Irene left her mark on RMI

Dr. Irene Taafaki speaking at the Pacific Media Institute Democracy and Media workshop opening at the CMI campus in June, 2023. Photo: Chewy Lin

KAREN EARNSHAW
A woman who had an outsized impact on education in the Marshall Islands died unexpectedly in Majuro last week.

Dr. Irene Taafaki, whose positions ranged from Secretary of Education to Director of the University of the South Pacific Campus to President of the College of the Marshall Islands, was a life-long educator who supported and expanded educational opportunities for countless students over the many decades of her life in the RMI.

A dedicated member of Majuro’s Baháʼí Faith community, Irene was an out-of-the-box-thinker, who understood the important role of culture in education and supported traditional medicine initiatives and the revival of the art of fine weaving. Former colleague Tamara Greenstone, who led USP’s Continuing and Communication Program, wrote this week: “She had a vision to not only make the benefits of the university available to the general public BUT also to elevate the place cultural education had in higher education in the region.”

Tamara worked with Irene for nine years. “From the jaki-ed weaving program to vocational and basic continued education offerings, it was an exciting time. When I came to her with ideas of summer enrichment programs that focused on climate change science and leadership such as the Science Camps and the Model UNs USP became well known for — she told me to make it happen and she will be behind me 100 percent.”

Dr. Irene Taafaki, center, joins USP staff and faculty at a 2014 farewell party for Tamara Greenstone, who is on Irene’s right, at the Marshall Islands Resort. At back left is her husband Falai Riva Taafaki.

A regular visitor to the USP campus in Delap was Irene’s long-time friend Maria Fowler, daughter of the Marshall Islands first President Amata Kabua. Both had a keen interest in traditional knowledge and, in the early 2000s, especially local medicine. They began their research on the topic and in January 1, 2006, the book Traditional Medicine of the Marshall Islands: The Women, the Plants, the Treatments by Irene, Maria, and Randolph Thaman was published by IPS Publications (USP). Also collaborating on the project was long-time friend of the Marshall Islands, MaryLou Foley.

The book is still available on Amazon, where it states: “This book is an attempt to ensure that traditional knowledge is not lost and that ecosystems are protected for future generations.” It describes more than 270 medicinal treatments, all of which use the plants of the Marshall Islands.

And then it was time for another project, which came about partly because of the discovery by MaryLou of a number of jaki-ed, the finely woven clothing mats of the Marshall Islands, in Hawaii’s Bishop Museum on Oahu. She invited Irene and Maria to visit the Bishop archives, where they were overjoyed to look back in time and view the many jaki-ed in the collection.

All agreed that the art of making these fine mats had to be revived.

The website, clothingmatsofthemarshalls.com, which is a virtual museum of jaki-ed conceived by Irene, states: “The jaki-ed revival program began on two levels: A request to all of the country’s weavers to supply jaki-ed for an exhibition and silent auction, and the running of a weaving course by expert weaver Patsy Hermon.” This small beginning led to an expansive apprenticeship program that saw weaving circles on many of RMI’s atolls. The auctions continued to be held at the Marshall Islands Resort and then, in the mid-2010s, Irene and Maria began work on the book Clothing Mats of the Marshall Islands: The History, The Culture, and The Weavers, which was published in 2019.

The art of making jaki-ed has now found a home at the College of the Marshall Islands and will continue to be just one piece of the many initiatives developed by Irene in so many areas of life in the Marshall Islands.

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