Tuesday, October 27, 2009

On My Porch

The view from my oceanside porch

Let’s see – 100 minus 18 equals 82, a really good score for her. She must have studied hard. I add “Good work!” in my green pen next to her grade on the top of the test paper.

Today I picked a new place for grading tests: the oceanside porch, out my back door. Nearly every house here is beachfront property; it takes 1 minute 57 seconds to walk at a comfortable pace across the island from ocean to lagoon (yes, we timed it). The populated part of the island is a 15 minute walk end to end.

After grading every few tests, I put my pen down and treat myself to a moment looking out over the blue-green sea, topped with an occasional white-crested wave. Palm trees, lazily swaying in the salty, sticky ocean breeze, dot the rocky shoreline. During the two hours I’ve been out here on this late Saturday morning, I’ve seen one pickup truck and one bicycle go by. While weekday traffic is a little more than one vehicle per hour, it feels at this moment like I have this tropical island spot largely to myself.

A chicken clucks by, inspecting the grass for any bits of rice from yesterday’s school picnic celebrating the end of the first quarter. A tiny black lizard inspects my kicked-off zories, then skitters across the porch, steering around an empty condom package and broken condom I hadn’t noticed before. I never thought to wonder what happens on my secluded back porch during the school picnics; I guess everyone has their own way of celebrating the end of the quarter.

Youth find far less privacy on their overpopulated home island of Ebeye (12,000 people on 0.14 square miles of land; one of the most densely-populated places on the planet). It’s a half-hour school bus ride on the rocky, bumpy causeway to the island of Guegeegue on which the school is located. Guegeegue is a pleasant contrast with its population of about 100 and spacious tropical forests. We teachers carefully report to the attendance officer those students who cut classes on this open campus, but I wonder if it’s simply documenting what’s already happening.

Teen fertility rate in the Marshall Islands is among the top ten in the world, with 14% of teen women giving birth every year. Condom use among all ages is very low here, with the primary objectors being women, oddly enough. If her man uses a condom, the unspoken message is that a) he thinks she’s dirty, and b) he may be using a condom with someone else, too.

But at least one couple believes in using a condom.

I shrug my shoulders and go back to grading tests on my oceanside porch. 

Monday, October 19, 2009

Ribelle teacher learns about sharing, Marshall Islands style

Student Jamie Shem gives Marci a traditional Marshallese welcome necklace, made by Jamie’s mother from seashells and pandanus fibers.

“When you live on a small island that is sometimes no wider than the road you are walking on, and at high tide only inches above sea level, your only two choices are to change the way you think and live, or go home.” – Jack Niedenthal, For the Good of Mankind: A History of the People of Bikini and their Islands, xi. (Bikini is one of the Marshall Islands)

It took me awhile to realize that the children were calling to me when they chanted “ribelle, ribelle!” (“white person” in Marshallese). Getting used to that has been a little easier than getting used a few other things about teaching English in the Marshall Islands, located about halfway between Hawaii and Australia, surrounded by miles of ocean in every direction. Sometimes called “the friendliest people in the Pacific,” the Marshallese have a communal way of thinking which has made for some surprising moments in my classroom.

Marshallese people share everything. I have to be careful not to compliment someone on an article of clothing or a piece of handmade seashell jewelry, or they’ll try to give it to me. While I was picnicking at an oceanside park, a family at the next picnic table came over to see what I was eating. It’s expected that I’d share what I brought and they’d do the same. I keep my questions to myself about how long their food has been sitting out in the tropical heat. I make my own decisions about what to eat, all the while smiling and saying a warm “kommol” (thank you). Then I slip the iffy potato salad to a passing pig or rooster while the neighbors aren’t looking. (The pigs are quite clean here.)

The sharing mentality extends to family structure. Marshallese families are fluid conglomerates with loosely connected bloodlines. Under the same roof you may find as many as 16 or 17 relatives – nieces and nephews who come from an outer island to go to high school; ailing grandparents; a brother who lost his job because he drinks too much; and children from different fathers. In this matrilineal society where marriage is rather irrelevant, a common Marshallese saying translates as “You can have several fathers, but only one mother.”  There is no homelessness here; one of my students was visibly shaken when she discovered the concept.

Sharing can even extend to the children themselves. My Marshallese friend tells me about her sister-in-law who couldn’t have children, so she gave her her youngest son to raise shortly after birth. Every Thursday she talks to her son, now 9 years old, by phone through an interpreter. He’s grown up on a different island nation in Micronesia and doesn’t speak Marshallese. The son knows who is who, but he only sees his biological parents about every year or so.

In the classroom, the idea of sharing gets more complicated. I have to be very clear about what is group work which can be done with friends, and what must be a student’s own work. In preparation for last week’s final exams to end the first quarter, one of my sharpest students asked me for a blank copy of one of the chapter tests she’d taken, saying “I gave it to [another student] so she could study for the makeup test, but she didn’t give it back. I want to look at the questions so I can study for the final.” I thought, no wonder the other student got a perfect score on the makeup test. Both students were quite matter-of-fact about it, not at all trying to hide it as they might if they thought they were cheating. Of course the school administrators tell me that the students know the boundary between “sharing” and “cheating.” But I find that I’m teaching a different kind of thinking as well as teaching English, while simultaneously admiring the Marshallese and their open hearts.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Island of Ngenge - Population 1

With a coconut husk under a towel as a pillow, I stretch out on the beach sand, with palm fronds above me hiding the tropical sun. It’s Saturday of Manit Day weekend (a day celebrating Marshallese culture). The other two WorldTeach volunteers, Diana and Morgan, and I have joined our Marshallese neighbors for a Saturday outing. We walk to the end of Guegeegue and walk across the reef, dry and exposed at low tide, to get to Ngenge, the next island up the chain in Kwajalein Atoll, with a population of 1. We check in with the caretaker who watches the island, bringing him an “offering” of home-baked cookies and fruit.

Our neighbor takes us for a walk through the mangroves, where tropical shrubs and trees form a dense forest with coconut trees galore in various stages. We taste coconut shoots (like coconut-flavored celery), spongy sweet coconut yew that’s sprouting to become a coconut tree, and the recognizable coconut milk and coconut meat.

Back at the lagoon shore, our neighbor teaches Diana and Morgan how to fasten the hooks on the fishing line, how to bait them with a bit of fish meat from a smaller fish, and where to stand in the water and cast for fish. A few tiny fish are thrown back in the lagoon, and two foot-long baby sharks sniffed the bait, but the day’s catch of six 4-6” groupers will make a nice grilled fish dinner.

I have never been converted to fishing, despite my mother’s and brother’s enthusiasm and plenty of opportunity on Lake LBJ in Texas as a youth. Instead, I’m enjoying stretching out under this coconut tree, listening to the sound of the surf, occasionally stirring to walk along the shore and collect beach glass  –  small bits of glass polished smooth by the ocean waves.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Marci weaves a plate on Manit Day - celebrating Marshallese culture

Marci, Arobina, Jabdor, and Keyoko (clockwise)

“Manit” translates to “culture,” I suppose, but the meaning is so much richer than that. Manit is tradition, it’s Marshallese pride, it’s intergenerational transmission of knowledge . . . and it’s also the occasion for a holiday celebration. THAT translates into a day I don’t have to teach! School is still in session, but it’s actually a community-wide, day-long celebration of all things Marshallese.

Manit Day preparations begin the day before, as the senior boys gather to go fishing to catch the fish to grill for the community meal. Here in the Marshall Islands, fishing can involve a variety of methods – spear fishing, the fishing poles with which I’m familiar, or fishing nets (either small nets that are thrown onto schools of fish, or large nets – as long as 100 yards long – that are held by a team of fishermen, one of whom chases fish into the net somehow). I don’t know which of the methods the senior boys used, but I do know the results were delicious. Some of the fish were parrotfish, whose skin is an outrageous shade of turquoise-blue, making even the grill itself look nicely decorated for a big party for the 20 staff and 379 students at Kwajalein Atoll High School and their families.

The families take the day off to come to the high school to celebrate Manit Day with their youth, bringing their family’s specialty of Marshallese food to share. While fathers and sons attend to the grilling of the fish and breadfruit, mothers and daughters weave palm fronds into plates. The plates are like small flat baskets, called “banonor,” meaning “what is in this plate is to be shared.” Some of the women and girls are quite skillful weavers, making large, beautiful palm frond baskets, as well as small toys for the children from palm fronds – pinwheels, a woven bird, and a square ball that even I could master (if one of my students got it started for me). Over, under, over, under. . . . My students were quite good at it, and were pleased to be MY teachers for a change, as I produced a few plates and a couple of toys.

While the cooking and the weaving were going on, the students played a variety of games such as a repeat of last week’s tug-of-war and sprint races. There was also a race in which a line of students passed a coconut to the person behind them, first between their legs, then over their heads, seeing which team could pass it the fastest. (I suppose that too is over, under, over, under. . . .)

The resulting buffet of traditional Marshallese foods was an astonishing variety of seafood (lobsters, whole small crabs, and many kinds of fish), as well as many different dishes using breadfruit, coconut, and banana. The 2 other WorldTeach volunteers here (Morgan and Diana) baked extra-fudgy brownies and added them to the buffet, with a sign that read “American Manit.”