Home>Service> Global Love of Lives Award> 18th Fervent Global Love of Lives Award> Pacific Health Pioneer —— Darlene Keju
【Champion for Nuclear Survivors】

“Don’t be afraid to make your way through strong ocean currents to get to the next island.”
—Darlene Keju
About Darlene Keju
Darlene Keju, an adventurer with goals in mind, was a pioneer in community development. Always facing challenges with a positive attitude, she fought to protect the culture and the people of her nation but turned out to be a thorn in the US side.
Darlene Keju was born in 1951 on Ebeye Island in the Marshall Islands where the US government had conducted 67 nuclear tests from 1946 to 1968. But just like most of the residents, for as long as over a decade, Darlene did not know anything about the harm that nuclear tests had done to them. At the age of 27, she went to the US for further studies and found the truth. Later, she revealed this hidden secret to the world, and resisted pressure from the US by herself fearlessly.
As the first Marshallese female to get a master’s degree in public health, Darlene not just spoke up to the world, but also brought the expertise she learned in the US back home. She introduced concepts of public health to the residents island by island, and at the same time strengthened the cultural identity of the island communities.
Darlene Keju had established an international NGO—Youth to Youth in Health. Eighteen years after she died of cancer, the organization still passes on her love to others. Youth to Youth in Health has been providing Marshall Islanders with healthcare services and youth leadership training programs. YTYIH appeals to everyone to reveal nuclear impact, to safeguard our health, and to live life with hope. Darlene Keju was such a health pioneer, and was chosen among 2341 candidates around the globe to be awarded the Love of Lives Medal of 2015 given by Chou, Ta-Kuan Foundation in Taiwan.
Against Nuclear Contamination
Darlene’s parents run a small shop on an island near a US missile test base. Grown up to be confident and straightforward, Darlene liked to take adventures. When she was about to go to high school, her father sent her to Hawaii to live with an American host family. Later, she decided to walk on her own way. She went to University of Hawaii for a master’s degree in public health. For conservative islanders, it’s hard to believe.
In the summer vacation of 1979, Darlene visited the Ratak Chain of islands by passenger-cargo ship. She traveled on these islands and interviewed the residents to find out more about nuclear impact on them. At that time, the US government deliberately concealed the fact that the Ratak Chain had also been exposed to radiation. Ratak was not among the four US acknowledged atolls which were contaminated by radiation, and the islanders did not have any health and environmental programs. Some women there told her about stillborn babies that looked like a jellyfish or a bunch of grapes. These interviews proved the truth. The physical and mental impact of the residents was far beyond people’s knowledge.
Darlene knew she was the first Marshallese to collect the testimony of nuclear test survivors. She couldn’t stay on the sidelines. The US government did not pay much attention to the damage and even denied that fallout would float in the air. Besides, the US did not carry out any research to address related issues, such as birth defects, which could just worsen the problem.
In her master’s thesis in 1983, she talked of her travel in 1979 and revealed that the range of nuclear fallout contamination was far wider than the acknowledged four atolls. She demanded the US reveal the radioactive contamination induced by all 67 tests, and fought for the rights of thousands of people who had been exposed to radiation and fallout in 1950s without getting any medical checkup or treatment.
However, not all approved of what she had done. When she came back home for a job with her master’s degree that no one else had, she waited for a whole year to come to serve as the vice director of the Family Planning Program in the Ministry of Health. And the government did not give her good pay, which showed the authorities did not like her speaking up her opinions.
Even so, this intelligent, confident, and lively girl did not feel frustrated. Seeing herself as a pioneer to open up a new world, she kept on introducing ideas of healthcare to Marshall Islanders.
To a World Stage
As she championed the cause of nuclear test survivors, in 1983 she was invited to give a speech in Vancouver at the World Council of Churches Assembly, an event held every seven to eight years, to talk about the situation of the Pacific Islands. Delegates, religious leaders, and the international media were all stunned by the speech, but it annoyed the US authorities. A US ambassador to Marshall Islands publicly denounced her speech. And the Marshall Islands government was unwilling to see this situation.
Rev. Ekkehard Zipser, Head of Association of Protestant Churches and Missions in Germany, said “Darlene’s speech at the General Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Vancouver in 1983 opened many people’s eyes, particularly in the churches, to the suffering of the people of the Marshall Islands and other parts of the Pacific in the wake of nuclear testing. The consciousness of people in Europe concerning the Pacific only really began to awaken after that speech.”
Later, the local parliament of Kwajalein Atoll passed a resolution to praise her for her courage to criticize what the US had done and to ask the US government to reveal the impact of the nuclear tests on Marshall Islanders.
Bringing Back the Lost Tradition
In 1984, with a master’s degree in public health from University of Hawaii, Darlene came back to the Marshall Islands to serve as the vice director of the Ministry of Health’s Family Planning Program. Family planning could affect the health of a family, job opportunity, family’s economic situation, and education, but it was often neglected in preventive healthcare. In her tenure, she tried to promote family planning, through broadcast for example, but did not arouse much attention.
On the first New Year’s Eve after she settled in Majuro, Darlene met with old friends and relatives. She came up with a long-term plan. She brought back the lost Marshall tradition—forming a band of young people to sing for her family and friends, to sing from midnight to the first sunshine of the New Year.
The event had profound meaning. That is, young people had learned their mother tongue. Elders taught them and at the same time the endangered traditional dance and songs were preserved. Besides, through practicing and performing, young people gained confidence, acquired experiences of leadership, and also knew more about the community they lived in.
Darlene began to incorporate healthcare into the community. People soon saw that how young people, culture, music, dance, and drama had improved the health of the residents, and the crucial role these elements had played in increasing family’s happiness. The residents had used to think young people as alcoholics, dropouts, baby makers, and self-killers. But Darlene’s small youth groups started to change the negative image. Many people began to feel proud of their sons and daughters who joined a band.
Step by step, she found out the way for Marshallese to learn from the Western society without losing themselves. Whether they faced issues of nuclear test or community structure change, Marshallese must put their culture into practice and strengthen their national pride and cultural identity on the basis of acquiring knowledge.
Youth Health Leadership Seminar
In 1986 she turned the idea of the new year band into a formal organization—Youth to Youth in Health. She also established the first formal training courses for young people, a two-week Youth Health Leadership Seminar. The first week was for discussions. Topics included sexually transmitted diseases, family planning, suicide prevention, alcoholism, and self-esteem and cultural identity of young people. Then in the second week course members gave presentations on what they had learned in the previous week with slides, skits, puppet shows, or posters.
This was something the residents had never thought about. In the past no one ever discussed any of those issues, but now these young men went through every detail and shared their own thoughts with each other. The discussions were really animated.
In the closing ceremony course members had to present a 90-minute health show in front of their family, friends, and lecturers of the courses. Darlene tried every way to make them more confident. She had made a lot of efforts to organize and host all the events. She hoped that the closing ceremony would also be successful.
But she was not sure whether their bold discussions on taboo health issues would scare the audience. She wanted to make those skeptical health workers understand that the seminar could deliver healthcare information and change the community. And she was prepared to go to the stake for it. She also hoped that after the seminar young people would be able to talk about health and social issues with others in the community. Decades before health experts around the world started to advocate adolescent health, Darlene was already working on the seminar.
Parents, family, and friends of the course members all came to the closing ceremony. It was held at a shabby place, but there were decorations, balloons, and colorful posters, bringing a festive atmosphere to the event. Before that night, everyone had their own expectations but none of them expected that the young men would bring such amusing performances which showed great vitality and great maturity.
One of the performances was a short play about a family with alcoholic parents who neglected their children. It gave the audience a chance to reflect on themselves. Another young man gave a speech, offering information about food and nutrition. Some members sang lively songs, successfully drawing everyone’s attention, and the lyrics were about contraception and how it could change people’s lives. Two of the members chose to talk about population explosion with a poster they had painted, on which was a crowded island. They explained that family planning could reduce the urgency of the problem.
Most of the audience never faced the health and social issues in such a direct way. Many of them thought that their child looked totally different in the performances.
Expanding Sustainable Development
Darlene had made great efforts to consolidate YTYIH and to establish collaboration between YTYIH and the Ministry of Health. Since 1986 Youth Health Leadership Seminar had been held every year, and the seminar was later expanded to include not only Majuro but also the second largest city Ebeye and then other islands and atolls. From the late 1980s, the seminar was held twice a year. In 1989 Youth to Youth in Health received the NGO registration certificate and became official. It started to receive donations and to expand its community health programs. From a group which consisted of only volunteers, YTYIH had become an NGO which had a dozen of fulltime workers and many volunteers with an annual budget of near US$400 thousand. Other organizations, such as Bread for the World, United Nations Population Fund, and World Council of Churches, recognized its contribution and started to collaborate with YTYIH.
Later, Darlene put emphasis on basic preventive healthcare. In the past, health workers just received training and went back to their islands to work; however, they lacked basic knowledge of preventive healthcare. So Darlene started to give training and retraining to health workers on outlying islands, and went to those remote communities for follow-ups on a regular basis to further promote and develop community healthcare.
Another new undertaking carried out by Darlene was to combine business development with YTYIH’s activities. This idea was far beyond the range of health programs.
YTYIH’s branches on other atolls sometimes shipped local artifacts and local food to Majuro. Darlene found the traditional food and artifacts which were rich in cultural connotations and that the residents were proud of had potential to bring income. Those atolls actually had economic potential which was just underdeveloped. And this was because people waited for the government to take measures, but the government did not have the ability or motivation to do so. Thus life on outlying islands became more and more difficult.
As a result, Darlene started to launch a series of training courses for females on outlying islands. Health workers’ wives and young females learned how to manage revenues, how to do the bookkeeping and accounting, how to be a cashier, how to sell products, and how to train others on the island. These were all abilities that seldom local women had. And YTYIH started to hold more different kinds of activities, including income multiplying projects, youth leadership programs, basic health training for healthcare assistants, female business workshops, health promotion programs for schools and communities, clinical services, and sports activities.
In 1995, four more atolls wanted to join YTYIH. The number of branches then increased from sixteen to twenty. Healthcare assistants who wanted to establish a branch as a recognized part of YTYIH made local parliament pass resolutions to support them, and held youth activities to show their dedication.
Racing against Cancer
Darlene was the third person in her family who suffered from breast cancer. The first one was her father, who was diagnosed with male breast cancer, a rare cancer in men, when he was 68 in the late 1980s. Her mother also got breast cancer at the age of 60.
In 1983 Darlene had her first breast operation to remove a giant fibroadenoma, a non-cancer tumor, which the doctor suggested to remove due to its massive volume. Eight years later, in 1991 another tumor grew in her breast and it turned out to be a malignant one. She had it removed in Hawaii. After the operation, she went back to Majuro to deal with some business of YTYIH and the family planning program. Then she returned to Hawaii to take radiation therapy for seven weeks in a row.
She took radiation therapy in 1992, and after back to Majuro she speeded up her work. She had no choice but to do so because of her cancer report, the needs of Marshall Islanders, and also because donations had flooded in for YTYIH.
At the time when Darlene was diagnosed with cancer, the Marshall Islands was faced with the problem of a large population migrating into city centers, which imposed severe strains on the already burdened government. Health and educational programs launched by the government remained stagnant, and the health and social situation also deteriorated. Only when there was the once every-four-year election or a short-term island development program sponsored by donators could outlying islands be remembered by the government.
Darlene cared for the future of outlying islands, and her attitude won the respect of the marginalized residents. She saw those residents on outlying islands as the core of the country, because they were self-sufficient and they put culture in the center of their life. YTYIH and the family planning program had trained a dozen of healthcare workers for the needs of those residents, and health teams were also sent to support them in the communities on a regular basis.
In 1994 she launched the income multiplying project, and YTYIH was expanded to include more programs. But meanwhile she found another lump in her right breast where seven months ago a benign tumor was just removed. She planned to go to Hawaii for a checkup in two months, but couldn’t make it because of too many projects at hand. In May 1994, the chemical examination showed it was a malignant tumor. She agreed to have an operation to remove the tumor and nearby tissues as well as lymph nodes under her right arm to prevent cancer cells from spreading.
A Lifetime’s Dedication
After five weeks of radiation therapy to the chest at the end of the year, her back started to ache severely. In December, she went to Hawaii for examinations and found that cancer cells had spread to her back, spine, pelvis, and lungs. Her doctor suggested eight to twelve months’ chemotherapy, with each dose of drugs injected every three weeks, to prevent the spreading. But Darlene thought if she only had a short time left to live, she would rather stay in Marshall Islands to carry out her work than in Hawaii for chemotherapy every month. Finally, she followed her doctor’s advice and took radiation to her back and shoulders for a few weeks to slow the growth of cancer cells and to ease the pain. This was the third time she took radiation therapy after she was diagnosed with cancer in 1991.
Even cancer could not stop her. She worked at home and kept in touch with YTYIH members during the treatment. She made long-distance calls to discuss their programs, such as promotion programs for schools in Majuro, income multiplying projects, the shooting of a film for a local TV station, and other five to six programs. After she came back home in November 1995, she checked YTYIH’s work progress, solved problems they had encountered, and laid out the annual plan for 1996.
As her condition got worse, she stayed at home and monitored the progress of work. She would make phone calls or ask the members to come working at her house. Everyone could feel that she was getting weaker and weaker. On April 23, YTYIH members, her mother, and her friends came to celebrate her 45th birthday. A big smile hung on her face as everyone sang songs in a lively YTYIH style.
Two months after her 45th birthday she passed away. She was buried in her family graveyard in the countryside of Majuro. “Tuak bwe elimaajnono,” which means “face your challenges,” is inscribed on her gravestone. Just as her husband wrote in the book Don’t Ever Whisper, “Darlene’s message to us, clear in life as it was in death: Don’t be afraid to make your way through strong ocean currents to get to the next island.”