By Michael H. Kew
Clouds move and the Sun again shines; the light is soft, dreamy. I glance at the gently glittering Pacific and marvel about how, decades ago, in the phosphate boom, this tiny island mutated from a wild, verdant paradise to a scarred stain of ruin and obesity and diabetes. In the end—today—wealth failed Nauru.
For millennia, Nauru nurtured a vibrant Micronesian face of farming and ocean fishing, the people physically fit and active and subsisting on fresh fare. But with the phosphate gravy train came sedation—local food production stopped, replaced by imported, processed foods. And fat—75 percent of Nauru’s 10,000 residents are obese. Forty percent of its adults are diabetic. Recent efforts urging islanders to exercise included a daily three-mile walk around the airport’s perimeter. Few did. Due to security concerns, the scheme was nixed.
Painted on the side of a white cinderblock shack: LET’S WALK THE TALK, PROMOTE PHYSICAL ACTIVITY, OUTSMART DIABETES TO LIVE LONGER & HEALTHIER.
After independence in 1968, Nauru’s economy soared on phosphate. For $21 million, Australia sold its mining rights to the new island government, sparking riches—yearly mining revenues exceeded $100 million. In the 1980s, Nauru was the world’s richest country per capita. But removing 43 million tons of phosphate in 30 years wreaked severe environmental trauma—more than 80 percent of the isle was strip-mined, the once-jungled eden scraped bare and left to bleach in equatorial sun. The island is reforesting itself, however, evidenced by aerial images from the early aughts to today.
Berlinda and I drive past other blank storefronts, now bathed gold by the low sun. More rusted shipping containers, more incoherent graffiti, more trash, junked cars, rust, rebar, and cheery signs, one urging you to KEEP AIWO CLEAN AND BEAUTIFUL; another, its a cartoon tree face saying to a bush: KEEP IT GREEN, CLEAN, & NATURAL!
“Do you get bored here?”
“I keep myself busy at work,” Berlinda says, “so when I go home, I’m tired.”
“It’s amazing that, for such a small place, you have so much work.”
“I look after the foreigners here, and we have rental cars. We have fishing charters. It’s not that difficult to manage. I have my bosses, Sean and Kenneth, so most of my questions are directed to them.”
She turns onto the dusty airport frontage road, takes the curve, and soon we are backtracking north, tracing the craggy coast, its coral heads and boils and no hope of rideable waves. For a surfer, dynamite would benefit Nauru. The windswell arcs around the island’s south, clean and offshore but sad and shapeless.
“Look at the waves!” Berlinda says.
It is the only time I see her smile.