We’ve been back in the outer islands for about two weeks now and despite the fact we’re far from any supermarket or shop it still feels like we’re accumulating vast food supplies. Since returning to Aur we’ve been given pumpkin, copious amounts of coconuts (I guess it’s not like there’s a shortage), breadfruit, pandanas (pictured), banana, banana cooked in coconut, banana chips. We’ve caught fish in the lagoon and been given fish by friends. We just went for a kitesurf and somehow managed to come back with two fish for dinner, forced on us by some friendly locals. The nature of the people is eternally giving.
When first arriving in these atoll extremities one might wonder, as we did, why were they settled? What brought people to these islands and why did they stay? With limited space for agriculture it seemed like life would be a constant battle for survival. And I’m sure at times it was. However when you look closer the natural endowments of these small atolls are immense. Outer islands are stockpiles for coconut crabs and lobster. Coconut juice is perhaps in greater supply than water. Coconut meat is used for cooking, eating and making oil. The pandanas is a huge fruit that runs wild on all atolls. Sucking on a pandanas seed is like a great big natural lollipop. The pandanas also plays a crucial role in weaving, and provides materials for canoes. Breadfruit is cooked in a variety of ways, and was traditionally preserved and used in times of scarcity. Not to mention.. fish, fish and more fish.
Recently imported products have supplemented this island diet. Perhaps people are less susceptible to shortages and natural events. They also get to enjoy a greater variety of products, namely rice, spam, and various other tins. But the fact is that the Marshalls have been settled for thousands of years, and for thousands of years people survived on these natural endowments. It is hard to imagine such a simple diet, but it obviously worked as people are still here.
Even today most people in these islands take very little part in a cash economy. They lean on their natural endowments. Men spend a few hours a day fishing to feed their families. Everyone owns land and on it coconuts, breadfruit, pandanas, pumpkin and a few other crops grow. No one pays rent. Food is free.