24 Jan Why Micronesia? (Part II)

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 next sixth months on Majuro directing this pilot program, called the Marshall Islands Story Project. To get the full story, be sure to check the archives to your left.

Emailing Majuro, I’ve decided, is like playing a video game. There’s a lot of chance and luck involved. You can’t be certain the email’s going to get through. Sometimes the satellite link goes down, usually when Majuro’s power blacks out. Then the email comes back as undeliverable, even though you know you’ve used the right address.

As one of my Majuro contacts explained recently (in an email): “Well, we have days (usually announced after 5pm the day before) when the power is ‘scheduled’ to be out. There are classrooms which still have generator-based electricity (usually). I am writing from one of these right now.” She advises me to request a room that has a generator.

This correspondent, Ruth, is subbing for me until I can get out there—in another two weeks. My other sub, Dean, gave me this report of the first day of website design class: “All cables were there, the class went fine. Students already knew how to use the camera and download files! The lab has no available power outlets, so it laptops are charged overnight.” I’m not sure what he means by no “available” power outlets. I know that the college has built some new buildings. Maybe they have no power yet in this part. There is power, I assure you—and it’s like our own system, except for those frequent outages.

My host, the College of the Marshall Islands, is a 2-year school and the only college in the Republic. Some students who graduate go on to 4-year colleges in Hawaii. A smaller number come to the States for school. A larger number come to the States to live and work. The Republic of the Marshall Islands enjoys a special relationship with the U.S.A. called the “compact of free association.” This allows Marshallese to live, work, and travel in the U.S. without restriction. The compact was part of the deal the U.S. brokered in 1986 when the Marshalls gained their independence.

playing checkersAfter World War II, the U.S. more or less owned the Marshalls and all the rest of Micronesia under the umbrella of “trust territory.” We held this nation and others in “trust” until we (that is, the U.S. Congress) felt they could take care of themselves. As you can imagine, the Marshallese didn’t like to be held at all. After nearly two hundred years of colonization—by the Spanish, the Germans, the Japanese, and then the Americans–they wanted their independence.

But the U.S. had its own ideas about how to use the Marshalls. Nuclear testing, for example. I’ll spare you the ugly details of that for now. The other plan the U.S. had was to build an anti-ballistic missile base in the Marshalls, because they are so remote. Anti-ballistic missiles are our first line of defense against missiles fired at us. The U.S. Army has been testing these in the Kwajalein atoll (300 miles west of Majuro) for nearly 50 years. This effort became part of the Star Wars Defense Initiative, one of President Reagan’s pet projects.

playing checkersIt costs billions and billions to test these missiles. A small part of that money goes to the Marshallese government for the lease of many islands, where there are secret installations of all kinds. As a kid, I lived here—on Kwajalein, that top-secret missile base—and it changed my life. In case you don’t know, the U.S. military doesn’t build its own weapons; it employs sub-contractors like Northrop Grumman, Lockheed, Raytheon, and Western Electric/Bell Labs. Western Electric employed my father. He was an expert in radar re-entry testing. I didn’t know this until we moved to the Marshall Islands. He never talked about his work. It was secret, after all. 

playing checkersSo that was my initial connection to the Marshall Islands—then a Trust Territory: it was my home for two years in the late 1960s. I saw the Marshallese only as laborers and drivers and cooks and janitors on Kwajalein. Marshallese aren’t allowed to live among the Americans. They have to take a boat back to a neighboring island.

To gain their independence from the U.S., the Marshallese staged a sit-in on Kwajalein in 1984. It could have been an international incident, and very embarrassing to the U.S. A couple years later, the U.S. let go of the Marshalls finally, but not without strings attached. There is that big missile test site to deal with. Can’t uproot that easily.

So here’s the irony: Kwajalein—occupied by all of those American physicists and engineers–has some of the best technology in the world, including lightning-fast internet access. But Majuro, not so far away, has internet access so slow you have to take a book with you every time you check your email. The last time I was on Majuro, I got a lot of reading done that way.

 When your internet’s as slow as that, you’re not too eager to use it. Which explains why it’s so hard to get a quick response from the people I’ve been trying to contact. So I send my emails out there, an act of faith, and wait.