30 Dec Why Micronesia? (Part I)

I won a grant from the National Parks Service to pilot a program that will help Marshallese college students preserve the oral culture of their island nation. Most Americans haven’t heard of the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) and that’s understandable. It comprises two island chains in the mid-Pacific, 4,300 miles west of California and seven degrees north of the equator. It’s closer to Japan than to the U.S. The islands number one thousand or more and they are quite small, most no larger than a shopping mall parking lot. Average elevation is about six feet. Yes, because of global warming, this nation—among so many others—is doomed. Typhoons have been washing over these islands for millennia and remarkably they and their inhabitants have survived. Now estimates give them as little as fifty years.


That’s not why their rich oral culture needs preserving. At least, that’s not the immediate reason. The immediate reason is that the Marshallese don’t live long—about 60 years, due to a number of factors typical of so-called Third-World nations. As a result, the elders who survived the Japanese occupation, which ended with World War II, and those who survived the horrific era of nuclear testing, during the 1950s, are fast dying. They have many tales to share, tales that speak of their people’s formidable patience and perseverance and good will and love of family and respect of nature and innovations and cunning and suffering and triumphs. Their grandchildren need to hear these stories, but their grandchildren are distracted by the cool stuff we Americans are eager to share with the world: Hollywood movies and hip-hop music and Coke and Fritos and gangsta gear and Budweiser and Attitude.


playing checkersDon’t get me wrong. I’m not blaming Americans. Not directly, at any rate. We’re well-meaning folk. We work really hard and play really hard. Can we help it if our cool stuff seems cooler than anybody else’s? We lead the world in the manufacture and export of roller coasters. We are the world’s theme park. We want everybody to have fun. What’s wrong with that? At our worst, we’re like a contagion—a mind-numbing virus, say: everybody who comes in contact with us catches it. The good thing is, it won’t kill you, it’ll just fuck you up a bit, distract your children and make everybody a little duller, glutted with candy and sleepy from thoughtless pleasure.


Having caught our American virus, the Marshallese youth aren’t paying much attention to the cool stuff their own culture has to offer. Now, this is where it gets complicated: I’m not saying that the Marshallese youth want to be American. They simply like American stuff. There’s a big difference between the former and the latter. Here’s another piece of complication: I’m not out to save them. Only they can save themselves, if indeed saving is the issue. All I’m out to do is share a little knowledge about writing and using computers to communicate with the world. I’m a teacher of writing; I know something about computing. I hope to be a good global neighbor.


The “Marshall Islands Story Project” is a pilot program that I have created in collaboration with the College of the Marshall Islands on Majuro, the capital island. It will last one semester and involve up to 30 students. We will take tape recorders and cameras into the community—and to other islands—and we will listen to the elders tell their tales. Then we will bring back what we’ve found and try to make sense of it in English. We will talk among ourselves about stories and why they are important and why we keep telling them (or should). At the semester’s end, we will post some of these stories on a website that we will build: mistories.org (a rudimentary version is up already). We hope that the world will find these stories and learn more about the Marshallese people. We hope too that the Marshallese themselves—the young people who are distracted by other cool stuff—will begin to look at these stories and want to hear and read more.


If the pilot project goes well, it will become an ongoing effort that expands to record, archive, and broadcast many other forms of the Marshallese culture, such as their history of navigation, their tradition of weaving, their legacy of tattooing, and much more, all of it awe-inspiring.


Having read this much, you may have questions. I have questions myself. Such as: how am I going to make this happen? I’ve never undertaken anything like this. Neither has the College of the Marshall Islands. We’re bungee jumping into it, hoping the cord will hold. I’ve enlisted a lot of influential Marshallese citizens to help me, though I’m not sure what I might ask them to do. Everybody wants this thing to work. Frankly, I’m a little scared and, in fact, couldn’t sleep tonight thinking about all I’m trying to pull together (it’s 2:53 A.M. EST).


The least of my worries are the logistics, though they too are complicated. For example: I’m supposed to purchase a lot of equipment—laptops, cameras, tape recorders, etc.—and send them in advance of my arrival. I thought I could get an air carrier to ship the stuff for free or at cost, at least. But no dice. How much does it cost to ship 100 pounds of equipment half way around the world? And how can I insure that it won’t get stolen? And when will my first check arrive from Majuro’s Historic Preservation Office, which the National Parks Service is funding? I’m maxing out my credit cards.


So it begins.