When I took the Girl Scout position back in April, I was also asked to join the Youth Summit planning committee. It provided much needed work hours, and since when have I ever turned down an opportunity to work with youth? We met weekly, and recently twice weekly to plan a week long summit for all the youth of Yap State. Last year a similar summit was put on, but only for main island youth. This year we were able to secure funding from the FSM government to bring in youth from the outer islands. We ended up having 205 registered participants, with a daily attendance average of about 160 youth.
I use the term “youth” loosely. On some of the outer islands one is considered a youth as long as their parents are living. So we had “youth” participating that were well into their 30’s. But generally the youth were in their teens, mostly 14-17.
The theme was “Sailing Towards Our Future: Our Culture in Transition” Monday was an overview day, with opening ceremonies, and small group discussions (pictured here) to generate topics/questions for the presenters on the following days. And of course ice breaker games. One game that was being played required the youth to break up into groups of a number called out by the emcee (ie. three, fifteen etc) then the people not in a group were out. When the participants were down to only 5 or so left the emcee called out “dance with an American!” Well, there were only four of us in attendance! I was sitting at a table where I had been doing registration, and sorting questionnaires. When I heard the emcee say this, I looked up and saw two Yapese youth running at me at full speed! Luckily the girl got to me first. I was pulled out onto the community center floor (a basketball court- that I have learned I cannot skate, the floor is rubber and they are VERY protective of it!) and was made to dance with this girl in front of some 250 people! yikes! But it was all in the name of fun!
We dedicated Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday to Education, Environment, and Health. In the morning there were speakers from Dept of Education (pictured below), EPA and Forestry, and Public Health on the respective themed days. They gave a short presentation and then had a Q&A. The questions from the youth were often financially related, such as, “why doesn’t our school have enough books?” or “ why do we only get expired medications at our island’s clinic?” The poor presenters did their best to answer these questions. Though the planning committee and presenters all expected more topical questions such as “What are the most common health issues faced by youth?” In the afternoon we did some sort of “taking action” activity. We took a tour of the college, we did a garbage clean up at the high school, and we played sports.
I had not yet been up to the campus of the College of Micronesia (COM). I joined one of the tours and saw some of the facilities including the library. For being a fairly small room they did have a lot of books crammed in there! I also got to see a science lab. There was a small room in the back full of jars with different things in them, coral, sea animals etc.
But the thing that caught my eye, as a newly (soon to-be) hired high school English teacher on Yap, is this sign:
At the college nonetheless! I know its hard to see, but it says “DO NOT add “s” to these nouns: equipment, mail, staff, work/homework, furniture, information, stuff, and input.”
In the middle of the campus is this large concrete pillar. It was a stand for a very large radar dish set up by the Japanese when they had control of the island. I bet it could be turned into a pretty cool rock climbing wall with the proper equipment.
On Thursday, health day, we also had a man come from Fiji to give a “safer sex talk”. This was an interesting event. First, we had to divide the sexes. It is inappropriate for such topics to be discussed in front of siblings/cousins etc of the opposite sex. So the boys went first. While the girls stayed behind at the community center to play sports and games.
I was sitting at my table counting how many participants checked in that day, when I saw my fellow planner, and co-emcee Tim (pictured in the science lab photo, bald guy pointing) bring out this 50 foot, or so, length of rope. It was several inches thick, and could probably hold a boat to a dock. I watched him with curiosity as he tied the two ends together, ok I thought, we aren’t playing tug-o-war. He then called all the girls over and asked them to grab onto the rope. As per usual, everyone was shy and no one was getting up. I had been holding back, and not participating in many of the activities all week, but I decided something needed to be done, so I grabbed the rope too.
Soon we had maybe 40 girls holding up this rope. There was a gap where no one was standing, and as I went over there to fill in the hole, Tim grabbed me and said “no, don’t, just don’t. I have something else for you to do.” I started to get scared. My heart started pounding. What was he going to make me do in front of all these people? When he made me duck under and get to the center of the rope ring I really started to get scared. And then these words came out of his mouth, “Who thinks she can walk on this rope?” OH NO!!!!! I shook my head. I didn’t think I could do it! After asking the crowd several more times if they thought I could do it, Tim took my hand and helped me step up onto the rope as all the youth pulled the rope out making the circle as big and taut as possible. And then I started walking. I stepped over each pair of hands with care, and focused on my feet the entire time. As I stared at my feet passing over all these sets of hands, I couldn’t help but think of this exercise as a great metaphor for this entire experience here on Yap.
When we first decided to come out here I didn’t think I could do it. I was scared, and worried, and well as many of you know, FREAKING OUT! But after many hours of talking it over, many tears, and many more questions, I took that blind leap of faith. I stepped onto that rope and hoped to everything in the universe that it could hold me up. That these Yapese youth could hold me up. I walked carefully at first, hoping not to hurt anyone or embarrass myself, but with practice I felt more confident in my ability to walk this path. I trusted the Yapese to hold me up and guide me through this terrifying experience. They did, and I hope they continue to.
I am happy to say I DID make it all the way around the rope and triumphantly jumped off of it when I finished! Tim gave a little talk about unity, how some things are impossible alone, but when working together, many things can be accomplished. I went and sat down because I was shaking from the adrenaline rushing through my veins! But no one could wipe the smile off my face for the rest of the day! Not even after I got 27 mosquito bites on each leg (I am NOT exaggerating!) at Girl Scouts that night!
This was an incredibly powerful experience for me, and I am sad to say that no pictures were taken. But the memories will surely remain for a lifetime. I had never seen this exercise done, and hope one day to use it again, in Scouts or something!
Shortly after my tightrope walking debut it was time for the ladies to go to the “safer sex talk”. I guided them to a nearby building where it was being held to provide a little privacy for such a discussion. The Fijian was very friendly and had a great PowerPoint presentation ready for us. He talked a little about the history and basic info of HIV/AIDS, showing how it is present in Oceania. He talked about how Oceania has a culture of silence. That nothing like this is usually talked about, and how by not talking about it, people are getting sick. He then showed a slide show of people with STI’s ala 8th grade health class, which of course got some horrified reactions! By the way, when did it go from STD to STI? Is that just here, or am I that behind?
The presenter gave me his camera and asked me to take a few pictures of him while presenting. Poor guy got a bunch of backlit pictures of him showing the audience how to use a condom. But I wasn’t about to walk in front of all the girls to get to the side or the room the bright window was at (more about what cultural habits I picked up from this week later). He showed the girls both male and female condoms and discussed safer sex. He only touched on how they are also birth control, knowing that this is a largely Catholic island.
By the time Friday rolled around I was exhausted! Friday was many more small group discussions, about creating an action plan of things they could all do in their communities in the three areas we had focused on. The day started off with a panel of Yap leaders who are up for re-election, or who are running for the first time. I was too tired and cranky to sit through the two hour panel, so I decided to go home for a bit. I had been doing my fair share at the summit for sure! I laid down and accidently fell asleep for almost 3 hours! whoops! I went back down to the summit and enjoyed the closing party.
Here is a picture of some of the organizers trying to teach the crowd how to do the wave on Friday. They didn’t explain it well, and most people just yelled and stomped their feet when it was their turn, resulting in a wave of sound rather than of standing cheering people! This section seemed to understand it! The girl in the green shirt is Laura, a Peace Corps volunteer I have gotten to know while planning the summit.
On Tuesday, Yap’s Micro Games weight lifting team, its like the Olympics but just for Micronesia and is being held Palau later this month, came and gave a presentation at lunch. Here is there star, lifting 309 pounds. I’d scream too!
It was amazing to be immersed in the Yapese culture for 5 straight days. I picked up several cultural habits regularly practiced here. I think I have mentioned in the past that when walking between two people who are talking, or walking in front of someone watching a presentation, one must duck and say “suro”, which means excuse me, several times (“suro, suro, suro”) I now do this without thinking. The other habit I have picked up from the summit, and partly from Girl Scouts, is when indicating “yes” the Yapese raise their eyebrows. Its hard to describe in words. Just think about how some people, when they say “what’s up?” raise their eyebrows and move their head in the upwards movement. Kind of a half nod. I do it now too. One of my Girl Scouts, Rulyan (Rule-yawn), who is 8 does a very exaggerated version of it that makes me smile every time she does it. But at least now I know it means she is saying yes!
Another cultural tidbit I learned about during the summit was brought to my attention during the discussion on education.
The outer island people still live very traditionally, so I learned many of these from having more contact with outer island folk (it is just how I understand it, so may not be totally accurate!):
A female is not allowed to be higher than male relatives (standing/sitting). This was brought up when girls talked about having to give presentations in school and their brothers/cousins having to come up with them and just stand there. It also reminded me of how sometimes when driving down the street I will see girls/women quickly squat down as a car passes, there must be a male relative sitting in that car!
Overall, it was a great time, and I am glad I could help contribute to the planning of this event. I hope to help again next year. Sorry this post was so long, but its the first time since we got here that I had full days for an entire week! Lots of details! I hope you enjoyed them!
And one more picture for the hell of it- my nametag lanyard. The orange tags mean I am a volunteer. Waab means I am from the main island of Yap or Waab in Yapese. Sadly, only boys asked me about Girl Scouts. I told them to send their sisters and cousins over to me!