Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Brown angel

Now that I have both electricity AND internet access, I'm posting this story from last Christmastime.





“Where did you get this?” I asked in astonishment. I held the small brown felt angel in both hands, my heart pounding. The label read “Artist Proof Studio, South Africa,” an enormous distance in time and space from my temporary seaside home in the Marshall Islands.


“At the craft fair on Kwajalein,” replied my Marshallese friend, puzzled at my reaction to the Christmas ornament she had given me.

I became acquainted with Artist Proof Studio in 2003 through the cofounder, Kim Berman, who came from South Africa to Brandeis for an Ethics Center institute on peacebuilding through the arts. Other artists at the Brandeis institute included Playback Theater actors from New Zealand, employing the Playback method of improv theater, in which audience members tell stories from their lives and actors perform them on the spot. Kim took the storyteller’s chair in one of the institute sessions and, summoning enormous courage, spoke in measured tones through raw grief. She told of losing her partner and her lifework when the Artist Proof Studio burned down with her partner inside, just three weeks before. As the actors re-enacted her story, I could almost smell the charred flesh, the burning linocuts, the melting metal printmaking press.

A few years later, one of the undergraduate Ethics Center Student Fellows was an intern with the School of Playback Theater in New York. I attended the final performance, this time taking the storyteller’s chair myself. I told of my Playback experience at Brandeis, when I sat in the audience as actors told Kim’s story. Then I watched my student Will take the part of Kim as he acted out my story: Playback actors re-enacting a story about Playback.

Over time, four other Student Fellows went to live with Kim in South Africa, most as interns in the rebuilt Artist Proof Studio, one working with AIDS orphans in the Art Therapy Centre.

I thought I left all that behind in 2009 when I took a yearlong leave of absence from Brandeis and traveled to the Marshall Islands to teach English. But when I sat in the equatorial December heat and unwrapped the Christmas present from my Marshallese friend, I found a xeroxed typed card inside a plastic sleeve: “Artist Proof Studio products are sewn and embroidered by groups of women in communities directly affected by HIV/AIDS. Your purchase supports these women in their struggle against HIV/AIDS.” Behind it was a stuffed felt angel, orange beads shimmering on its wings.

Artist Proof Studio, South Africa.
Brandeis University, Massachusetts.
School of Playback Theater, New York.
Kwajalein Atoll High School, Marshall Islands.


All connected through a brown angel.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Marci’s Marshall Islands Weight-Loss Plan



(Yes, I'm home -- with technology access at last, so I can post the last couple of stories written during my year in the Marshall Islands.)


This blog posting is dedicated to my colleague and friend Leigh Swigart, who taught me that a long walk is nothing to be annoyed about. Start putting one foot in front of the other, relax and enjoy the scenery. (Thanks to Liz Wellen for the photo)

I’m coming home 20 pounds lighter than when I arrived. (Well, make that 23 pounds as of the last time I veered close to a scale.) Losing the weight was completely painless. In fact, I wasn’t even sure whether I was gaining or losing weight under those shapeless mumus, in the absence of calibrator clothes (you know, that outfit that tells you when you’ve put on a few pounds). I’ve been eating anything I wanted, with appropriate doses of chocolate therapy PRN (as needed). I’ve remained outrageously healthy. The pounds just fell off.

You too can lose weight effortlessly! Here’s my weight-loss plan in 5 easy steps.

1. Move to a country where you don’t trust the food. One might say that Marshall Islanders are not as fastidious as I am about keeping hot food hot and cold food cold. My own kitchen is unnervingly buggy, so I don’t feel all that comfortable with my own cooking either. When you don’t quite trust what you’re eating, it’s real easy to eat less.

2. Get a job where you’re on your feet from 9:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m. Take aim at those 7 rows of chairs: pace up and down, then back and forth in front of the sauna-like tropical classroom for 6 hours a day. No snacks allowed, or students will want you to share. (There’s 150 of them.)

3. Make sure your workplace is five islands away from the closest town. Add unreliable transportation at limited times. That means that the surest way to get to church, the post office, or the grocery store is to walk the 6 miles one way. I can usually hitchhike into town (it’s very safe here) but then I walk home (at first not by my own choice, but once I saw I could do it, I did it purposefully). The 6 miles takes me about two hours, including water breaks and pauses to pick up shells on the causeway and admire the ocean. I walk it religiously every Sunday (pun intended). Believe it or not, that glorious weekly walk is what I’ll miss most here, with the tropical sun shimmering on the lagoon waves on one side of the causeway and the sparkling ocean surf on the other. Add a heavy backpack for a perfect workout. Stuff the backpack with plenty of water to drink and all your groceries and/or Sunday School teaching materials. That weekly hike is in addition to my ½ hour morning walks, which I’ve done for many years as my fitness plan.

4. Minimize eating out. It’s not hard to do with only one supermarket lunch counter and one restaurant (Filipino – yum!), both of which are located that 6 mile hike away.

5. Drastically reduce the number of party and dinner invitations you receive. And for the parties and dinners you do attend, see rule #1 above.

Yes, my friends, it boils down to: exercise more, eat less.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Hair





Like their identical school uniforms, Marshallese girls wear their hair exactly the same. With only two exceptions among all of my 80 or so female students, every girl has long, beautiful black hair framing her face. Some hair is sleek and soft; some is thicker. Some girls wear it long and straight; others twist it and tie it in a knot (literally). Others put it up, holding it in place with a comb or a hair elastic or a pencil. On Sundays I see my students in church with flowers in their hair, freshly picked plumeria with their delicate fragrance, or silk flowers, or flowers made of woven pandanus fibers.

Men’s hair is an entirely different matter. Like other species in which the male has more interesting plumage, Marshallese men’s hairstyles vary widely. Men too have uniformly black hair atop faces in handsome shades of brown. But almost always there’s a spot of hair somewhere growing long: either a single rat-tail at the back of the neck, towards the side, or a little tuft on top. (When we studied a story about robot spacecraft in our textbook, one student claimed his topknot was an antenna made of hair.) Sometimes the men grow matching tails like horns, starting in front and combed back. Some men have their hair close-cropped halfway up their head, then the top of their hair grows long into a ponytail. Often there are letters or shapes or symbols etched into the short hair on the sides or top of their heads.




In America, the triangular-shaped colorful kerchief is a girl’s hair accessory from the ‘70s. Here, it’s common for boys to wear it. It took me until April to figure out that the kerchief hides their Ipod ear buds so they can listen to music in class without the ribelle teacher figuring it out.







Here are a few explanations from my students’ journals:

“Marshallese boys’ hair is great. If you have a tail they will say you are real boy. They use their tail for fishing girls.”

“Some Marshallese girls tie their hair with flowers and other girls stuff. They do these to amaze boys. Some Marshallese boys make their tail so long that the wind can blow it like a flag. Boys do these to amaze girls.”

“[Some Marshallese] boys that had long hair make a promise to someone that they won’t cut their hair until their friend comes back.”

One student wrote me a note after a particularly drastic haircut: “Ms. Marci, I want to change my assigned seat. I just got haircut and I scared to sit in front row.” I replied, “I think it looks terrific, but I understand. Take row 6, seat 4."

Monday, April 12, 2010

No timeshares here




Zoom in on these photos and see the crab in my shower and the weed growing in the kitchen.

Something has been nibbling my soap – termites, I suspect. The only time I actually see the winged critters is at night when I’m brushing my teeth, but I routinely sweep up the piles of grainy black bits of house they leave behind all over the house. I haven’t known termites to have an appetite for my soap before, but I suspect they were the likely nibblers, rather than the cockroaches, sugar ants, friendly lizards, or the occasional crab on his way from the lagoon to the sea, taking a detour through my tub via a loose tile. I usually sweep the crab into the dustpan, take him outside, and set him back on his way.

Now that the windy season is coming to a close and the rainy season is beginning again, I’m pleased to discover that the roof isn’t leaking in any new places. The drips are strategically aimed onto the floor with skillful furniture arranging.

The kitchen and bathroom faucets haven’t worked for two weeks; I think the faculty catchment ran dry. But my own catchment still has water. That catchment feeds the tub faucet, so I carry water from the tub to the kitchen for cooking and dishwashing.

An outside vine has grown again through the crack between the wall and the stove, so I had to weed the kitchen once more. A mouse has recently discovered the crack, darting in and out under the stove as often as three times a day. Or is it 3 different mice? And are they blind? (start humming here. . . “Three Blind. . . “). Wait a minute – isn’t that why I take my food scraps outside to Gus, the stray cat, so he’ll keep mice away? Where’s your work ethic, Gus?

The freezer works fine, but the frig has been out for three weeks now. I’ve re-invented the icebox, making big blocks of ice in two empty ice cream tubs, rotating them between the freezer and the frig as they melt. Yes, I’ve told them about all of this, and “they’re working on it.” It all sounds grim, but actually I like indoor camping. And the mouse? Once I got over the startle factor, I have to admit he’s kind of cute.

The internet repairman fixed the rusted part on the office roof that had blocked internet access off and on for four months, so I could check email at last. (Unfortunately, the fix lasted less than 36 hours, as usual.) A friend had sent me a cheery email: “Your adventure sounds so exciting! Are there any timeshares there?”

No, no timeshares here. But I heard there is a hotel in Ebeye. I haven’t seen it myself, since very few shops or businesses have identifying signs on this tiny island, where everyone knows everything and few visitors venture. They say some hotel guests complained of dirty sheets, and personal belongings missing from locked hotel rooms. But I heard the hotel management denies everything, saying that the rooms weren’t ready yet and guests misplaced their belongings.

The closest movie theater and bowling alley are in the capital city Majuro, 235 nautical miles away. Ebeye does have a supermarket lunch counter and one restaurant (Filipino), to cater to 12,000 people, most of which live well below the poverty line. But no timeshares. I do have a couch, however, and you’re welcome to drop in anytime.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"Surviving Paradise: One Year on a Disappearing Island," by Peter Rudiak-Gould



Interested in a book about life in the Marshall Islands? A new one just came out – an easy beach read (no pun intended). Peter Rudiak-Gould was a WorldTeach volunteer on an outer island in 2003-4. He’s written a terrific, funny book that really captures a lot of the spirit of this place, without ducking the tough issues (Bikini nuclear testing disaster, grim global warming predictions, etc.). He’s now an anthropology grad student with an interest in linguistics; both of these disciplines feature prominently in his highly readable, witty memoir.

My experience is slightly different from Peter’s, for at least two reasons. One, I live on a rural island next to one of the two large population centers of the Marshall Islands, while Peter was on one of the remotest outer islands. Two, he’s male, and was therefore included in a lot of canoeing and spearfishing that were not available to me. Taking women on fishing expeditions is considered bad luck. Some Marshallese will break tradition to take a ribelle, but being a non-fisherman, I wasn’t particularly interested in breaking a cultural taboo on this one.

A few things that Peter writes about that don’t match my experience: I haven’t noticed any of the mistreatment or ignoring of children he talks about at some length. Neither have I seen the lack of activity on the part of the men. That’s probably a function of the rural outer island environment vs. the “urban” environment of Ebeye. Neither do men and women sit separately in the churches I’ve attended (Mormon and Catholic). Finally, the educational system here is challenged, but not as pathetic as the one he had to deal with on Ujae. We do have a school bell (an empty air tank clobbered several times a day with a hammer), and many teachers actually do teach. Among the Kwajalein Atoll High School teachers are several Filipinos, a Fijian, and a handful of Marshallese, as well as we two American WorldTeach volunteers.


Sorry, I don’t get a WorldTeach discount on the book; neither do I personally know the author to get you an autographed copy! But it’s a great book for understanding a WorldTeach year in the Marshall Islands.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

“I Have a Dream” for my Marshallese students



Students watching a video biography of Martin Luther King. Notice the face of King on my computer giving his stirring “I Have a Dream” speech, while the students watch the projector screen. (Yes, we have easy access to the school’s laptop and computer projector, but we’ve been without a functioning copy machine for days, without a functioning printer for weeks, without internet access for months, and without a useable student bathroom for longer than that (that’s what the ocean is for). One of the many paradoxes of teaching in the Marshall Islands.)
 
It’s one thing to support Brandeis college students to come up with great activities to celebrate Martin Luther King Day, as I have done in the past. I’ve been inspired by Brandeis students’ creativity and passion for all that King stood for.

It’s quite another thing to teach about Martin Luther King to Marshallese high school students who are coming to understand his story for the first time, even if they might have heard of him before.

MLK is not in the curriculum, but I’m getting used to making up my own materials here. We spend the week studying new vocabulary words: “slavery,” “segregation,” “discrimination,” “justice,” and “nonviolence.” With no corresponding chapter in Marshallese history, students have a tough time understanding the two worlds in the American South in MLK’s time. One world for whites and one for blacks, intersecting at hot flashpoints, divided by centuries of bloody, shameful oppression and prejudice.

I write a skit to help them understand. We stage a nonviolent protest in the front of my class. A beautiful Marshallese-brown Martin Luther King (who happens to be a girl, even) sits at a lunch counter and won’t budge until she gets her hamburger and cola. The class laughs while other student actors haul her away to jail. I watch one of the boy’s eyes widen as he begins to get it.

“Ms. Marci, if we were there then, would we be treated like that too?”

“Yes, I’m sad to say. The whites called them ‘black,’ but what they really meant was ‘non-white.’”

“What about him?” The student points to the lightest-skinned boy in the class, whose skin could pass for a beach tan.

“Yes, even him. Some people said ‘one drop of black blood makes you black.’”

I watch the ripples of understanding – terrible understanding – go through the class, punctuated by the slap of the ocean waves hitting the shore outside my window. Another hand goes up.

“Ms. Marci, if Martin Luther King hadn’t done that, would . . . ” I see him struggling to finish his sentence, and I try to help by guessing what he’s thinking. “Would Obama be president? Not likely,” I say.

“No . . . would. . . would you have come here?” he asks simply.

“Oh yes. Of course I would. It would take more than discrimination and segregation laws to keep me from being here with you. And if anyone tried to stop me, we’d all go to jail together!”

One girl says, “I know a song about that.” She starts singing. Other students join her. I add my voice, and thirty-six voices in a high school classroom in Kwajalein Atoll sing together:

Heal the world. Make it a better place
For you and for me and the entire human race.
There are people dying. If you care enough for the living,
Make a better place for you and for me.

Excerpts from student essays:

“Martin Luther King taught me about kindness and being good to people even if they’re not from the same island. It was interesting about those people (blacks & whites) not sharing anything.”

“I think he was afraid of troubles.” (a student responding to MLK’s nonviolent tactics)

“To fight for something isn’t easy. He didn’t care if they kill him but he just wanted his children to live in a better place where there is no fighting when they grow up. Hurting people isn’t a way to have a better world.”

“You breathe, I breathe, so what’s the difference? ‘Beneath the skin is all the same.’” (a quote from The Cay, my 11th grade class textbook)

“Martin Luther King is the highest great of dream.”

Friday, February 19, 2010

Marshallese Medical Customs



 

Marshallese friend and co-teacher Donna, catching a few zzz’s after helping to get me set up at the hospital



Here are some interesting things I learned from my (largely unnecessary) 3 ½ day stay in Ebeye Hospital. I was admitted for observation after bumping my head. I’ll describe these insights in approximately the order I discovered them.




* AIR CONDITIONING (called “aircon” here). It’s turned up to the max. I FROZE the whole time, which kept me quiet and under the covers just to stay warm, having not brought a sweatshirt or other warm clothing to the RMI.



* BEDDING. There is none in a Marshallese hospital. My discovery of this fact is related to the previous discovery about the aircon. While the doctor was stitching up my forehead, and I was shivering, with teeth chattering, I asked for a blanket. “Ejelok (there are none).” I thought, “there are HOW many beds in this hospital and NO blankets?” A nurse found a clean curtain and draped it over me, while the Guegeegue neighbor who drove me to the hospital walked over to his sister’s house near the hospital to get me a blanket. There is a good reason for this lack of bedding, which is:



* COMMUNAL HOSPITAL STAYS. Coming from an individualistic society, it took me awhile to realize that although all 5 beds in my room were continuously occupied, they were not necessarily occupied by patients. No Marshallese stays in the hospital alone. In fact, one of my students was more upset that I had stayed in the hospital alone than that I was in the hospital in the first place. If all the beds did happen to be filled with patients, the companion slept either on the floor on a sleeping mat, or in the same bed (depending on the size of the individuals involved).



This applied even to the domestic abuse victim in bed #4 (remember there’s no privacy here of any kind). Her husband and two of their three sons slept in the bed next to hers. (FYI: 93% of Marshallese women are abused either physically, sexually, or emotionally, often while the man is drunk.)




These live-in hospital companions explain the lack of bedding: if a bed is empty, someone will sleep in it. Everyone brings their own bedding. Hospital companions are useful because of:



* NURSING CARE. Adequate, but minimal. Nurses dispense medications and take vital signs. That’s it. No nurse call buttons anywhere, or nurses making rounds just to check on patients. Companions fetch nurses when needed. Companions also do such things as deliver stool samples to the lab. My nurse was helpful but slightly put out that she had to take care of this for me. Most of the medical staff were Filipino, with one doctor from Yap, one from Burma, and a few Marshallese. All seemed to be quite knowledgeable, and I always felt like I was in very good hands.



* WEEKEND HOURS. Checking in around 4:45 a.m. on Saturday morning meant that nothing whatsoever happened until Monday, because no one is in the lab or radiology over the weekend. I’m sure if I had been in critical condition they would have found me the hospital personnel needed, but since I kept insisting I was fine, they were happy to just let me stay bundled up under the covers for 72 hours instead of 24.



* FOOD. Although the doctor ordered a bland diet for the first 24 hours, the plate of food that arrived was the same as everyone else’s. “We don’t have special diets,” a nurse explained, “because we have no dietician. The food is cooked by women in the neighborhood.” Three times a day, a styrofoam plate covered with foil arrived with a traditional Marshallese diet:

Breakfast - bread or pancakes, plus meat (a hot dog, Vienna sausages, or ham), and an egg (either hard boiled or scrambled, which might come with or without green beans!!! Why are green peppers OK to put in scrambled eggs, but canned green beans look weird in there?)

Lunch: rice & fish, or rice & chicken.

Dinner: rice & chicken, or rice & fish, whichever one we didn’t get for lunch.



Both lunch and dinner had a vegetable on the side, but not so fast . . . remember “macaroni salad” and “potato salad”? In the Marshall Islands, these are taken literally and are equivalent to a green salad. So lunch might be rice and fish with macaroni salad, and dinner might be rice and chicken with a baked potato for a vegetable.



* VISITING HOURS. Posted at 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., but in reality, it was anytime friends wanted to drop in. Over the 3 ½ days, I had no fewer than 53 visits from students, neighbors, church friends, and fellow teachers. Visitors came as early as 6:30 a.m. or as late as a few minutes after midnight. It didn’t matter, though, because with nurses coming in at 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. to take vital signs, and with new patients arriving anytime night or day and the resulting displacement to clear out the bed, I slept anytime I could. Visitors seldom arrived empty-handed, so I had quite an assortment of snacks, fruits & drinks in gargantuan quantities, because of course they weren’t meant for just me, but for sharing with everyone in the room whenever I decided I wanted to break into them.



* GENERAL CONDITIONS. Of course my room was oceanview. On a narrow island, almost everything is oceanview or lagoonview. On the plus side were the air conditioning, hot running water for showers instead of the cold bucket showers I take at home, and sometimes-functioning flush toilets instead of the bucket flushing I do at home. The cockroaches and general cleanliness were a minus. I gather that keeping the room and bathroom clean is largely the hospital companion’s job, and I gather that my roommates’ companions weren’t particularly fastidious.



I have little to compare to the Ebeye Hospital, having never been hospitalized in the US except to have babies, when I had a lot of other things on my mind than the hospital itself. Even the most recent of those hospital stays was 30 years ago (take a bow, Evelyn). But having lived here in the RMI, I realize cockroaches are a fact of life, regardless of how clean one is. In fact, the ants I’m “used to” in my apartment were noticeably absent. I never thought I’d say this, but I was surprised to realize that I sort of missed the ants. I swear, without a speck of food on the counter EVER to attract them, I think the ants stay around just to keep me company.



* COST. If I were Marshallese, the inpatient stay per night would be the same as an outpatient clinic visit: $5. That hardly covers the food, much less the lab, X-ray, round-the-clock nursing care, daily doctor check-ins, and even a month’s supply of whatever prescription medicines I’m on (whether or not they’re related to the inpatient stay), plus any routine meds needed, like a fresh tube of Bacitracin ointment for my two forehead stitches. For me, the ribelle rate was $17 a night – a whopping $51 medical bill for my hospital stay, which will be completely reimbursed by WorldTeach’s insurance provider. Naturally, medical costs are heavily subsidized by the Ministry of Health (which is heavily subsidized by the US government. Thank you, US taxpayers). But even at $5 per visit, many Marshallese women skip prenatal care until close to their due dates because of the cost.



* SUBSTITUTE TEACHER TO COVER MY CLASS WHILE I WAS OUT. No such thing. If I’m there, students have class. If I’m not there, students have a free period to hang out, making it all the more surprising to receive “I miss you and promise I’ll never skip your class again” notes from my students (particularly the 7th period class, who got to take the early bus home at 2:30 instead of 3:30 when my class usually ends).



* THE RESULT. Like I said, I’m fine. This fact is confirmed by blood tests, stool analysis, a skull X-ray, and even a quick 3-day trip (a week after I came home from the hospital) to the capital Majuro for a CT scan. All came back perfectly normal. I’m fine, and I have a swell Harry Potter-esque small forehead scar as a souvenir of my investigation of Marshallese medical customs.