Articles: Don't Ever Whisper: The Story of Marshallese Activist Darlene Keju
Darlene Keju was not unlike other young Marshallese of the‘60’s -‘80’s who left the Marshalls to get a college degree in the U.S. The difference is in what she did after she returned.
Don't Ever Whisper, Darlene's soon-to-be-released biography, "tells the powerful story of a woman from a tiny Pacific island who championed the cause of nuclear weapons test survivors when others were silent, and who later implemented unparalleled community health programs and services that gave hope to a generation of troubled youth," says author Giff Johnson.
In 1982, Johnson and Keju were married on Darlene’s outer island childhood home of Wotje. She visited many outer islands, encouraging youth health chapters and clinics during her tenure with the family planning program. Her desire to empower Marshallese young people became reality with the establishment in 1986 of the Marshallese peer education organization, Youth to Youth in Health (Jodrikdrik nan Jodrikdrik ilo Ejmour). Until her untimely death of cancer in 1996, Keju continued to speak out for nuclear survivors and champion youth causes.
Today, author Johnson continues his connection with Youth to Youth. Seven years ago, at the program’s 20th anniversary, Johnson spoke of Darlene’s vision.
“From her late-20s onward, Darlene personified the notion that one person CAN make a difference. But to lead change you also have to be different and willing to take personal risks...Darlene’s vision continues through YTYIH — her challenge to us is to extend that vision, for Marshallese to step up to the plate and say we can do it ourselves — that Marshallese have the skills and talents to make behavior change that will make our islands a healthier and happier place."
In the past few months, via a new Facebook page and website, Johnson has made contact with hundreds of Darlene’s former students and admirers. He shares news of the biography’s publication, photos of Darlene’s activities, and book excerpts, such as the following:
- At one time in her life, Darlene refused to speak Marshallese in public so she would “fit in” to Hawaii, where she moved for school in the late 1960s. Her thinking changed dramatically by the early 1980s as she completed a master’s degree in public health at the University of Hawaii.
On the day of Darlene’s orals, the final presentation to meet graduation requirements, she took a slide projector, portable screen, and musical instruments. It would not have occurred to Darlene not to integrate music into her oral presentation.
Joining her for moral support were many Marshallese relatives, including (pictured) her brother Deo (behind Darlene), current Clerk of Nitijela Tadashi Lometo (left) and cousin Rejene Capitol (who now works at the Ministry of Internal Affairs).
Among those in the audience was JoAnn Tsark, an inbound student at the School of Public Health, who was seeing Darlene for the first time. Darlene’s opening remarks confused all but the Marshallese in attendance. “I was sitting in on her oral dissertation and she started in Marshallese for the first few minutes to everyone's confusion (well mine at least),” JoAnn recalled of Darlene’s talk.
“I was sitting there and I thought, oh my goodness, she’s so nervous, she’s resorted to her mother tongue and she doesn’t realize that nobody can understand what she’s saying — because nobody could understand what she was saying. And for about 10 minutes — or it seemed like 10 minutes — she did her oral in Marshallese. And then she stopped and she said, ‘I did the opening in Marshallese. And I know you didn’t understand what I’m saying. So now you know how I felt when I came to Hawaii. And how I had to learn what it is like to be thrown into another culture, another language.’”
Canita Rilometo Swigert, one of the many former YTYIH peer educators trained by Darlene, explained how Darlene's legacy lives on:
"I remember her recurring expression, “Tuak bwe Elimajnono! Face your Challenges!” In speeches, she talked of not quitting or giving in when faced with many challenges. I have used that saying to push myself over mental hurdles and physical demands throughout the years."
Darlene's ability to inspire and challenge is captured in a video made available last month on the internet for the first time. Her speech, delivered at the General Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Vancouver in 1983, was a call-to-action in support of radiation-exposed survivors of U.S. nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands.
The reflections of Rev. John Taroanui Doom, Anglican Diocese of Polynesia in French Polynesia and former WCC Pacific President, about that day, are posted with the video:
“Her challenging speech during the Pacific Plenary at the Assembly came like a shock to the participants, who carried back home the concern for the Pacific. I remember very well how we, the Pacific church leaders, were proud of her, for the striking way she loudly voiced the concern about the nuclear issue to the ears of the entire world.”
That was the difference. In her support of Marshallese causes, Darlene never whispered.
- Aenet Rowa, Yokwe Online, June 1, 2013
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