Ebeye: Island of Contrasts

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A few days ago I touched briefly on the history and geography of Kwajalein Atoll when I wrote about Roi-Namur. The third island up on the east reef from Kwajalein Island is Ebeye (pronounced EE-bye…though half the time now I mix up my pronunciation of eBay and Ebeye).

I wrote a little bit about Ebeye on my Kwajalein blog a couple of years ago, but that was before I stepped foot on the island and I never did get around to posting my photos from a couple of visits I took to the island since.

So for the newcomers, those who have forgotten, and for the sake of a bit of descriptive text as I finish going through old photos of my time in the Marshall Islands, here are a few pieces of info about Ebeye.

Me, standing at Beach Park on the south tip of Ebeye. Looking south across the reef towards Big and Little Bustard (left) and Kwajalein

At Beach Park on the south tip of Ebeye. Looking south across the reef towards Big and Little Bustard (left) and Kwajalein

Ebeye Island is a little smaller than Kwajalein Island, at just about 80 acres. Yet this tiny island is home to over 15,000 Marshallese. It is estimated that over 50% of the population is under the age of 18, which I find easy to believe while wandering the streets and seeing so many children out and about, both in and out of school.

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Following WWII, when the US took possession of the Marshall Islands from the Japanese, the US conducted several nuclear tests in the Marshalls (most famously at Bikini Atoll) and moved many Marshallese to Ebeye. When the US started to use Kwajalein Atoll for other missile tests, Marshallese from the mid-atoll were also moved to Ebeye, thus setting the stage for overpopulation and various social and economical problems such as a lack of food, water, jobs, and money.

While Ebeye is very much in third world conditions, most of the faces I have seen are smiling, and make me want to be more grateful for the many blessings I have been given. I have found the Marshallese quite friendly and social in general, and only wished I knew a little bit of the language (most of my Marshallese doesn’t go much farther than “Yokwe” == hello, welcome, or literally “you are a rainbow” and “Kommol Tata” = thank you very much. See, now you speak about as much as I do!). Many of the (especially younger) Marshallese are brought up learning English as well as their native language, but most signs you will see through the Marshall Islands are written in both English and Marshallese. The Marshall Islands also uses the US dollar as their currency, even after they gained their independence.

Ebeye police and fire station

Ebeye police and fire station

A number of Marshallese from Ebeye work on Kwajalein each day, and take the daily ferries between the islands. The ferry takes about 20 minutes, and is free both ways (you just swipe your badge at the Kwajalein dock security checkpoint going to and fro). Generally the only Marshallese who are allowed to live on Kwajalein Island (as it is a US army base) are those married to Americans.

Ebeye Harbor; the large building in the center is the fish market

Ebeye Harbor; the large building in the center is the fish market

In stark contrast to Kwajalein, residents of Ebeye are allowed to own private vehicles, and you will frequently see taxis (generally pickup trucks with people riding in the back). Ironic for a smaller island with 15 times the population.

Mobile phones are also available on Ebeye. I’ve been told foreign phones will not be able to pick up the network, but you can purchase a local phone with a number of minutes to make local calls. Kwajalein does not have any cell towers so we rely on landlines and pagers, and since landlines are routed through the US, calls between Kwajalein and Ebeye are strangely considered international.

And while Kwajalein is still stuck in the dark ages of the Internet, with only dial-up available in residential areas, Ebeye has (relatively, compared to Kwaj anyway) high speed Internet.

One of the nicer houses on Ebeye

One of the nicer houses on Ebeye

So even though many of the houses people live in with several large families look like old shacks with chicken coop wire for windows, and the poverty and lack of clean water and sanitation is saddening, you will see some strange contrasts throughout this tiny island.

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Early this year one of our technicians at the weather station, a Marshallese man called Ernie, told me of a Christian school on Ebeye (Ebeye Gem School) that wanted me to go speak with the 4th through 7th graders about weather and forecasting during “education week” (a week of different speakers and activities). They had never had any speakers from Kwajalein before, and I felt honored to go talk to the kids.

I found that many of the teachers are American volunteers, sponsored by a missionary organization, and even the Marshallese teachers are required to teach in English. The school began about 7 years ago, and each year they add on an extra room to their building, for the next highest grade. They hope to go to at least 9th grade from what I understand. Most of the buildings around the school were relatively new (the church building I spoke in was not yet finished, but I heard they’re finishing it up and having the dedication this month I think).

The children were so friendly and grateful (and with so many good questions!), as were the teachers, and while they felt more blessed to have me there, I wound up feeling as if I had the greater blessing to go there.

The blue building is the 7th Day Adventist school

The blue building is the 7th Day Adventist school, one of several private schools on Ebeye

For more photos from around (and above, via helicopter!) Ebeye, check out my Ebeye Flickr set.

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Categories: Kwajalein, Marshall Islands | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Ebeye: Island of Contrasts

  1. vishnu

    By far the best Ebeye pic set I’ve seen, thank you so much for posting them! I’m somewhat reminded of Jim Whittaker’s description of the Tibetan Yak herders that Mt. Everest expedition members hire to help haul supplies; “…weather beaten, desperately poor by Western standards, they were nonetheless a jolly group, forever laughing and playing tricks on one another.” Sociology as a science needs to make some serious advances before we figure this out…

    • Bekah

      Indeed, that is rather reminiscent of the Marshallese…seeing happy people in the midst of poverty certainly makes me think more about what I value and how much more grateful I should be for the many blessings I have (the best things in life are free?). Thanks for the comment, and I’m glad you liked the photos!

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