Friday, November 17, 2006
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.