One last memento of the RMI
Leaving the Marshall Islands was a very sad time for us. Saying goodbye to our students and our friends was difficult, and -- as I told my students -- we will think of them constantly, and though we each left a piece of our heart in Jaluit, we will also always have a bit of JHS in our hearts to replace it.
The resolution of our Saipan trip finances has become a bit of a melodrama, unfortunately. We received a generous per diem check at the outset to house and feed each student, which we used for those expenses, for the rental car, for spending money for the students, and for some day trips and entertainment expenses. On our return to Jaluit, we had students and their parents/guardians collect the remaining money (about $100 per student). At the end of our trip, certain government officials indicated that, as is the standard for RMI government travel, each person who went on this trip would receive another check, a portion of the per diem that had been withheld at the outset. Additionally, they said, we stayed in Saipan for three days longer than was originally planned. (This was for two reasons: one, the four-day Arts Festival that we were sent to participate in began on the last day we were supposed to be in Saipan; two, since the trip was scheduled at the last-minute by IA, there were no tickets available for the day they planned for us to leave anyway, so they bought tickets for the next flight. So I guess in this case poor planning and last-minute planning cancelled each other out! Fortunately, the arts festival also paid for most of our hotel expenses for those extra days, and there was food available at the festival, so extra expenses were not a problem.) This meant that they would also issue checks for per diems for those three days.
What all this meant was that each student was to be issued two checks from the RMI gov't -- as were Carine and I. A real problem, on several levels. Perhaps the biggest waste of money in the RMI government, as I see it, are these per diem checks. You see, some people view travel not as a way to participate in conferences and festivals, to expand one’s worldview, or to learn something about the world and oneself, which are the things we accomplished with our students, but as a means to obtain per diem checks. Not for use in daily expenses, which is literally where the term “per diem” comes from, of course, but for their personal enrichment. The use of government funds to travel essentially in order to collect these checks is scandalous and the closest thing this side of outright embezzlement. Apparently, some people don’t even TAKE the trips they are scheduled to go on – they just stay at home, lay low, and pretend to have gone. Or, once there, they don’t participate in what they have been sent for. Appalling. Meanwhile, this is money that has been budgeted for travel, and our students could certainly use it for college or to travel to look for a good job, and if they don’t receive it, it would be used for some government lackey to take a business trip (or pretend to) and end up in that person’s pocket. So I would feel pretty silly turning it down on their behalf. But if we did get them, that brings up the question of what on earth would Carine and I do if they issued such checks to us. We decided that we could use the money to do some kind of project for JHS – getting reading material for classes and the library, getting materials for the vocational classes to build something useful for the school, something like that. I stayed in Majuro for a few extra days to try to get those checks for our students. By the time I left, some checks were processed – but my request had been misunderstood. I told them that we needed the checks because we were leaving soon, so they issued checks only for Carine and me, but not our students. Not the reimbursement check for the Jaluit-Majuro flights, but the “extra” per diem checks (about the same amount as we spent out-of-pocket on the AMI flights).
When we returned to Majuro, on our trip to leave the Marshall Islands, we discovered – to make a long story short – that the governmental powers that be decided that they would not issue additional checks for the students, and that the checks we received were to be used to repay us for the AMI flights. Which was all fine, we got repaid in a roundabout way, and it solved the problem of how we would use the additional money for JHS in our short couple of days in Majuro. Disappointing because our students wouldn't be getting that money to save, but understandable, since it wasn't necessary for the actual travel. But then we heard that one student’s guardian was telling whomever would listen that we had misappropriated the money for the Saipan trip, and that we had, in essence, stolen that and the inexistent additional checks from our students. This was incredibly upsetting and hurtful, that after a year of doing the best we could in difficult circumstances, and after organizing and supervising and shepherding our drama club students on two very successful trips, that this was the last farewell from the Marshall Islands. We know it's only one person who is making a stink about this, that she’s only making these accusations because she's speculating on what she would have done, had she been charged with the responsibility of being the custodian of a group of kids, and what governement-sponsored travel is often assumed to be, and projecting that on others. But the experience of the last few days in Majuro, worrying about the outrageous lies that one person was spreading, was a pretty shitty way to end our otherwise wonderful year. If the people of the Marshall Islands are concerned about government overspending – and from reading the MI Journal, I think they probably are – demanding that travellers account for their expenses in total would be a great place to start. Giving per diems that aren't used for per diem expenses is wasteful, and pretty damn stupid to boot.
We've done some thinking and discussing of the trip to Saipan and of our whole experience in the RMI. For a few days, we questioned whether we should have done the trip to Saipan (or volunteered in the RMI at all) given all the political backlash surrounding it afterwards, but we ended up recognizing that the trip was a unique and enlightening opportunity for our students, and it would have been a real disservice not to take advantage of it. Some of our students are planning to attend universities in Guam or Hawaii now, after our trip, who hadn't even considered that possibility before. We also know that almost everyone has been supportive of us and our students, and that it's only one individual, possessing seemingly unlimited avarice and unseemly limited morals, assuming that everyone would do what she would have done in the same circumstances, who has caused us to question whether our overall experience in the Marshall Islands was a positive one or not. We've decided that we won't let her continue to do so, and instead we will remember the kind people who truly made us part of their families during our year in the Marshall Islands.