After the rain

Seventy-eight-year-old Madeline Taribwij, the oldest resident of Taroa Island, Republic of the Marshall Islands, where IOM has delivered emergency food with the support of USAID and the United Nations. © IOM/Joe Lowry 2013

By Joe Lowry in the northern Marshall Islands

It’s raining in Taroa Island; a warm, lush, tropical rain which feels more like a benediction than a penance. Washing away inequity. The sandy soil gurgles with pleasure, the roofs and water storage tanks thrum their applause.

I am 120 miles, a 16-hour sea journey from the capital of the Marshall Islands, halfway between the end of the Asian landmass and the beginning of America. As far east as the furthest tip of Russia. On a tiny, palm-fringed dot of coral, poking out of a million square kilometers of the vast and mighty Pacific.

In a three square metre plywood house, Madeline Taribwij sits on a mat on the hard floor and smiles. There’s no furniture in the one-room house; the only thing of note a large traveller’s trunk.

There are a few gaps in her smile, but her eyes twinkle like the raindrops and any creases in her skin are surely laugh lines. The wild mane of hair flowing freely over her shoulders sports every monochrome shade, from platinum at the roots to vivid jet-black at the ends.

The oldest resident on Taroa, Madeline has seen it all in her 78 years. The drought that hit her island home hard, very hard over recent months is ending, but Madeline knows that the first showers don’t herald a full recovery.

Living on an island is tough, so much so that six of her seven children have opted to leave, some for the capital Majuro, others for far-off Hawaii and even Arkansas. “I went there for a while,” says Madeline, in the throaty, percussive Marshallese language, “but it was too cold in Arkansas.” Hawaii wasn’t to her taste either, so to the exasperation of her children she has come back to this sandy speck to, one day, lay her bones beneath the land that bore her.

Her earliest memories are of the darkest days. The occupation and liberation of her island. Watching from a nearby island as the fierce war was fought out, with bombs pouring down on the sand. Even now, her small house sits on the edge of what appears to be a pond, but is in fact a blast crater.

Food aid has arrived, much of it from the USA, but some of it from Japan, with transport costs co-funded by the United Nations. I almost gasp at the irony.

Madeline says it will be welcome, as food is in short supply since the drought which hit the northern islands earlier this year.

“Of course it wasn’t as bad as the war, but we had to walk a long way for water sometimes,” she says.

Now that the rains have arrived drinking water is in reasonable supply. More worrisome for the Government, for donors, and for people like Madeline is the shortage of staple crops.

The Marshallese depend on tree-based crops like bananas, pandanus, breadfruit and coconuts. These trees died in their hundreds in the first half of 2013, leaving some 6,500 people (more than ten per cent of the entire population, and close to the entire population of the massively remote northern Islands) short of food.

The needs are taken care of until at least the end of this year (see separate report) and discussions are taking place to ensure long-term resilience of this fragile, unique, proud community.

Joe Lowry is a senior media and communications officer for IOM