I used to look down at the ocean, but now I see it at eye-level…
About six weeks ago on my trip to the Marshall Islands, I found a particularly dilapidated, wind-beat, fading strip of land and homes on the ocean-side of Majuro. It was a cloudy Sunday morning, and various groups of churchgoers belted into song at any given moment. I had the good fortune of meeting Angelisa Hepisus, a warm, articulate woman who has lived in the same house since she was a child- the house she now raises her own children in. This home and it’s adjoining yard – updated and cared for on the inside – abuts the sea, and is perniciously separated by a foreboding, crumbling sea wall. Angelisa was sweet, caring, confident, and vulnerably open about her lifelong relationship with this particular piece of property on this particular drowning island.
Angelisa has lived here since her childhood. Despite the continuous, daily beating the house takes from climate related elements (sand, wind, rain, tide, sun…), it is in remarkable condition. She makes improvements to the home- I instantly noticed the updated, shiny flooring in the living room. That same place I stood has been underwater many times during Angelisa’s life. Once during her childhood, she remembers that the entire island of Majuro was evacuated to the island-edge town of Laura (where it is easier to find “higher” ground- higher being a relative term in the Marshalls). When the families were allowed to return to their homes, her house was flooded in sand- measuring several feet high, all the more significant to a small child. Her possessions were broken, but thankfully, the concrete house stood. The wooden homes did not fare as well. The house has flooded many times since, sometimes because of typhoons, and other times because of the climate-induced heightened sea level and king tides.
Angelisa’s parents had 17 children (three who sadly passed away in their childhood), so creating resilience was no easy task, but understandably one of the more important items on their to-do list. After the memorable childhood flood (which was spurred by a typhoon), they set to work on building a rather legendary sea wall- a beautiful, still-standing structure that has protected Angelisa and her family ever since from the brunt of the ocean’s force. The wall was expensive and incredibly time-consuming- built entirely with the sweat and labor of Angelisa’s family members. But despite its strength and ingenuity, the wall does not hold everything back.
The reef just beyond Angelisa’s home was once thriving- she remembers eels, fish, and other lively sea life that provided continuous play-time fun for her and her friends. That reef is all but gone now. As they do, the reef acted as a protective barrier, cutting the strength and size of the waves before they crashed onto Angelisa’s backyard. Now the reef provides no playground-like respite. It does not protect Angelisa’s family from the ocean’s force – it is now just a remnant of what it once was.
The sea wall has started to crumble into the sea. Angelisa’s lovely house bears the unsightly storm-scars of boarded windows. The ocean’s waves are reclaiming the graves of loved ones. Angelisa does not know who is to blame for her plight. She admits that she is not a scientist. But each of her anecdotes focus on climate and change. She says the same thing in many ways, many times: the weather is not as it once was, and we are fearful.
“We are getting used to being scared,” Angelisa confesses. “The waves wash over my back yard several times a year now… there are times when we cannot let the kids play outside out of fear of what the water will do…I used to look down at the ocean, but now I see it at eye-level… But what do we do? This is where God put us. It’s our family home. And we also believe that God gave us these small islands. Where else can we go?”
While standing in her backyard, facing the waves in the vast pacific ocean, it is easy to see why Angelisa is at once terrified and torn. In a quiet moment she finishes by waxing poetic- but with an effortless authenticity.
“This is my home- it’s where my heart is… And I do love waking up to the sound of the ocean. It is beautiful.”
I admit, the view from her backyard is absolutely breathtakingly beautiful.