Friday, November 24, 2006

Last night there was a hurricane inside my bedroom. I think that we’ve entered the windy season here in Majuro. During my first week in my new apartment I asked the landlord to send an employee to fix my bedroom window (the frame was loose and was not holding the glass tightly). While trying to “fix” it, he smashed it (accidentally) and then left and did not return. So another nice employee who was painting my place covered the cracks with clear packing tape. I requested a new window for several weeks before my landlord got yet another employee to come. They couldn’t find the right sized glass anywhere on the island (Taiwanese windows are evidently incompatible with American hardware store supplies), so they decided on plexiglass. The employee spent an entire Saturday cutting the plexiglass, and when I came home, he smiled and said, “It’s finished!” But it was not anywhere close to finished. The frame was looser than ever, and there was sticky brown paper covering the plexiglass. Not only could I not see out of the window, but they had removed the rubber seal, so every time the wind blew, my window made a bang-bang-bang noise against the frame. Finally last week I pulled the window back out again and after waiting for a tool from a friend I scraped it clean and washed it for about 3 hours last night. I came to find out after all that work that the plexiglass is too big for the frame and will not fit back into the window. So the hurricane continues…at least I pushed my bed away from the hole where my window used to be so that I don’t get rained on at night. I have learned that if you want something done, it’s usually best to take care of it yourself…concerning windows at least.

Funny anecdotal story: I have a student who has having some attendance trouble in class. I saw him in the hallway a few weeks back and asked him how he was. His reply: “Not good” surprised me. I asked if there was anything I could do to help and he said, “No, I just have a boil on my butt and I’m afraid I can’t sit in class.” Poor guy! It was true. He couldn’t sit on a chair for a week. Luckily he’s a really bright student and was able to catch up. The surprising thing is that boils, and especially boils on the butt are common here. I’m not quite sure how one gets a boil, but this is not the first time I’ve heard of a student having to miss class because of a boil in a that place. Man, I’ve heard a lot of excuses for why students can’t make it to class, but boil-on-the-butt takes the cake for most original.

Another funny anecdote: People are always telling me “Goodnight!” even if it’s not bedtime yet. “Iakwe in Jota” is the greeting in Marshallese that means “Good Evening”, but I think that Marshallese people get confused and say, “Goodnight” instead. Sometimes Marshallese speakers also use “Goodnight” interchangeably with “Goodbye”. It really caught me off guard at first. Usually when we say “Goodnight” in America it means that one or the other of the parties involved is going to bed soon. I’ve had students in my 10am class say, “Goodnight!” as they are leaving class. At first I laughed and told them, “But I just woke up!!” But now it doesn’t phase me at all.

As I was walking home last night I crossed paths with my friend, Mary Swain. She lives just across the street from me in Small Island in a small plywood and corrugated tin house next to the lagoon. As we talked, she told me that she was quite beside herself because on Tuesday each of the 24 families in her neighborhood were told that on Thursday (today) each would be responsible for contributing a package of chicken quarters ($30/pack), a 10-pound bag of rice ($8-10), and $10 cash to the Iroij for a funeral that is happening soon. The problem is that most of these families don’t have $50 to contribute (many of them have only one wage-earner supporting a family of 7 or 8 people), and those who do have $50 will have to spend it on chicken and rice for the funeral (of someone they don’t know) and not be able to feed their children. What’s worse, everyone in this neighborhood is related to each other (most of them are Mary’s extended family), so they can’t go to their relatives to ask for help, because their relatives are all in the same situation. Otherwise, if they do not contribute, they will be asked to leave the land (even though they build the houses they live in, they are from outer islands and they don’t have any land rights in Majuro). Many of the families are members of my branch, so I’ve talked to our branch president and we’ll be able to help them get by with funds from fast offerings. Mary explained that their Alap (land head) has a particularly bad relationship with the Iroij. Many other Alaps in Majuro understand how poor their tenants are and don’t ask them for gifts. One of the members of our branch is the Alap for Uliga and he is very kind and generous with his people. Because he has a good relationship with the Iroij, he can spare the people who live in his neighborhood a lot of hardship. But this is not the case in Small Island.

In talking with Mary about the relationship between Ri-Jerbal, Alap, and Irooj, she said that she has a lot of respect for the Irooj in her home atoll (Ujae). He takes care of the people and makes sure that everyone has enough. She said that her family home in Ujae is build like my apartment: strong and solid. Not like this plywood. I asked if she would like to move back to Ujae someday and her face lit up. Definitely! But jobs are scarce on the outer islands, and the church doesn’t exist there (we have 7 branches on Majuro and 2 on Ebeye/Kwajelein Atoll, but none on any outer islands). What an education I’m getting! My eyes have really been opened to what a great thing the fast-offering program of the church is. After reading through the leadership handbook for welfare, I’m really excited to start some projects with the women in my branch. I want to build up a Bishop’s storehouse with extra clothing and food. Perhaps we can have an enrichment night when we mend clothes donated by branch members and make some 72-hour kits for emergencies to put in the storehouse. We can also compile a list of members who have skills that they can donate such as handy-man skills or nursing skills. This could be a really great blessing to those in need in our branch. Tonight I’ll meet with President Henry to see what can be done in the near future for these people in Small Island, and then we’ll go to work to establish an emergency supply of food and clothing so that we can have the ability to relieve hardship and suffering in the community in the future.

Tomorrow is Employee appreciation day, so all the faculty and staff of CMI will be going to Enamanit by boat for a picnic. It’s another island in Majuro Atoll which has been kept pristine by the lack of land-access. It will be nice to explore a new place and unwind a little. There’s plenty of homework to grade and errands to run this weekend, too. As the semester winds down things are getting busier and busier. My students are real troopers, they are still working hard (most of them) and I think that most of them will be able to pass, which is very gratifying. My students are in the developmental program, and our goal is to strengthen them enough that they can thrive next semester in college credit classes. Very few make it though the whole 2-year college program (it’s supposed to take 2 years, but even our students who graduate usually need 3 or 4 years because studying in English is hard for them). Our goal is to help more students make it into and through their college credit courses. To do this they need good study habits that many of them have not learned before, so it is our job as instructors to help them address such hindrances that face them. For many, they are parents of small children, or they live in dormitories where they barely have enough money for food. Others grew up in outer islands and have to adjust to the challenges of living in an urban community and the crowding and other social problems that exist here. Those who make it through are really resilient, that’s for sure!

I have to go for office hours now. Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 17, 2006

It’s really hard to believe that Christmas is approaching. They put up a Christmas tree in the front hallway at CMI and it’s just a surreal feeling. To me it still feels like August because it’s still hot and humid (it’s a little more tolerable, but not much different). In fact, there’s so little seasonal variation here that I feel like I’m in a time-warp. That is good and bad. It makes me less frantic about time, and helps me relax a little.

It has been a good but busy two weeks. I was called as the Uliga Branch Relief Society president last week, and I’ve spent a long time going through the branch list finding out who’s who. We have our work cut out for us: there are 160 Relief Society sisters on the records, but the only 10 sisters who come to Relief Society were all baptized in the last 6 months and none of them have a calling. They are wonderful and eager to be involved, so I’m looking forward very much to working with them. We also need to be careful to maintain a balance between English and Marshallese because the church here is conducted in Marshallese, but with a lot of English speakers in leadership callings (me, Anita from Kiribati, Kim from Korea, the Senior missionary couple) it’s becoming more and more English. Calling Marshallese speaking teachers for RS and Sunday School will help.

I went to help the primary children practice songs for their program last weekend and the other leaders had not arrived yet, but the children were there. They are so creative about entertaining themselves! They take off their zories (flip-flops), put them on their hands, and have contests to see who can do hand-stands upside down in the parking lot for the longest. Next time they do it I’ll get a picture, because it’s so cute. About 15 or 20 children all balancing upside-down on their hands. They even have hand-stand relay races across the parking lot. Meanwhile when the rain started the little boys would run and slide across the slippery cement in the courtyard of the church building. They discovered that they could slide farther on their bums if they took off their pants, so when I arrived there were all these little pants-less boys sliding around the patio. Pretty funny!
The picture above shows another creative play-time that I observed recently. Someone had discarded an old refrigerator by throwing it onto the beach. Two boys took it apart and used the foam from inside the walls of the fridge as flotation devises to float around in the surf.

It’s President’s Day Holiday, so I’m enjoying having a day to fix some things and clean my house. I’m also having a study group with my students who need some extra help. Then tomorrow we’re having a Young Single Adult picnic at Ajeltake (the rural part of the island). I’m going to take my snorkel along and explore the reef down there. The weekend before last Laurie and I got snorkels and went swimming by the Resort. It’s not the prettiest part of the island, but the coral was AMAZING! It’s so colorful, and you don’t have to dive down deep to see amazing tropical fish (like clownfish that sell for $20 each in the pet store) and sea cucumbers. It was really quite nice, so I’m looking forward to doing it again. It’s cheap, it’s great exercise, and very beautiful.

Well, I’m off to get some more things done on the house. I’ll write again later. Happy President’s Day!

I’ve been thinking about modern Marshallese Culture a lot recently, particularly because my existence here is changing culture, and I wonder about the result of this. Definitely the presence of the United States in the Marshall Islands has caused vast cultural changes over the past 60 years. There were major changes before the US arrived. Germans and Japanese who “discovered” and colonized these islands before the arrival of Americans also perturbed the cultural balance and Marshallese society has been struggling to figure out how to blend old customs and new ever since. In general Marshallese welcomed the arrival of Americans. The soldiers who landed on these shores at the end of WW2 brought food and provisions for the Marshallese people. They welcomed Americans and for the most part, Americans brought supplies and gifts and assumed a parental role toward the Marshallese people during the years that the Marshalls were part of the Trust Territory cared for by America. But there were changes that occurred in the process that perturbed the balance in Marshallese life that neither Marshallese people nor Americans foresaw.

In traditional Marshallese culture (pre-Western influence), there was a distinct caste system based on one’s matrilineal heritage. There was a ruling chief family (Irooj) who might traditionally rule an atoll or two (more if he was a high-chief), land heads (Alap) who oversaw the working of the land, and workers or commoners (Ri-Jerbal) who lived and worked on the land. There was a balance of accountability between all three groups. The Irooj would visit different islets in the atoll and Ri-Jerbal would send gifts to him through the local Alap. In return, he would give gifts to them as well (he acted as a distributor of goods between the different islands in the atoll). They respected him and he respected them because both were dependent on the other for life and support. If there was a particularly bad Irooj, the people would rise up and depose him. Then came Christian missionaries and the Copra industry in the 1800’s. In exchange for the production of coconut products, overseas companies gave money to the Irooj, but some Irooj did not feel the need to share the money with Ri-Jerbal, since the money was now coming from abroad rather than directly from their labors. Simultaneously the missionaries taught that murder was wrong, so the people (who are very devoted Christians) stopped killing-off bad Irooj. Irooj got more and more powerful, and Ri-Jerbal became poorer and poorer. But the real damage came much later when the United States signed the Compact of Free Association with the Marshall Islands in 1986 (at the end of the Trust Territory agreement). It was the beginning of a new democracy here in the islands, and people naturally elected members of Irooj to government positions. The problem with this was that the Compact calls for MASSIVE amounts of United States aid and compensation for the terrible effects of decades of nuclear testing and exposure to Marshallese people. It also provides for large amounts of money to go for rent of the land for the US’ strategic military base at Kwajelein Island. The problem is the this money goes right to the Irooj and some makes it to the Alaps, but very, very little makes it to the Ri-Jerbal. (Think about it: the bazillions of dollars the US pays for the land on which Kwajalein military base rests goes into the pocket of ONE family (the Irooj family of the first president of the RMI). With the recent population explosion (just a few years ago the average number of children per woman in the Marshall Islands was the highest in the world: 7 children per woman!) there are more Ri-Jerbal than ever and the discrepancies between the standard of living for Irooj, Alap, and Ri-Jerbal have become vast and are getting worse every passing year. There are mounting feelings of tension and frustration among common people (and some Alap) toward the Irooj. The Marshall Islands newspaper (which is written by a mix of well-educated young Marshallese and a few foreigners) has been very accusatory of the government’s actions and inactions in these matters. They have outraged the leaders of the country so much that I wouldn’t be surprised if the government made an attempt to shut down the newspaper.

Another outcome of the massive amounts of aid from the US, Japan, and Taiwan (who desperately want to be part of the UN, so they send TONS of aid in exchange for the RMI’s vote to let them in) is that the people have become so accustom to foreign handouts that they have become less and less determined over the years to take action to lift themselves out of poverty. Let me say right here are exceptions to this (I personally know a handful of people who are among the hardest-working I’ve ever met). But as a nation, especially when compared with other post-colonial Micronesian and Polynesian nations, Marshallese are not recognized for being over-achievers. But who can blame them? The relationship between parent and child is an appropriate metaphor for the relationship between the United States and the Marshall Islands. The Marshall Islands are like a child who grows up in a troubled home, gets spoiled rotten in his adolescent years (as compensation for the rough start he got), and never learns to take care of himself as an adult. He lives his whole life always looking for the easy way out and doesn’t have a lot of discipline because no one ever taught him. As a result he struggles to have self-worth and has a host of personal problems. Such is the case in this country. There are so many good people here with good hearts, but their “upbringing” as a society has been very dysfunctional. Many of the social problems common in American Indian Reservations are common here as well. In a survey taken this year, residents on Majuro overwhelmingly responded that Alcoholism was the largest problem on this island. Suicide and depression among young people is high, and unemployment is around 36%, with 12% of families on Majuro having no-one who is employed. The education system is in dire need of help. There are 4 public high schools in the country, yet most high school teachers don’t even have an Associate’s degree. The teachers who have come back to CMI to get one don’t even place into College Level classes, they have to go through the Developmental program first. Oftentimes they are the weakest students in my classes. Under-prepared teachers mean that only 5% of students who come to College at CMI are ready to take a college level math class. Most have to go back to basic arithmetic for a semester, then do two more semesters of algebra. Many are bright and pick it up quickly, which is an indicator that many of them went through 12 years of school and never learned algebra (probably because their teachers couldn’t teach it to them).

In the face of all these observations, I am led to wonder: What can be done at this point?? What is my role here? I am participating in giving these young people a “Western” education so that they can have a hope of getting a good job and making a different in their country. I am encouraging as many as possible to transfer to a University in America or Australia, or New Zealand, or even Fiji. But is further westernization of young Marshallese people the best thing for them? Westernization has created a lot of social problems for the people of these islands. Now their society is an awkward mix of traditional and western life. Will further westernization (including education, literacy, Christian living, and other things I strongly believe in) help them or will it hinder them? If there are to be changes in the government that will lead to alleviation of the poverty (according to this year’s report, the government denies that there is poverty in the RMI, despite the fact that many of my Marshallese friends live in rustic ply-wood and corrugated tin houses without running water) we need to prepare bright young people who are selfless to be future leaders. Many of these bright young people are at the college right now. What will their role in the future be? Will the RMI follow the path it’s currently on? We don’t have enough land area to handle much more urbanization! Our landfills are overflowing and so are public dumpsters in our neighborhoods. People who live close to the dumpsters suffer from diarrhea more frequently than those who live far from them. If the effects of climate change are as extreme as scientists claim, there is a possibility that our fresh water supply will be contaminated by salt water in a few years and we all will have to emigrate somewhere. If this is the case, do my students have the skills to survive in a foreign country?

Wow, what a mind-full! It is amazing to learn about the history because it gives structure to the observations I have made of how things work. Despite the problems, I love being here. Life is a bit slower, and people still smile, despite how hard life is for some of them. There is hope for the future. The college (which almost lost its accreditation in the last 5 years) is bouncing back and becoming stronger. I have the opportunity to play a big role in making positive changes for the future. It’s a good place to be right now.