What did I learn: NAURU

Source: Knappily

You know, out of all the countries I’ve looked at so far, I feel like I’ve got the most out of the smallest one – Nauru. I went into April not knowing what resources I’d even find about Nauru, and I’m ending the month having learned so much about the incredible story of this one small island.

I really want to thank Elmina Quadina for sharing valuable information and pictures about her country, as well as her excellent coconut fish recipe! Also a big thank you to UVic for couriering me rare books on Nauru clear across Canada – being able to access stories by Nauruans as well as a piece of their world-class string figure repertoire has been an amazing learning experience.

I learned a lot about Nauru’s history – an incredible tale of a small island that passed through German, British, Japanese, and Australian hands, that flourished into a wealthy resource-fueled independent republic, and then suffered a dramatic collapse as first the phosphate, then the money, ran out. This was followed by attempts to find new sources of revenue – offshore banking, supporting Japan on whaling or Taiwan as a nation (as well as less-recognized places), and most infamously, hosting Australian refugee detention camps. However, it’s also a story of resilience – even their holidays focus on their story of survival.

There’s also plenty of lighter Nauruan things I got to experience as well – smooth reggae beats, a sip of something strong, powerful athletes, cool caves, and a suspiciously familiar national anthem. If I ever get the chance to visit, I’d absolutely go – this month has really stuck with me.

NAURU: Nauruan String Figures

String figures are an exceedingly old tradition all over the world – basically once people developed string they started playing with it. There are complicated string figure repertoires from Japan, the Arctic, Europe, and all over the Pacific – particularly in Nauru.

I want to thank the University of Victoria for once again giving me access to their books on Nauru – they shipped out to me The String Figures of Nauru Island by Honor Maude. Maude was one of the leading recorders of traditional string figures across the Pacific, and her name comes up frequently on other sources about string figures – unsurprisingly, there is a whole scene today about the culture, math, and technique of this pastime.

Nauru, in fact, traditionally had one of the most complex string figure scenes – immensely complex figures made with groups of people and long strings, often with new ones created in competitions, and accompanied by chants and stories. Many have moves and sequences that are only found on Nauru. Maude collected many of these in the 30s, including detailed instructions and accompanying chants in Nauruan, with translations. These records, published in this book, are a valuable backstop to bolster the art – especially as sadly, many of older generations who had a deep knowledge of Nauruan string figures passed away during WWII. The string figures remain a very important symbol for Nauruans – they’re printed on Nauru’s Olympic uniforms, and available incorporated into streetwear.

Nauruan moves

I decided to give some of these a go – I used to make string figures a lot when I was a kid, and I still have the muscle memory to do a quick Jacob’s Ladder, but WOW, even with detailed instructions both in the book and backup videos and instructions from string figure websites, these are HARD. Oh, me with the confidence of a novice! I was only able to make some of the easiest and basic figures. These are incredibly complex and refined figures, and definitely will take more practice than trying to google with my nose so I don’t lose my loops!

It took several tries, and it wasn’t as pretty as the picture, but I successfully made this one!

There are also tutorials online for some Nauruan figures, such as the “Administration Staffs” figure – invented in 1938 by Simon Quanijo and Ijauwe and recorded in Maude’s book. This video tutorial should give you a sense of just how tricky even a comparatively easy Nauruan figure can be, if you want to take a kick at it yourself!

NAURU: Landscapes

A few nice little landscapes from Nauru to poke around, starting with Buada Lagoon in the middle of the island. The lagoon is a bit brackish, as it’s only fed by rainfall, and doesn’t actually have any outlet to the sea:

A view from the beach with abandoned cantilevers for loading phosphate:

Some that are in better shape, though I don’t know if they’re still active for what mining still happens on Nauru:

And coral pinnacles coming out of the beach (which is why they need the above cantilevers – getting big boats past the coral is challenging:

NAURU: The Undesirables by Mark Isaacs

I’ve been focusing this month mainly learning more about the country of Nauru itself, but there’s a singular issue that Nauru is famous for today – hosting Australian refugee detention centres. There are two centres, one on Nauru’s Topside, the other on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, where on-and-off for the last 20 years Australia has sent refugees who have tried to come by boat for “processing” – essentially indefinite detention, meant to scare off other refugees trying to make it to Australia.

Australia has been condemned by the United Nations for breaching human rights, and the policy has been criticized as expensive, inhumane, and ineffective. I had not known of this policy before this month (chillingly called the “Pacific Solution“) but it feels not unlike the children in cages along the American border – even the rhetoric is the same about “illegals”.

As for The Undesirables, Mark Isaacs was sent as a young untrained Salvation Army worker as the camps were spun back up in 2012. His job was to alleviate some of the conditions of the refugees (at that time only men, but later women and children), but it was a job functioning inside Australia’s structures. The Undesirables is his memoir of his stints in the early months of the camps – getting to know the men there, helping where he could and feeling powerless in the face of the human rights violations there and the deterioration of the refugees’ mental and physical states. He eventually turned whistleblower, and this book, originally published 2014 but revised as of 2016, shares what he witnessed at the camps.

The camps have been gradually wound down in recent years – some refugees have eventually been processed after years of detention and accepted to Australia, some have returned to their countries of origin to take their chances with the same situation they fled from, and others have been resettled to other countries more accepting of refugees. Attempts are being made right now to resettle the last refugees on Nauru to Canada under our private refugee sponsorship program – I’d encourage anyone interested to check out Operation #NotForgotten, and if you’re Australian or Canadian, consider ways to get involved, donate or otherwise support the program.

This is less a Nauruan story than an Australian one. However, while the point and the purpose of the camps is Australian, Nauru is paid by Australia to host these sites, Nauruans are employed in the camps, and the camps and refugees’ presence affect everyday life on Nauru. This seems to be one more piece of Nauru’s longstanding position in Australia’s orbit, and as Nauru needs sources of funding post-phosphate, this is one of them.

NAURU: Picking a China

As part of foreign diplomacy, every country is faced with the difficult choice – which China to recognize? Both the People’s Republic government in Beijing and the Republic of China government in Taiwan claim to be the one true government of China, and both guard those claims fiercely – particularly mainland China, with it’s “One China policy“. The ROC held China’s UN seat until 1971, but after Western relations normalized with Beijing in the 70s and the UN seat moved to the PRC, the tide has shifted, and today only a minority of countries recognize the government in Taiwan. Nauru is one of those, and that in itself isn’t particularly noteworthy – but what is is that in the space of about three years in the early 2000s, Nauru switched from recognizing Taiwan to recognizing Beijing….to recognizing Taiwan again.

So what happened?

Two things seemed to be pushing this flip – aid/development money, and Nauru’s political system. By the early 2000s, much of Nauru’s phosphate wealth had run out, and the country was looking for sources of funding. The exact details are murky, but it seems that Nauru may have decided to break ties with Taiwan and establish a relationship with Mainland China in order to access development funding, and then when that didn’t work out as expected, revert to Taiwan and hopefully sweeten any aid or development support from them.

Soruce: Nauru Post

It also seems like the switch to Beijing was not unanimously supported by the Nauruan government – the government structure there means that Presidents frequently rotate due to non-confidence votes and changes in loyalties in Parliament. It is alleged that the President at the time, René Harris, may have been working on his own initiative, without consulting Parliament.

What’s really astounding was how quickly this all happened. Nauru broke ties with Taiwan in 2002, had a physical embassy in Beijing for at most a year, then closed it in 2003, re-establishing its formal ties and embassies with Taiwan in 2005. However, Taiwan doesn’t seem to hold the whole situation against Nauru, as the Taiwanese ambassador is very active on Nauru, and Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-Wen has visited the island to much fanfare in 2019.

I also encourage you to take a look at this absolutely incredible photo of Tsai Ing-Wen serving chou doufu (stinky tofu) to the President of Nauru. I’ve been on the receiving end of that dish before and all I can say is that’s a truly diplomatic response.