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The History of Bikini Atoll and some happier tidbits

84 °F

Hello my Gablogers (I wanted to give you a fun cool name like “Beliebers” ect….so get ready for some corny openings in the next few posts)

It’s been a lovely end of my first week in my Majuro Paradise. I can’t believe I have only been here for a week and two days. It feels like an eternity. I will say that the heat is not getting any less horrible. In fact I think I’m getting more impatient with it every day. We have all been told that Marshallese people are lazy and don’t want to go anywhere and just stay in their house all day or get a cab to just drive them down the street. I totally get it now, its so damn hot that I don’t want to walk from my room to our classroom. They aren’t lazy. They are smart. I can see that I will be adopting this Marshallese doctrine in no time. Also the cabs here are SO cheap. You pay a flat rate of 75 cents anywhere you go. So taking a cab is not only necessary due to the heat, but also completely manageable. The other option that is just as common is hitch hiking. Unlike our “stranger-danger” outlook on hitch hiking in America, pretty much everyone hitch hikes everywhere here. You just wave cars down…or throw rocks at them (I think I’m going to avoid that). My American upbringing made me pretty uneasy about this option at first. However, our field directors said it was safe and they pretty much try to scare us away from any danger at all times. (They told us that in the outer islands (where drinking is prohibited), if you are caught drinking they will tie you naked to a tree and leave you there for a day or two…..) Last night was my first hitch hiking experience. People stop all the time for hitch hikers. Pretty much any time you see a pick up truck (which is all the time) it is filled with like 10 Marshallese people. If there is room in the back they will stop and pick you up if you flag them down and take you where you want for a grand total of $0. If they don’t have room for you they just give you a friendly little honk to say “hey sorry I see you but I’m full.” This kind of attitude seems to be pretty representative of the Marshallese way of life. Everyone I’ve met here is so kind and friendly. Some people are a little shy but still smile and wave and seem happy that you are there. Unlike other countries where they try to rip off tourists or Americans who don’t know the prices or goods or services, no one I know has ever been ripped off in any way. In fact, a lot of places will give you a small discount if they find out we are from World Teach. We are basically like local celebrities, both because we are American and stick out like a sore thumb, and because we are teaching their children basically for free. It’s a very positive environment and honestly one of the safest programs I think that world teach has to offer. It is virtually under no threat of attack from any country and the people are generally kind and helpful. The worst thing I’ve encountered is a drunk man insisting that he play a song for us on the ukulele….So I think all things considered, we’ve got it good.

As much as I hate the heat, I have learned to adore the rain. Running around in the light, refreshing sprinkle of rain in the afternoon cools everyone down. The BEST is when it pours for like 20 minutes sometimes at night and most of us either run around and play in it, or take awesome showers. It’s the best because its fresh rainwater, you can use as much as you want and I can actually get all the shampoo out of my hair. Rain showers have quickly become my favorite bathing experience I have ever had. Plus its fun to do with a bunch of friends running around and laughing with you.

One thing that has been pretty overwhelming this week is learning about the atomic bomb testing that the United States did on Bikini Island in the Marshall Islands after World War II and the aftermath of those tests. We all watched this documentary called “Radio Bikini” and it was very good and very heavy. It used almost 100% clips from videos taken by the US government during that time. It made me much more emotional than I expected. If you can get access to it, I really encourage everyone to watch it. We also listened to a presentation by this man who came with the Peace Corp’s 30 years ago and never left. He discussed more about the aftermath of the tests on the surrounding islands and the natives, where as the documentary focused on the soldiers mostly and the tests themselves. Both presentations were very interesting and equally important. This information has had a serious impact on me and I really encourage everyone to look more into it…However I am also going to divulge some details in this post because I think this is a story that needs to be told and if my blog enlightens even 1 person to this tragedy I will consider it a success. Basically after WWII, between the years 1946 – 1958, the United States government set off 30 nuclear devices on the island of Bikini in the Marshall Islands. Bikini is one of the most beautiful of the Islands, with sandy beaches (whereas most islands have hard, scratchy coral, and a plethora of healthy fish, crab and food growing on the island. After the United States dropped the two atomic bombs in Japan, the government decided that more tests were required. The US was a protectorate of the Marshall Islands at the time, having pledged to protect the islands from harms way. Therefor the US had control of the islands and told the natives on Bikini that they needed to move away from their home “for the good of mankind.” The people who lived there didn’t speak English and have since stated that they weren’t completely sure of what the US was going to do. They were told that they needed to leave their homes, but that as soon as the tests were done they would be able to go back home as if nothing had happened. They were moved to the island Rongerik Atoll, because there was no one living there, and left to fend for themselves. The reason that no one in the Marshall Islands lived on this island was because it was not a safe place to live. The islanders considered this island a “hell” and thought it was cursed by demons. The reason they thought this was because all of the fish surrounding the island were unsafe to eat. (There are many small areas around the outer islands that have poisonous fish, but the locals know which ones they are and avoid them). Also the ground was so lacking of nutrients that nothing was able to grow. additionally, because there was little-no food the crabs could not even survive. Therefore these people were left by the government and began to slowly starve. The men would eat small portions of the poisonous fish so they just felt sick, rather than going into paralysis (which occurs when ingesting an entire fish) and the women and children ate primarily crushed up coconut meat from the few trees that grew on the island. At this time a number of people starved to death on this island. Meanwhile, the US government moved onto Bikini and enjoyed the tropical oasis as the tests and cameras were set up. They spent millions of dollars on camera equipment in order to film every moment of these tests to show the rest of the world. (That’s how Radio Bikini has so much vintage footage). One of the low ranking marines was interviewed in the documentary and describes how the army didn’t divulge any nuclear concerns to the unknowing soldiers, they were not warned of any possible nuclear radiation. They chained sheep, pigs and rats to the island and lathered some in sun screen to see if that would protect them from the bomb. Then after they vacated the island and dropped the first bomb. About 2 hours after the bomb was dropped all the low ranking marines entered the island and collected materials and took notes about the damage. When they returned to base, they ran radiation detectors over the soldiers (who were obviously were covered), so they had to take showers (in the radiation infected water from the surrounding ocean) until the government said it was safe. This process continued for the soldiers for the subsequent bombs over the next 10 years. 1948, Dr. Leonard Mason, an anthropologist from the University of Hawaii, visited the temporary home of the relocated islanders on Rongerik Atoll and was horrified when he found the people were starving. He told the US if they didn’t do something soon, the entire population of Bikini Atoll would die of starvation. So they moved the remaining natives to the small island of Kili. This island was not as hellish as the first (which currently remains completely uninhabited) but also lacked the plethora of nutrients and food options as most of the islands in the Marshall Islands. It was also much smaller than their previous home and the land distribution was minuscule. In the Marshall Islands, money is not the sign of power or influence, its how much land you own and it is passed down to family members for generations. When slivers of land were distributed equally among the surviving natives they were unsurprisingly disappointed, but did their best to make it work. They were given one pot to cook food and feed the couple hundred islanders that lived on the island. In Kili, some natives continued to die of starvation because the island was not big enough to provide the amount of food necessary to support the couple hundred natives who were moved there. The US government continued to test nuclear weapons, the most powerful atomic weapon that was tested was 1000 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The bomb that caused the most damage was called “Bravo” and was detonated underwater, destroying a fleet of navy ships, killing fish for thousands of miles, setting off a tidal wave and contaminating the surrounding water further than any other bomb tested. After the government decided to stop tests they waited until June 1968 to inform the Bikini council that they could return to their home. However, the council had discovered that the coconut crabs had high levels of radiation and couldn’t be eaten and thought that the “poison” that the US had dropped on their home made it unsafe to return. Most of the natives chose to relocate as refugees to other islands, without land, without anything to make them feel apart of a community. A small number of families returned to Bikini, but got very sick and most died of radiation related health problems in the few years following their return. Additionally a huge amount of US soldiers who were taking samples and notes from the island died of radiation related health problems following their time at Bikini Atoll. Additionally, the strength and direction of the wind during the testing of certain large bombs (which the US government has now admitted to knowing about the wind conditions and the direct aim for surrounding inhabited islands) led to a number of health problems for inhabitants of surrounding islands. Ultimately, the United States, who pledged to protect the Marshallese people from harms way, directly put them into it, for years and years to come. I don’t mean to insinuate that they did so maliciously, but that doesn’t make this tragedy any less abominable. To me, it seems like a bunch of little boys playing with toys that they didn’t understand, with little regard for the consequences. They obviously were aware that radiation existed and could cause problems, or they wouldn’t have been looking for it on their soldiers (and the higher ranking officers would also have been expected to enter the danger zone). I think it is unacceptable that this is a piece of our history that is never taught in school. I don’t remember hearing about these islands or tests every in my 18 years of public school education. The ability to take responsibility for a mistake and admit to fault is a standard that I would hold those in power to. It is unacceptable that is seems to be a piece of history that we brush under the rug as unimportant. The exploitation of less powerful, more vulnerable people, living in the developing world is a problem that we ignore. It is something that should be included in our history so that history does not repeat itself. Since this tragic mistake, the United States has given money to the natives of Bikini, but money is not a substitute for the loss that these people have endured. In a society where land is ones sign of wealth and tradition is where they get their pride, a few million dollars cannot mend the wounds. Including the amount of funds it would take to clean up Bikini to make it safe to inhabit does not make the money that they have been given seem nearly as large as it does at first glance. In 1988 a journalist from the New York Times interviewed an elder from Bikini who survived throughout the whole ordeal, which led to the quote of the day in the NY Times, stating, "We've learned to dry our tears of sorrow with dollar bills. But money never takes the place of Bikini.'' - Lore Kessibuki, visiting his island homeland. I have only given a brief summary of this tragedy, but it is a story that needs to be told. It has had a tremendous influence on my experience here. Sorry to be a Debbie downer, but as I said before, we need to learn our history and not be ignorant to the incredible mistakes our country has made. I don’t mean to downplay any positive contributions the United States has made in the world, only acknowledge the entirety of our history, rather than picking and choosing the pretty parts and ignoring the ugly ones.

So that rant was rather long, but I hope you have made it through it all and are interested enough to watch that documentary “Radio Bikini” because its important and pretty interesting to see vintage footage.

In an attempt to end on a lighter note, you can buy cold coconuts here and drink the delicious coconut milk, then open it up and eat the most fresh coconut meat I have ever had all for $1. It’s amazing, Especially for a coconut lover like me. Also my Marshallese and Sign Language is getting better! I was practicing a lot with the local kids a few nights ago, which was actually SUPER helpful because the pronunciations are hard and I would have been practicing wrong if they hadn’t been there to laugh and me and steer me straight. They are also just to happy to be around us, so it’s a mutually beneficial relationship. They see us on the streets and run up to grab our hands and play, no matter who they are, which is even more amazing than the coconuts. As soon as I wake up in the morning and go down for breakfast I hear kids outside our gate yelling “GABBY! GOOD MORNING GABBY” and get the same star treatment at night before we go to bed. I’ve never felt like such a celebrity. My only problem right now is that sometimes I accidentally use the sign language I’m learning when I’m speaking to a Marshallese person… learning two languages at once is confusing for my system. Luckily everyone here is patient and happy to help.

Anyway I think I have written more than anyone wants to read at this point to I will spare your eyes. Until next time friends

Posted by gabbyfo 18:09 Archived in Marshall Islands Tagged bikini atoll Comments (0)

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