Peace Corps Writers
A Writer Writes
Crafting a Canoe
   by Jeb Bridges (Republic of Kiribati 1997–99)
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IT WAS LATE JULY in the South Pacific when I asked Benuera again to help me get my own canoe.Printer friendly version This time he did not resist.
     “You have done well,” he said, “and taken the time to learn many different forms of our fishing. It will serve you well in the rest of your time here.”
     “Thank you Benuera.” I was flattered.
     “But fishing in the canoe is very different. As I told you before it is very dangerous. It is the open ocean with strong wind and waves and current and your canoe will be very small. Each time you go out it is possible you will not return. I want you to know that right now.”
     It was a grave statement and one I did not take lightly.
     “I understand.”
     “Very well. My father, Mbwe (Mmm-bway), is perhaps the best canoe builder on the island. He lives in Manriki, and I have already spoken to him about you. He has agreed to take on the project. There are some things you need to understand before we begin.”
     “Go ahead.”
     “In Kiribati there are certain traditions about building a canoe. The man for whom the canoe is being built must agree to provide the food for lunch for all the men who come to help during the process. Every day. Besides that you must provide whatever building materials you can; the fishing line, chalk, glue, and paint. My father has a driftwood log that will provide us with the wood, but you must try and find a saw.”
     I slowly digested the terms. They sounded fair to me.
     “In return for my father building this canoe for you, it must be agreed that you will return it to him when you leave to go back to America, that is, if you do not take it with you.”
     “No problem, Benuera. I agree.”
     “Good then, it is settled. I will tell my father tomorrow and he can begin arranging things. There is much work to be done.”

buia = a raised platform with a thatched roof but no walls

TWO DAYS LATER I biked with Benuera to the village of Manriki where Mbwe and his wife Karea lived together with his youngest son Beara and his family. They had a large area off the road with no house but two large buias and a thatched work shed situated under three very large breadfruit trees. The compound was enveloped in the shade no matter what time of day and would be a nice place to work.
     We parked our bikes out front by the first buia and walked towards the interior. Mbwe and Beara sat on mats on the ground under the work shed sipping tea. Mbwe was small and frail, with grey hair and dark brown eyes. He smiled as we approached, and called us over.
      With introductions and formalities completed, we sipped tea and talked of the heat and the impending work. With Benuera busy at school, there would be 6 of us working full time. Mbwe, Beara, me, Teinai, Keaki, and Kauone. The last three members of the group lived in the village and were recruited by Mbwe.
     Beara, a strong barrel-chested man, asked to see what I had brought with me. With Benuera’s guidance and assistance, I had acquired a small box of white chalk, seven 40-yard rolls of 30-pound test fishing line, 2 bottles of wood glue from the school, and a handsaw from Tieemea.
      “This is good stuff,” Beara said. “Do you have any paint?”
     “Not yet.”
     “Akea te kanganga,” he said. “No problem. We’ll need to get some later, but we are far from there. For now this will be good.”
      I nodded in understanding, thinking I could write to a friend of mine in Tarawa and get him to send me some paint.
      Mbwe spoke. “We have most of the wood but we need to make it ready. We don’t have an outrigger yet, but we have many weeks until we will need it as it goes on last. The best kind of tree for that doesn’t grow here. I know a man who lives on Tamana, the next island to the south. There are many of those trees there. I will send word to him. Maybe he can help us.”
  
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