New female Marshall Islands Mayor takes pay cut to work harder

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23 February 2012

It is rare for a person to accept a new job that requires a 50 percent pay cut. It is even rarer to find a person who is enthusiastic about it. Despite this being the case for new Ebon Mayor Ione deBrum, she is bubbling with excitement about the new work ahead for her. 

Stepping down from many years of employment with the Marshall Islands government, most recently as Director of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Program at the Ministry of Health, deBrum is also breaking ground as a long-time Majuro resident moving from the urban center to an outer atoll. DeBrum, who was elected in November and sworn in for office last week, explained her plan to head to Ebon next week for an initial council meeting to consult on a series of development ideas, and then to return to Majuro to follow through on several grant funding opportunities. She then plans to move to Ebon.

“I’ve dreamed about going back to Ebon one day,” said deBrum. “I see many things on Ebon that could be done but are not.” Her plan, she said, “is to live on Ebon for the duration of my term.” Ebon is the southern-most atoll in the Marshall Islands, with a population of fewer than 500. It is the atoll where Boston-based Congregational church missionaries first established a presence in the Marshall Islands in 1857.

Because of its geographic location, Ebon receives the most rainfall of any atoll in the Republic. It is known for producing taro, bananas and many other local products, though deBrum said some of these are in decline. “People are moving away from local foods to western foods,” she said. “I’m surprised how much rice is imported to Ebon.” She is already working to marshal resources to implement a series of local food and self-sufficiency projects on the atoll.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs-provided funding for local governments in the country only pays for council operations. There is no money for operations or activities, she said. “There is nothing to work with now,” she said. “I’m starting from zero. I’ll return to Majuro to find ways to get things going.”

She is focused on expanding food production and marketing of local produce, screening for diabetes and stepping up illness prevention among island residents, and developing agreements with the Ministry of Education for its outer island schools to purchase local foods grown on Ebon to improve the nutritional status of meals for students and create income generating opportunities for outer island residents.

She sees income generating activity as key to improving life on the atoll. The core of her ideas revolves around taking advantage of Ebon’s strength as a garden island and increasing local food availability, both for eating and to sell, to combat diabetes and lack of present income options. “I’d like to help people find ways to help themselves,” she said.

As an early pioneer in conducting nutrition surveys in schools in the Marshall Islands and leading many health promotion initiatives, deBrum has a set of skills unusual for outer island mayors.

She has been networking with various government agencies and non-government groups to identify resources and development partners. She is working with the Majuro PREL office to produce a grant request to the United Nations for funding to involve students and the community in improving, educating about and developing traditional foods. She aims to work with the Diabetes Wellness Center in Majuro to battle diabetes. “Even people from Ebon are having limbs amputated because of diabetes,” she said. “Preventing diabetes is my passion and I want to work on it.”

Among her goals is to ensure the Ministry of Education fully implements an agreement signed last year regarding the food provided for students and staff at outer island boarding schools, principally Northern Islands High School on Wotje and Jaluit High School. “Outer island schools are supposed to provide nutritious meals, but they have been serving turkey tails, Koolaid, rice and so on,” she said. U.S. federal funding provided to the schools requires nutritious meals, but this has been largely ignored, so meals being served are promoting diabetes, she said.

Last summer while still employed by the Ministry of Health, deBrum ran a workshop for cooks from the two outer island boarding schools. An agreement was developed that the cooks would include local foods on the menu one-to-two meals per week, she said.

“The Ministry of Education can buy food from the outer islands instead of using so much rice,” deBrum said. Jaluit High School can get local food from Ebon and Namdrik, which are nearby atolls, she said. DeBrum said she also will bring up at the next Marshall Islands Mayors Association meeting the need to get the Ministry to make a commitment to buy local food from the outer islands to supplement menus at the boarding schools.

[Marianas Variety - via PACNEWS-PINA]

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