19 Apr Dreamweaver

Ron Tanner, chair of the Writing Department at Loyola College-Maryland, won a grant from the National Parks Service to help Marshallese college students preserve the oral culture of the Marshall Islands. He’s spending the 2008 spring semester (5 months) on Majuro to direct this pilot program, called the Marshall Islands Story Project. To get the full story of his personal experiences, be sure to check the archives to your left.

I got in late last night because Newton and I finally tracked down Letallik, a story-teller who had been eluding us for weeks. The old man divides his time between Arno and Majuro. When we were on Arno, he was in Majuro. When we returned to Majuro, he was on Arno. When we found him at last, he was in the mood to talk, so we sat with him behind Newton’s house–Newton’s sandy yard ends at the water’s edge, under two huge lukej trees. Letallik (his name means â”man who walks on oceanside”) sat on the sea wall, the dark lagoon behind him. He is a short, slight man with a full head of silver hair. It’s clear that he was quite handsome in his youth. As a young man on Jaluit, he lived through World War II. Jaluit was the Japanese headquarters for the southern Marshalls and has some notable war ruins.

One of Letallik’s stories recounts how he and a young Japanese officer on Jaluit became friends during the war. When the Americans blockaded the atoll, the Japanese ordered the Marshallese to stop harvesting their breadfruit and coconuts and such. The Japanese wanted control of all food. Soon everyone was starving, even the all-controlling Japanese, and everything edible–even a single coconut–was rationed on penalty of death. One day the officer-friend asked Letallik to climb up and get him a coconut because he could not stand the hunger. Though weak from hunger himself, Letallik obliged him. (Note how the Marshallese will do anything, even risk their own lives, for a friend.) Letallik made it to the top of the tree, but was unable to hold onto the coconut. The nut fell with a crash into the brush. The noise drew the attention of a Japanese officer who happened to be scouting on the nearby beach. He shouted for Letallik to stop, then he pulled out his pistol and took aim. Letallik was certain that this was his end. But his officer-friend, obscured by the undergrowth, shot the other officer dead. They stripped the dead man, buried his clothes, then dragged away the body along the waves’ edge, where the water would wash away the blood. They laid him in the current between islands, then weighed him down with stones until high tide came and swept him out to sea.

There’s more, but you get the idea. Very striking stuff. Our goal is to meet with at least three story-tellers a week for the next two months. This means that I have to be ready to drop everything at a moment’s notice and follow Newton when he finds who he’s looking for. Making appointments is often useless. As Newton and I are now increasingly on the run, it’s impossible to bring the students on every interview. But the students are very involved and a couple have had the opportunity to conduct the interview themselves (everything’s in Marshallese). I have to be careful, though. I asked one student to ask a former senator about his role in the formation of the country. Those were my words, â”the formation of the country.” The student ended up asking him about the geological formation of the atolls. When I heard the interviewee mention â”volcano,” I knew we were off track. We straightened it out after I rephrased the question: your role in creating the Republic?

My students are in the midst of translating the stories we brought back from Arno. This involves transcribing the stories verbatim into Marshallese. Then translating this into English. They’re doing this in groups, huddled around the computers as one student types while the others confer, debate, and decide what’s being said and how it’s spelled. The recordings are digitized and played back on Media Player, which makes transcription fairly fast because the player is easy to pause and rewind. Newton will work with them on the final draft. It promises to be a great teaching moment because he’s an elder who brings both cultural and linguistic expertise. Speaking of recordings: by far the project’s best buy was an Olympus digital recorder. It’s about half the size of a cigarette pack, runs for 12 hours on a single AAA rechargeable battery, and stores up to 555 hours of audio. We could keep the entire project on the thing, though I dare not. I download every night.

The class showed off its websites at the college’s Foundation Day, when students from Majuro schools are invited to see what college is about. We lined up our laptops and visiting students were able to tour each 3-page website. These were my students’ mid-term projects and feature personal elements, such as snapshots from Arno, as well as story-telling elements, such as a family story that each student had to translate.

As web-designers, my students have competence so far in basic HTML to make website tables, banners, navigation bars, and buttons–plus they’re wizards at Photoshop. This week they’ve moved to CSS, cascading style sheets, which will change their world. By the semester’s end, a month away, they should be fairly self-sufficient. We’re almost to the point where I can step back and watch them run. In fact, a couple are running already and helping the others. That’s a critical component in the teaching–letting them teach each other. It’s a blast hearing one or more across the room exclaim â”Oh!” as he or she gets it at last.

It was a blast too watching them show younger students what a website does. Though there’s internet on the island, this technology is out of reach for nearly everybody. Very few students have access to a computer outside of school. As far as I can tell, nobody on the island has worked with Dreamweaver. That doesn’t mean students aren’t adept if given the chance. My own students surprised me with their abilities when we were on Arno. We were lounging around camp one afternoon when I heard music drifting from one of the students’ cameras. And then I heard music rising from another. What gives? I asked. They showed me: they had discovered that each comes equipped with software to make slide shows with music. So that’s what each student had done, made a slide show on the camera’s view screen. I had no idea the cameras could do that–and I bought the cameras.

My motel–the â”resort”–has been rationing water for two weeks. We get the wet stuff between 6-9:00 in the morning and 6-8:00 at night. Worse, the hot water has disappeared completely. If I want hot water, I have to microwave it in a bowl. When faced with a cold shower in the morning, I start having second thoughts about the benefits of air-conditioning. Though we get rain twice a day, it’s not enough to supply 25,000 people on this small island. But rationing is not universal. The hotel up the road isn’t rationing water, I’ve heard. I’ve taken to storing a couple of gallons for daily use. But there’s no getting used to it. Too often, I find myself at the sink, my hands open and waiting and the faucet gargling and choking, unable to give me what I want.

I phoned my mother this week. She’s been having nightmares and calling Jill nearly every day to voice her worries. I regret not phoning her sooner. I was trying to save money. But talking to Mom’s worth any amount, I remind myself. My computer phone program, I’ve discovered, allows me to access conventional phones for about 20 cents a minute. A bargain. I’ve promised Mom I’ll phone her weekly from now on. She says she sent me an envelope of money a month ago when the grant still had not come through. I’d warned her not to because the mail here is unreliable. I never got the envelope. â”Oh, well,” she said, â”I’m sure the person who got it appreciated it.”

I haven’t seen Jill in two and a half months. She can’t get her passport until she gets her birth certificate, which she still hasn’t received, even though–after weeks of run-arounds–she sent in for â”expedited” service. In the age of information, you’d think things would go faster. We’re running out of time because my calendar gets busy in May and June, as the project comes to a close. Actually, the end will be the beginning–if all goes well. Newton and I are exploring ways to sustain the project. This has been the aim all along, to show how and what could be done so that it can continue. Otherwise, what’s the point? I’ve pledged my support to the project for however long it may need my help. But, come July, the project will have a new–Marshallese–director.

Sustaining programs is the Republic’s greatest challenge. It’s a small nation, keep in mind. Resource analysts have come up with a formula for how well a population of a certain size can produce enough college-educated adults to build and sustain the country.
With only 63,000 people in the nation, the Republic of the Marshall Islands is at the low end. This is why the ripalle run the College and so many Chinese, Filipinos, Australians, New Zealanders, and other outsiders have businesses here. They are filling in the gaps. It gets complicated. Talented Marshallese students, like those in my courses, move on to four-year colleges in the States and many never come back. If they do come back, they may not find work. Even when there is work available, the customs of hierarchical privilege and familial influence may frustrate their efforts.

The second check for the grant is three weeks late. But Josepha, the director of the Historic Preservation Office, informs me that it’s on its way. She explained that when the money disappears as it has in my case, it’s been â”reprogrammed,” a term that makes her roll her eyes and laugh. Short, energetic, and funny, Josepha is my boss, though she doesn’t act like a boss–which is why she’s easy to work with. If you try to keep up with her, you’ll see that she’s doing way too much for one person, hosting a daily radio program in addition to running the HPO and trying to stir and sustain interest in preservation not only all over the island but all over the nation. By the way, her talk-radio show (which covers a variety of topics, many related to culture) is so popular that the former government banned it. (I continue to be amazed at how repressive the former government was.) One of the things Josepha does is worry about the Alele museum. She doesn’t run it, but its holdings belong to the HPO.

The Alele is the nation’s cultural museum, which has fallen to ruin–for reasons no one can quite articulate. Newton and I dropped by the Alele the other day. The place was closed and looked abandoned. I mean, really abandoned, like no one’s been there in five years. Its concrete steps are crumbing, paint is peeling, etc. It went bankrupt a few years ago and has sat un-air-conditioned for as long as a year. Everyone worries about its extensive holdings of audio and video tapes and other fragile artifacts. The recordings date back to the sixties and seventies, which means they capture elders’ memories from the early colonial days. When I found out that the Alele’s URL (website address) expired last year and was up for sale, I offered to buy it for the HPO. Josepha said that’d be a good idea. So I did that today. As with all efforts here, we’ve got to take it one piece at a time.