Postcard from Tarawa

The Upward Bound group of students, teachers and administrators toured along Tarawa, Maloelap’s main road during a visit in August. Photo: Wilmer Joel.

Our adventure continues through the vast, majestic ocean and takes us to an island that is historically significant, scattered with World War II remnants and surrounded by alluring islets.

Maloelap Atoll, which literally means the great ocean, has a land area of only 9.8 square kilometers. But that modest land area encloses a lagoon of 972 square kilometers. It is located 11 miles north of of Aur. The German and Japanese empires once made claims to the atoll in the early and mid-20th century.

In 2021, when the most recent census was taken, it was reported that 395 people lived in Maloelap. The atoll has five elementary schools. Our team of Upward Bound and CMI staff and students visited the administrative center in Tarawa last month. It has only two churches: the Protestant and Assembly of God churches.

We tossed some of our food rations to the ocean as we approached Malolelap’s point of entry to honor the spirit of a former landowner. It is believed that if we did this, our passage around the atoll would be safe.

It was Saturday afternoon when we reached Tarawa, and the light aqua hues illuminated the water. Tarawa’s coastline was serene. A dock constructed during the Japanese occupation was also visible. The dock has some damaged sections.

After getting off the boat, I took a snorkel and swimming goggles and swam by myself by the lagoon to cool off from the raging heat. It was a decent amount of cooling as I immersed myself in the water.

We stayed at Tarawa Elementary School, which has four classrooms and five teachers. The school’s headteacher is Rubon Benjamin, who also serves as the pastor of the Assembly of God church on the island.

A welcoming team showed up almost in the wee hours of the morning, just as it was getting dark and we were about to fall asleep. The women in the community serenaded us as they strummed their ukulele and sang enthusiastically. They carried woven coconut frond baskets containing local foods. We treated them to the staples of the capital city, like rice and chicken, as a sign of our gratitude. Apparently, they were not well informed on arrival and had little time to organize a small welcome for us.

The following day, in the late morning, we went to the small AOG church, where Pastor Benjamin conducted the service. From the school to the church, it takes five minutes to walk. There were not many people in the congregation, but when the 25 of us from Majuro arrived, the church was almost full. Towels and toiletries that were put together by Upward Bound students the night before the service were used to decorate the church’s interior. After Pastor Benjamin finished his sermon, we gave our offering, or tithing, in a woven basket.

Following the church service, we went deep into the jungle of Tarawa, exploring monuments from the Second World War. As we were walking, we saw that some of the houses of the Tarawa residents were constructed using a combination of primitive and modern technology.

The World War II relics we saw on the tour mostly belonged to the Japanese military. There were numerous bunkers, abandoned medical and electrical facilities, deteriorating artillery gun emplacements, and an execution site for Japanese soldiers who violated protocol.

The hardest thing about being on a trip is having to say goodbye. As we were packing our stay stuff to leave for Aur, Aur, we thanked the kind-hearted people of Tarawa. Despite the difficulties they face, they appear to have maintained their strength and maintained an upbeat demeanor through everything they go through.


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