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Adapted English translation for Willy Mwekto's Life Story

Interviewed by Newton Lajuan

Adapted English Translation by Andrea & Terry Hazzard

"Life in Those Days"

WM: [Sure.]  I can tell you about how I grew up [for two reasons]: [The first reason is] because I can remember [what I was told] - from my listening to my mother and those who looked after me and cared for me when I was very young. [The second reason is because I have my own memories] from the time when I was traveling between these small islands through the years [up] until now.

WM (continues): I was born on June 21, 1941. [I was] born and raised on Ebon Atoll and grew up there. And from 1941 until 1949, I [lived on] Kwajalein Atoll. The reason why I moved [there] was to see my grandfather, who is my father's father; his name is Mwekto. We were on Kwaj for about three to four years. After that, we went to Arno Atoll for a meeting of the [friends] of the Ralik Dron group (a group of people from the two island chains).  From Arno, [my grandfather] was appointed as a preacher to take over a church on Wotho; that was from 1953 to 1955.  In 1955, we moved from Wotho to Majuro Atoll, [which was] where most of the Rongelapese had moved after they had suffered [the affects of the bombings] in 1954.  This was where we heard about the devastation of the western atolls from what was known as the Bravo bombing.  We lived on Ejit for a while then moved back to Rongelap.

On June 5th, we sailed from Kwajalein heading towards Rongelap. On the 6th or the 7th, we reached the shores of Rongelap; I vividly remember these dates. I lived there for a while with my grandfather so that he could finish his duties [as a preacher].  We stayed there until he reached his retirement and could not work any longer. My grandfather then stayed there [at Rongelap], but I moved to Majuro to attend school - to what they used to call The Marshall [Islands] Intermediate School - in 1962.  Then in 1963, I attended the Marshall Islands High School; this is when the high school first opened.  It is now Marshall Islands High School.

WM (continues):  I can now take questions.

Interviewer: Yes, can you describe a little more about how you grew up [and your life up] until now?

WM: Long ago, when I was young and growing up, the love and respect between the elders and the traditional leaders was so tremendous. Everyone knew everybody and respected each other deeply. People also knew how to work together in terms of preserving the customs and the way of life of these small islands, because we had a different way of life and custom - separate from other countries in the world. Love was [important], working together was important, and [there were] other important ways in which we worked together for a common goal back then.  Today, we [the people of my generation] represent those people [of the past].

Interviewer: Now, can you tell me what kind of houses did people have in those days?

WM: Back in those days, there were a few houses built by people who came from other countries to oversee us. For example, the German houses, the Japanese houses . . . and later on, [came] the Americans, who are now with us today. However, our main houses in the outer islands - like the churches, the schools, and our bigger houses - were all made from pandanus leaves. The women did the weaving of the leaves, and the men did the thatch and traditional ropes.  That's the one thing [working together on a house] that made everyone bond together and respect each other. They called upon each other for help and watched each other's back - all the while making sure all the chores were done on daily basis; [it was all done with love and respect for one another]. So, life was good in those days.

Interviewer: Did people use a lot of Marshallese food?  What kinds of food?

WM: Yes, they used a lot of Marshallese food. For example, when it was time to harvest arrowroot, people took the time to prepare meals from it; they had so many recipes derived from arrowroot. They made jobwil (a type of food made from arrowroot), and [used] other ways to make food from arrowroot - they made kaleeldrik; they made kolautaktak, jamkuuk, beru, and nalnol [Note: These are all different kinds of food made from arrowroot.] and whatever else they could from the arrowroot. They also had fish, which was put under the sun to dry.   They also warmed and cooked them, so they didn't go bad easily.  Or, they salted them, so they stayed longer.   Or, they simply ate coconut when there was a long wait for field trips to the outer islands.  This was the time when people really made use of their traditional food.  If there was breadfruit, they would prepare preserved breadfruit. And then, they would [eat from it over a long period of time]; [it] could last for up to six months, and [that] helped a lot. This was the food of the land and ocean, back in those days.

Interviewer: Can you explain more to me about our food.  As you know, we have two seasons; there is the anonean (the time to harvest arrowroot starch and pandanus trees), and then there is also the anonrak. (the time to harvest breadfruit).  Can you explain a bit more about them?

WM: That's right! In anonean, there is the arrowroot starch, which is harvested when it's old.  You dig it out, and then you rinse it out to clean it.  Then you mold it and dry it out before it [can] become food. In anonean, usually the arrowroot starch and the pandanus trees come out.  They're ready to be harvested because they have ripened. That's the time when these two bear the most fruits to gather in these islands.

Interviewer: What about anonrak?

WM: Okay, in anonrak, that's the time when breadfruit comes out and people make preserved breadfruit. There were a lot of ways in which people preserved their food. One way to preserve food - that is, so it was not wasted - was by people sharing what they had during a gathering. That is how people took care of their food, during those two seasons [anonean and anonrak].

Interviewer: I am very happy now that everyone understands what anonean and anonrak are.  Can you explain something . . . Because we've heard from our friends and families that life and working together nowadays - compared to the old days - is different.  You've heard about how family members, today, fight [with] each other, and send away members from their lands?   In your view, what do you think contributes to this kind of problem in families?

WM: The reason why something like this happens nowadays, in my opinion, compared to the old days, is that it comes from a lot of people trying to get rich. If you look at the meaning of the word mweie (rich), mwe means the ‘falling of fruits from a tree'; we call the verb for that action emwe.  The coconut, breadfruit, and the pandanus trees bear fruits. And so, it means that if you're under a tree, in a wrong spot, the fruits always fall on you. And if something falls on you, you will say ‘ie', which means ouch.  That brings the meaning [of mweie back] to ‘getting rich'.  But there are those consequences that come with [getting rich].

Interviewer: Oh, so the word mweie (rich) comes from our own language.

WM: Yes, it comes from these islands. And so, when you're rich, that's good - but you always suffer the consequences. For example, if your house has a lot of things - and you have no problems whatsoever - in terms of electricity, you will say ‘ouch' when you see that your electric bill is so high [Both interviewer and WM laugh].

Interviewer: Oh, that's very good because now we know the true meaning of the word mweie (rich).  Okay, now, were there any serious crimes that happened [that you can remember from the time when] you were young until now?

MW: Yes, because of the way our custom was, we had some kinds of [black magic] in these islands. Some people used what we called ekkobel (black magic) to curse others - to put a spell on someone or put black magic on each other. But there were also ways in which people protected themselves from these black magic powers.  People also used to get into fights and argue with each other.  But, it's not the same as today, because [nowadays] family members hate each other – [according to] what we hear on the news radio – over money. It is true.  When we grew up, it was a lot different when we compare today to the past.  [Today], brothers and sisters in a family don't take care of each other, because they are too busy trying to get ahead of the rest - to get rich.

Interviewer: When you compare today to the past, [and you look at the] people, do you see a difference with the youth? [It seems like] today's youths usually are the ones causing all the trouble in [towns]. Was it like that back in the old days?

MW: Not at all. It wasn't at all the same back in the old days. If there was a problem, we found ways to solve it. We tried to put a stop to a problem. This was, in part, because there was a house policy between your house and your neighbor's house. You just couldn't go to someone else's house if you had no business going there; you had to ask for their permission.  You couldn't take your problems to another's house and cause problems there. There were a lot of things you couldn't do to other people's property. You had to be humble and know the custom so that everyone was happy.  One of the big things I remember was the sharing of food between homes.  If this neighbor cooked something, they shared it with a neighbor; it didn't matter if they were related or not. There was an old saying in these islands that goes something like this: ‘Inraab, jen lale rara im roro' (When preparing food, let's share with these people and those people.), or another: ‘Aje drikdrik, Kojatdikdrik' (The sharing the little of things, gives us hope).  These kinds of gestures helped us with our customs and were in accordance with the importance of the language of these islands.

Interviewer:  And now, in your opinion, how is our custom different compared to when you were growing up?  Does our custom still have a strong foundation, or is it a mix of customs? Or as we say, ‘half and half'? Is it a combination [of traditions]?

WM: Yes, one-hundred percent, it is a mix.  Meaning, the people of today must know the language.  This is because if you don't know your language, you will not know your custom. That's the one thing that holds together and explains the custom; it's the language. If there's less language of the custom, or if people don't know words of the custom, then they can't use the custom because they don't know the words to begin with. The language to the custom is like the bait to the hook.

Interviewer: Oh, I see. So the custom of today is very different from that of the past.

WM: It is different because [the custom is not being referred to with the appropriate terms]. For example, some people will do leon em (trespassing) because they don't know what leon em means.  While others will do bobo manit [Note: Definition not available at time of translation] because they don't know what bobo manit means. Some will do iteten wa kior [Note: Definition not available at time of translation] because they don't know what it is. All of these words -- if they're gone, the custom is also gone as well. And if the custom is gone, people can't really follow the custom because there's none to begin with.

Interviewer: So you're saying the important thing is the language.

WM: That is correct, because your language is your lamp and the light for your path.

Interviewer:  When you look at it, do you see any complications with the presence of U.S. [and its] dealing with [our] lands and people?  What took the place of policemen or the court system back in the old days?

WM: Instead of policemen in those days, there were these people we called rukoj melan (planners). These people, their job was to plan. The term rukoj melan means making plans with those of the higher positions, like the chiefs or the traditional leaders.  They are the ones in charge of making sure everything is in place, in terms of land rights and ways of living. What they look for in terms of land rights is the arrangement of who own what,  and what the proper arrangement should be, according to the customs [and traditions] of those days [in these islands].  The reason why you're living on that piece of land is because of whatever custom you follow or abide by.  The custom shows why you are [living] there, the language of the custom shows it.  For example, the reason why I stay and live on a piece of land is because of morjin kot. What is morjin kot? [It is the land received for service when] you took the head of a spear [Note: This means the person was injured while fighting].  You went to war with your chiefs and upon winning, the chief gave you a piece of land.  Also, the reason why you're living and using a piece of land is because of kwodaelem. What is kwodaelem? You need to understand that the reason as to why you are there on that piece of land is because of kwodaelem (land given by a chief to a commoner as a bounty for bailing out the chief's canoe in battle expeditions). What does this word mean? You rode with your chiefs on their canoes to bail the water.  And once you'd reached the island where you were headed, the chief gave you a large gesture of gratitude by giving you a reward [a piece of land] for your work; it is a token of his appreciation for your working on his canoe.  The word or process is called kwodaelem, which means that a chief gives you a piece of his land for your hard work on the canoe.

Interviewer: What about imon tutu (medicinal shower/bath houses for the queens)? How did they work?

WM: The shower houses? How [did they work]? [Well, for example,] your grandmother helped to bathe the queen [with medicinal local plants] while she was sick; she cared for her until she was well enough.  The chief [then] gave your grandmother a piece of land, saying “Here, a piece of land for you, a reward in return [for your service].  eHereI can't pay you with anything else, but this is what I can do.  Go and care for your piece of land.  Clean it, plant it, live in it, and have peace with it.  All of this is because of your hard work and for taking care of the queen.”

Interviewer: Okay, now as you can see in our world today, in terms of the court system and how the system treats people and their rights - what they do in the end, is it always right?

WM: There are some cases that I have read about in the past which went off track simply because those involved didn't really [understand and pay attention to] what the case was all about. If they had [understood] what the case was all about, [then there would have been the possibility of winning]. But there are those cases where nobody [tried to understand all the points about the case].  And thus, [those cases] usually were unresolved.  [It is] just like what I said about the two houses [earlier].  [For example], the reason why [someone is] staying in this house is because of ‘this and that'. But when it comes to the true nature of the problem, they say [something different].  And thus, it drives the people involved in the case further away from the truth.  [This] means there's no truth in the case, but rather they just follow what they want [the end result to be] and not what the case is about.  This seals the truth away from the case and thus making it hard to know who has the right to certain piece of land.

Interviewer: Okay, for the last question, why . . . or do you think we still have time to hold on our language and custom, and how do we do that?

WM: Yes, we still have a lot of time to preserve our language. [First], we have to gather all the Marshallese words in all the books available to take a look at them.  Because as we know, we have a Marshallese dictionary.  There are a few words that didn't make it into the dictionary, but we understand that they are in our language.  They are an important part of our language, because our language comes in three [forms or from three sources]: First, you have to learn the language of the ocean.  You have to know and understand [everything] from the shores to the deepest part of the waters.  You have to know everything about [the ocean] - from its description, its appearance, its corals, to the fishes and seaweeds and their way of living, and many [other] related things. 

You have to do your best to know all of these things, so that the culture of the ocean is alive. I know that today, if I say drieb bele (a canoeing term), not one man on the canoe knows what that means. This means that you have to learn from someone who knows what drieb bele means. If I say kojab kaurmeto [Note: Definition not available at time of translation], then people will [likely] do the opposite because they don't know [what the term means].  These are words use for the knowledge of the ocean.  This is all the same with the language of the sky.  [This is important because, for example,] if you look at the sky, you can say [to someone], “Oh, the sky is tualle (a weather term indicating a storm is approaching).” Some people don't even know what the word tualle means, and so they won't understand what you're talking about.  You have to teach them in a way that they can learn and understand so that they can say “Oh, the word tualle means the sky is forming black clouds and it will soon rain and [there will be] strong winds.”

The same goes with the language of the dry land.  If you say “The buwe is over there, with the kojalele and the emmak”, some people don't even know what emmak is [Note: The definition of these terms were not available at the time of translation].  And so, it important that our people must learn these things - especially our kids of today - so that they can take from us what we understand about [these different language sources]; so that they can uphold and preserve our culture and language, and continue on living the way things were once.  If the language is alive, then the custom [and culture] is alive as well.