08 Feb Pink Eye

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 (five months) on Majuro to direct this pilot program, called the Marshall Islands Story Project. To get the full story, be sure to check the archives to your left.

approaching Majuro Henry has pink-eye. But, unlike everyone else, he’s not wearing sunglasses to hide it. That’s Henry. The island is out of pink-eye medication and out of antibacterial soap and Handiwipes too. Every other person I meet has pink-eye. They say it’s the viral variety. I’ve never had pink eye of any variety.

garland Henry met me at the Majuro airport. He has a bushy mustache, a dark mocha complexion, and a full head of curly graying hair. He was wearing khaki trousers, an untucked short sleeve shirt, and flip-flops. This could be considered the national costume. “Yukwe,” he said, then placed a garland on my head. “Yukwe” (also spelled “Iakwe” and pronounced “Yuck-way”) means loosely “greetings” and, more specifically, “love to you.”

We met for the first time in May, when I visited Majuro to set up the project. Henry is one of the most fluent speakers and writers of English in the nation. He’s also a reassuring, calming presence. He has the manner of a laid-back uncle. When he looks at you, his gaze seems a mixture of curiosity and understated good humor. In May, as he expressed an earnest desire to help me, I realized I couldn’t do the project without him.

Henry brought along a student to help me carry my baggage. But I surprised myself and traveled light: a medium duffle of clothes, another of equipment, and a shoulder bag of books. I was surprised also that my baggage made it. Last night it was MIA in Honolulu, where I stayed overnight. I had to borrow a t-shirt from my Hono friend, DK. He’s an American, about 37, tall, funny and very calm in the face of foolishness and futility, of which he’s seen a lot. (Those who survive the sometimes maddening quirks of island life must cultivate this kind of calm.) We had dinner at the “International Marketplace,” a tourist food-mall in Waikiki but surprisingly cheap and good. Initially DK offered to take me to the Cheesecake Factory. I politely declined. Franchise food is a treat for DK because he’s lived many years on Majuro, where—until this year–he was dean of the college. Now he’s getting his Ph.D. in education at U. of Hawaii and he’s supposed to return to the college, where the administration thinks he’ll be the next president. “Why would I want to do that?” he exclaimed. “Another white man doing the work that should go to the Marshallese?” He and I had a long talk about the College of the Marshall Islands—run by white, middle class Americans–and its long history of woes, most of them of its own making.

My recent misunderstanding with CMI over the grant is typical of CMI. Just to be clear: I wasn’t angry at CMI for not getting me the money—that’s the Republic’s bureaucratic bullshit and to be expected. No, I was angry at CMI for its lack of communication. Nobody there was talking to anybody about anything. Above all, nobody was telling me what was going on. Today, just a few hours after my landing, I talked with CMI administration face to face. They are very sympathetic but have made clear they can’t help me. I’m not an employee of the college and so the college can’t give me or loan me any money; otherwise, it would risk its fiscal integrity and an embarrassing audit. CMI’s touchy about such things because its last CFO sneaked away with $200,000.

friend on the plane In our meeting today, the CMI provost—a soft-spoken grandmotherly sort–turned to me and asked, “Why did you let yourself get into this predicament?” She meant why did I give $17,000 (it keeps going up) to the project at the risk of my own bankruptcy? The short answer: “I’m an optimist.” What is more, the National Parks Service director I’d been dealing with gave me no indication that there would be a hang-up. Even my contact at Majuro’s Historic Preservation Office seemed to suggest—weeks ago—that the check was imminent. More to the point: had I not advanced the money, the project would have crashed before it got started. We’re now three weeks into classes, after all. The students are doing terrific work. And they’re excited. Already they’re beginning to feel their own power in words and images. That’s worth seventeen grand, isn’t it?

Here’s how one Marshallese student describes Majuro:

You can stand in the middle of the school basketball court and see both the lagoon and ocean. Yup! That’s how thin Majuro is, and thirty miles long. BUT the weather is always beautiful I love how the sun shines everyday, well sometimes it rains, but it doesn’t bother me much because sometimes the island runs short on water. There is only one movie theater, one drycleaner, a bowling alley, four disco clubs, several bars, five hotels (four to two story buildings), several groceries, and lots of mom n pop stores, one main road with one lane going left and the other lane goes right, one hospital, which sometimes runs out of supplies like right now there no more embalming fluid for the dead so the deceased are buried right away.

The provost smiled at me kindly and said, “I’m an optimist too.” Then she added, “What are you going to do if the HPO doesn’t release the check for two months?”

“Then I’m screwed,” I admitted.

Did I mention that my eyes have felt scratchy all day?

I had lunch with Henry at an out-of-the-way Chinese restaurant. I paid, of course, because this is supposed to be covered by the grant. It was cheap. I’m being careful about drinking the water. No ice cubes.

Henry and I are strategizing. Here’s the problem: CMI seems to smother everything it touches. DK, the former dean, had wanted to start a Marshallese Institute, for example. In fact, the Story Project was supposed to be the foundation of that initiative. But after DK’s departure, the Institute died a quick death. CMI has yet to put Marshallese in positions of authority, much less empower students to take on all that must be taken on. “They should call it ‘College in the Marshall Islands,’ not ‘College OF the Marshall Islands,’” DK observed. “There’s nothing of the Marshallese in it.”

Henry himself has been “promoted” nearly off campus. He used to be the school’s guidance counselor. Now CMI administration is sending him on field trips to another island 3 days a week. I don’t know why they did this when he’s supposed to be my partner in this ostensibly very important project. But that’s CMI. Henry’s convinced they’re trying to keep him out of the way. Nobody in administration talks to him anymore. They think him a trouble maker. That is, he’s not afraid to speak his mind. In fact, when he was student counselor at one of the Majuro high schools, he organized a walk-out of faculty to protest for better treatment of teachers. Recently he brought a grievance against the now-former head of CMI’s personnel, which succeeded in forcing the man’s resignation. “That man didn’t care for the Marshallese,” he explained. “He didn’t belong here and I told him so.” Henry’s grievance was well-founded, I have no doubts, because I met the offender last May. (Example: the man offered to drive me to the airport and then forgot all about it, making me nearly miss my plane home. I had to stand on the side of the road and catch a taxi at the last minute.) In short, Henry won’t shuck and jive for the ripalle (“white people”). CMI would fire him if it could, he says, but in the recent elections Henry’s uncle became the Minister of Education.

Henry knows all of the influential people on Majuro, it seems. This weekend he’s going to talk to one of the high princes so that we get permission to visit with the people of the Bikini atoll—the folk on whom the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb. Most of the survivors are living here on Majuro. Henry’s agreed to do the translations for the project and, at the same time, to help our students with translations. I am convinced this guy is brilliant and I’ve made clear to him that I am very grateful for his considerable help. He tells me he has a cousin working in the Ministry of Finance. Maybe he can get the Ministry to release the grant check. The recent election of a reform government has turned every government office upside down. Henry also tells me that me that he’s built a camp for us on Arno, a nearby island, where we’ll visit some story tellers. We’re going to live in huts, he says, and cook over open fires.

Thank you, Henry.