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Interview of Betra Name Mashimoto

interviewed by Lobweie Langidrik, Jefferson Paulis, and Misako Lorennij, May 5, 2008

Adapted English Translation by Andrea & Terry Hazzard
Life Story - Audio Interview [with three interviewers]

Life on Kwajalein Before 1945

BM: My name is Betra Mashimoto, and I'm 78 years old.  I come from Ujae, Lae, and Kwajalein.  Those are my main three atolls, but I'm also from Wotho, making it four.  I'm also from Namdrik.

1st Interviewer: Can you tell us your life-story about the outer islands and the atolls you grew up on?

BM: I was born and raised on Ujae, but I was adopted and went to Lae.  I stayed on Lae for a while, then back to Ujae again. I grew up on Ujae, but because there were no schools there, I moved to Kwajalein. I attended the Japanese schools but hated them because they hit us a lot on the head.  But I stayed there for a long time. My parents -- Bila Dribo and Kinbo Joab -- and I were on Kwajalein before the beginning of the Second World War.  I was about 11 or 12 years of age. I went back and forth between Kwajalein, Lae, and Ujae.  This was during the war in 1940s, specifically in 1945.

1st Interviewer: Back in those days, how did you live? You did live during the war time, isn't that correct? You were on Ujae, right?

BM: I went back and forth between Ujae, Lae, and Kwajalein.

1st Interviewer: How was life back then with the people -- when you look back on it?

BM: When I look back, life was good on Kwajalein. We lived in family-units.  Brothers, sisters, uncles, and fathers and mothers, [all] lived humbly and peacefully together.  But when the war started, we moved to the end of the islands within the atoll.  I remember that sometimes we ate rice.  But most time, there was no rice or flour.  We had no local food, because the Japanese had cut down all the trees.  But we made do when we could by making rice-balls to eat with the fish we had caught.  These were just a few things we did to get by.  On Kwajalein, there were occasional famines, because it was a Center [one of the more populated islands] where one of the biggest Japanese schools was located, besides Jabor. 

1st Interviewer: And there was not enough food?

BM: Yes, not enough because there were just too many people.  The Iroij [chief; traditional leader] and the alabs [land managers] always had a lot of food.

1st Interviewer: And so, when there wasn't really enough food, what did you do to supplement the lack of food?

BM: We had whatever Marshallese food we could gather.  When it was time for pandanus, we harvested their fruits and ate them. When it was time to harvest arrowroot, we harvested and ate them. Sprouted coconut was another thing [we ate].  Before the war started, we would turn over the coconut to see if there was a coconut sprout to collect.  Also we would eat pandanus fruits if they were available, but we could only eat the ripened ones.  When it was time to harvest and collect the food, life was good.  We ate fish and other foods from the ocean, along with the food from the land.  So that's how it was.

1st Interviewer:  When you look back, how different is life today compared to those times?

BM:  The only difference is that [today] we seem to be scattered.  Families are everywhere.  [T]hat is because we are looking for better jobs, education for our kids, and medical care.  Also it seems like we don't share food anymore.  I remember when we used to say ‘Bilej ikotaan em' [Note:  This literally translates to ‘plates in-between houses', which refers to the sharing of food between neighbors].  I shared [food] with my older brother's family all the time.  I would give him jakaro [coconut sap], or teas, or coconut drinks, or whatever I have available.  But today, it's so hard.  For example, I can't go next door unless I really [emphasis added] know the people. 

1st Interviewer: So [you only go to] this house and your son's?  

BM: Yes, only my house and my son's house.

1st Interviewer: Okay, and now, how were people's houses back in those days?

BM: The houses were -- how can I put it -– they looked funny.  But they were good. Some houses, we wove the coconut leaves for them, and put them up.  But for others, we used pandanus leaves. But unlike the Gilbertese houses, where the thatch on roof was put together tightly, ours were a bit more spread out.  However, our houses were livable, because the inside was cooler [than the Gilbertese-style of construction].  We all lived in one house.  There were no such things as ‘This room is mine or that room is yours'.  We all lived together without having to worry.  Love was important.

How Things Have Changed

1st Interviewer:  Is there a difference in the way of life was back in those days compared to today's way of life? In the morning, what kind of breakfast did you have?  What kind of preparations did you do?

BM: Some [families] ate breakfast around 9 or 10 am. Breakfast!  The word breakfast meant [to eat] the leftovers from the food cooked the night before.  Or if you woke up early, you could make breakfast, but it usually took time.  Unlike today, [where] you can make pancakes, donuts, and eat cereal.  I'm not sure what they do in the outer islands today.  They make a fire, and those with a stove; they can use it [if there is] no power. Today, in the Centers [Note: Today the main Centers are Majuro and Ebeye], we just plug things in and that's it.   

1st Interviewer:  Yes, it's fast!

1st Interviewer [continues]: I hear that people work together differently today than in the past.

BM: That's what I hear these days. There are so many court cases.  There are too many court cases regarding land-ownership. Working together is not feasible.  It doesn't matter if people are related - brothers, sisters, etc. -they will go at each other at the court.  If the brother didn't give his sister enough money, she will take him to the court.  They don't first go see their Iroij [chief; traditional leader] before they go see the court. 

1st Interviewer: Why is there a disconnect between people?

BM:  I think because we let it happen.  Life was getting too hard.

1st Interviewer: Life is getting harder.

BM: Yes.  That's because we try so hard to send our kids to school, to make them rich, to put better clothes on their backs, to prepare good food for them, to provide a roof over their heads.  These are the things we strive to do.  [It's a] ‘I want my family to do well, never mind your family' kind of attitude. 

1st Interviewer:  My next question is, "Were there any serious crimes people did in those days?"  You look around today and see lots of trouble.  Were there serious crimes?

BM: Very seldom.  When I was growing up, I never heard anything about crimes or killings.  I didn't know the term.  Reason why I say it's seldom was because if it was a big incident, then people would hurt each other.  [For example incidents like]  "You're my younger brother but you stole my wife!"  Things like this.  "You're my relative, but you stole my wife."  Sometimes people would say, "Beat him up and kill him.  Make him bleed."  If they say [the situation warranted a fight], there would be a [serious altercation].

1st Interviewer: Oh, so the chiefs would approve a feud [between relative and family members]?

BM [rhetorically]: Yes. Who else would approve?

1st Interviewer: Nowadays, it seems like crimes happen and people die.

BM: Yes, there is more despair nowadays.  Some [of the victims] are still very young, but now they're gone.  Some young men are still young, but they're gone too.  When they're drunk, they don't realize the importance of their lives.  Some women are jealous [Note: BM laughs]; they don't want to lose the other person.

1st Interviewer: And so, they get into a fight.

BM: Yes, they turn to each other and start a fight.

1st Interviewer:  How did it come to be like this nowadays?

BM: As for me, I don't quite understand why it is the way it is today.  I don't understand.  But I think it is this way because people want to get ahead of others.  They want things just for themselves.  Who would want to move ahead?  I'm a woman; [I want to move ahead].  If were a man, I would want to move ahead too.  [If ] I'm the daughter of the highest chief, [then I too want to move ahead].  This is how it is.  These things are mine and not his or hers.  Not my brother's or my sister's.  This is why hardships happen because of this kind of thinking.  I'm saddened that the custom is gone.  We don't say anymore, "Hey, come and have something."  These [ways] are gone.  They're really gone.  Unless I know you'll help me with something in the future, I won't try to be nice to you. 

1st Interviewer: What is different about our custom now?

BM: The difference in our custom is mostly [in terms of the] clothes, friendships among people, and food.  These are some things I see that are different now:  respecting and caring for others, our way of living, [and] our custom.  Today's children don't know the customs, and also the teenagers [don't know the customs either].  I see them doing things that are not right.  I'm not sure but maybe their families let them do whatever they want to do.  For me, it's not right because I'm an old lady.  One thing I see [today] is that a woman can come and stand in a doorway [and speak to the people inside the house from there].  In the past, women were not allowed to stand in a doorway and say, "Hello, everyone."  Today, they stand [in the doorway] and look around saying, "Hello, everyone.  Who [else] is at home?"  This was taboo in the past.  It was only men who were allowed to do this. 

1st Interviewer: What about the women, what did they do?

BM: They just came and said, "Hello [to everyone present]".  They said hello and then they went inside the house and sat down.

1st Interviewer: They lowered their heads? [Note: This is a customary practice which shows respect to those you are walking passed.]

BM [does not respond to question asked, but rather poses her own question]: What do you think happened? What has happened so that it is like this? Us … [morally] robbing from ourselves.  We forget our bibles, our custom – we forget both [of these things].  We say, "Me this, me that."

1st Interviewer: It looks like ways in which we respect each other have changed as well.

BM: Respect is dead and gone.  This custom is long gone.  Don't say alab [land manager] to me, because he people of today have thrown [the meaning of alab] away; it's gone.  We don't say to ‘give the food to the alab' anymore, because [this custom] is gone. 

1st Interviewer: [Note: Murmurs indistinctly in the back ground].

BM: Yes.

1st Interviewer:  It must have been hard in the past because you followed certain customs.

BM: Yes, because we didn't know the custom.  That's one of the biggest issues.  We spent our time learning other customs and focusing on other countries, but not before we learn ours.  That is why I am pushing for our schools to start teaching our children. Start from the youngest so they know what's right, and how life was in the past.  What's so wrong about that?

1st Interviewer:  [Note: Asks 2nd interviewer if there are any more questions.]

2nd Interviewer:  Long ago, at home, did you use today's spoons or did you have [a different style utensil]? Or did you use your hands?

BM: For me, when I was growing up, I remember that my mother used to say, "Don't eat yet!"  I would say to her, "Why not?" My mother would say, "Not yet, let them bring the pandanus leaves and make it [into a spoon]; then [someone will] wash it for you to use."  I was very young, so it was [a] small [spoon].

2nd Interviewer: Oh, those were our spoons long ago.

BM: Pandanus leaves and coconut leaves.  The midrib of the coconut leaves.

2nd Interviewer: Ooh!

2nd Interviewer: When you used to wash or cook pandanus fruits - like boiling and the like - you boiled using pots, right?

BM: Pots and tins. 

2nd Interviewer [repeats]: Pots and tins.

BM: The Japanese biscuit tins.

2nd Interviewer [repeats]: Biscuit tins.

World War II

BM [continues]: You have the big ones or the small ones.  You chose your pandanus to make juice.

2nd Interviewer: And now, when you were in the outer islands, were there battles at the time?

BM: There were small battles in Ujae and Kwajalein.

2nd Interviewer: There were at Ujae and Kwajalein!

BM: Yes, I witnessed the battle on Ebeye [Note: BM corrects herself] . . . Ujae.

2nd Interviewer: On Ujae.

BM:  [I remember] the landings on the beach.  I was ten years old or so. 

2nd Interviewer: Ten years or so?

BM: 14.

2nd Interviewer: Oh.

3rd Interviewer: Which world war?

BM: The Second [World] War.

2nd Interviewer [repeats]: The Second World War.

2nd Interviewer [continues]: And so when you were under the rule of the Japanese, how much did you suffer?

BM:  I remember that my dad worked for the Japanese to [help] build the airport at Roi.  My father worked a lot.  So did my mother and myself, and many other families.  [We worked hard and] all we ate was mui [a type of cooked grain], which is not a pleasant food to eat.  If you know how to prepare it, it's good; if not, it's horrible.

1st Interviewer:  What kind of food is that?

BM: Mui, it's almost like rice, a cereal.  But there's something in the middle of it.  It is hard, almost like wood. How can I describe it? Ah…like a kernel - like something you plant. 

2nd Interviewer: Is that food from the ocean or from land?

BM:  It's [a type of food] from the garden.

2nd Interviewer: Garden.  Oh.

BM: It's part of the rice [family].  But if you prepare it properly, it's so good. That's why you have to pound it to mix it with sugar or the sweet sap from the coconut tree.  And then when you eat it with fish, you forget your neighbors! It is that good [all three share a laugh].

1st Interviewer: Is it that good?

BM:  It is that good.  Or maybe you forget your friends [still slightly laughing].

2nd Interviewer:  So you didn't really suffer, except when you didn't have [food to eat].

BM:  We couldn't just walk to a store. 

1st Interviewer: [So you were better off than some places] - unlike the atolls of Jabor, Jaluit, and Wotje where they didn't have much?

BM: Yes, they had suffered a lot, because that was where the battles hit hardest.  The atolls where I was, like Kwajalein, had battles but they weren't like those places.  This was in the beginning when I was there.  However, on Ujae, the Japanese took care of us pretty well.  They sent us away before the bombs were dropped on Ujae.      

2nd Interviewer: Oh, so you all were evacuated to the nearby islands.

BM: Yes, to the nearby islands.

2nd Interviewer: But were there American teams that came to [remove you from those islands]?

BM: Yes, but it was during the beach [invasion].

2nd Interviewer: Ooh.

BM: They took us back [to the main island]

1st Interviewer: In your opinion, do you think there is confusion with the American court system as
it make decisions regarding land ownership?

BM: Oh sure, if it's not handle truthfully - if our negotiators don't know how to negotiate on behalf of our high chiefs, land managers, and lineage.  If it's not done right, they'll be suffering among families.

1st Interviewer: But is it right?  The way the Americans handle decisions regarding land ownerships?

BM: Well, they know about how the courts work; they use equity and other words that best suit our lives. 

1st Interviewer: And there are papers for proof?

BM: Yes, if there is confusion, they'll say, "Bring that person so he can teach us about our lineage."  He could also act as a witness. 

Hope for the Future

1st Interviewer: Do you think we still have time left to preserve our customs and language, and the ways we practice them?

BM: Yes, there is.  Anything we put our minds to [accomplish] can be accomplished.  There's nothing in life that people try to find and cannot find.  [For example], if you dig a hole, you'll make a hole.  It's the same when you say "Do something this way" and then [it is just done] that way.  The problem is that we don't work together.  We built our schools, but they're not aligned with our culture.  One of the things I'm proud of is that in the beginning, at our school, they brought in the older people to tell stories and to teach the students about life in the old days.

1st Interviewer: And so, you're saying that we still have the time teach?

BM:  To me, [yes], I think we still have the time to teach.

1st Interviewer:  And also to hold on to the Marshallese language?

BM: Yes, even to preserve the Marshallese language.  One of my grandsons knows Marshallese spelling more than I do.  

1st Interviewer:  Oh, I see.  They keep learning.

1st Interviewer:  [Asks 2nd and 3rd Interviewers if they have any more questions]

BM [poses her own questions to the interviewers]: What about the three of you? Do you still believe [that there is time to preserve our language and culture]?

1st Interviewer: We still have time.

BM: Oh, yes [Note: BM laughs a little and then claps.]

1st Interviewer [to fellow interviewers]: Do we still have time to ask questions about how we can preserve Marshallese customs and language, and the steps to follow?  [Note: All of the interviewers speak lightly, but indistinctly in the background.]

1st Interviewer: Do we still have time to preserve the Marshallese custom and help others so that they are able to teach the children about the language?  As we know some of our words we use are changing.

BM: Yes.  Also those who come to our islands, we should also teach them our custom.  If the Chinese come [into our country], we should teach them.  It's truly sad when you go inside a house and talk to the older people [and don't know the language and custom].  Teach the Chinese, the Japanese, and whoever comes into our country as guests.  We should make time to teach them, especially about our language.  There are those who quickly learned our language, but there are also those who think that our language is not important.  [Those paricular foreigners] regard us like the African-Americans of the past. 

1st Interviewer: Um.

BM:  These are things that could help our teenagers so they don't say we are ignorant [compared to Americans].  [Note: It's not clear what BM is saying immediately after this.]

BM: We are all human beings.  All God's creation [Note: BM laughs a little].

1st Interviewer [to 2nd & 3rd Interviewers]: Are there more questions?  Any more questions regarding the life back then?

BM: Don't you dare ask me to sing because I'm flat [when I sing].  [Note: Everyone laughs]. 

1st Interviewer:  Do you have a few stories to tell?

BM: Stories about what?  Me? Oh well…[begins a story].

1st Interviewer [interrupts]: Anything.  Anything funny.

BM:  I was really poor.  I was really poor. 

1st Interviewer: [indistinct].

BM:  Oh, I was in charge of the schools in the Marshall Islands.  I worked and prayed. My parents and my grandparents were not well-educated people, but they knew about these islands and they taught and helped me.  I didn't attend elementary or high school, but I worked my way up.  I was even in charge of a lot of agencies here in the Marshalls.  I was in charge of the Marshall Islands High School and the hospital.  I worked at NCA … [unclear]

1st Interviewer: Oh, you worked there too?

1st Interviewer: I worked at the Head Start.  Worked with the women, and I was a friend of Mary; I used to work with her, Mrs. Lanwi.  Maybe we were the first ones to drive around cars in these islands - driving around in vehicles.  It's not because I was smart, but because I worked hard and did my best.   And I encourage the three of you to do your best.  You should also encourage other Marshallese students to do their best.  Don't let them think "I'm going to get [ahead by dating or marrying someone who is American]."  Knowledge comes first.  You tell them.  Just a few words from me to them – the students in college. Words from an old lady [Note: BM laughs].

1st Interviewer: That's good – everyone listening and taking care of each other.

1st Interviewer: Do you have any other words of encouragement to our young people about our custom and language?

BM: Yes, they should take care of their lives so that their future families can grow in health.  I don't what them to think and say "I'm smarter than those people, so I can do whatever I want with my life."  They should listen to their parents and grandparents - learn their best from their grandparents. 

1st Interviewer:  An important thing.

BM: Listen to the words of encouragement from the government, the health department, the education department.  These are very important for us - for our custom.

1st Interviewer [to the other interviewers]: Do you two have any more questions?

2nd or 3rd Interviewer:  I think we're out [Note: Both laugh]

1st Interviewer:  Man, you guys…We have good information but… [indistinct].

BM:  I'm so old, but I still do classes with the kids, I have classes here.  In the morning, evenings, on Sundays, [and] Saturdays.  This is because I want them to know.  I pass down my knowledge to them – the things I learned.  Not that I learned a lot; because if you hear stories about me, I was the most ignorant of all.  I was the least smartest of all the women.  The most ignorant of all, and I am not lying.  But because of hard work and wanting [to succeed] - hard work and wanting [to succeed] - [I made it].

2nd Interviewer: Where did you go to school? [The] Catholic [school]?

BM: I never went to the Catholic school.  I went to mass but never attended Catholic school. 

2nd Interviewer:  Oh, so where did you start your education? You started where?

BM:  I started my education by training [Note: An apprenticeship or vocational-type of training, not formal traditional schooling].

1st Interviewer: With the Japanese?

BM: No, not with the Japanese, but I was one of many older men and women who attended training on Roi.  I started there.

 2nd Interviewer:  Was that the ending . . . the beginning of the [indistinct]?

BM: The beginning of [formal] education in the Marshalls was first brought here by the military, the Americans.  I started on Roi, then transferred here [to Kwajalein]. But then I graduated from Laura.  Then I went back to teach on my island.   

2nd Interviewer: Did you go to school in Guam?

BM: I went to school at the College of Guam.

1st Interviewer: Oh, you went to college in Guam.  What did you study?

BM: I studied education.  I came back and taught at the high school. 

1st Interviewer:  There must have been only a few [Marshallese] able to go to college.

BM: Not many girls.  I was the only Marshallese girl – [the only] Micronesian.  [Note:  BM corrects herself.]  There were a few Palauans and a Pohnpeian.  I was living alone in the camp of the Trust Territory.  I was the only woman.

1st Interviewer: Back in those times, I heard there were only men [attending college].

BM: Alfred Capelle, Kinja Andrike - those were some of the guys.  But they were much younger than me. 

1st Interviewer: Oh, that's good [overall information].

BM: Kunar Abner . . . [indistinct] . . . The boys from Jaluit who died.


[Note: Interview ends here; there is no closing dialogue.]