Hundreds of young and old adults sit on the ground patiently waiting silently to hear the numbers being called out from the barking voice that drives their addictions. Each and everyone involved is fixated on their sheets of paper, the silence between called numbers is deafening and only broken by the nearby traffic of the cry of a child. Each number called is hastily marked off with a rainbow of colourful maker pens. Lone and unattended children weave in between the sitting crowds, playing with each other and scrap materials found inside a derelict shipping container next to the pink Catholic Church of Peterin in the Pacific island nation of Kiribati. The late afternoon’s daily grind of Bingo had begun and would continue until late.
Within Kiribati’s capital of South Tarawa, bingo games occur six days per week, with the only break being on Sunday. From the beginning to the end of the one and only main road, every religious institution from Catholic to Protestant, hundreds upon hundreds gather to gamble under various Maneba’s (gathering halls). Peterin, a small area in South Tarawa, is home to one of the largest bingo gatherings, which attracts thousands of players every week. “We like Bingo because it gives us something to do, it’s fun,” said Tamare, a resident near Peterin Church and a regular player, “I go every day, many of my friends do too.”
The popularity of bingo has grown and developed into what can be labelled as a national pastime for many individuals involved, at least on the island of South Tarawa. Locals and officials alike hardly recognise that there is a significant growing issue in regards to a culture of gambling and the baggage it brings with it. “I spend $5-10 per day at bingo. If I win I will make a large profit, but so far I have never won,” said a laughing Tamare, while cradling her newborn. Bingo players such as Tamare have little to no idea how much they have spent, but focus solely on the grand prize, which is stereotypical of problem gamblers.
Not all are as enthusiastic with many locals up in arms about how much money is being spent daily through bingo. “It is undermining our development and putting us down as people,” said Claire, a mother of one supporting an extended family of 12. “In our house, I am the only one with a job, I support all of them, but they always sneak off and spend the money at bingo, it hurts us as a family and a country,” she said. [Claire requested not to be named in full as she had reservations on those she spoke of.]
More often than not bingo players in South Tarawa spend anywhere between four to seven hours at the daily events, leaving many family and home duties unattended to, which is spurring up infighting among communities “Tamare comes here and gives me her children to look after every day. I have many things I need to do, but I cannot refuse my daughter's pleas, even if she is going to bingo. But sometimes I don’t mind because it is for the Church. It is a good thing,” said Moone, Tamare’s mother.
Bingo within South Tarawa is not only a social event but are used as main sources of funding by most Christian Churches, both Catholic and Protestant. However, as the bingo phenomenon has grown into such an effective fundraising method, it is treated more like a business in a market, rather than simple community donations. “In Kiribati, there is nothing that can raise more money faster than bingo, it is the best method,” said Tata, the treasurer of Peterin Catholic Church. However, as an attractive fundraising method, bingo has now fostered the growth of competition among churches. “It is challenging because there are so many bingo events. My job is to figure out how to make our costs and buy in’s low and our prize high,” said Tata. Such an example is evident on payday where the grand prize reaches $2000 off a $5 buy in. “Our grand prize is the highest in all of Tarawa, this is why so many people come here to Peterin,” said Tata.
The Catholic Church of Peterin for the last five years has used bingo as its main source of funding for the construction of their new church. Ten years in the making, with newly tiled floors, intricately designed stained glass and external consulting architects, they have spared no expense. “I can’t give you the exact figure, but it has cost around $500 to 600 thousand Australian dollars,” said Tata. Fundraising through bingo has also opened up the opportunity for churches to move into commercial activities too. “The church will be finished this year, but we plan to continue to fundraising through bingo. We are hoping that through the profits bingo is bringing in we can open up a petrol station and build rental homes,” said Tata.
As Kiribati is one of the least developed nations in the Pacific region and the world, gambling does have serious potential to exacerbate already detrimental social situations from financial stability and security to family cohesion. The churches, namely Catholic, in pursuit of profits seem oblivious to any negative association that bingo may bring them by manipulating people's faith for funds. "The [catholic] church only has some fundraising methods, such as the $5 per head per year fee that members pay," said Paul Eusebius Mea Kaiuea, the Bishop of Tarawa. He did not mention Bingo as a means for financing church activities. In an ironical sense, Jeremy Stuparich, the public policy director of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference stated by email that problem gamblers, "deserve the mercy of the Church."
Currently, no support mechanisms exist within Kiribati’s communities to support problem gambling or family’s caught in the crossfire. However, many community members do not see it as a problem to begin with. State driven policy to kerb problem gambling or support organisations would be largely unsuccessful in the current climate. Across the Pacific Ocean in Australia problem gambling, even with the support mechanisms from independent organisations and state-led bodies still face an uphill battle. Professor Paul Delfabbro of the University of Adelaide specialises in problem gambling and risk taking said that the support services are vital, however, “only about 10% of problem gamblers in communities are estimated to seek formal help.”
Gambling problems found in Kiribati are not unique as many communities worldwide face very similar issues. However, the religious institutions reckless pursuits of profit spawning from their fundraising methods run contrary to the foundations of many of their beliefs. It is also further harming the fragile social fabric of many communities by exacerbating a diverse range of already undesirable social conditions. Gambling is undermining the responsible development of people’s lives and communities by increasing financial hardships and impacting on traditional and culturally important family values. If support mechanisms cannot offer respite should the church begin to look back on its original foundations of helping people and indeed providing mercy for those in need or with problems.
Images: Ashley Crowther.