Don't Ever Whisper:The Story of Darlene Keju, Pacific Nuclear Activist
September 8, 2014
Book Review / Red Dirt Report
"Don't Ever Whisper" is the powerful story of a woman from the Marshall Islands who championed the cause of nuclear weapons test survivors when others were silent, and who implemented innovative community health programs that gave hope to a generation of troubled youth.
Darlene Keju Speech to World Council of Churches, Vancouver 1983
Don't Ever Whisper:
Darlene Keju, Pacific Health Pioneer, Champion for Nuclear Survivors
Don't Ever Whisper is the powerful story of a woman from the Marshall Islands who championed the cause of nuclear weapons test survivors when others were silent, and who implemented innovative community health programs that gave hope to a generation of troubled youth.
"This book is a story of a personal transformation of a young lady who once knew little English to an advocate for her people, the victims of the weapons of war," writes Fr. Francis X. Hezel, SJ, in the foreword. "Then the further transformation to educational innovator, whose program had far-reaching effects throughout her island nation."
Hezel, who founded the Jesuit think tank known as the Micronesian Seminar in the early 1970s, says: "For those of us who have cheered on island Micronesia through the years, it's a welcome change to read a tribute to someone who is home grown.
Although no saint or flag-waver, Darlene shared with Mother Theresa and Greg Mortenson (of Three Cups of Tea fame) the courage to dream daringly along with the commitment and patience to settle for one step -- one family, one atoll -- at a time."
The book narrates Darlene's early life growing up on islands downwind of 67 US nuclear weapons tests at Bikini and Enewetak, and later her struggle with English in Hawaii schools. But she persevered, ultimately earning a master's degree in public health at the University of Hawaii.
Don't Ever Whisper tells the inspiring story of how Darlene used her education first to expose to the world a US government cover up of the damage caused by nuclear testing in her islands, and later to motivate and inspire young Marshall Islanders to make changes in their personal behavior that transformed the health of their communities. She pioneered the non-government group Youth to Youth in Health that drew praise as a model for the Pacific by the US Public Health Service.
Darlene died of cancer at age 45, but Youth to Youth in Health, now in its 27th year of operations, continues programs and services for at-risk youth that she launched.
The book is available through www.amazon.com in both a Print Edition and a Kindle Edition.
Don't Ever Whisper: Darlene Keju --
Pacific Health Pioneer, Champion for Nuclear Survivors
by Giff Johnson (Create Space) 2013
Book Review / Red Dirt Report
Full of energy, compassion and a tireless drive to help and seek justice for her fellow Marshall Islanders, Darlene Keju is an inspiring woman who, during her life, wanted to use her skills to help the people of her Pacific island nation -- a country that has long been used and abused by the forces of imperialism for many, many years.
This biography of Darlene Keju-Johnson's remarkable life was actually written by her widower, native Midwesterner Giff Johnson (Nuclear Past, Unclear Future), currently editor of The Marshall Islands Journal, one of our favorite newspapers here at Red Dirt Report.
Chapter one has Johnson writing: "By the time Darlene Keju was born on April 23, 1951, the United States had already detonated seven nuclear weapons at Bikini and Enewetak atolls. Shortly before her third birthday, the US tested 'Bravo,' its largest hydrogen bomb . . . (n)uclear fallout from Bravo exposed many hundreds of islanders, including Darlene, to radioactivity."
And while Johnson's bio of Darlene ends with her succumbing to cancer, this story is about a life lived to the fullest, despite numerous challenges and health issues.
Growing up primarily on the atoll of Wotje, Darlene would ultimately be educated in Hawaii struggling early on to learn English, having grown up speaking Marshallese.
But she would overcome this while having the characteristics of a person who was "kind of a rescuer," as one childhood friend recalled. It was as if she knew early on she had a serious mission in life.
"She had that quality about her. She was always laughing. She had a wonderful sense of humor. She was very giving and she brought our family together . . ."
Being in an urban, Americanized environment in 1970's Hawaii exposed Darlene -- having been raised in a conservative, religious environment where the sight of bikini-clad women made her wonder if they would get into heaven -- to all sorts of ideas including information about America's dark legacy of testing dozens of nuclear weapons on islands in the Marshall Islands.
By this time, about 1978, Darlene was already dating Giff Johnson and he assisted her in her efforts to interview sick Marshallese suffering from the devastating effects of atomic fallout -- something the American government did not want to address.
It was really a sickening cover-up by a nuclear power that refused to face up to its brutal inhumanity -- particularly towards trusting people who were powerless in the face of America's military might and overt racism. Essentially the Marshallese people were viewed by the US military as "savages" and guinea pigs they could study.
But Darlene did not want to fall into a rut of self-pity and helplessness. If anything, Darlene was about empowerment and positivity and hard work. Her fearlessness, her constant travel, her new ideas in the face of forces in her country that felt the "traditional" way was the only way, helped blaze a path that would further help her people in an ever-changing world.
And over the course of her life, speaking out against nuclear testing and in support of survivors in international forums, putting together health programs and programs for youth (her pioneering "Youth in Youth in Health" program) in her native country, Darlene Keju-Johnson lived her life to the fullest, up until cancer -- likely from her exposure to atomic fallout in the 1950's -- took her life at the age of 45 in 1996.
Broken up in numerous chapters, Giff Johnson, who lives on RMI's Majuro Atoll, tells Darlene's story in an easy-to-read and engaging way. In fact, even though he was married to her, you didn't feel he inserted himself into the story that much, giving the credit to his amazing wife, a woman whose sole desire in her life was to help people, even as she suffered agonizing health problems in her later years.
Don't Ever Whisper is a wonderful book about an amazing activist and humanitarian. The words adorning her gravestone are "Tuak Bwe Elimajnono" which translates as "Don't be afraid to make your way through strong ocean currents to get to the next island."
If only more of us would listen.
This is a story that did not make it into Don't Ever Whisper. In the summer of 1988, US Secretary of State George Shultz visited Majuro for a few hours. He was the highest US official to visit Majuro, and the Marshall Islands government rolled out the red carpet for him, building the VIP Lounge at the airport for his arrival.
As part of the airport welcome, Darlene was asked to bring Youth to Youth in Health to sing for Shultz and his delegation on the tarmac as they came off the plane on their way into the VIP Lounge. YTYIH had a reputation by this time for exuberant serenades. When Darlene was invited to bring YTYIH to sing, she was told specifically, "No dancing!"
Dancing with the audience, of course, was part of all YTYIH programs, and made for memorable occasions. Somebody up the ladder in government must have felt dancing was inappropriate for an arrival welcome for this high-level US delegation. I don't recall how Darlene handled the "no dancing" directive when it was passed along -- probably she just smiled.
But I do know what she did at the airport. A group of about 25 YTYIH members set up outside the VIP Lounge on the walkway adjacent to the tarmac where the planes park. As Shultz, his wife, Secret Service agents, and numerous officials began walking down the stairs of the US government plane that was emblazoned with the words "United States of America," YTYIH broke into a lively welcome song.
As Shultz and his group approached the VIP Lounge area, YTYIH's song was blasting out the full power of the ukuleles, guitars and beautiful voices of an exciting Marshall Islands-style welcome. At which point, Darlene nodded to the group and in a matter of seconds, girls and boys darted out from the band and the airport walkway was transformed into a dance floor.
There was the US Secretary of State, his wife Helena, and numerous others dancing up a storm (with a dark-glassed Secret Service agent, radio cord in his ear, watching from the back). From the smiles on everyone's faces, you could see they loved it.
Why did Darlene ignore the directive from people higher up the ladder in government? Because she knew that Marshallese-style serenades (kamolo) involved both music and dancing, and if they wanted to welcome these high officials the right way, they had to do it in a uniquely Marshallese way.
It was a case of Darlene being true to her principles. She was proud to be a Marshall Islander, and proud to share her culture with visitors. But it wasn't a half-way sort of thing for her, where people would later remark about a YTYIH program, "Oh, that was nice singing."
The vibrancy of YTYIH and the courage of the young people to express their pride in being Marshallese produced memorable, interactive programs with the audience that no one would forget. It also was probably the only time in Secretary Shultz' life that he danced on arrival at an airport.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.