By: Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner (visit her site here: IEP JELTOK)
Please visit: Youth to Youth in Health's Facebook page.
When Ormita Jorelang first received training as a peer educator in a 1992 Majuro Youth Health Leadership seminar with Darlene Keju, she recalls the harrowing first time experience of being forced to recite a prayer in front of a group of strangers. Darlene, leading the training session, wouldn’t be satisfied with a mumbled and half-heard prayer. Instead, she forced Jorelang into reciting the prayer two more times – a tall order to be expected of a typically shy Marshallese girl. When Darlene was finally satisfied, Jorelang recalls Keju’s next words of advice as life changing:
“This is how you do it. You have to let us hear your voice, your needs, and your ideas. Don’t ever whisper because if I can’t hear it, nobody else will.”
And so we learn where the title of Giff Johnson’s biography of health pioneer and nuclear champion Darlene Keju originated from – a solid piece of advice given to a shy Marshallese girl. “Don’t Ever Whisper” couldn’t be a better title for a book dedicated to an outspoken Marshallese woman, who, though once a shy Marshallese girl herself, transformed into a world-renowned advocate for nuclear rights and a founder of the internationally recognized non-profit organization, Youth to Youth in Health.
“Don’t Ever Whisper” is a biography celebrating Darlene Keju’s life as she journeys from the outer island of Wotje to attend school for nearly 17 years in Hawaii, and then her eventual return to the urban center of Majuro. Johnson made it a point to weave in detailed historical events against the backdrop of Keju’s career, showing how events such as the secession from the rest of Micronesia, the voting of the first Compact, and the sail-in protest at Kwajalein, all influenced and shaped who she would become. One of the most thrilling parts of the book is the story of her speech at the General Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Vancouver in 1983 (if you haven’t watched the youtube clip of this speech yet, then you’re missing out). I was shocked while reading the backlash which followed her speech – to think that a young Marshallese woman had so much power that she would incite the wrath of US Ambassador Zeder was stunning. I found myself cheering for her resolve, and her strength.
But the real gems throughout the book are the personal stories that I found myself recognizing and relating to. Her picturesque upbringing in Wotje reminded me of the stories my mother used to tell me of her own upbringing. The deaths of her sister due to poor health services and her father to cancer reminded me of the painful losses of my own family members. Her efforts to adapt to Hawaii reminded me of my first few lonely years in that island community, which would eventually become a second home for me. And, really, who hasn’t struggled, or even failed, a statistics course at one point in their college career? Just as heartwarming were the personal anecdotes of Johnson and Keju’s courtship including her matter-of-fact proposal (Keju: “So, do you wanna get married? I’m not getting any younger.” Johnson: “Yeah ok, sure.”) followed by their eventual white island wedding in Wotje surrounded by family, food, and song.
Johnson also provides a detailed account, step by step, of the process of Keju’s work with Youth to Youth in Health, from a fledgling operation in the back of the old hospital, to a full-blown organization that expanded to the outer islands. This section, which takes up nearly the second half of the entire book, reads almost as a how-to manual for getting an organization up and running in the Marshall Islands. Everything from the training seminars, the public events, the performances, to getting grants and audits are covered during this detailed description of her work with youth. We not only see her attention to detail, and her tireless work ethic, but also her dedication to the youth she worked with, even as she battled and tragically lost her life to cancer.
“Don’t Ever Whisper” is definitely a beautiful tribute to this amazing woman’s life. While the book gets a bit clunky in certain sections, due to either an excess of information or at certain points quotes which were slightly unnecessary, all in all, “Don’t Ever Whisper” needs to be required reading for Pacific Islanders, and especially for Marshallese. It is a tool for historical analysis, a pointed criticism of the US’s role in nuclear testing, as well as a how-to manual for community organizing. And hopefully, this book will only encourage more biographies of countless Marshallese champions. We need stories like these more than ever – stories of Marshallese champions who’ve all struggled, survived, and celebrated life just as we have. These are the stories which nourish us, and which push us to continue to strive forward, and to shout and sing for change, just as Darlene Keju once did.