SLEEPING MAT

c. 1967 
Weno, Chuuk Lagoon, Micronesia 
Pandanus fiber, 76 1/2 x 36 1/2 in.   
Collection, Museum of the Peace Corps Experience

Gift of Richard Sundt, Micronesia, Rongelap Atoll 1967–69

Mat_edited.png
 

In much of the world people take their furniture for granted. In the Pacific Islands, people take for granted the unnecessity of furniture. I discovered this when I met my first challenge as a Peace Corps trainee on Udot Island in the Chuuk Lagoon. 

We lived in a spare little western-style cabin. A utilitarian mat covered the floor. There were no beds. I was unprepared for sleeping on the floor, especially on that rough mat. When I learned that the local Udotese slept on well-crafted mats fashioned from plaited leaves of the native pandanas tree, I found just the right one in a local shop so I could sleep like a native. 

After three months of training, I boarded a field ship in Majuro that would take me 400 miles northwest to Rongelap Atoll. In 1954 the US Navy evacuated residents of Rongelap after fallout from a hydrogen bomb test on nearby Bikini Atoll contaminated the islands; three years later, some of them began to return home. In 1967 the atoll’s main and only inhabited island had a population of about 120 residents who lived on three square miles of land. My assignment was to start a coconut rehabilitation project. 


I began adjusting to living—and sleeping—in my new home. One day a woman from the neighborhood came to my door with a gift. She had made me a pillowcase embroidered with flowers and leaves. An inscription, written with a marker, said, “Ememlok ijen ko aö, ilo ien ne ij babu”—“My place is better with this pillow when I go down to sleep.” Indeed, it was!

Several months later the owners of the house next door returned to Rongelap. As a gesture of friendship, the husband offered me a foam rubber mattress that he had brought home. He said it would help me sleep like a ribelle—a foreigner. I immediately placed it under my mat. Who needed a bed?

In 1985 the people of Rongelap had to evacuate again. The land remained too irradiated for human habitation, a determination that came too late for the many islanders who suffered radiation illnesses. If human-generated disasters have made life difficult for residents of these low-lying atolls, the Marshallese long ago learned to adapt and harness their limited resources to fashion a sustainable and self-sufficient way of life—something I learned from them, something we all aspire to achieve.