Darlene Keju spent much of her life empowering people in her native Marshall Islands and campaigning against nuclear weapons. Now her late husband, Giff Johnson, has released a biography on Keju.
Report – By Daniel Drageset of Pacific Media Watch
In an audio interview with Pacific Media Watch, Giff Johnson – who was married to anti-nuclear campaigner Darlene Keju – describes her short, but eventful life.
Johnson has recently released a biographical book about Keju titled Don’t Ever Whisper – Darlene Keju: Pacific Health Pioneer, Champion for Nuclear Survivors.
Knowing little English, Keju moved to Hawaii in her 20s wanting to assimilate into the American culture.
“[W]hat she learned over time as she got her self-identity back and began to take pride in being Marshall Islander and a Pacific Islander, is that it was her belief and her pride as an island person that gave her the strength to make it through difficult situations,” Giff Johnson said.
Johnson told Pacific Media Watch that Keju used this knowledge to contribute in building a healthier society when she returned to her native Marshall Islands.
“[S]he had seen how a healthy cultural identity had helped her, and so she transferred that idea to her health work activating young people as role models using theatre music, dance, drama in order to engage people in the community and get people excited about health and development issues. That was really, probably her signature contribution to health in the Marshall Islands.”
It is perhaps the anti-nuclear campaigns Darlene was most famous for.
In 1983 she held a gripping speech at the World Council of Churches in Vancouver, that you can watch at the website of the book donteverwhisper.com.
Before that, Darlene had travelled around the Marshall Islands talking to people that were affected by nuclear tests at Bikini and Enewetak atolls.
“[T]hat experience woke up her up to what people in the Marshall Islands had experienced from the bomb, the fallout, what their perceptions about health and psychological problems were that had resulted from the bomb. And this was really ground breaking research,” Giff Johnson explained.
Listen to the full interview with Giff Johnson here. Below is a transcript of the interview.
“DD: Don’t Ever Whisper is a biographical book about your late wife Darlene Keju. Why was it important for you to write this book?
GJ: There is a very important story about the work that Darlene did in many areas affecting people in the Marshall Islands from her advocacy for nuclear test victims to her later innovative community health work that developed young people as role models to promote behaviour change and primary health care in the islands. It’s a story that people should talk about, know about, and I think especially the younger generation who are coming up now who weren’t around to see her programmes and activities in person should be aware of it, and I felt it was a story worth telling and so I have done it.
DD: How have the reactions been so far to the book?
GF: It’s still early days because it was only published a week or so ago, and it’s taking time to make its way out to the islands and into people’s hands, so copies are just now getting to people and reading it, so we’ll have to wait to see what kind of reviews come out from of it, and I am anxiously awaiting those results.
DD: So what would you say were the biggest accomplishments of Darlene?
GF: Her story in many ways is quite typical of not only Marshall Islanders, but Pacific Islanders, who left their home to go to the United States or some other developed country for education. She left with little English ability and struggled for many years with that, and to the point where she refused to speak her own language as her way of trying to assimilate into a new culture, but what she learned over time as she got her self-identity back and began to take pride in being Marshall Islander and a Pacific Islander, is that it was her belief and her pride as an island person that gave her the strength to make it through difficult situations. To go through school in the US, to make it to get a master’s degree in public health and get over all the hurdles that she had to get through in order to be successful in her academic life and then saw that as a way to transfer that success to other people, because when she came back to the Marshall Islands she looked around and saw so many young people, there was a high suicide rate in the Marshall Islands, high teen pregnancy rate, and just a lot of…in the urbanisation and westernisation of the country, so much upheaval in the society that young people were really becoming more and more disconnected from their roots, and she had seen how a healthy cultural identity had helped her, and so she transferred that idea to her health work activating young people as role models using theatre music, dance, drama in order to engage people in the community and get people excited about health and development issues. That was really, probably her signature contribution to health in the Marshall Islands.
DD: How would you describe her personality?
GJ: Darlene was a super engaging person who had great musical talent and was able to speak so powerfully, but what was I think quite amazing about her was that she also paid very close attention to individuals. And this is a very unusual thing probably not only in the Marshall Islands, but generally in Pacific culture, where the group is the important unit. And she excelled in working with young people precisely because she paid so much attention to them and detail, and helping them to work through problems to become contributing members of their community. One of the people who’s quoted in the book, the new book Don’t Ever Whisper, says that you know she was really engaged and she didn’t let people off the hook, but she did it in such a friendly and engaging active way that you didn’t feel like you were on the hook, you just felt that you had to join in and get involved because it was so exciting to do it.
DD: And one of the things Darlene did was to work against nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands. Tell me a little bit about that?
GJ: Darlene grew up on islands that were downwind of the Bikini and Enewetak nuclear test sites in the 1950’s, but like pretty much like most people out here in the Marshall Islands knew nothing about the nuclear testing at the time or even many years later. And it wasn’t until in her late 20’s in Hawaii while she was in university that she began to learn about the nuclear testing history, which then prompted her to take a summer trip to the Marshall Islands in which she got on a field trip ship along with…I joined along with her and we bounced around to a lot of the small islands in the country interviewing people about their memories of the Bravo test and the US nuclear test programme, and that experience woke up her up to what people in the Marshall Islands had experienced from the bomb, the fallout, what their perceptions about health and psychological problems were that had resulted from the bomb. And this was really ground breaking research. She certainly was among one of the first Marshall Islanders to go out and learn herself, going out in a grassroots way to talk to people on these islands that had no phones or radios, and just got out and talked to people by going around on a ship for several weeks. This really fuelled her interest and she realised that there was a big problem. There were health problems that people were saying were related to the nuclear testing, and yet who was the advocate for these people? Most of them didn’t speak English, they were on these isolated islands, and she realised – there she was on Hawaii, by then she spoke English well – I mean she could do it, and she just felt she had to, and so she at great personal risk she started speaking to various groups, church, and environmental groups, and as times went on she was invited around on tours in the US and Canada to talk about these issues, and that’s what landed her with the World Council Church’s Assembly, where she made what is quite a famous speech about the nuclear testing issue in the Marshall Islands.
DD: How was it for you personally Giff to write a book about your late wife?
GJ: It’s been a fantastic process. It’s taken several years to do it after a number of on-and-off starts and stops, but it’s been just a wonderful thing to go into research this, to look back into her diaries of her activities, to talk to a lot of the people that I interviewed in order to get commentary and observation about her. It’s been a very happy process to do this, and I just hope that the book Don’t Ever Whisper will do justice to her legacy, and that’s why I wrote it, because I feel that on a number of levels particularly her contribution to primary health care and innovations in addressing behavioural change in a conservative island group were just tremendous. She was way ahead of her time on the nuclear issue. What she said at the time was extremely controversial, but has been borne out by declassified US government nuclear test era documents, so it’s kinda come full circle in terms of what we now know and what Darlene was saying to the world 30 years ago about this issue and trying to get people to pay attention to these people on small islands who really had no voice but were the survivors of 67 US nuclear tests.
DD: That’s fascinating. That’s great Giff. Is there anything else you’d like to add that you think it’s important to say?
GJ: Well, in terms of the book itself I’d just like to mention that there is a website that’s been done donteverwhisper.com which has videos and photos and lots of information about the book, so if people who are listening or interested that’s a way people can find out more about the book and about Darlene.
Daniel Drageset is Pacific Media Watch’s contributing editor.
Source: Pacific Media Watch 8347