"We do not wish to live as our mothers lived".
Kiribati (pronounced Kiribas) is a network of 33 islands in the central Pacific Ocean. The islands are shallow and low-lying; climate change and rising sea levels pose a huge threat to them. We asked Rotee Walsh, originally from the islands, to listen and respond to the oral histories Peggy and John Mowat. In the recordings the Mowats talk about their experience of going to the islands as teachers in the 1960s.
Photo: Small canoe on Tarawa Lagoon, Kiribati, 1965
Rotee Walsh's reflections:
Of the topics covered in the oral and pictorial records of the Mowats, Rotee has reflected especially on Peggy Mowat’s closing observation, that girls were motivated to go to the Government secondary school because they ‘did not wish to live as their mothers lived’. In fact, Rotee considers that women had a higher status in traditional society than they did under the Christian churches, and in a British Colony – two of the most patriarchal institutions ever devised.
In pre-contact society, women were economically active in agro-forestry, as landowners, learned specialist skills, such as navigating long ocean voyages, could be Ueas (Chiefs), and participated as leaders in warfare. In colonial times, by contrast, women were excluded, right up to the late 1960s, from both employment and government.
The Mowats came at a critical moment. Since Independence in 1979, girls in Kiribati have rapidly caught up in educational terms and they now hold a much higher proportion of senior positions than do women in the UK. Although there is still room for improvement, I Kiribati women have come a long way towards regaining the status that their great-grandmothers had lost when they joined the British Empire in 1892.
Peggy Mowat with students
Pupils from King George V (boys) and Elaine Bernacchi (girls) high schools in Bikenibueu, South Tarawa, Kiribati, 1968. Peggy Mowat sits in front row, second from the left. The then headmistress of the girls’ school, Nancy Lister, is seated in front row, second from the right.
Rotee Walsh, 1974
Rotee Walsh when she was living in Tarawa, Kiribati, 1974.
Photo courtesy of Rotee Walsh
A day in the life of Standard IV, Bikember Primary School, 1968
Excerpt from Mowat Collection 4: Day in the Life of Standard IV, Bikember Primary School. Date: November 1968
Bristol Archives, BECC, ref no 2001/184/004
Replica Slashing Sword
A modern replica of a traditional slashing sword. It is made from rows of sharks’ teeth mounted on coconut shafts. It is an example of the kind of local handicraft that Europeans took home with them after a tour in the Gilbert Islands (Kiribati). An original fighting weapon could be six feet or more in length. They often incorporated a stingray sting on the end, which could be used as a spear.
Image ©Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives
Rotee was born in 1952. Her family grew their own food, fished, and lived in a very traditional manner. A visiting ship, four or five times a year, was the only contact between their island and the world outside. Rotee’s mother was full of traditional knowledge and renowned as a healer and midwife, but never went to school. She could neither read nor write and had no prospect of employment (no woman did at that time).
In 1965 Rotee won a place at the (selective) Government Secondary school. She was in the very first year when girls studied the same curriculum as boys, but girls were still not then considered for university education. Peggy Mowat was one of her teachers. After secondary school, Rotee joined the civil service as a secretary. In 1975 she married an Irishman and left Kiribati for South Wales. Their children have been brought up in both cultures.