currently there is good income from this. Most of the houses are of a very basic construction and inside have little in the way of furniture – just woven mats on the floor. Their first language is Banaban but most seem to speak English and Fijian and in school the children learn Hindi and English. We saw a few churches – Methodist and Seven Day Adventists being the 2 main religions. For a people who have been so mis-treated and have so little, they are extremely generous and were willing to share whatever they had and were very proud to show us their homes. We felt humbled by their simple lifestyle and lack of material possessions compared with what we have even on a sailboat – maybe the modern world could learn much from them. We very much enjoyed our visit and the people.

 

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