giving thanks for microwomen 2 (or, hey, that climate warrior is my grandmother!)

another micronesian woman who attended the 2014 people’s climate march in new york last week was pelenise alofa pilitati.

watch a clip of pelenise in nyc <– here

she arrived in new york after traveling to the arctic as part of a delegation with the president of kiribati, sponsored by greenpeace. the fates of the equatorial coral atolls of kiribati and the icy polar continent of the arctic are irrevocably bound. and the official images released by greenpeace to the press are certainly dramatic. here is one of them:

kiribati president anote tong in the arctic 2014, greenpeace international image, photo by christian aslund

here’s a photograph of pelenise with the president and other members of the kiribati delegation against the same polar  backdrop.

photograph of kiribati delegation to the arctic 2014
photograph of kiribati delegation to the arctic 2014, used here with permission of pelenise alofa pilitati

i first met pelenise a few years ago, when oxfam organized a panel discussion on climate change here in wellington. she was one of the speakers flown in especially for the panel. fiery and eloquent, pelenise was impressive, but she took me by surprise when she turned her focus from the climate change threats facing the atolls of kiribati to the history of environmental destruction and social dislocation caused by phosphate mining on the high island of banaba. as someone with both banaban and kiribati heritage, i was keen to find an opportunity to talk more with pelenise after the panel. before i could open my mouth to introduce myself to her, she grabbed my arm, and exclaimed, “we are family! you should call me kaka. i am your grandmother!” needless to say, i was blown away: already in awe of this climate warrior and now she was telling me that in banaban kinship terms, she was my grandmother??!!

as pelenise and i talked, i realized that although i had not met her while i was growing up, she had grown up around my father and aunts and uncles on rabi in fiji. i had, however, met her sister roere when i visited nauru in 1997. i had thought of roere as another aunt, and she had been very kind to me on nauru, even staying in touch and sending me gifts when i returned to fiji. roere had struggled on nauru to support her diabetic husband until he died and she eventually joined him from complications with the disease herself. as my dad explained to me later, my great-grandfather was cousins with pelenise and roere’s mother. and that’s how they are technically my grandmothers.

after we met in wellington, i was excited to get to hear pelenise speak once more, this time at the 2010 pasifika festival in auckland. i think you can even hear me cheering in the background of this clip!

i like this clip because pelenise really encourages pacific people to get informed about the issues around climate change, and most importantly, start discussing them amongst our families and communities. you often hear people criticizing ‘all talk and no action’. gee, what i’d give for even some talk about climate change amongst pacific people in aotearoa new zealand!

those familiar with the languages of the pacific will have noticed that pelenise’s name is much more polynesian sounding than micronesian. it is in fact a tuvaluan name, from her father’s side of the family. tuvalu, of course, is as much on the front-line of climate change effects as kiribati; but tuvalu is classified as polynesian, and kiribati micronesian. in future posts, i’ll address some of the issues that surround the melanesian, micronesian and polynesian geo-political and cultural categories that have come to mean both so much and so little in our big ocean. in the meantime, i bask in the fiery glory of my grandmother, and give thanks for another microwoman.

giving thanks for microwomen 2 (or, hey, that climate warrior is my grandmother!)

giving thanks for microwomen

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.

giving thanks for microwomen

when life’s got you too busy to blog, reblog!

it’s been another busy week. my backlog of uncompleted items on ‘to do’ lists is almost paralyzing. i say *almost* because i’m determined to get the better of them.

as a product of my generation, in the midst of a multitude of competing work and family pressures, i have found it difficult to resist breaking out into the late 1980s anthem by karyn white, ‘i’m not your superwoman.’ but…what a disappointment that song is. i’m so going to blog about its unfulfilled feminist potential one day. maybe i’ll rewrite the lyrics to better describe the actual pressures on me to be a superwoman. after i’ve conquered this backlog, of course.

when i want feminist inspiration, i know better now than to go to american soda pop factories. this past week, i visited “lapkat mixes”, a blog by melbourne-based dj lisa greenaway which features a breathtaking selection of polyglot/multilingual music and conscious poetry from around the world. my pick for the week is entitled “tell our daughters: warrior poets mix”. you can also find it here on mixcloud. check it out!

p.s. i guess this is technically not a ‘reblog’, huh? i’m still figuring the mechanics of the blogosphere out. add that to the ‘to do’ list. (sigh)

lapkat tell our daughters

when life’s got you too busy to blog, reblog!

from little things, big things grow

paul kelly and kev carmody’s, ‘from little things, big things grow’ chronicles the struggle of the gurindji people in the northern territory of australia. a māori friend of mine introduced this song to me after she spent some time on a writer’s residency in australia.

the ancestors of australian aboriginals settled the continent tens of thousands of years before the ancestors of most pacific islanders arrived in the region, and although there have been some lamentable conflicts between aboriginals and pacific migrants to australia in contemporary times, there have also been many occasions when pacific islanders and aboriginal australians have joined in solidarity–most notably in the anti-nuclear movements of the 1970s-1990s. the initial protest that this song commemorates was over the gurindji’s rights as workers. this led to an 8-year labour strike and eventually expanded to a land rights movement led by a man named vincent lingiari. the gurindji’s resolute stand against the exploitation of their labour and the alienation of their lands was finally addressed by legislation awarding indigenous australians in the northern territory title to their traditional lands.

admittedly, the version of the history recorded in this song is very male-oriented. as a feminist, i am of course curious about what the gurindji women’s experiences might have been during this time, and how the legislation may have affected their subsequent well-being, especially in relation to mining and other developments on their lands. i hope to be able to provide a follow-up to this in a future blog. but my awareness of the partial nature of this version of history doesn’t stop me from enjoying the song, and taking inspiration from the gurindji victories of 1975 and 1976.

from little things, big things grow

up, up and away!

as a child, i always wanted to be a superhero. bionic woman. wonder woman. a whole raft of comic book ‘heroines’. what little girl in the 1970s exposed to american popular culture failed to have her imagination captured by these icons? i spent a lot of time as a child growing up in fiji dreaming up ways that i could invent rocket-powered boots or web-spinning wristlets so that i could fight local, global and interplanetary crime. (sigh) i eventually grew up to be an academic. a feminist academic of course. a feminist academic from the pacific islands…a region located in the world’s largest ocean, but with some of the world’s smallest nation-states and populations.

there are not many pop cultural renditions of superheroes from this part of the world. (apart from the x-men’s samoan character mondo, my part-samoan husband reminds me.) but we’ve actually produced our fair share of local and indigenous heroes, necessitated in large part by the onslaughts of colonialism and neo-liberal economics we’ve experienced in the past and continue to experience in the present. now that i’m in my late 40s, though, i’m learning to be skeptical of hero discourse…mainly because i have seen too often how it’s been used to sacrifice the brave, and excuse the lethargic, lazy and cowardly from taking positive action. so meet my alter-ego, “microwoman”. she’s no superhero. she’s not even trying to be a hero. she’s just going to keep doing the best she can to make small changes, small interventions…and as they say, “from little things, big things grow.”

up, up and away!