Mejit's Women's Group:
Moving Toward the Future With Tradition
Long ago an irooj, or high chief, went to the island of Mejit in the Marshall Islands. In order to welcome him, the women of the island worked together to prepare a huge feast. They cooked fish, breadfruit, and taro, they wove baskets, leis, and head wreaths, and they decorated their village with flowers and palm fronds. It was the first welcoming ceremony on Mejit and the birth of the island's first women's group.
Today the women of Mejit are preserving Marshallese custom by continuing to welcome visitors according to traditional ways. Their organization is called AKIM, Ainikien Kora In Mejit which means the voice of women on Mejit. When I came to Mejit to do field work for my TA project last summer, I was welcomed with the same warmth and generosity shown to that irooj so long ago.
Returning from a long day of work, I approached the island's airport terminal where our feast was to be held; ladies lined the path to the entrance welcoming me with singing and laughter. As I walked past, they decorated me with fragrant leis and wreaths. Inside, palm fronds served as our mats, and baskets overflowing with local foods were waiting to be received.
Our feast began with song and a prayer followed by some words of welcome from the group's vice president, Winnie Emmius. We toasted our celebration with coconut milk and then, we ate. My basket was filled with delicious local foods: tuna and turtle caught off the island's reef, sashimi and chicken, breadfruit prepared in five different ways, pumpkin in coconut milk, cooked banana and papaya, bread, and several ni, or green coconuts, to wash it all down.
We ate to our heart's content before the singing resumed. A guitar and ukulele provided the rhythm while the ladies treated me to six Marshallese songs. In between songs there were speeches and much laughter, and before our feast was over, I sang my own song for the group (Wan Pinana, a Marshallese children's song) and danced ebin kabaj (the heron's dance) with local councilwoman Natty Tubay.
Our celebration ended well after dark. We packed up our leftovers and cleaned up our mats, each going our separate way under the light of a full moon, humming to ourselves and remembering the highlights of the evening.
At a time when so much development is taking place in the Marshall Islands it is nice to see such a conscious effort to honor Marshallese custom. It is inevitable that new technology and industry will come to the outer islands, but as AKIM has demonstrated, it need not be at the expense of tradition.
photograph: Clint Chiavarini