By Dr. Tarcisius Kabutaulaka
As she settles into her new apartment in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, Dr. Tammy Tabe reflects on her life’s journeys. The young Solomon Islander woman recently moved to Honolulu to take up an appointment as a fellow at the East-West Center (EWC).
Tammy, as she is known amongst friends, comes from Wagina Island in the Solomon Islands’ Choiseul Province. She is a descendant of I-Kiribati people who were relocated to Solomon Islands in the mid-1950s and early 1960s by the British colonial administration from what was then the Gilbert and Ellice Islands (present day Kiribati and Tuvalu).
Tammy’s scholarship immerses her deep in her people’s stories of displacement, relocation, resettlement and adaptation. It informs her histories, charts her future and could prove valuable to her job at the EWC. It provides a window into contemporary issues of population displacement, relocation, resettlement and adaptation, especially in relation to climate change, which is one of her research subjects nowadays. She says she “never imagined working at the EWC. I applied knowing it was a tough competition, and here I am.”
Her appointment at the EWC is a long way from Wagina where she started primary school. After completing the final years of her primary school in Honiara, Tammy went to King George VI School for forms 1 to 7.
She is however not new to Honolulu, having done a Masters degree in Pacific Islands Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa (UHM) from 2009 to 2011. She was at that time a recipient of the Norway Pacific Islands Scholarship, a collaboration between the University of Bergen in Norway and the Center for Pacific Islands Studies (CPIS) at UHM in a project dubbed “The Pacific Alternatives”.
Tammy says her education journey was built on the advice of her grandfather who “used to tell us that education is key to our future and our way out. At that time, I didn’t understand what he meant. I suppose he meant our way out of poverty. As settlers, we don’t have a lot of land in Solomon Islands. Education is therefore important.”
Over the years her journeys have changed, sometimes taking unexpected turns, depending on opportunities. “When I completed high school, I wanted to be a lawyer, but I didn’t get a scholarship to do law. In 2004 I went to the University of the South Pacific (USP) in Fiji. We [Solomon Islands students] arrived after classes had already started. I wanted to do environmental and marine studies but instead I was told to do a double major in geography and marine affairs.”
But Tammy was determined to make the best of her studies. Apart from taking classes, she became a student research assistant for Prof Patrick Nunn who had an archaeology research project on Lapita sites in Fiji, giving her research experience. “It was meant for A-grade students. I wasn’t a top student. But I asked Prof Nunn to give me the opportunity and promised to work hard.”
After completing her undergraduate studies, she went on to do a postgraduate diploma in marine affairs. To pay for school and living expenses in Fiji, Tammy initially worked as a student research assistant until she was awarded a graduate assistant scholarships from USP’s Faculty of Science and later the School of Marine Studies. She wanted to do a Masters degree with a focus on marine protected areas. Reminiscing on her struggles to pay for school, Tammy says, “I don’t know how I did it, but somehow I survived.”
When the UHM opportunity was advertised, Tammy applied. She got it and in July 2009 moved to Honolulu to do a MA in Pacific Islands Studies. “The transition from geography and marine studies at USP to Pacific Islands Studies at UHM was a struggle. The content, language and pedagogies were different. In Pacific Islands Studies I was expected to think independently and critically. The first semester was a struggle.”
It was at CPIS that Tammy focused on the stories of I-Kiribati settlers in Solomon Islands. “I went to CPIS with an idea for my MA thesis. That went out the window and I focused on my people’s stories. Initially, I was reluctant. Growing up, our people’s stories of relocation were painful and not openly told. They were bedtime stories people told to reminisce about their good lives in the Phoenix Islands. But CPIS gave me the courage to engage with these stories and frame them within broader discourses about colonialism, population displacement, relocation, adaptation, cultures, land, identities, etc.”
After completing her MA, in 2011 Tammy went to the University of Bergen in Norway to do a doctorate (PhD) in anthropology. Another new discipline. “The first week was like going back to Kindy. Anthropology was new to me, the space was intimidating as class conversations were often argumentative, which I was not used to. I was expected to know anthropology scholars and philosophers and I had to learn the discipline’s jargons in order to articulate issues relevant to me and the Pacific Islands through an anthropological lens.”
By then Tammy’s tertiary education had traversed four disciplines: marine studies, geography, Pacific Islands Studies, and anthropology. She describes the experience as “holistic and rewarding.”
For her PhD dissertation, Tammy built on her MA thesis, exploring various issues underlying I-Kiribati settlements in Solomon Islands while also applying them to contemporary issues such as climate change.
In 2016, with a PhD added to her CV, Tammy went back to USP where she taught at the Pacific Center for Environment and Sustainable Development (PACE-SD) until 2021.
While her education has given her new opportunities, Tammy wants to help her people in Wagina, especially to mitigate the effects of climate change and manage marine resources, which is their main source of livelihood.
She encourages others, especially women, to take advantage of opportunities that come their way. “There are lots of opportunities and we need to put ourselves out there, break out from our comfort zone and enter other spaces. For me, this helped me navigate my way between spaces.”
She says finding good mentors is important; people with knowledge and experience who are willing to lift the next generation.
Dr. Tammy Tabe is the third Solomon Islander to find employment in Honolulu. The first is Dr. Tarcisius Kabutaulaka who was hired as a fellow at the EWC nearly 19 years ago and is now an associate professor at UHM and former director of CPIS. The second is Dr. Joseph Foukona who left USP’s law school in Port Vila, Vanuatu, and joined UHM in 2020 as an assistant professor in history.
As Tammy begins another chapter in her life’s journey, she hopes to leave footprints for the next generations.
(Photo: Dr. Tammy Tabe – published with her permission)
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