Thursday, October 19, 2006

I am so impressed with the warm welcome the Marshallese people give Americans, in light of what our country has done to them over the last 50 years. Yesterday we had a power blackout at school so I checked out a video from the CMI library called half-life and watched it at home while grading papers. It's a documentary about the Nuclear Testing here in the RMI. It's shameful what the high-up people in the Atomic Energy Commission (US Government) did in the 1950’s. In 1954, the 200 residents of Bikini were evacuated so that a nuclear “Bravo” Hydrogen bomb could be dropped on their island, but the neighboring Atolls to the East were not even told about plans for the bombing, so when they heard a giant explosion, they were taken completely off guard. Then when radioactive white coral bits started falling on them, the children went out to play in the "Snow" (which they had seen pictures of). It was not snow, and the food and air were suddenly toxic, but no one told them. There were several American Navy ships right nearby Rongelap and Rongerik that could have rescued the people, but they were ordered to sail away. The American government claimed that on the day the H-bomb was tested, the winds suddenly shifted, and that they didn't mean to harm these people, but weather reports show that the military knew in advance of high level winds in the Eastward direction toward Rongelap and other populated atolls. Many people (including former military weathermen stationed on these atolls who were also exposed to radiation without warning) believe that the Atomic Energy Commission did this on purpose as an experiment to see what long-term effects radioactive exposure would have on people. They even showed clips from documentaries made by the military of Marshallese men being flown in to mainland military hospitals for examination. So for the last 50 years people on three or four of the 29 atolls in the Marshalls have eaten contaminated coconuts and fish and have had Major health problems as a result. Women have given birth to babies that are severely deformed, people have developed all kind of cancers, thyroid disease, scores have died prematurely, etc...All this was done by the US government, which was entrusted with the Marshall Islands to protect and shelter after the trauma of having their islands invaded in the World War II battles between USA and Japan.

The year is now 2006, and Bikini is still not safe to live on at this point. In fact, the Bikini town hall is right down the street from the college (not in Bikini at all, now it's in Majuro), and hundreds of Bikini people have never even seen their home island. It's so sad. I have students in my class who are Bikinian and Rogalapian who are too young to have ever seen their home islands because they are still so contaminated. There are rumors that people will return to Rongelap soon, but I don't know if the people trust if American scientists say it's safe to go back. The Marshalls were given to the US after WW2 by the UN to take care of and protect, and our country really took advantage of the people. Because of a lot of relocations of Marshallese people to infertile islands (some without lagoons) where they can't fish and collect coconuts like normal we've created an economic dependence on US aid that the Marshallese will never be able to break free of. Thousands of people flock to Majuro and Ebeye (which are WAY overcrowded and polluted), while their home atolls (while beautiful and rural) offer little hope for education and employment. And yet the people smile and children play. It's absolutely amazing to me! I think it’s a testament to the spirit of humanity and forgiveness of this people that they still let us in.

But yet lest you think that Marshallese are Saints and Americans are sinners, I have to admit being horrified by the expressions of racism and prejudice that I’ve noticed in many Marshallese young people toward those of Chinese descent. Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants to Majuro have worked hard and established successful businesses, and because of this there is a lot of resentment and a lot of racism from the Marshallese. It’s hard to see people who call themselves Christians being so ignorant and hateful toward each other, but it happens all the time here. My colleague Beth (an English Composition instructor here at CMI) shared with me the journal of a student who wrote about acting out in violence toward someone of Chinese ethnicity just because he was Chinese. It was very disturbing (I don’t know if it’s true or if it’s just made up, but the underlying intentions are disturbing). This is sad because this is a student in credit level English, which means that he’s one of our more advanced students and among the (relatively well) educated people on island. If he is this ignorant and callous about racial issues, what about those who are not educated at all? In saying this, I don’t mean to make it sound like I’m assuming that all Marshallese have these prejudices. I know many wonderful, sweet, compassionate Marshallese people who don’t harbor racist feelings. Unfortunately these narrow-minded ideas are especially prevalent among the young people, and I feel the responsibility as a teacher at the only institution of higher education in this country to speak out against this …even if I am a math teacher.

This week I discovered the CMI library. It is quite impressive for a small island country with no bookstores. They have a whole room full of children’s books and quite an impressive collection. I got the autobiography of Desmond Tutu which I’m reading right now and really enjoying. He is such a man of compassion and forgiveness. His good heart really put out a lot of fires that could have destroyed South Africa when it was struggling for democracy. He showed compassion toward both the oppressed and the oppressors. The other really cool thing about the CMI library is that besides loaning Books, Videos, and DVDs, they loan out Ukeleles. Only in the Marshall Islands! This is so cool though, I’d really like to get one of my students to teach me how to play some basic songs. I got a lot of great children’s books for our Saturday Morning reading in front of the museum. The kids are wonderful. They are so cute and sweet and full of energy. I got one book called “The Goodnight Gecko”. It’s about a baby gecko who is afraid of the dark, so he just wants to pick flowers and go scuba diving in the daytime, but Geckos are nocturnal, so that presents some problems with his family. Eventually he learns to love the moon and stars and not be afraid of the shadows and rustling made by the coconut trees. It was very culturally appropriate for the kids and they laughed when they saw the snorkeling gecko. The story had a parrot in it, but there’s no word for Parrot in Marshallese (we don’t have any here), so the children insisted it was “Bao” (Chicken). Well, not quite, but close enough I guess. I think that Chicken is the only type of bird that has a name in Marshallese, particularly because it is edible. The picture attached to this post is of three kids playing by the Alele Museum where we read. At the time they were swinging from this Breadfruit Tree for hours of good fun.

I’m off today to bicycle to Long Island to watch general conference. It was broadcast live 2 weeks ago, but instead of sending us the Marshallese DVD’s they accidentally sent us Spanish, so we’ve had to wait. I’m looking forward to hearing the talks. I got up at 3am to go to one live session at 4am, but that just about did me in for the rest of the week. I’m glad to have my bicycle here and I managed to put it back together by myself (hurray that the brakes and gears work…miracles ) We had to take it apart into a million pieces to get it into a box that was within the postal size regulations. Now I have the basket on front and can use it for grocery shopping and other errands.

Ok, gotta run. Bar Lo Aolep!


Reality_Check said...

No one should deny the serious negative impacts to health and society in the RMI that resulted from the nuclear testing but the assertion by many Marshallese that the US should, as a result, permanently take responsibility for the care of all the Marshallese people should not be accepted without question. This “victim mentality” is, in my view, seriously and very adversely impacting the ability of the Marshallese people and their Government to move beyond the past and to develop themselves and their nation for future generations.

Nuclear testing in the RMI ended in 1958. Nuclear testing did not directly impact all of the 14,000 Marshallese living in the Marshall Islands at the time of the testing. The most extensive radiological survey of the Marshall Islands to date, a survey conducted in the early 1990's by scientists selected by and reporting to the Government of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, discusses in detail the limitations of exposure from radiation that resulted from the nuclear testing, during the era of the testing and in the present day. The study concludes that all parts of the Marshall Islands, with the exception of the atolls of Rongerik, Rongelap, Bikini, and Enewetak, can be safely inhabited today with no restriction, and that in the rest of the Marshall Islands, to quote from the preface of the report, "current levels of radioactive contamination pose no risk of adverse health effects to the present generation." The summary report on the survey can be readily located on the Internet at Bottom line is, almost all the Marshall Islands can be (and are being) safely inhabited.

To date, the US has provided over $500 million in financial assistance to the people of the RMI. These funds have been invested and used by the impacted Marshallese communities (aka, the Four Atolls – Bikini, Enewetak, Rongelap, and Utrik) and used to compensate those directly impacted by the nuclear testing and its results. Per the Marshall Islands Nuclear Claims Tribunal web site (, over $83 million in personal injury claims (all funded by the US) have to date been awarded to 1,865 claimants, all supposedly tied to cancers resulting from nuclear testing. In addition to this financial assistance, the US continues to fund for a separate program of health monitoring services for the impacted population and a separate treatment program for any Marshallese diagnosed with a cancer that may have resulted from nuclear testing.

Now, consider that per the US National Cancer Institute (, between 1946 – 2003, there were an estimated 240 cancers in the Marshall Islands that occurred due to fallout, with an additional 290 cancer cases anticipated after 2003. Thus, at least by estimate of the National Cancer Institute, more Marshallese, by far, have already been significantly compensated than the total number who actually suffered cancers as a result of the testing.

The impact of nuclear testing on the Marshallese people is certainly serious but when you note, after considering the information above, that the population of the RMI is over 50,000, should the US feel any obligation to “take care” of the entire population of the RMI?

Now, consider that the RMI Government is currently petitioning the US Government for an additional $3 billion plus ( This is for medical treatment, property claims, and other compensation to the victims of nuclear testing. In comparison, the Energy Employees' Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act of 2000, or EEOICP, entitles US citizens who are former nuclear workers to a lump-sum payment of $150,000 and medical benefits. See

The Marshallese did suffer greatly from nuclear testing conducted by the US in the RMI, no question. Four atolls are partially unavailable for human use. Over 500 Marshallese have or will die from cancers that resulted from that testing. It is a tragic legacy. That legacy should be balanced against the compensation already provided (over $500 million) by the US Government and the additional compensation being requested (over $3 billion) by the Government of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. In the end, the US taxpayers (who have and will pay for any compensation provided), through their Senators and Representatives in Congress, have to decide how much total compensation to the Marshallese people should be provided in response.

My hope and prayer is that for the sake of the Marshallese people, the nuclear compensation issues be quickly and finally resolved so they will move on and place more emphasis on their future than this part of their past.

Britt said...

Thankyou for your comments on my blog. I agree very much with what you've said. I have noticed that a sense of entitlement among some Marshallese people has limited their growth as individuals and as a country. I have also met people who have broken free of this entitlement mentality, and I hope that this attitude will grow in this society. I feel very priveleged to be with Marshallese young people every day in my job at the college, and I look forward to opportunities to help them to develop a more independent and hard-working spirit.

I am also dissappointed that the government is seeking out more compensation. I know that the reality is that it's very unlikely that much of the money that comes in from these claims will filter down through all the levels of government and make it to those who need it most. I've written several other posts describing what I have noticed about the economic inequity that exists here and how it breaks my heart.

I hope that you'll share more of your views and opinions. I share your sentiment that I hope the Marshallese people can get over this tragic episode in their history and move forward.
Likewise I hope that Americans will be aware of what happened so that we can encourage our government to act humanely in all foreign policy matters (not just with regard to nuclear testing). I was shocked that I was never taught about this in any of my classes in school, and I think that many young people of my generation are oblivious to what happened here. I hope that both Marshallese and Americans can learn from this and move forward from here. Thanks again for your comments...