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Kiribati, The People of Kiribati

Teraina, South Tarawa, Gilbertese, Phoenix Islands, Austronesian language

The population of Kiribati was estimated at 96,335 in 2002, giving the country a population density of 119 persons per sq km (308 per sq mi). The overwhelming majority of the people are of Micronesian descent and are known as I-Kiribati. There are also very small minorities of Polynesians and non-Pacific Islanders. English is the official language of Kiribati, and many I-Kiribati speak it in addition to their native language, Gilbertese, an Austronesian language. Christianity predominates in Kiribati: about half of the population is Roman Catholic, and about 40 percent is Protestant. There are also small groups of Seventh-day Adventists, Baha’is, and Mormons.

About one-third of Kiribati’s people live on Tarawa, especially in and around the administrative center of Bairiki. Others live in small rural villages scattered among the outer islands. Through resettlement programs designed to alleviate overcrowding on Tarawa, about 1,500 people were moved to the Teraina and Tabuaeran atolls in the Line Islands between 1988 and 1993. Another program of resettlement to the Phoenix Islands was initiated in 1995. Most of the former residents of Banaba were relocated to Rabi Island (part of Fiji) in the late 1940s due to environmental degradation resulting from phosphate mining on Banaba. Banabans living on Rabi are citizens of Fiji (an island nation officially named Fiji Islands), but they retain land rights on Banaba and they have a representative in the Kiribati legislature.

Education in Kiribati is free and compulsory between the ages of 6 and 15. The government operates primary and secondary schools, and churches run some secondary schools as well. Since 1973 Tarawa has had an extension of the University of the South Pacific. Other institutions of higher learning include the Tarawa Technical Institute, which offers technical and vocational courses; a maritime training school, which prepares students for careers at sea; and a teacher training college.

Most I-Kiribati live in extended families, especially in rural areas outside of Tarawa. People in these communities are involved primarily in subsistence activities and live in traditional houses made of local materials, such as wood and coconut leaves. In contrast, life in South Tarawa shows more Western influences. There, people tend to live in smaller kin groups, and modern forms of housing have become more common. The diet of urban dwellers is increasingly dependent upon imported foods. Most islanders wear casual, Western-style clothing. Men typically wear shorts and T-shirts, while women often wear loose dresses. Social life in Kiribati is centered largely around the church. Popular recreational activities include martial arts, soccer, volleyball, and canoe racing.

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