[Above, an aerial view of Kwajalein atoll.]
Black magic is not something to mess with in the Marshall Islands. An iroj (or local king) is not someone to mess with in the Marshall Islands. I did both this week. If ever there were an excuse for breaking local customs, I’d say dessert provides such an exemption. I have long enjoyed a Marshallese dessert called lokur, which is made form the pounded meat of sprouted coconuts. Not all coconuts produce the spongy meat required to make this delicious treat and a coconut neophyte must collect an abundance of aged coconuts in hopes that enough will contain the glorious and much sought after ‘yu’. This week I took a business trip to Kwajalein Atoll (Kwajalein, Kwajalein; Ebeye, Kwajalein and Guegeegue, Kwajalein), a productive five-days interrupted only by a lokur-making adventure gone terribly wrong. Morgan, a WorldTeach volunteer at Kwajalein Atoll High School, unintentionally collected the ‘yu’ from sacred land; that of the iroj. And not just any local king, the irojlaplap (or biggest king), former President of the Marshall Islands Imata Kabua. Low lifes like Morgan and I are not allowed on iroj land. This is not a case of ‘take only pictures, leave only footprints’; more ‘take nothing, leave nothing’. Morgan however seized a pile of aged coconuts from the edge of iroj property. After we made lokur, life as we knew it began to fall apart. That night, the air conditioner broke (it had worked perfectly since August when the three volunteers living in Guegeegue had moved in). The next day, the Air Marshall Islands plane that was scheduled to transport a volunteer from her outer island to Guegeegue broke down. The following afternoon, the septic system backed up, flooding the bathroom with feces and urine by way of the shower drain, toilet and sink. The list of plights went on and on (students stealing water from Morgan’s catchment – ‘they have never done that before!’ Morgan cried!).
I will never believe in black magic or superstition (knock on wood, my ass – you want to avoid something, avoid it! You want something to happen, go after it!) but I have enjoyed many entertaining stories of the supernatural since moving to the Marshall Islands. I once poled my 12th grade literature class on their experiences with black magic and each and every student knew someone who had been the victim of a curse. (I chose not to ask who, if anyone, had been personally victimized.) I am often warned of demons as I pass friends (and strangers) while walking at night. Our conversations are like two people talking at rather than with one another: “Aren’t you scared of the demons!?”/“How are you?”/“There are demons out in the dark!”/“Have a great night! See you tomorrow!”. In a country where precious electricity is used to shine lights into the lagoon with the purpose of warding off demons, it was all too entertaining, though perhaps uncouth, to share the lokur mishap with Marshallese people (all of whom were terrified for my well-being, if not my life). I am calling this incident “Warar, Yu jen Iroj Reluukun Nana!” meaning “Good Grief, Really Bad Coconuts from the Local King!”
[Husking a coconut using a metal stick wedged between pieces of dead coral while wearing a muumuu is much harder than one might expect. Scratch that, I bet it sounds as hard as it was…]
[The inside of the coconut, called the ‘yu’ in Marshallese (I am actually not sure what, if anything, we would call this in English? Cocobellum?) This part of the coconut is pounded and combined with sugar or sap to make ‘lokur’. What will I do when coconuts are no longer available in my back yard? I won’t exactly be able to demand “Kwon lukor tok kijero’ (‘make some lukor for us!’)]
If Majuro was not paradox enough (traditional island life meet High School Musical; fermented breadfruit meet Doritos; dilapidated shack/ocean front property), Kwajalein atoll presented me with a glimpse at two opposing yet interconnected worlds, their points of origin geographically close but otherwise far-flung. USAKA (United States Army, Kwajalaein Atoll) is a mini America: Subway, Burger King, Baskin Robbins, Macy’s, streets with names! The Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site, with its control center and personnel infrastructure on Kwajalein, is a test facility and space research program operated by the U.S. military under a long-term lease with the RMI. Many of the contracted employees on the army base are Marshallese citizens (it has long been a point of controversy that these workers are treated unjustly) who take a ferry from their homes on Ebeye to the base each morning. Most commutes are far less extreme than that from Ebeye to USAKA. From nothingness, poverty and overcrowding to a scene straight from The Stepford Wives. Ebeye is commonly referred to as “the slum of the Pacific” because of its congested living conditions, inadequate school system (there are not nearly enough chairs for all of the students) and the scarcity of clean water. This title is even truer and more unfortunate in comparison to the luxurious subsidized lifestyle of USAKA. There are roughly 14,000 people living on Ebeye, an island the size of two football fields. There are a mere 1,500 people spread out along the perfectly paved streets of the army base – mostly Americans and a small number of Marshallese civilian contractors. For a brief moment this week, I was disoriented, a state difficult to achieve in a minute atoll nation…
[The photograph below was taken by a Kwajalein Atoll High School student and was awarded 1st place in a national photography competition. The image captures a unique but appropriately named area: “Dump Town”, the ‘neighborhood’ of Ebeye that houses piles upon piles of rubbish and which, frighteningly, serves as a playground for the city’s many unsupervised children.]
For most of the week, I was on neither Ebeye nor USAKA. For five days I observed classes, held meetings and delivered presentations to the students, parents, teachers and administrators of Kwajalein Atoll High School on Guegeegue. I can safely say that I was more the center of attention at KAHS than I have ever been in my entire life. For some unexplainable reason, people on Ebeye and Guegeegue are even more spiritual than my Marshallese community on Majuro. Before each and every meeting, meal or seemingly casual conversation, the people of Kwajalein prayed. Most prayers focused on a collective joy in welcoming me to their island and many praised my very existence. “We pray for your life” was said more than once. I was showered with gifts, praise and treated like an iroj in my own right. The WorldTeach volunteers at Kwajalein Atoll High School (Morgan and Marci) arranged a schedule of meetings, observations and presentations through which I was able to see the interminable commitment of this school’s community to the College Access Program. The students were incredible, the principal all but pleaded for the College Prep curriculum to begin at KAHS next fall, the teachers shook my hand with vigor and hope. In this school, I was reminded that access to higher education is just as much about information as it is desire.
One hour before I was scheduled to board a plane back to Majuro, I met with two female USAKA representatives about implementing a mentorship program between KAHS and the army base. Receptive beyond my wildest imagination, the women agreed to endorse my proposal (which now requires only the sanction of the Colonel). Oh and by the by, there was a water fountain in the meeting room! After a successful meeting, I ran to the airport, glancing at my watch nervously. I arrived ten minutes after the boarding time indicated on my ticket and, true to military form, the doors were locked. I had to bang on the door (which may or may not have been a two-way mirror) until I was begrudgingly granted entrance, met by the sniffing snout of a canine inspecting my bag and person. There’s island time, there’s ri-pelle time and then there’s army time.
Having returned from an inspirational visit to Kwajalein Atoll High School, I was struck (perhaps further inspired and certainly far from dejected) by an article from The Marshall Islands Journal entitled “College Woes”:
“A weak elementary level education foundation is to be blamed for the poor success rates of Marshallese attending colleges overseas, say top-level to RMI education officials. ‘Despite going through the College of the Marshall Islands or the University of South Pacific foundation program (Marshallese students) still can’t make it (at overseas colleges),’ said Marshall Islands Scholarship Grant and Loan Board chairman Marie Maddison responding to questions raised by senators during Nitijela’s committee of the whole meeting with the Ministry of Education on the poor performance of college scholarship recipients. ‘Success breeds from the start in elementary, their foundation – we need to strengthen elementary and high school.’”
Both Marshall Islands High School and Kwajalein Atoll High School, though charged with years of college preparation work before seeing complete results, have the potential to shift trends; I believe in a combination of activism and cheerleading when it comes to college access. It’s an everyday balance between optimism and realism; this week my battery of optimism was recharged. Several weeks ago a selection coordinator from the Junior Statesman Scholarship Board visited the Marshall Islands in search of the first ever RMI student representatives for the prestigious U.S. summer education program. Marshallese students, as well as those from the Federated States of Micronesia, Guam and other U.S. affiliates, are eligible for this program and for the first time, four Marshallese students were selected for the program. When I met with the selection coordinator, we talked about the state of Majuro’s public schools; we talked for hours. She shared my deep commitment to honoring promise and potential and asked for the names of several gifted sophomores and juniors at MIHS. I then worked with three students on their essays, their handshakes and coached them through mock interviews. This week it was announced that these three students (one sophomore and two juniors) were selected for full scholarships to attend the Junior Statesman Program at Stanford University this summer. “Can’t make it?”
[Me and Sovoki, an amazing teacher at KAHS, in Ebeye at the welcome BBQ thrown in my honor.]
[Me with Donna, another teacher at KAHS, Grace, Sovoki’s daughter and Sovoki in Guegeegue at a farewell dinner thrown in my honor. Are you beginning to sense a trend?]
Are you a member? This is a question I have answered many times. The question is aimed at determining my subscription to the Mormon Church. I am in the Marshall Islands!, I often explain. My host family belongs to the Mormon Church and I have half-heartedly attended church on Sundays, most consistently in the weeks prior to Christmas when I was a more central part of the community due to my amazing biit skills (if you are concerned with accuracy, replace ‘amazing biit skills’ with ‘enthusiasm for learning a traditional Marshallese dance’). This past Sunday I joined Marci for services at Ebeye Mormon Church. Throughout the services, I realized how shockingly comfortable I am in a Mormon Church after months of involvement. At the conclusion of worship hour (otherwise known as the 60 minutes in which I observe fashion and hair trends among my female counterparts – what can I say? I don’t understand religious Marshallese! I know the words for god, pray and that’s about it!), I walked towards a small classroom where Marci leads a weekly Sunday School class for 12 and 13-year-olds. In honor of my visit, all of the Sunday School classes joined together (ages 6-17, I believe) staring back me as I readied myself for a discussion about the importance of education (should be easy, education is the closest I come to a doctrine of faith these days). Marci gave the introduction, connecting The First Nephi from The Book of Mormon to the significance of knowledge and then passed the torch to me (I was introduced as Sister, the title for a Mormon missionary). The Mormon missionaries are white and walk a lot so we are interchangeable in Majuro and now in Ebeye! When I began my Sunday School lesson, I was suddenly reiterating Marci’s point (I am so accustomed to repetition when communicating with non-native English speakers) and I think I may have said something to the effect of “Like Sister Marci explained, God wants you to go to school”. After my entirely alien opening (no one realized how strange these words were but me), the session was lovely and comfortingly familiar (connecting education to a bright future, quite simply). Leading Mormon Sunday School, another first time experience…
[I was fascinated by the home pictured below. Roofs are interesting things in the RMI. Many houses in Majuro have large rocks that hold down haphazard roofs. In heavy winds, particularly those coupled with torrential downpours, I am constantly worried that a rock will slip from its precarious spot and collide with my head (I thought just yesterday about how wonderful it will be to walk with fewer fears). In Ebeye, I came across a roof secured by rusted-out children’s bikes. As I walked away from this unusual home, I dismissed the temptation to reproduce ‘The Wizard of Oz’, Pacific island style. Also, note dogs.]
Due to the almost indescribable density of people living on Ebeye, disease is a huge problem. Drug resistant tuberculosis has recently resurged as a crisis among the thousands of people living on this tiny island. The Ministry of Health has mandated TB testing during school hours for all students. While observing Morgan’s 9th grade class, her students were excused one row at a time for TB testing. Students rose from their seats apathetically and dragged their feet towards a table set up outside with needles and a sparse supply of gauze and bandages. At Ebeye Elementary School, where another WorldTeach volunteer named Liz guides a chaotic swarm of 5th graders, several of her students tested positive for TB. On one student’s arm, the injection site was 15ml raised above the skin. TB outbreaks have long been a major public health concern on Ebeye. In December 2009, the Ministry of Health attempted to set up an isolation facility but when trailers were brought from USAKA to Ebeye, they were stuck at the dock due to a lack of working equipment and a void of coordination to transport the containers to their designated site. It seems that for some, TB control efforts will prove too little, too late. Witnessing and experiencing life in Ebeye and Rita (two of the most densely populated areas in the world) has peaked my interest in public health. These days I need to be narrowing rather than expanding my research interests…
[The children of Ebeye are frighteningly independent. Some dozen children were climbing on a rusted dump truck, appropriately near “Dump Town”.]
When I returned from Kwajalein, my Field Director emailed me with a welcome back and a congratulations. She mentioned that my blog excerpt on the front page of the WorldTeach website was well written. What blog excerpt?, I wondered. I typed in www.worldteach.org, waited patiently for the page to load and was met with familiar faces, my own and Cartina’s; a picture recently taken at Laura Beach in Majuro. Above the excerpt is written: “Sarah Lipson, WorldTeach volunteer in the Marshall Islands, writes below about some of her students’ impressive accomplishments.” If you are interested, you can check out the link above or the WorldTeach blog at worldteachnow.blogspot.com.
[The converging waters, lagoon on left and ocean on right. The island pictured is called Ngenge and is located off the tip of Gueguegee, Kwajalein.]
In other news, Majuro had a major breakthrough this week: the city’s backlog of medical waste was at last burned at the new incinerator site. The equipment had been sitting idly for about two years and despite repeated attempts to utilize the much-needed burner, island time had prevailed over logic…until last Thursday. The Marshall Islands Journal reported that the newly functioning incinerator includes “a decontamination shower area, with waste water flowing into a concrete lined pool with Clorox-treated water to eliminate biohazards. With 14 containers filled with hazardous waste that has collected over the paste three years, it will be months before AC Construction catches up with the backlog of waste. Acting Hospital Administrator Francis Silk said a year ago the level of waste was estimated to take about three months of burning to eliminate. But the backlog has likely doubled since then. Shewchuck said he expects the incinerator to be running two burns daily, which each take two-to-four hours to accomplish. Although the incinerator is built to comply with US Environment Protection Agency standards, the plan is to burn only on days when the wind is blowing to the south or southwest, but not directly west as there are homes about half a mile to the Ajeltake side of the plant.” Who knew there were years of medical waste patiently waiting for their moment to transform from limb to ash? This update proves not only the ineptness of many RMI government officials but more pointedly, that I am still oblivious to an innumerable list of shocking situations in the Marshall Islands.
Whilst on the subject of appalling reports from Majuro, here are two more news gems. A male prisoner (lord knows what landed him in jail to begin with) who had escaped from jail twice, was prosecuted in the Majuro Courthouse this week. The fugitive, Bobby Jelke, was sentenced to 180 extra days of jail time “with credit for 58 days already served” (insane leniency, right?). Now the real shocker is that despite two incidents of misconduct post-indictment, dear ole Bobby “can get work release form 7am to 6pm Mondays through Fridays”. No comment.
Secondly, a newly created national bill used the word “spittle”. SPITTLE! The Nitijela (parliament) recently passed legislation banning the importation, distribution and selling of betelnut (most comparable to chewing tobacco but of a blood red hue). A bill summary accompanying the legislation explains that “ betelnut users tend to discharge betelnut spittle in places accessible to the public”. SPITTLE! Really?
[The Marshall Islands are comprised of two chains of low-lying coral atolls, the Ratik and Ralik Chains. Kwajalein is located in the Ralik chain. ‘Ralik’ means ‘sunset’. I’ll say…]
[Though I was unable to experience the luxuries of USAKA due to my unaffiliated status with the U.S. Army, I did pick up a brochure that seems to be the most realistic orientation document for Americans new to the RMI. Under the “Health and Environment’ portion of the pamphlet, I was pleased to find: “Welcome to the tropics. Avoid ‘new timer’ sunburns and infections by avoiding outdoor activity between 11:00-15:00 hours, the hottest time period of the day. Prevent sunburn – cloudy days are no exception. Avoid food borne illnesses and ensure all food is properly stored, especially when outdoors.” The text goes on to explain areas of the army base that are restricted due to missile testing, which seemed slightly less relevant for me. The sign featured below, marking distances from the RMI to points of interest around the world, is located at the Kwajalein Airport on USAKA.]
Washington, DC (closest to Boston, MA): 7,156 miles
Below are several additional photographs from the Marshall Islands High School production of Hamlet. More accurately, the images below capture the backstage antics of this otherwise serious play…
[Styling Gertrude’s hair. By day, the ‘likatu’ (pretty girl) below is my host cousin Maria…]
[Peterson, me and Edie…]
Prom Dresses anyone? If you have dresses that you would like to donate to a worthy cause (see entry entitled “Recycled Fashion”) please send them to:
Sarah Ketchen Lipson
PO Box 627
Majuro, MH 96960
Republic of the Marshall Islands
All my love and positive energy…
[Below is my most recent article from The Marshall Islands Journal.]
For 10th grader Angelina John, for whom this year’s Close Up trip was her first time leaving the Marshall Islands, education has taken on a different role in her life. “I used to be shy in class but now I want to talk more and ask questions so I can learn as much as possible”. Intellectual curiosity is at the heart of this cultural exchange program, as MIHS 11th grader Kevin Daniel confirmed. “I realized how important it is to know about other cultures. The students on Close Up learned about the Marshall Islands from me, I learned about their countries and now it feels like we’re not strangers anymore” noted Daniel whose roommate was from Nevada in the United States. The biggest challenge for Kevin Daniel was giving a formal presentation in front of his peers but he was honored to share Marshallese culture, including some words in his native language (meto – sea chart and korkor – canoe).
Angelina John reflected on her expectations of the trip and how her impression of the United States changed throughout her two weeks with Close Up. “I thought life in the U.S. was almost perfect but we saw many homeless people, begging for money and it was really sad”. Before seeing Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, the students visited Time Square, the most heavily populated section of New York City, where homelessness and many other social issues are on full display. Another observation Angelina made?: “The American students got out of bed much earlier than us! They had to wake us up each morning!”
Pushed outside of their comfort zones, forced to adapt to an amalgamation of diverse cultures and now having returned to their homes in Majuro, these Marshallese students feel inspired and fortunate to have had such a meaningful experience. Students are selected for Close Up each year based on their academic excellence and proven leadership.