Marshall Islands Youth Build, Refurbish Seagoing Canoes

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Program jointly funded by local government, U.S. funding

By Giff Johnson

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, Dec. 26, 2012) – Two new 23-foot outrigger sailing canoes were built and three others refurbished by a group of 25 Marshall Islands young men who trained under a master traditional canoe builder on Ebeye Island.

The group graduated earlier in the week in a ceremony on Ebeye recognizing the Ebeye young men for their accomplishments — not only learning to build canoes, but also for their improvements in English and math, as well as general life skills that the Waan Aelon in Majel (Canoes of the Marshall Islands) program emphasizes for all its trainees who participate in the six-month course.

A remarkable development, in light of the high school dropout rate in the Marshall Islands, is that not a single one of the 25 trainees dropped out — an indication of the interest and enthusiasm the group had for the program. It was funded by the Marshall Islands National Training Council and the U.S. federally funded, substance-abuse entity known as the Single State Agency.

"This is the first time in a long while that canoes have been built by regular people on Ebeye," said Waan Aelon in Majel Executive Director Alson Kelen in reference to the fact that the only canoes that have been built on Ebeye in recent years have been commissioned by traditional chiefs.

The Ebeye training — WAM’s first six-month training there — generated strong interest from US Army Kwajalein Atoll workers, with six Americans volunteering their time to teach English, math and other academic skills to the young men — as well as practice for job interviews to help them find jobs after the graduation.

Kelen was delighted with the interest of the Americans who brought important skills to the training to improve the group’s academic skill levels. "A couple of the (Kwajalein-based) teachers offered to volunteer for the next two years," said Kelen. "They are continuing to help and I’m very happy with this."

The canoe program aims to launch a second six-month training program on Ebeye early in 2013 because of strong interest in the program, said Kelen, whose program has been running six-month skills courses in Majuro for more than 10 years. Before the establishment of Waan Aelon in Majel in the mid-1990s, outrigger canoes — which are a foundational element of Marshall Islands culture — were fast disappearing from use.

Master canoe builder Manto Samuel, who supervised the training on Ebeye, has been a lead trainer with the canoe program since the mid-1990s, said Kelen. "I first met him on Ujae Atoll in 1994," Kelen said. "He had already built 10 canoes." He joined the canoe program shortly thereafter and trained to become a master builder and has led training programs for hundreds of young men and women in the Marshall Islands.

Kelen said the just-completed Ebeye training was "a true community program for Kwajalein youth" that involved numerous volunteer partners in delivering the training — from traditional leaders and non-government groups to local businesses.

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