Our mission in the Marshall Islands has been one of great humanitarian effort. We came to the islands with a very different view of the country. Where we saw sandy beaches and deserted islands there was mass poverty and a broken education system. With the majority of the population under age 19, many wait by the side of the road, the single road that runs across the island from end to end in poverty and squalor with little hope of getting a job or retaining one even if they could find work in a country plagued by unemployment, under education and poverty.
There is hope for these young people, WAM, Canoes of the Marshall Islands, a Non-governmental organization (NGO) has provided an outlet for the monotony of island life.
Kathy and Kevin, farmers by trade, hale from New Zealand. They have been sailing all of their lives. To run an organization that teaches a traditional form of sailing must be a dream come true. The Marshallese are a proud people with a rich history and distinct culture they wish to retain. WAM teaches young men and women ages 17-23 the basics of woodworking skills in order for them to build traditional canoes.
The program gives them a practical skill like carving and woodworking that they can carry over into jobs. It also gives them interpersonal skills, teaches them conversational English and holds them accountable when they don’t show up on time.
Island time is a major problem Kathy wishes to correct among her students. The students must clock in everyday in the morning, before and after lunch and at the end of the work day. They must clock in regularly in order to receive their stipend they are given for participating in the program.
The beginning of the day starts with clean up of the area in order to ensure safety of all individuals working on the compound. The students then receive English and math training assisted by the cadets. This includes flash cards and games of scrabble.
Our team of cadets enjoyed team building exercises with the students, executing mini-FLRC (field leader reaction course) training with teams of WAM students. We also were able to help at the female counterpart to WAM that teaches English and math alongside traditional handicraft training.
Juren Ae is run by the former first lady of the Marshall Islands. Conversational English is the main focus of our mission. With conversational English these young women can hope for jobs in hotels to bolster the tourism industry that has recently been struggling in RMI. Even with world class diving and beautiful private islands, people are reluctant to come all the way to RMI due to little demand for flights coming to and from the islands.
At noon everyone breaks for lunch. The afternoon shift starts an hour later. Here our cadets assist the WAM students with woodworking skills, technical skills and develop interpersonal relationships so they can practice the English skills they learned earlier in the day. Their first project is a small box to fit the whet stone used to sharpen their tools. They then graduate to making a mallet. They form it from cut wood. They shape the mallet and handle with chisels and sand paper.
They then bore a hole in the mallet with a chisel to fit the handle. After showing technical proficiency with a variety of hand and machine tools the students begin making a tool box which will eventually house the tools they will be responsible for during the duration of the program. After six months they graduate and many will now have the skills to thrive in a working environment.
It is not all work with the students at WAM. Our cadets have learned many Marshallese phrases in order to better communicate with the populace. Even if we do not pronounce the words correctly the Marshallese greatly appreciate that we try. They rely heavily on facial expressions to decipher intent and emotion; a smile always receives a smile. They are very happy to help and are interested in what we are doing here.
After work our cadets often play basketball with WAM students at the College of the Marshall Islands (CMI). Here Marshallese and English fly as freely back and forth as the basketball being tossed from teammate to teammate. The competition is fierce but good natured. Kathy and Kevin also brought us out on their 44 foot yacht. We were able to swim, spearfish and examine reefs in order to better understand Marshallese culture and traditions. Fish is a main portion of the Marshallese diet. It is plentiful on the reefs and is traditionally fished by spear. The Marshallese use currents to navigate through the different atolls. There is no better way to experience these currents than to float along being pulled by the ocean’s force.
Where there is effort there is also success; Lintin, a former student of Kathy’s, is now a master carver at WAM. He builds models of traditional canoes for purchase in the WAM store. These beautiful canoes are built just like their larger counterpart and take up to four weeks to complete. Their intricate design require months of training to master. They are not glued or nailed but must be tied with rope made of palm tree fibers woven into rope. They are in every way just like the functional model just scaled down. Lintin recently gave a speech at a party for the World Teach Organization to raise awareness about WAM and other NGOs working on the islands. He thanked Kathy and Kevin and WAM for their work. A little over a year ago Lintin would never have been able to speak in front of a crowd or had to English proficiency to deliver a speech. With tears in her eyes, Kathy said she was incredibly moved by seeing Lintin deliver his speech. Just a few months prior he had so little English and was a shy island boy with little hope of getting a job.
The work we have done at WAM has been the most rewarding experience of my life. Never before have I seen so many people appreciative of our presence. Even the simplest things make their faces light up and bring a smile to their faces. Thank you Kathy and Kevin, WAM has been a great experience not only for your students but our group of cadets as well.