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 The pleasure of reading and the beauty of the printed word in Marshallese



Microwaves By Jack Niedenthal

Majuro--In 1982, during my second year on the sparsely populated outer islands of the Marshalls as a Peace Corps volunteer, I ran out of books to read. 


The island I was living on, Majkin, Namu, did not have an airport at the time so we only got supply ships every five to six months. You learned to live with what you had, and sharing with those around you was a major part of surviving in those circumstances. That was new to me so I slowly had to learn how to lend things knowing I might not see them again for a while (or ever). 


Out there, as the months passed into years, your most valued possessions just started feeling like “stuff.” A friend from Namu once told me while I was whining like a baby about a speargun I had lent to someone and that had somehow managed to completely vanish from the island, “You should never fall in love with a thing.”


I passed rainy days, time off, and late evenings either playing our guitars in my shack with my friends or reading while everyone else played their guitars and talked. 


Reading a book on an outer island is quite an experience, the environment is so peaceful, the wind lightly brushing through the trees, the waves lapping onto the beach as the pebbles tumbled in and out, even the guys singing and talking right beside me as I turned pages felt natural and soothing.  


Often some of the island kids would stop by and just sit there and watch me read for an hour, making me feel like a human TV set. Outer island reading rivals watching a movie on the big screen as your mind gets the chance to truly wander and imagine and envision what is being described by the writer.

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I remember reading "Shõgun" by James Clavell. Even though the book was monstrously long and I was blasting through it most times uninterrupted and at lightning speed, I did not want it to end. The experience bordered on the unearthly, mostly because "Shõgun" is about a young, naïve foreigner who washes up on a beach in Japan and must learn how to survive in a completely new culture, which sort of described me at that point in my life. I lived in that novel.


Though I was not what I would deem “religious” at the time, every Wednesday and twice on Sunday I put on my bright red polyester trousers and my purple and white-striped shirt so I could look normal, slicked back my hair with coconut oil, put on my mirror sunglasses and strolled into the church. I sang hymns and read along with everyone as they recited verses from their Marshallese language bibles. The Marshallese bible began to fascinate me.


I grew up in the U.S. where I occasionally heard people quoting the King James version of the bible in English. I had a hard time connecting to stories that felt like they were occurring in a strange, faraway land where all the characters spoke ominously as if they had just descended from heaven.  


As a college student, I remember we had an extremely rare snowfall one December afternoon in Tucson, Arizona during exam week. As I was walking along the university’s pedestrian mall located at the center of the campus, I came upon an older man with wildly long hair, a long scraggly beard, an old torn coat and ratty shoes, all enchantingly coated in freshly fallen white snow.


The man’s bare, cold red hand clasped a bible above his head as he stood and shouted nonstop verses skyward into the swirling snow, he appeared oblivious to everyone and everything around him. I stopped and gaped at him thinking that maybe he had been placed there by an angel, the beauty of that moment was so vivid it still lingers in my mind decades later. But that single instance marked what could be called my only “religious experience” while living in the U.S.


So, finding myself without books on Namu, I decided that I would read the Marshallese bible cover-to-cover no matter how long it took.  I had worked hard on my Marshallese language skills during our Peace Corps training, which is why they had assigned me to one of only two atolls hosting a volunteer that didn’t have a landing strip. 


What I came to cherish about the Marshallese bible is that all the time-honored stories are described within the context of an island. As Jesus wandered around teaching His beliefs, the Marshallese language made me feel like this was all occurring in the thatched houses next door and among the coconut palms, not in some foreign land, and the way the biblical characters spoke their words resonated as if I were sitting around an early morning circle of coffee drinkers listening to the island men talk-story before they started their back-breaking workday fishing, repairing their houses or making copra. 


The Marshallese bible has a great sense of reality to it, the once super-miraculous stories and the often hard-to-believe biblical events now felt more grounded, and more accessible to me as a young man. 


The only time the narratives seemed to stumble a bit is when cows, exotic snakes, horses or other animals appeared that aren’t found in the Marshall Islands, but I even enjoyed those parts because they caused me to try to imagine, say, a stray donkey wandering up to the window of my house.


Recently, I was somewhere making a speech in Marshallese when I referred to the Marshallese bible as “bible eo adeañ” as in “our bible,” inclusive for just certain people.  When I sat down, my wife chastised me saying that I shouldn’t refer to the bible as if it belonged –only– to the people living out here, that it should be referred to as “the bible” because it belonged to everyone. 


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Okay, true.


However, decades earlier, after I had finished studying the Marshallese bible on Namu, from my own perspective, I came to believe this unique version of the holy book belonged, in a sense, only to people who understood the Marshallese language. Yes, it had been translated from English many, many years ago, but again, everything in the Marshallese bible feels as if events occur on an island, in a small, confined space instead of a wide-open continent that had endless roads to traverse on the way to virtually anywhere. 


The carefully crafted Marshallese language in the biblical legends and parables caused me to believe that these human beings were encountering true religious joy, just yards away from me on a dirt path.  The lessons people were being taught felt more real, more immediate and more digestible. 


Which brings me to the catalyst for this story: When I come upon a young Marshallese person who can’t speak or read in his or her mother tongue, it saddens me because the greatest written work in the Marshallese language, the Marshallese bible, will probably be lost to them forever.


I am sure most Micronesian island language bibles have this same unique linguistic appeal, which is a convention worth upholding, honoring, and protecting.

Jack Niedenthal is the former secretary of Health Services for the Marshall Islands, where he has lived and worked for 42 years. He is the author of “For the Good of Mankind, An Oral History of the People of Bikini,” and president of Microwave Films, which has produced six award-winning feature films in the Marshallese language. Send feedback to jackniedenthal@gmail.com





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