Millennium Front Line: Kiribati - Humanity greets dawn of century with `The Dance of the Buttocks'

THE DANCERS, in grass skirts, smooth coconut oil into their skin to make it glisten and carefully straighten the garlands on each other's brows. Nerves are fluttering at the dress rehearsal for the first sunrise of the millennium.

When the dance troupe from the South Pacific republic of Kiribati greets that dawn it will be from a lagoon on the most remote of their nation's 33 coral atolls, usually home only to birds, rare turtles and basking sharks.

They will dance on the beach for their president and, live by satellite, for television viewers across the world.

For now they await their cue by moonlight under the thatch of a traditional open hut. In the front row Boorenga hitches up her heavy skirt - not actually grass but made from palm fronds soaked, sun-bleached and cut into strips. Two of Boorenga's sisters and her eight-year-old brother will also perform on the newly named Millennium Island.

Their father, Barassu, is the choreographer, and he claps the beat and waves last instructions as the troupe's male elders chant the refrain:

This is a very special time

We are awaiting a birth.

Open your eyes

And see the new dawn!

Then Boorenga and the others weave and sway and the tempo quickens. Kiribati dances are a flirtation with the elements on which people here still depend - the Sun, the Earth, the winds, the ocean. This is "The Dance of the Buttocks" and it ends with the skirts swung ever faster until they reach head-height, and knock the garlands from the dancers' hair. "The movements are good," Barassu tells them. "But you must smile more. You are celebrating for everyone."

When missionaries were sent from Britain, they looked severely on the more exotic ways of what, in the days of empire, were the Gilbert and Ellice islanders. Yet those ways flourish even now.

Winnie Powell, 69, is the daughter of the first mate of a British trading steamer who was charmed by a local girl. Most mornings she meanders among the tangle of shrubs, collecting leaves and roots to make potions which keep her family healthy. She talks of magic. "Even if you don't believe in it, the power can reach you. There can be bad magic that hurts or kills, and good magic that heals. It does still happen here."

She does not believe the millennium will bring sudden change to Kiribati culture. She says their isolation should preserve it. "Besides, for most of us our old ways work well. We have whole families all living together, happy to support each other. Many of our houses are open platforms with no walls but no one steals things from them and we make friends more easily like that. We also prefer to use the things that nature has given us to survive. Why buy sheets for our beds when we can weave mats instead?"

Most homes are still made from the trunks and leaves of palms and other island trees,their joints bound with string woven from coconut husks. Fish caught on the reef are still cooked over open fires, and corned beef is one of the few canned treats in the scattered stores.

But Western ways have left their mark. In the days when all waste rotted, beaches kept their beauty. Now on the archipelago's main island of Tarawa there are swathes of plastic flotsam and the wreckage of vehicles and machinery too costly to transport elsewhere or dispose of properly.

Then there is the irony that the nation which will lead us into the year 2000 may not survive more than a couple decades before global warming sinks it. The highest land is no more than three metres above sea level, and the Pacific is steadily rising.

Some buildings and causeways have already collapsed, but the end would come well before the waves start regularly lapping over thresholds. If the sea seeps into the water table, salination would kill the crops and make well-water undrinkable.

The Kiribati government takes this eventuality seriously enough to have drawn up plans with Australia to relocate its population of 77,000 there if the worst happens.

James Uan has fished Kiribati's reefs and lagoons all his life, casting his nets from an outrigger canoe. He says he has watched the tides creep higher, and when he travels to represent the fishermen's co-operative at environmental forums in the Pacific he puts the case bluntly.

"We, the Kiribati people, want the developed nations of the world to reduce the amount of their gas emissions. Otherwise we are just going to sink under the seas."

Mr Uan believes, along with Kiribati's political leaders, that their nation's millennium moment is a chance to press their case hard, while the eyes of the world are upon them. "We don't want to become even more famous in 25 years time," he says.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
people

Harry Potter actor suffered 'severe flu-like symptoms' on a flight from London to Orlando

Sport
Kim Sears is reported to have directed abuse at Berdych
tennis
News
news

Rap music mogul accused of running two men over in his truck

News
Gywneth Paltrow proposed that women seek out a special herbal steam-treatment service
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Toronto tops the charts across a range of indexes
news

World cities ranked in terms of safety, food security and 'liveability'

Voices
A mother and her child
voices
Arts and Entertainment
tv

First full-length look is finally here

Voices
The veterans Mark Hayward, Hugh Thompson and Sean Staines (back) with Grayson Perry (front left) and Evgeny Lebedev
charity appealMaverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
News
Tax now accounts for ‘nearly 80%’ of the price of a bottle of whisky
news

Arts and Entertainment
Peppa Pig wearing her golden boots
film

"Oink! Oink! Hee hee hee!" First interview with the big-screen star

Life and Style
tech

Biohacking group hopes technology will lead people to think about even more dystopian uses

Arts and Entertainment
film
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Film director Martin Scorsese
film
News
news

The party's potential nominations read like a high school race for student body president

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Regional Gas Installation Manager - South East England

£36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Regional Gas Installation Manager is r...

Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Service and Breakdown Engineer - South East

£29000 - £31000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Domestic Gas Service and Brea...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is a two form entry primary schoo...

Recruitment Genius: Engineering Manager - Alconbury

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for an Engineering M...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee