last week was pretty big for microwomen. one microwoman in particular got to lead a four hundred thousand-strong people’s climate march in new york city and address world leaders at the united nations climate summit. kathy jetnil-kijiner is a 26 year-old poet, activist and educator from the marshall islands, and a master’s graduate of the center for pacific islands studies at the university of hawai’i. selected from over 500 nominees to represent civil society, kathy’s speech at the u.n. garnered the uncommon honor in that forum of a standing ovation. kathy’s message acknowledged the ravages of climate change in islands across the pacific, while asserting a resolute optimism and faith in world leaders’ ability to make the policy and practical changes necessary to stem the rising tides. kathy was breathtaking in her confidence, her poise, even her fragility. if you haven’t yet, you have to see it for yourself:
watching kathy speak and perform poetry at the un, i couldn’t help but recall another occasion when a woman of the marshall islands compelled a global audience to listen. in 1983, darlene keju, addressed the world council of churches conference in vancouver on her country’s post-world war two experiences of nuclear and missile testing. in the youtube clip below, darlene’s speech is prefaced with an introduction by a samoan anglican bishop named jabez bryce, who invokes the poetry of flower and shell garlands or lei, followed by a group presentation of an anti-nuclear message from the people of the pacific.
darlene died thirteen years after she gave this speech at the wcc. in the face of the kind of desiccating colonialism that is very particular to the united states, she inspired marshall islanders, micronesians, pacific islanders, and citizens of the world to see through the “american dream”…and “dream good dreams again,” as the late maori poet hone tuwhare would say. last year, darlene’s husband published a biography detailing her extraordinary life, titled don’t ever whisper: darlene keju, pacific health pioneer, champion for nuclear survivors. kathy jetnil-kijiner was one of the first to review the book. you can read her review here.
two micronesian women. one took on nuclear colonialism. one is taking on environmental… [what do you call this insanity?]…imperialism? big stuff. but not too big for women from small islands used to living–and thriving–in the world’s largest ocean.
postscript: although the nuclear testing that darlene testified about before the wcc has ceased, depressingly, the missile testing she also discussed continues to this day. in fact, on the same day that kathy gave her speech at the un, the us air force launched an intercontinental ballistic missile from vandenburg air force base in california aimed at kwajalein in the marshall islands. our struggle is complex. and it continues.