1981-84 Peace Corps Volunteer on Namu Atoll

Top: with students
Bottom: at "Jack's shack"

A Shack Story [excerpt from the book by Jack N., For the Good of Mankind]

Life on sparsely populated smaller islets does strange things to people who are not used to the close-knit social environment, i.e., your entire Westernized belief system gets a hefty workout. During my first years on Namu Atoll, knowledge of Marshallese medicine and spirits slowly eased its way into my life. Via some fairly scary and bizarre stories, the islanders would reveal to me various medicinal concepts and superstitions that are a large and dramatic part of their every day existences. Being polite, I would just nod my head as if I understood--even though I remained clueless and had a hard time putting much stock in their tales, mainly because I had never seen or heard anything that would lead me to believe otherwise. Then, one day, I had a moment where I had to stand back and say to myself: “Hey, this culture that I am now living in is REALLY different.” The events that follow occurred during my third year on Namu.

A very old, beloved man died on one of the islands in the atoll. I had known the old man, and like the islanders, I found myself saddened by his death. The circumstances of his passing were unusual, though I should add that they were all told to me secondhand. As the story goes, Neljin had been out fishing on the ocean side of the lagoon when the incoming high tide came upon him very suddenly. He tried desperately to fight the current and paddle back to shore. During his struggle he suffered a heart attack and collapsed in the canoe. A young man who had been watching the old man’s efforts from the beach saw him pass out. He dove bravely into the ocean, fought the current and reached the canoe. He paddled it back to the island. Upon his arrival, he discovered that he had been too late: Neljin had apparently died.

The young man ran to the village and brought help. As the doctor was examining the elder, it was claimed by the people of that island that Neljin had sat up and demanded that they immediately bring him some coffee. Needless to say, the islanders who had heard Neljin utter this request, panicked. They rushed back to the village, found some coffee and ran back to where the old man was lying down. When they sat down beside the old man and presented the coffee to him, they discovered that he had died--again. Sadly, they carried the old man back to the village. They took him to the small plywood dispensary to prepare him for his funeral.

As he was lying in state, however, they say he sat up again and asked one of the small boys who were present to quickly go and bring him some corned beef and rice. Everyone became frightened--again. After they returned with the corned beef and found Neljin to be very dead, they made plans to bury him as soon as possible. The next day Neljin was laid to rest in the graveyard.

Now, it is normal in the outer islands, especially upon the death of a very beloved, old man, for everyone to have visions of the elder walking around for days after his burial. Marshallese custom dictates that the spirit will not rise until after a period of six days are up, and only then after they have had a feast, or araak, for the departed. So, as darkness came upon us at the end of that traumatic day, especially after hearing various versions of the story of Neljin’s string of miraculous revivals, I didn’t find it particularly unusual when my friends started telling me that they had seen Neljin “appearing” at various locations around the island. Again, out of respect, I tried not to show my skepticism, though I knew the islanders generally believed that Americans held no fear of “demons.” I was living proof of this belief because I had spent three years with them sleeping alone in my shack without the presence of a light in my house at night, which is unheard of and practically considered perverse.

After dinner that evening I read for a while. Then, I drifted off into that deep sleep that I had always enjoyed during my stay on the outer islands. The house that I was living in was partitioned in the center; I occupied one-half of the house. The other half was used as the island’s short-wave radio room. The wall that separated the two rooms was about eight feet high. There was a two foot, open space between the top of the wall and the tinned roof of the building.

I was awakened from my slumber by what I thought was a jar rolling across the concrete floor in the radio room next door. Figuring it was a couple of the guys playing around, I grumbled, “Hey, who’s in there?” When no reply came, I went outside to check the doors and windows of my house. I found everything to be secure.

I went back inside, pulled myself up and looked over the wall. I shined my flashlight down into the room below. It was absolutely vacant. There were no people and I couldn’t locate the jar that I had heard: There was just the radio, the table and a chair. I figured that the noise must have been imaginary.

I stretched out on my jaki [Marshallese pandanus-leaf sleeping mat] and tried to go back to sleep. Within minutes, however, the sound of the jar rolling across the floor in the next room returned. Well, that was enough for me. I don’t know, maybe it was the three year build-up of demon stories, but I got so scared that my teeth were chattering; then, something in my brain just snapped. I threw on some clothes and bolted out the door. I sort of walked-jogged-sprinted the half-mile to my friend’s house where I ate most of my meals. As I was thundering along the path in complete darkness, even though it was about 2:00 a.m., I noticed that a number of people were still awake and wandering around their kerosene lantern-lit compounds.

Out of breath, I arrived at my friend’s house, where to my surprise I found him sitting around a fire with four or five other young men playing 500 rummy. I launched into a frenzied broken Marshallese description of what had just happened to me back at my house. When I finished my story, I expected to get a reaction like, “Jack, you’ve completely lost your marbles.” I was shocked when my friend yawned, giggled, then explained nonchalantly, “It was just Neljin. Why do you think we’re sitting around this fire playing cards? No one can sleep. You want some rice?”

Magic and death. In the Marshalls, many islanders will insist that no death occurs from natural causes. Even if a man dies of a disease that is as evident as a cancer growth, they will still swear that he had been a victim of sorcery. Perhaps it is easy for one reading this to shrug it all off as malarkey, but I lived “out there” for years, and I eventually came to understand that their supernatural beliefs to be a frighteningly real and important part of their lives. On the other hand, I found the islanders obsession with the paranormal to be in very stark contrast to their staunch Christian beliefs. Even after I left Namu, as the years drifted past, I always wondered how the islanders could reconcile these two awkwardly different belief systems...