Marshall Islands nuclear test legacy activist Benetick Kabua Maddison visited his native country for the first time in 22 years while on a brief business trip with the Marshallese Educational Initiative (MEI).
Benetick is the executive director of the MEI, a non-profit based in Springdale, Arkansas, founded in 2013 to assist Marshallese in navigating life in the United States, raise awareness of Marshallese history and culture, and provide programs on social issues.
He is a member of the Rilut clan and the son of Edison Maddison and Mona Kabua. He hails from Majuro, Mili, Arno, and several islands of the Ralik Chain.
He is pursuing a bachelor of arts in political science at Arkansas State University, which he will complete by the end of the next year.
For a week, Benetick and three of his team members met with local leaders and organizations to discuss potential partnerships and areas of interest in projects and programs with MEI.
He told the Journal that “it feels great to return home.” Benetick had not been to the island since he was six years old. His earliest memories as a child were lying on top of a table and staring up into the night sky, and he spent almost every weekend with his paternal grandfather fishing. They’d bring their catch and share it with the family. He was also a student in the Head Start program.
The nuclear legacy is a significant issue for Benetick. He said he was drawn to it as a senior in high school. Through the internet, he had only been able to gather some general knowledge. He was not expecting to be asked to give a speech at the President Clinton Library Center in Little Rock in 2014 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Castle Bravo.
Although he only spoke briefly because of his limited knowledge at the time, this experience motivated him to hone his oratory skills and learn more about the nuclear legacy. He expanded his knowledge by reading books, interviewing survivors, and analyzing research conducted by scientists. It propelled him to speak at important places, including the international stage of the United Nations in September 2022.
“I am doing this (activism) because we need to take control of our narrative on the nuclear legacy,” he said. Benetick contends that the Compact, migration, health problems, and climate change are linked to the nuclear issue. One of his inspirations, who pioneered advocacy on nuclear issues, was Darlene Keju. He said, “I admired her courage and strength in presenting this issue to such a broad audience.”
On the issue of migration to Springdale, Benetick asserts that the pursuit of better opportunities, nepotism in the RMI, environmental factors, and health issues are the main driving forces. The well-established Marshallese community, affordable housing, and employment opportunities, he continued, are additional factors that attract Marshallese to the region from both abroad and the United States. The two major companies with many Marshallese workers are Tyson Foods and Walmart. He claims that Arkansas’s unemployment rate is lower than the national average of 3.8 percent.
The Marshallese community nevertheless faces difficulties as well. He mentioned that some of the challenges are housing costs and mental health issues — including overcoming challenges brought on by the Covid pandemic, both physically and mentally. Forty percent of the Covid deaths in Northwest Arkansas during the initial outbreak of Covid in 2020 were among Marshallese, he said. Dealing with racial stereotypes is another difficulty they would encounter. In the early 2010s, he said they were being labeled “poison people.” “They (white Americans) used to say things like, although we bomb your country, you have better opportunities here than back home,” he said.
Furthermore, he stated that Marshallese youth in the US are experiencing an identity crisis. Benetick claims they have difficulty understanding and speaking their native language. “Jitdam (seeking traditional knowledge from elders) is declining with Generation Z (in the US),” he said.
In collaboration with cultural learning centers in Majuro, he said that the MEI has been providing programs to assist young people in maintaining their cultural sensitivity. When he asked the youth in the US what they would do if they had the chance to return to their home island, many said they’d only for a brief visit. They reportedly told him they would only stay if the RMI had prosperity, which would include a robust economy and an upgraded healthcare system. “When they picture the Marshall Islands with these advances, they picture the US,” he said.
He urges Marshallese youth to put great effort into their education in order to address the problems in their society and country. However, successful Marshallese graduates who migrated, he continued, told him they would not go back to their home islands to work because of the low salary, treatment, and poor working conditions.
These concerns piqued Benetick’s interest in becoming a community activist and working in the NGO sector. One of his heroes and an inspiration is his maternal grandfather, Philip Kabua, a former government Chief Secretary and RMI ambassador.
He believes his home country is devolving into a third-world country. He hopes that in the future, he can help put reform into practice and alter the laws that are “holding our country back.”
“The Marshallese government must be out of touch with reality if they need a study to incentivize people trying to escape poverty, a corrupt system, structural oppression (bōk wōt ran), climate change, and nuclear issues to stay,” he wrote on his facebook page last January. “People don’t need cheap, short-term incentives. They need a secure and fair future: livable wages (not the $1.50 or $3/hour minimum wage), a world-class healthcare and education system, a decent cost of living, safe and sustainable housing and infrastructure, a digital economy for better public services, and other needs any government should provide its citizens.”
Benetick and his team will depart on the 15th of this month. He told the Journal that they plan to return next summer, saying that this is just the beginning of more visits involving the Marshallese Educational Initiative.