Who are the Kosraeans?

What makes a place what it is? It’s not the scenery, the buildings, the history, the food or the tourist attractions, It’s the people. The people who live in a place make the place what it is.

Although I’m thousands of miles from friends and family, I’m not lonely on Kosrae because this is a very hospitable place. It’s easy to meet people and make new friends here. There are about 6,000 people living in Kosrae. Allow me introduce you to a few of them.

Ken Charley (47) lives a 5-minute walk down the road from my apartment. Although Ken was born and raised on Kosrae, he’s seen a lot of the world. He joined the US Army in 1996 and was deployed to Bosnia and Kosovo during the Balkan Wars. Later, he had three tours to Iraq, two tours to Afghanistan and one tour to South Korea. After 20 years in the Army, Ken retired and returned home to Kosrae with his wife and five children. (Two of his children were born in Alaska, one in Colorado, and one in Washington.) Ken now serves as a lay minister at the Baptist church. When I attended his service recently, he did a simultaneous translation of his sermon in English — just for me.

This is Alokoa Talley (74). He’s very knowledgeable about Kosrae. He graduated from Kosrae’s historic Mwot School in 1965. This school was founded by American missionaries in 1879 to teach English, Math, Geography, Music and Bible studies to children from Micronesia and nearby islands. Alokoa has two sons in the US Army. He visited one of his sons in the US once. He came back to Kosrae after a week and has no intention of returning to the US. He works as a guide and taxi driver shuttling passengers back and forth on Kosrae’s one paved road. He often gives me rides back from town when I have lots of groceries.

Kenye George (25) was one of the first people I met in Kosrae because she worked at the College of Micronesia (COM). In March, when I was enquiring about a volunteer position with the school, Kenye gave me a tour of the campus and introduced me to the Dean and the faculty. As a high school junior, she was one of six students who won a two-week trip to Washington DC. The following year, she was the valedictorian of her high school class. She earned an Associates degree at the COM and continues her studies on-line at Chaminade University in Hawaii. Her son recently had his first birthday. In Kosraean tradition, first birthdays are big events. I attended the party — along with what seemed to be about half the island’s population.

Like many Kosraeans, Jack Sigrah (62) is descended from royalty. His great-grandfather was the last king of Kosrae. Jack is also part German because one of his grandmothers married a German administrator posted here before World War I. Like many Kosraens, Jack has a big family. He has four sons and three daughters. He can’t remember how many children his seven uncles and seven aunts have. Jack visited one of his nephews in Los Angles once. He didn’t like the US and has no plans to return..

Kenye works with Maureen (whom I’ve mentioned in previous posts) at the United Airlines service counter at Kosrae’s airport. Kenye and Maureen keep me informed about commercial flights to Kosrae. The latest news is that United plans to resume its island hopper service, albeit on a limited and restricted schedule. Starting in November, there will be two flights per month. These flights are intended for people who wish to leave Kosrae. To prevent Covid-19 coming to Kosrae, no one will be allowed to deplane, not even the flight crew. Although I have no plans to leave Kosrae soon, it’s reassuring to know that if I had a medical emergency or a family crisis back home, I could leave Kosrae if I had to.

Kerick Benjamin (69) is a retired construction engineer, trained in operating heavy equipment by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Kerick’s crews built Kosrae’s airport and paved Kosrae’s road. Kerick also worked for Kosrae’s Historic Preservation Office for 24 years recording many of the oral histories of Kosrae. Kerick and his wife Caroline have 14 grandchildren. One of their daughters lives in Branson, MO. Kerick and Caroline have been to Branson four times and look forward to their next visit after travel restrictions are lifted.

In 1900, Kosrae’s population was less than 300 due to diseases introduced by Europeans, Thanks to a high birth rate, Kosrae has rebuilt its population to precolonial days. Gasma Nedlic and his wife have six children. Gasma’s unusual last name is a contraction of the family name of his great-grandfather Pierre Nedhelić, who came to Micronesia a century ago from Croatia. When Gasma visited Croatia to research his family roots, he was greeted enthusiastically in the hometown of his great-grandfather. The Croatians were amazed to meet a Pacific Islander with their last name.

Kosrae has one high school, serving about 400 students. Here are some of my students studying rocks and minerals. In June, their high school was converted into a Covid-19 quarantine facility. Although no one has come to Kosrae since March, the high school is a restricted area and cannot be used. So, the school has divided itself into five districts. The students — and the teachers — get the benefit of small classes. I teach Algebra II and Earth Science to 16 Seniors and Geometry and Chemistry to 14 juniors.

The school is a mile from my apartment. Here’s a photo I took while walking to school last week.

Although people are what make a place what it is, food is important to me — especially if I plan to stay someplace for a while. Sadly, Pacific islanders are famous for their unhealthy diet of Spam, rice and soda. The ten most obese countries in the world are all Pacific Island nations. (The U.S. is #12 on this list!)

The good news is that Covid-19 has forced Kosraeans to reduce their dependence on foreign imports and to grow their own food. Enterprising Kosraeans have planted gardens.  They sell their produce at shacks along the road.  Below is a photo of what I picked up last Monday on my weekly grocery run.  It’s all locally grown and organic.  The papayas and bananas are perfectly sweet.  The eggplants and squash are firm and tasty.  Although I’m not a big fan of okra, I bought some anyway because it was cheap.  The total cost for what you see here was $11.50.   With plenty of fresh fruits, veggies and fish, I think I can live here for a while.

In other news, a repatriated student brought Covid-19 to the Solomon Islands last week.  Although the student tested negative three times before getting on the plane to Honaria, he tested positive a couple days after he arrived in the Solomons.  The Solomons now have three Covid-19 infections. This sort of news will make the few islands that remain Covid-free even more cautious about allowing anyone to come here.  Everyone in Kosrae feels lucky to be here — including me.

Thanks to the US mail, I voted absentee earlier this month. Let’s all pray for a peaceful outcome to the election on November 3rd. Please vote for the side that respects science and the rule of law.