31 May Deadline

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.

Yesterday I got careless and cocky and ate something I shouldn’t have. Today I’m paying for it. I know where it happened, at one of the roadside take-outs, where they grill a meal then wrap it in foil and leave it sitting on the sun-baked counter. It might have been one of the side-dishes: the jellied arrowroot, which is coated in freshly-grated coconut, or the preserved breadfruit, which tastes like pureed yams. I think I’ll be fine tomorrow. Years ago, when I was experimenting with “natural” foods, I got salmonella from raw-milk cheese and was laid up for a few days, unaware that, in my sick bed, I was snacking on the very food that was poisoning me. Which is to say it takes a lot to kill me. My policy out here has been to eat whatever’s put before me. If I’m unsure of it, I won’t eat much of it. The next time I see jellied arrowroot, though, I’ll be sorely tempted.

This afternoon, our students interviewed one of the high chiefs–the guy responsible for the entire Ralik chain of islands (there are two chains). We’re going to try to interview the other high chief (responsible for the Ratak chain) soon. It’s an honor to get time with him and it will really boost the credibility of the Story Project. To show our respect to the high chief, the students presented him with a large bunch of bananas, 15 coconuts (the drinking kind), and a slaughtered (but uncooked) pig. Each was wrapped in ceremonial panandus-leaf basket. The high chief didn’t expect this and, we hope, was impressed that the students could observe so traditional a custom. This, too, will increase the credibility of the Story Project, which is, after all, about preserving customs. Newton worked for weeks to secure our appointment with the high chief and then worked three days preparing for it. He located the pig (and prepared it). It wasn’t easy finding the right pig. They’re not at all everyday eating. Virtually all of the meat grilled at the take-outs, for instance, is frozen imports from the States.

Newton and I have finally got the interview thing down, which is to say we have handed it over to the students. Nobody will deny the students’ request for an interview. Newton wrote out questions for them to ask, so now when we locate a prospective interviewee (which keeps Newton running around), the students can hand over the questions in advance to set the interviewee at ease. The students know how to work the equipment too, so we just drop them off. That’s a good thing because Newton and I are busy all the time now, he with translation, I with the website. Under deadline, we have no free time to ourselves. I’m working on the website every day.

Just last week I realized that the site has to be bi-lingual on every page. Before that, I was focused only on the translations of interviews and hadn’t thought about all the other stuff, like the homepage and the “about” page and the introductions to everything. As a result, I’ve had to re-design the website to give each page two columns, one side for English, the other for Marshallese. The website was supposed to go up yesterday but we’ll be delayed a week (check it Friday, June 6). The translations are going to be coming in for another two months. We also have an historic photo archive and, we hope, a music archive to post.

Every day I get 3-5 students to work but mostly they’re MIA, summer having abducted them. When they work, they’re invaluable. I can’t process everything by myself–there are audio recordings to edit, videos to edit, photos to process and post, texts to transcribe, and website pages to craft. And then there’s the other work I’ve got them into, building websites for other non-profit agencies on Majuro. Their first site is for the National Training Council (rmintc.org). And then there are other preservation opportunities we’re encountering–like the VHS story teller tapes we found at the all-but-defunct cultural museum. We need to digitize those.

I leave in two weeks. So I’ve got to put into place enough instruction and guidance for the students to carry on under Newton’s supervision. Jill’s coming out my last week. I can’t wait to see her and I’m thrilled she’s going to see the Marshall Islands. I’m determined to carve out enough free time to be with her. Typical of me, I’m trying to do too much and half of it’s not even part of the contract. It’s simply there waiting to be done, so why not try to do it?

The photo to the left is of a story teller who accompanied himself with a ukulele. Newton’s dog came running to the story-teller the moment he started playing. The dog is aloof and not taken to strangers, but in this instance music soothed him. I thought he might start howling in accompaniment. Here’s a snippet of the story teller’s song: Binet sings about bananas.

P.S. This week was my mother’s birthday. She’s 80 and “still on foot,” as she likes to put it. Happy birthday, Mom. She worries about me. She says, “You boys were born in a hubcap–you can’t stand still.”