This is the second part of an interview with Rob Underhill and Captain Bill Simpson. You can read part one here.
OTG: What is the culture and social dynamic on Kiribati?
Bill: There are some stark contrasts between the cultural and social dynamics of outer islands in Kiribati and the Tarawa atoll, where serious overcrowding has created new and unusual social problems, as well as health and sanitation problems. The Tarawa atoll is the capital of the Republic of Kiribati and is in some respects modernized. It has a British style of government with their own version of a parliament. It has a hospital, communications station, telephone services, hotel, and international airport and markets.
As a result of the modernization on Tarawa, people from the outer islands have, to some extent, migrated to Tarawa in the belief there is a better lifestyle to be had, and now there are about 50,000 people living on Tarawa, which has a total land mass of about 12 square miles. The population on Tarawa alone represents about half of the total population living on all the islands of the Republic of Kiribati. In Tarawa, due to the extremely high population density and poor sanitation systems and hygiene, some water-borne diseases are near epidemic levels. There are few doctors. Even on Tarawa, there is only about one doctor for every 5,000 people. The infant mortality rate is one of the highest in the world. Kiribati is also one of the poorest countries in the world and heavily dependent on outside help. Fish and coconut products are the primary exports, which severely limits their economy. And since the populations on some islands, especially Tarawa, have far exceeded the carrying capacity of the land, the islanders depend heavily upon the imported foods for survival. These foods have proven to be very unhealthy for the islanders and again, diabetes is now common. On some of the lesser populated outer islands, there is still some resemblance of a balance with nature, and the old customs and traditions are still in place. Villages are still headed up by a “head man,” or a family, who oversees their respective island’s society.
The islanders in Kiribati have an amazing and rich culture that can be traced back for more than a thousand years and contains a wealth of information. It’s interesting to note that for a time the author Robert Louis Stevenson lived in Kiribati on Abemama Island (formerly known as Simpson Island), which is intended to be one of the filming locations for Missionary Wars.
Rob: Something else we’ll capture upon first arriving, something I’m very much looking forward to, is a huge party thrown by the natives. They do this as part of a cultural tradition to welcome visitors and it is spectacular, as our Missionary Wars viewers will see.
OTG: Do medical missionaries play an integral role in the survival of the folks who live on these beautiful islands?
Bill: Absolutely! In any given year, medical missionary teams will provide hundreds of hours of health education, and perform thousands of medical and dental procedures to the people without any cost. Volunteer doctors, dentists, nurses, and support teams will spend weeks traveling to and from the remote outer islands providing basic medical and dental procedures. In most cases, these people have never seen a doctor or dentist in their entire lives. I have been told that sometimes as many as 20 or more islanders will wait in line for hours to have dental work done while sitting in a folding lawn chair under a palm tree. Cosmetic dental work and fillings cannot be provided due to a lack of infrastructure, so tooth extractions due to abscess or extensive decay account for most dental work.
Rob: This certainly is one part of the real life drama that occurs with the people that we want to bring to light in Missionary Wars, seeing 20 or more people waiting in line for treatment. A picture is worth a thousand words.
OTG: What are the common struggles faced by the missionaries?
Bill: The challenge begins with just traveling to these islands, which are arguably some of the most remote islands in the world. There is a small airport where jets can land on Tarawa atoll [capital of Kiribati] from where missionaries will travel via small boats and occasionally by small airplanes to the outer atolls. A few atolls do have small, unpaved runways, which are suitable for only light aircraft. And once you get there, providing services in a location that is totally off the grid is very difficult, to say the least. There are none of the conveniences we take for granted here in the US and elsewhere … no running water, no electricity, no fuel, and little or no modern equipment, other than that which is brought to the islands by missionaries or fishermen. Some missionaries do succumb to the same water-borne diseases and infections that plague the islanders.
Rob: This is a big source of the true drama we’ll capture in Missionary Wars as we toggle between different missionary groups. Multiple storylines will be playing out. If a motor breaks down, we’ll bring the viewer aboard for the repair, or in extreme cases, rescue. Meanwhile, reports will come in that an islander is experiencing a life-threatening illness and needs medical attention, so another team will load up with the missionaries on a sailboat and make the voyage. A major delay means life or death, so they can’t wait for rough waters to abate. And when they do get there, we will witness how they cope with a medical procedure with no anesthesia available.
OTG: Have you been working with any medical missionary teams? If so, what has their response been so far to the Missionary Wars series?
Bill: I am currently providing consulting services at no-charge to Search For One Missions out of Moses Lake, Washington. In the mid ‘90s, I worked for two years with a medical missionary group out of California who served the Marshall Islands. In the course of my duties back then, I spent most of my time as the captain of their ship on the West Coast of the US and around Hawaii, sailing about 18,000 sea miles, training crew, and fundraising from 1995 to 1997. During that time, I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with several of the doctors and dentists who had served on location at the islands. The common theme in those conversations was, “If we could only introduce these wonderful and interesting people and their amazing islands to the world, we might be able to attract more support for them.”
History has dealt these islanders a series of tragic events. These very unique people and their culture have endured many serious hardships, ranging from the introduction of deadly diseases from European sailors in the 17th and 18th centuries, the invasion of their islands by the Japanese in WWII, the subsequent brutal warfare that scarred their islands and killed a significant percentage of the indigenous population [all of whom were non-combatants], and bearing the brunt of above-ground nuclear testing that was conducted by Great Britain and the United States.
OTG: In addition to the Republic of Kiribati, what are the other possible locations for the new reality series?
Bill: There are many locations in the world where wonderfully unique and primitive people have been overcome by modern problems in their very remote homelands. There are tribes of people at the head-waters of the Amazon, for instance, which have only recently been discovered, yet are already beset by problems introduced by modern man. And as in the Kiribati Islands, here, too, you will find teams of medical missionaries facing severely adverse conditions to help these people with their problems. In many cases, it’s literally a race with the Grim Reaper (whose favorite target is the children).
OTG: Have off-grid and preparedness manufacturers signed as production partners for Missionary Wars and Bunker Diaries?
Bill: A few media sources at times have labeled preppers as being self-absorbed and selfish, but I am experiencing quite the opposite. So far, we have received several generous sponsorships of equipment for the Missionary Wars project from several manufacturers and sole proprietorships who serve the disaster preparedness and off-grid markets. Additionally, Gary Morgan, the executive director for Search For One Missions has agreed to provide logistics support for the film crew and the Missionary Wars project while on location in Kiribati, which certainly serves as their blessing for the project. Rob and I are both grateful for the help that is being provided for this project. However, we are still in need of some financial support for actual hard costs related to production, and we would welcome any such inquiries.
OTG: What types of industrial and military testing occurred on Kiribati during the ‘50s and ‘60s by the United Kingdom and the United States?
Bill: The islanders living on the 33 coral islands [atolls] that make up the ocean nation of Kiribati have faced many extreme hardships over their history. The egregious phosphate mining concessions and operations on the once pristine island of Banaba has been devastating. The ravaging of the islands by warfare during WWII is still evident. Even today, unexploded ordinance from WWII presents an ever-present danger on the islands and in the lagoons. Australia has stepped up and implemented a program to remove and/or disarm some of the unexploded bombs and shells. However, given the widespread distribution of hundreds of such bombs and artillery shells, this is a daunting task at best.
Few people today realize that some of these islanders are still paying the price for some of the military and industrial technologies that we enjoy today in America and elsewhere. During the 1950s and into the 1960s, the United Kingdom and the United States conducted nuclear testing and research around Kiritimati Island (also known as Christmas Island, an Island in the Republic of Kiribati), which accounts for 70 percent of the total land area of the nation of Kiribati.
During these tests, islanders were not evacuated and many islanders have reported suffering from radiation from that nuclear testing.
OTG: What will make Missionary Wars stand out from the host of other reality shows which now flood the television screen?
Bill: Even though Missionary Wars can be considered reality TV, it will not be staged. In many senses, the cameras will be like the fly on the wall. In fact, Rob and I have discussed the extensive use of Go-Pro cameras on the project to augment HD video camera footage. The cameras will allow audiences to join the missionaries as they face their daily challenges and struggles, as well as experiencing their interactions with these wonderful people and observing the people as they live in their daily lives. If we go back far enough into our own timelines [1,000 years?] we might find many similarities with how these people are living and surviving today. In a way, it’s like looking back into the past.
Rob: I love the prospect of witnessing and sharing the individual stories of the islanders and their rich history and cultural practices. There are few places in the world where you can observe a people with entirely unique ways of experiencing loss and joy. Just imagine meeting an islander with a skull tucked under their arm, and soon after learning who this member of their family is.
OTG: Is the show purely for entertainment purposes or will viewers gain enhanced insight and be educated while watching the episodes?
Bill: Rob and I both believe that we can learn a lot from these people. We will feature their culture, arts and crafts, and skills, and will provide viewers with intriguing insights into the actual methods they use for living day-to-day, completely off the grid, in one of the most remote locations on the planet, as they have for more than 1,000 years. We can also learn a lot about ourselves as we compare and contrast our lifestyles to theirs.
In the pilot one-hour episode, we intend to toggle back and forth between the brilliantly spectacular coral reefs, which form an oasis of life around these tropical islands, and the daily pursuits of island families as the medical missionary teams literally wage a war against death as it stalks the people of these islands. In the premiere episode, the missionaries will, among other things, be constructing the first ever solar and wind-powered communications and water purification facility on a remote island. My soon-to-be-released book, The Nautical Prepper, also features many off-the-grid skills that are applicable in remote locations, and I will be drawing from my own skillset in the design and construction of that new solar facility.
Rob: The viewer will be treated to many story threads that unfold simultaneously every episode. And all the while, they will be educated. Entertainment is the catalyst for learning, and at the same time, the islanders and missionaries alike will become a part of our viewers’ families. We will experience with them the hardships, joy, family stories, and daily dramas of fishing, deep sea diving, child birth, using what limited resources they have, all the while having the friendliest and most wildly addictive attitudes one could imagine, especially under the stresses they experience.
OTG: What networks are you shopping both of the shows to?
Bill: At this point in the two projects, given our limited resources and time, Rob and I have been focused on project development tasks, such as aligning the two shows with sponsors who can offer products and services that are relevant to the show’s potential audiences, while also adding value to the projects. In the case of Missionary Wars, once Rob Underhill and his team have compiled enough footage on location, Rob’s team will produce and score a promo reel, as well as a one-hour pilot TV episode, that we can circulate to potential network partners such as National Geographic, Discovery Channel, Turner Network Television, The Learning Channel, Animal Planet, A&E, and others. With regard to Bunker Diaries, some of the same networks are having great success with the doomsday, end-of-world genre, so once we have competed filming a mini-episode of Bunker Diaries, we will be visiting with many of the same networks. I am hoping to also have the manuscript for Bunker Diaries completed soon so that I can align it with a suitable publishing house, resulting in the release of the book Bunker Diaries prior to the screening of its pilot episode.