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My four-hour lunch with two Yapese leaders

Elizabeth, me and LeonaStuck in immigration at 2am without the proper forms, I knew that Elizabeth (V.P. of the Women's Council of Yap), Leona (Head of Woman's Affairs for Yap), and I would have interesting stories to tell about the airport in Palau.  But I didn’t know our lunch the next day would be so fascinating.  Here is just a little of what I learned:

Yapese children are born as a spirit, not human, and they only become human once their family has decided on their name, anytime from age 2 weeks to 12 months.  When the family has decided on the name, it is the father’s oldest sister who first tells the baby “You will be called – .”  The paternal aunt has this role, because if anything happens to the parents, she will be in charge of raising the child.

If a mother dies during child birth, she immediately become a witch, and there is a risk she might take the baby from the earth if the baby is still just a spirit and has not been given a name.  During this time when the baby is not named, all of the family must protect the baby from the witch, which includes never allowing the baby to sleep in the dark – there must be a light or burning candle to keep the witch away.  When the baby is finally given a name, she becomes human and is safe from the witch.

A village typically has 3-8 families and is led by a chief.  Each family is given a role within the village (Peacekeeper, or Food Gatherer, or Facilitator, etc.), and each village is given a role within the district.  For example, if someone from a different village walks into someone else’s village at night without a light in order to identify himself, it is assumed he is a criminal and he would be at risk for being attacked and killed by the villagers; if, however, he knows which home is that of the Peacekeeper and he reaches that property, then he is safe and can not be attacked.  The next day, someone from that Peacekeeper home will escort him back to his village, where he, his family, and his entire village will be shamed by the other villages for having entered that village improperly.

In years past, the chief of each village was not “above” the other villagers and often did not have more land or wealth; he was considered “nothing” without his villagers and often made himself available immediately to address any important issues.  Both women told me that their fathers had each been the chiefs of their respective villages.  They said that when they were kids they were often jealous of other villagers, because their fathers would interrupt any family – even birthday celebrations - if someone in the village needed their father’s help. 

People born on the outer islands of Yap - which stretch from 100-500 miles away - are called “outer islanders” and are considered children.  Yes, children.  (Earlier in the week I had met various outer islanders who explained how they can only get low-paying jobs in the service industry – nothing in any type of office or leadership role.) Even as adults, they are considered children and are given no voice in deciding policies and resolving disputes.  It is the role of the “main islanders” to “take care of" the outer islanders.  

Discussion of the different cultures within each of the Western Pacific Countries and Commonwealths – from Yap and the Federated States of Micronesia, to the Marshall Islands, Palau, Guam, Northern Marianas and Saipan – always comes back to World War II and the strong U.S. involvement that lasts to this day.

Prior to World War II, 55,000 people lived on the three main islands of Yap.  After mass casualties at the hands of the Japanese, only 3,000 people survived.  The surviving families and villages chose to spread out across the island in order to re-populate it and move forward.  Today only 10,000 people live on the main islands, which is quite lower than would be expected given the size of families.  Many youth leave at 18 to study at universities abroad – from Australia to Guam and the United States – and only some of them return.  Chiefs now see themselves as “above” the other villagers, which both women blamed on the influence of other countries’ cultures having a negative impact on Yapese culture.  They now have to lock their front doors when they leave, which they did not have to do as children (sound familiar?).

The Federated States of Micronesia (which includes Yap, Chuuk, Kosrae and Pohnpei) has a president and a unicameral legislature consisting of 14 Representatives, all of whom are men.  A recent bill was written to create an “at large” seat in the House to be reserved for a woman.  Both of my lunchmates are against this bill – and I totally agreed with them – because they said there is nothing in the constitution that prevents women from running, and they have been fighting so hard for gender equality that a seat like this would be seen as a token seat – a pat on the head for women – implying that women don’t have what it takes to win an election outright.

When the citizens of Micronesia eventually elect their first woman to office, I will not be surprised if it’s either of the women I had lunch with that day.  Even now – three days later – I’m still running all four hours of the conversation through my head.  As we walked out of the restaurant, one of them asked me “So what do you do?” to which I laughed, realizing I had done all the listening and asking and hadn’t told them much about me (which I’m usually quite good at doing).  But it reminded me of the old saying: “I always learn more by listening than by talking.”

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