(This review of the biography Don’t Ever Whisper was recently published by the Journal of Pacific History at the Australian National University, by Angela L. Robinson of the University of California, Los Angeles)
In Don’t Ever Whisper Giff Johnson follows the inspiring life story of Darlene Keju (1951–1996), a Marshallese antinuclear activist and community organiser. Johnson, author of several texts on nuclear testing, editor of the Marshall Islands Journal newspaper and spouse to the late Keju, weaves together a thoughtful portrayal of Keju’s life as an antinuclear activist, health advocate and fierce proponent of the Marshall Islands. This text is a biography of a courageous and determined Marshallese woman who tirelessly advocated for her people, as well as a historical and political study of the US nuclear test programme in the Marshall Islands from 1946 to 1958. To this end, the events of Darlene Keju’s life are contextualised alongside the 67 nuclear weapons detonated in the Marshall Islands, providing a thorough depiction of Keju’s story while illustrating the various health and environmental hazards that Marshall Islanders continue to face as a result of the nuclear test fallout.
The text is divided into two broad sections. The first (chapters 1–11) tracks Keju from her youth on the island of Wotje to her university years in Hawai‘i, where she initially became aware of the US nuclear test programme and its devastating effects on the health of Marshall Islanders. Johnson details her many scholarly accomplishments, including her admission to the University of Hawai‘i’s graduate public health programme, making her the first Marshallese woman to receive an MPH degree. During her pursuit of this degree, Keju impressively gave hundreds of speeches around the world on the US nuclear test programme in the Marshall Islands. The section ends with a particularly memorable speech that she delivered at the World Council of Churches assembly in 1983, which sent shockwaves throughout the WCC community, even inciting a critical response from US Ambassador Fred M. Zeder, who quickly denounced any of the nuclear test programme’s possible negative effects. Rather than discrediting and silencing Keju, as Zeder might have hoped, though, his suspiciously defensive response garnered more support for Keju and the Marshallese people in their fight to create public awareness about the nuclear test programme and its horrific effects.
The second half of the biography (chapters 12–24) tracks Keju’s life after moving back to Majuro in the Marshall Islands, where in 1986 she founded the successful organisation Youth to Youth in Health. Inspired by the popularity of her family’s music serenades, Keju used her position in the fledgling family planning programme of the Marshall Islands’ Ministry of Health to launch a project that could at once incorporate Majuro youth into the community and educate Marshallese people about family planning services and health issues. While publicly discussing many of these topics could be frowned upon in the Marshall Islands, Keju took a culturally respectful and significant approach through music and drama in order to deliver the important health information. As a reflection of her remarkable passion and dedication to the Marshall Islands, she directed the growth of Youth to Youth in Health from a two-person office in Majuro to a well-respected programme that had a radio show, income-generating projects and 20 outer-island branches. This section particularly highlights Keju’s incredible ability to navigate between different cultural values to promote the health and sustainability of the Marshallese people.
In terms of sources, Johnson includes interviews with Keju’s friends and family, published interviews with Keju, Keju’s public speeches and US military reports. He also uses her master’s thesis, an especially significant source. The insightful incorporation of its first-person narrative adds an intimate element to the text, allowing Keju to narrate moments of her life in her own voice throughout the first half of the biography. While the second part lacks this dynamic, Johnson’s narration nevertheless carries this intimacy throughout the text, as does the wonderful collection of photos that document her accomplishments and love for the Marshall Islands.
In chapter 25, the final chapter of the book, Johnson dissects the US government’s cover-up of the particularly destructive nuclear test Castle Bravo in 1954. Drawing from newly declassified documents, Johnson’s research disturbingly shows that the US government blatantly disregarded the health of Marshall Islanders by choosing not to evacuate those who would be exposed to the test in order to research the effects of radiation exposure. Yet thirty years before this information would be released, Darlene Keju already knew the intent behind the US nuclear test programme in the Marshall Islands. As she said in an interview, ‘They’re using us as guinea pigs. They are coming there to experiment on human beings’ (p. 160). Johnson’s biography is thus an important addition to antinuclear activism and Pacific Islands scholarship, as well as a great tribute to Darlene Keju’s legacy of health education and activism on behalf of the Marshall Islands.