Past and Present in the Marshall Islands

These stories, and many others, continually unfurling from the legacy of imperialism and exploitation that has only continued since that infamous mushroom cloud billowed into the atmosphere 59 years ago.

At the very end of the main islet in Majuro atoll, I looked out across a few hundred yards of water to the next tiny stretch of land along the rim of the lagoon. Winds blew off the Pacific in a steady rush of air, through the thick wall of coconut trees that rose up out of the shallow reef, hiding Ejit Island from view.

On the other side of those trees, the people of Bikini live in a community of nuclear exile 59 years after their atoll was destroyed by US nuclear testing. At low tide, you can walk right across the reef to Ejit, but I stood there, paralyzed by the tragedy of it all.

It felt strange to casually stroll over and meet the people who stood witness to one of humanity’s greatest crimes. So I didn’t. I walked back to the road, and hailed a taxi back to the sticky heat of town.

In Majuro, the capital of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, decrepit concrete buildings and parking lots jut up from the sea, out of place among the emerald islets that ring the lagoon. The moist breeze off of the Pacific is heated by asphalt, and the equatorial air clings to your skin, stifling and saturated with humidity.

After school, hundreds of kids walk home in their uniforms, playing on the rusted cars and makeshift junkyards that line the single road running the length of the islet. Taxis cough exhaust into the air, stopping abruptly to let people climb in and out, and shiny new pickup trucks roar through the island, confined to driving in two directions – there or back.

Still, the colors are vibrant, and everywhere, I was greeted with the kinds of smiles usually reserved for old friends. During the day, I’d wander until the sun was too much, and then search for respite under the shade. Anywhere I stopped to cool off, I found friendly conversation, a Hawaii connection, and some good stories.

But rimajols, as the people of Majuro are called, were quick to tell me that to experience real Marshallese culture, I would have to go to the outer atolls.

Just a two hour boat ride away from Majuro, the air on Arno atoll seems cooler, the sun a little kinder. The noise of constant traffic is replaced by sounds of piglets grunting happily as they scratch themselves on the trunks of coconut trees, or by the tinkering of rusted bicycle chains as people peddle over the dirt road. The jungle is dense, and the reef glows phosphorescent under the clear blue water.


I stayed with a volunteer English teacher in her tiny trailer on the lagoon side of the island, and, as the only other ribele, or foreigner, I attracted quite a bit of attention from her students. Every day, groups of them would bring coconuts and pandanus as an excuse to sit outside on the doorstep and play.

They showed me dances that they had made up, and we called each other “pretty” or “handsome,” then giggled at our clumsiness with each others’ languages. I fell in love with all of them: Baby, Jolly, Rosalita, Malong. The big ones looked after the little ones, they shared everything, and they took care of each other.

On my last full day on Arno, the children convinced me to come to church. It was Gospel Day, when Marshallese celebrate the arrival of the first Christian missionaries, and they wanted me to watch the dances they had prepared.

Under a tin-roofed lanai, rows and rows of children sat on plastic chairs listening to Katzuo, the big-boned, gentle giant of a pastor. Just as I took off my slippers and sat among them, I heard the ring of the makeshift church bell – an old scuba tank. A dinky keyboard began playing tinny, pre-programmed music, and the kids stood up and started singing at the tops of their lungs.

Their faces were so simply happy, their bodies so filled with excitement, that I found myself smiling through tears, laughing with them as they taught me how to dance along with the songs.

As I followed the footwork, I turned towards the back of the lanai, where parents beamed at the sight of their children’s elation. That’s when I noticed a weariness in the eyes of the adults that made it difficult to imagine that they had ever been children themselves.

I realized then that while life on Arno provides a childhood of freedom, it certainly does not fit into the romantic notion of a simpler, easier life. By most indicators, Arno is worse off than Majuro. There are few opportunities to make a living, communication is limited, health care services are almost non-existent, and poverty is commonplace. Children go to school every day, but my hostess said sadly, “They won’t have any reason to use what we teach them.”

Copra (the dried meat of the coconut) production is virtually the only source of income for most outer-islanders; all day long, the men and women of Arno wander the islet picking up fallen coconuts with their machetes, hauling their load to a clearing, and hacking each coconut apart, before drying the meat and selling the labor-intensive product at 23 cents per pound.

I looked back at the children and knew that if I asked any of them what they had for lunch, they would probably say rice or flour soup, because, aside from the canned goods that are shipped here and sold at exorbitant prices, that is mostly all they get. For the kids, singing may be enough to forget, but as I looked at their parents’ faces, I thought perhaps it is not so easy forever.



A week later, on the ride back to Majuro, the rocking of the boat lulled me into a happy daydream as I sat on the sun-drenched deck. Katzuo had come along to run errands in town, and he cut a pandanus fruit, passing around the sweet, fibrous chunks to everyone on board. An old man tapped my shoulder and pointed at a pod of dolphins swimming along side us. A woman I recognized from the village cradled her baby as it slept.

When we pulled into the dock, Katzuo offered to give me a ride home. “We’ll drop her off first,” he said, motioning toward the woman and her child. After a few minutes we arrived at a compound just outside of town. The houses were clustered together so tightly that they blocked out any of the ocean breeze.

The compound was littered with scrap metal and there was not a single blade of grass to cool the dusty ground. It was an ordinary scene, repeated countless times in Majuro. Still, as the woman got out of the cab and disappeared between the houses, I couldn’t help but think of her home in Arno, nestled in dense, wet green, the wind rushing through her pane-less windows.

We pulled away and as we drove back through town, Majuro felt different than before. On Arno, at least, it is possible to see some semblance of the lifestyle and culture that once defined the Marshallese, and it is difficult not to wonder what development and Westernization has offered that subsistence could not. I searched, and could not find an answer.

Behind the smiling faces of women in brightly colored guams, and the excited waves of brown-skinned, barefoot children, Majuro read like a list of charges against the worst kind of criminal. Because, while Majuro is much farther along in the traditional definition of development, rimajols have been robbed of so many of their most precious belongings, their land, culture, ancestral knowledge, and the autonomy over their way of life.

Though modernization promised so much, in the Marshalls, it has brought little but suffering and exploitation. Development has brought roads, electricity and opportunities to participate in the global cash economy at the meager $2 an hour minimum wage, but it has also pushed many in the margins from subsistence, to poverty, punishing those who did not find their place in modernity.

In Majuro especially, the evidence was everywhere: in the disfigured diabetics, in the drunkards stumbling down the street, in the tuna ships on the horizon, in the coconut trees eroding swiftly off disappearing beaches, and in the US military men on leave.

As the indigenous diet has been replaced by imported processed foods, diabetes rates in the Marshalls have risen to among the highest in the world. As traditional community networks have been disintegrated, drug abuse and domestic violence have increased. The wealth of the country’s fisheries are funneled out by large foreign companies, while traditional fishing methods are lost.

The Marshalls are already suffering land loss and water salination due to rising sea levels, though they contribute a minuscule 0.06 percent of the worlds greenhouse gases. And, like so many years before, beautiful and limited land is claimed by the US military in exchange of a steady flow of money to nurse the Marshall’s many wounds.

On one of my last evenings in the Marshalls, I attended a screening of the film The Sound of Crickets at Night, which tells the story of an Bikinian grandfather who longs for the island of his childhood as his family struggles. The film is a sad one, but the atmosphere that night was festive. The Bikinian cast beamed with pride and talked about what it meant to be able to tell their story on their terms.

I watched the smiles on their faces, familiar, yet so different from the faces in weathered photos in history books, and realized that I was wrong to think that death and tragedy define them. There is so much more to be said about a people who left their home because they trusted in the men who told them that their sacrifice would be “for the good of mankind,” “that it would put an end to war.” Death and tragedy, certainly, but also kindness, peacefulness and survival.

The next day, I returned to look out across the water at Ejit Island. The coconut fronds blowing in the wind immediately conjured images of the bomb that have, for so long, defined our understanding of this country.

But today, it is not just nuclear exile that weighs on the Marshallese. There are new stories, and like the faces of the Bikinian cast I had met the night before, they are familiar, but different from those in history books. They are the stories of new challenges and uncertainties looming in the distance like an approaching cloud on stormy seas.

Stories of the decaying health of a once thriving people; or, of the creeping uncertainty of seeing each new windy season bring rising tides farther onto the already eroding shoreline. Some have been written over generations – the struggles of family members facing racism and discrimination across the Pacific diaspora – while others remain unwritten – those of the world’s first climate change refugees and a landless nation.


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