Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Chuuk, formerly known as Truk

We rejoined the Island Hopper for the short flight to Chuuk. During World War II, Americans knew this island as Truk, the main Japanese naval base for the Western Pacific. It has a huge lagoon, with lots of islands in it. This is unlike Pohnpei, which has one major island and a few small ones.

Chuuk is having a hard time. Weno, the island with the airport on it, has a reputation for corruption and crime. Most tourists are scuba divers who go immediately to a ship (called a live-aboard) for a week of diving the many Japanese ships sunk in the lagoon. The state is bankrupt, and the soaring price of fuel has crimped travel in an place where motor boats are the most effective means of transportation. The government offices we visited were without electrical power. The roads were in a terrible state: you usually travel at 5 miles per hour, dodging the largest potholes.

Internet is really expensive. They have a state-back monopoly, and they would pay over $1000 a month for a connection that is not as fast as my home DSL line in California for $25. But, they hope that this problem will be overcome someday.


I was quite impressed by the people I met in Chuuk who are dedicated to kids and education. We had good discussions about how to extend Internet around to different schools, and apparently they are talking to the Green WiFi/Meraki folks about a mesh network (which I think would be well suited to Chuuk). After talking with the special education team, we walked across the way and met with the curriculum team. We were given a bunch of books created by teachers in Chuukese, and got to meet one of the authors, Johndy Nakamura. We're planning on scanning these in, and the team gave us permission to add these books to Bookshare.org.

Three women in an office, Kathy Mori's boss, Donna McNear and Kathy Mori
Donna has a good friend, Kathy Mori (not sure of the spelling), who works in the health agency. They've worked together on screening children with vision impairments. One mother brought her daughter to Kathy's office to see Donna, a cute toddler with one good eye and one eye blinded from Vitamin A deficiency. I understood that this girl was one of a pair of twins, but that the other twin had died from complications of this vitamin deficiency.

Visually impaired girl with one eye showing an impairment

Donna wanted to get out and visit one of the other islands in the lagoon, and asked her friend Kathy if she could help arrange the visit. And thus another adventure was kicked into motion!

Friday, February 22, 2008

Donna Leads a Home Visit to a Blind Toddler

In addition to meeting with key leaders and visiting schools, Donna McNear really wanted me to see blind children in their homes. Donna is the main reason I'm involved with this project: she's an itinerant teacher of the blind in rural Minnesota. But, she's a teacher with a national reputation and a fierce dedication to improving and reforming the system for educating blind children. She has also made Micronesia her professional mission focus. For years she's been coming to these islands, helping health professionals and teachers better serve the blind and visually impaired children. She's even been to Pingelap with Mary Kidd from Guam, taking the ship Micro Glory for 24 hours, sleeping on a straw mat on one of the upper decks. I'm dedicated, but not that dedicated!
House in the jungle

Donna feels that seeing the child in his or her home environment is essential for development and assessment. She's been visiting a handful of kids on Pohnpei, and wanted to take me out to visit one of the children. She decided, after consulting with the special ed team in Kolonia (the main city on Pohnpei), that we'd go out and visit Aleckson, a four-year old blind boy who lives in Kitti, about 45 minutes counter-clockwise around the island. Aleckson's house is about 200 yards off the main road in a village. To get there, you need to cross a log bridge over a small deep creek. Apparently, the bridge fell down a couple of months ago when two of the staff from Kolonia were coming to visit and they got somewhat hurt by falling ten feet to the creekbed. But, the bridge had been replaced and looked pretty sturdy to us.
Teenage girl sitting on floor, holding a blind baby

We found Aleckson being held by a teenage girl, who was very shy, surrounded by a lot of kids. Donna sat down with Carlina Henry, our guide and translator (and one of the key special education staffers in Pohnpei state) and started talking to this girl, Aleckson's sister. After a couple of minutes, Donna starts to wonder where Aleckson's mom is. She asks and is startled by the news: his mother died giving birth to twins. Aleckson's main caregiver is now his sister, who is only in seventh grade.

Carlina explains that there's a lot of family support for Aleckson and his siblings. His aunt (his mother's sister) is taking care of the twins in her home. Aleckson's sister (I never could catch her name, she was very shy) is still in school. The community helps out.

Aleckson is running a fever and not feeling well. That doesn't stop Donna from offering to take him onto her lap and work with him. Aleckson is one of the kids whose eyes didn't develop, conditions called Anophthalmia (no eye) and Microphthalmia (small eye). You can't tell which condition without doing a medical exam, which isn't the point of our visit. Donna wants to find out how Aleckson is developing. His mother had been very attentive to Donna's advice, and Donna had seen big improvements on her last visit to Aleckson. But, the mother's loss certainly has been a setback for his cause. Donna asks about his language development, and finds out that he had a fair number of single words. She suggests to the sister that he be encouraged to use two word phrases, such as "want water," as a good next step.

Donna tries to get Aleckson to stand up at a low table, but he doesn't want to. The sister explains that he's just sick, and that normally he likes to get around. She points out a railing in the yard they had built for Aleckson, and said that he really likes walking along the railing.

Railing set up in a yard

After 20 minutes, Donna has imparted what advice she can, and makes some mental notes of things to talk about with the special educators in Kolonia. I can tell she's still pretty shaken about learning about Aleckson's mom's passing, although while she learned the news while holding Aleckson she only paused for about thirty seconds before moving forward with assessment and advice. It's a stark reminder that health care is still rudimentary in the islands, and that mortality is still pretty high. We soon learn that one of the other blind children Donna wanted to visit has died, and that this is not uncommon. It gives me a little more insight on why Donna is so dedicated to this region and these kids.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Social Enterprise: Black Pearls from Nukuoro Atoll

I found out that there is a hierarchy of remote islands. There are the big main islands, which are reasonably remote, like Pohnpei or Weno on Chuuk (my next stop). These islands have international air service like the Island Hopper I talked about in an earlier post. Then, there are the islands you can get to by small boat that are less than two hours from the mainland. Then, there are remote islands that are a few hours away in a small plane, like Pingelap, the island where the color blindness is so prevalent (achromatopsia). These have small airstrips.
Gold emblem on black cloth, saying Nukuoro Black Pearls, with a logo shaped like a crescent with a pearl in between the two pincers
And then there's an atoll like Nukuoro, which is hundreds of miles away from a main island and has no airstrip. These islands get visited one or three times per year by a ship that circulates around the region. Nukuoro is also unusual in the FSM in that it is inhabited by people of Polynesian descent rather than Micronesians.

We found out about Nukuoro because of a brochure in the Joy Hotel, where Mike Terlaje and Mary Kidd were staying in Pohnpei. By the way, Mike and Mary work for the University of Guam at the Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, Education, Research and Services (CEDDERS), who manages the Pacific Consortium for Instructional Materials Accessibility Project (CIMAP), which is the whole reason I'm here in the Pacific! So, there was this nice brochure about black pearls. That sounded pretty cool to us, especially Mike and me (since we were away from our wives on Valentine's Day). But, there was no address of a store: just a phone number and a PO Box. We asked the nice folks at the Joy, and they said that we just should call George.

Mike called George and he joined us for breakfast the next morning at my hotel, the Ocean View (really does have an ocean view with wrecked ships in the cove below it, more on that later). We found out all about Nukuoro, and how its residents had set up a community owned social enterprise to grow black pearls in their lagoon. George is from Nukuoro, and is a one-man marketing program for their product. There's an elementary school on Nukuoro, but kids have to come to Pohnpei when they are 14 to go to the high school here.

Nukuoro has a special kind of Oyster, the Black Lip Pearl Oyster, which grows these lovely pearls. They aren't actually black, but rather a lustrous dark gray (and there are many shades of this gray). Black pearl on white background


George pulled out his case of pearls, each one nestled in a little round plastic box with a white foam bed. They were gorgeous, and Mike, Donna and I each decided to buy something from George. But, I wanted to know more about the social enterprise, probably much more than the average purchaser of these pearls.

George described the venture as being reasonably successful, but capable of more scale. The venture was the biggest employer on the atoll, employing seven full-time (and supporting fifty people out of the three hundred who live there). But, George thought it could easily double in size. He noted that they aren't producing enough pearls to interest a major jewelry operation, but that they could. They also have to import the expert technician who knows how to insert the "seed" into the oyster, which then takes 18 months to produce a pearl. George likened it to being an expert surgeon. Chartering a boat to Nukuoro costs almost $10,000, so it would be good to have greater capacity to utilize these rare visits.

We discussed finding capital, and I noted that there would be a solid option to find a socially oriented lender to lend money for an expansion plan. George felt that Nukuoro needed on the order of $100,000, but that he thought that a grant would make more sense. I actually agree with him: a social loan is a high-cost transaction for an amount that size and a grant would probably be a more sensible option.

I left my meeting with George admiring his community for finding a way to make their way of life viable in today's world. And, the product is beautiful. I saw a pair of nice earrings on Mike's wife, Miriam, when I came to Guam (more on that in future posts). And, my wife and daughter may have to wait a while to find out what I'm bringing home!

Visiting Schools in Pohnpei

The main goal of visiting Micronesia is for me to gain a real-world perspective on schools and books for students with disabilities. We visited several schools, including detailed visits to two elementary schools and a high school. Picture from above of a school on the waterfront with jungle vegetation around The first school was Sokehs Powe School, which is on Sokehs Island next to the incredible rock pinnacle I mentioned in an earlier blog. The picture from above shows its site: it's on the waterfront across the main harbor.


classroom with purple-clad students at desks
Like most of the schools we saw, this one reminded me of schools in California. The classrooms have doors that open to the outside, because of the warm weather. Instead of windows, they have heavy screens. Most classrooms have desks and textbooks and all have chalkboards. Some of the schools have uniforms, where the kids are all dressed in the same colors. Sokehs Powe had purple uniforms. Students on Pohnpei learn in the vernacular (Pohnpeian) until they are in third grade, when they start learning English. PCs at the elementary schools (grades K-8) were quite rare. The high school had a good sized computer lab with relatively modern PCs. But, a lot of PCs were broken and older.Science textbook on a chair, cover has a seahorse

We took lots of pictures of the textbooks. For the most part, the English language textbooks were as modern as textbooks you'd see in mainland U.S. The books were by major publishers that I recognized. This was a big relief, since we would be responsible for making sure these books are accessible to disabled students in Micronesia. The books in the local languages were not in as great a shape. These tended to be developed by teachers and photocopied.
Mand School sign

The second school we visited was Mand School, in the southern part of the island, about a 45 minute drive from the capital. I really liked the school bell, which is a compressed air tank (for scuba divers), suspended from a tree and struck with a hammer.


It was a community made up mainly of immigrants from the island of Pingelap, the place where 10% of the population is visually impaired with achromatopsia, which makes someone very sensitive to light. Right next to the school is a river that leads to a fabulous waterfall, and across the river is a community plaza and center. It was a great feel for a community.

Our guide to visit the school, Roddy Robert, is a teacher who has the condition himself. He wears heavy sunglasses to shield his eye from the incredible glare of daylight. After we visited the school, Roddy took us to the community center, which has a memorial to the men who emigrated from Pingelap in the last century and founded this community. He showed us his great-grandfather's name on the stone pillar. Roddy Robert in dark glasses pointing to information on a school wall


In the school, he introduced us to the teachers, and showed us the school PC, and pointed out pictures on the wall which showed the five senses with the word in the local language. In this school, they also had content in Pingelapese, which is a dialect related to the main island language, Pohnpeian.
Schoolgirl squinting
We went into a classroom where I could immediately tell that the teacher there as well as one of the students both had the condition. The student was a cute little girl who was totally on top of things in the classroom and was frequently raising her hand with the answer to the teacher's questions. We got to observe different classrooms for 10 or 15 minutes each, at different grade levels. We also checked out the school library, which had many books, including a World Book encyclopedia.

In conclusion, these school visits gave me a really solid idea of the current state of schools, textbooks and kids with disabilities. And of course, these were schools full of school children who are full of life and excitement about having strange-looking visitors!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Meeting Key Leaders in Pohnpei (including the Governor!)

Pohnpei State Flag, on flagpole


Our official visit to Pohnpei started with calls on key education leaders. The Federated States of Micronesia has its capital on Pohnpei (it's one of four states in the FSM), so we met with both leaders from the federal FSM government as well as from Pohnpei State.
Carlina Henry at the wheel of an official Department car
Our main host was Carlina Henry, who was terrific. She met us at the airport, took us to see Nan Madol on Sunday, and then arranged the great majority of our meetings during the five days we were on Pohnpei. Every time we came up with a new brainstorm, Carlina knew who to call and make it happen.

We learned a lot about the situation around special education in the FSM. Pohnpei State includes the island of Pingelap, which has 10% of their students with a hereditary condition called achromatopsia. This is a complete colorblindness that results in students being low vision. We were surprised to frequently meet people with the condition on Pohnpei, because many Pingelapese have migrated to Pohnpei main island. One of our brainstorms was to fly to Pingelap for the day: it's about 400 miles to the east of Pohnpei main island. However, Carlina talked to the pilot and found that the airport was completely out of aviation fuel and that the plane couldn't fly. The tanker came in on Wednesday, but there wouldn't be enough time to unload the fuel and fly to Pingelap before we continued our trip to Chuuk.
Sign saying Department of Education, Early Childhood Education (ECE), POHNPEI CENTER, tel. 320-5408

We had the opportunity to check out places where they were going to set up a technology center with PCs and specialized assistive technology for the blind. We visited the national capital in Palikir, which is about 8 miles away from Kolonia, the main town on Pohnpei. There, we talked to Rufino Mauricio, a senior official in the FSM and the co-author of an important book on Micronesian history. He was very helpful and supportive of our goal of building a library. We met with him in the Micronesian Library of Congress, which was full of interesting content.

Our last meeting on day one was with the Governor of Pohnpei State, John Ehsa. Governor Ehsa was quite interested in education: he's been in office only a month and it's at the top of his priority list. I was impressed with him, and hope he's successful in his new administration.
Mike Terlaje, Governor Ehsa, Donna McNear, Jim Fruchterman, photo credit: Mary Kidd

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Seeing the sights in Pohnpei

Touring Pohnpei

Because of the timing of the island hopper arriving on Saturday (next flight would arrive Tuesday), we had some free time on the weekend to see the sites of the island. The island is a volcanic high island, with mountains and other cool features, with a surrounding ring of reef a couple of miles away. There is a road that rings the island, and we spent a lot of time going around the island on it.Jim Fruchterman with camera in hand coming out from inside a stone tomb

The most famous site is the ruined stone city of Nan Madol. We walked on a coral path through the jungle to see this city made of basalt slab islands, after paying our admission fee to a representative of the nahmwarki, the local chief. Think of Venice in the Pacific, but with smaller islands. Jim looking up from down inside rectangular stone pitIt was low tide, so we could wade out to one of the biggest of the 90 islands that made up the city. This island, called Nan Douwas, had a large tomb as well as a “jail” and what our guide called the meditation hole. Donna McNear and I took turns climbing down into the meditation hole. Could definitely make you think!
Jim with large rock mountain behind him
From our hotel balcony we could see Sokehs Island, which has a giant pinnacle of stone at the end of it. It reminded me of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park in California, and it reminds other of Diamond Head in Hawaii. Impressive piece of rock. It turns out that you can hike along the ridge of Sokehs Island, which provided fabulous views of the harbor, town and airport. When we got up to the ridge, we also found the ruins of a Japanese army installation, complete with large guns, water tanks, bunkers and so on. Pohnpei was not invaded by the U.S. in World War II: it was bypassed and isolated, so I assume the ruins were from bombs or simply the passage of time. It was a reminder of the time when this was a strategic area during the war, the aftermath of which is still shaping these islands. Donna McNear and Mary Kidd in front of a ruined Japanese gun in the jungle

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Island Hopper to Micronesia

I'm on an exciting trip to places I've never been before! Although the mission of the trip is to understand the situation of visually impaired students in Micronesia, I absolutely get the benefits of visiting these islands and enjoying the scenery.
Airport departure board noting a 655 am departure to Majuro
Getting to these islands is not simple. The way to get to the main islands from the U.S. is to fly to Hawaii and then take the "island-hopper." I had a vision of this being a DC-3 or some such, but it's a modern 737 that is rated as "ETOPS" which means it's able to fly for three hours on one engine. Continental flies this route three times a week, going from Honolulu to Majuro Atoll, to Kwajelein Atoll, to Kosrae, to Pohnpei, to Chuuk and finally to Guam.
737 Continental airlines plane on tarmac in Majuro
Our first destination on this trip was Pohnpei, in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). As a history buff, I didn't know the new names for some of these places. As in India, these communities have been renaming their islands back to their original or local names, rather than English approximations. So, Pohnpei of the FSM used to be Ponape in the Caroline Islands.

airplane interior with seats and flight attendants
The weirdest thing about the island hopper was the security policy. Airplanes have this extensive rigamarole around security (often known as security theater). How do you do this on a plane that hops from island to island? So, the solution on the island hopper is by halves. When we landed on Majuro, the crew let us know that everybody on the left hand side of the plane had to leave with all of their hand luggage. I watched one guy on that side of the plane hope over to the right hand side so he didn't have to leave. They then sweep through the plane checking the seats for bad stuff left behind (other than trashy magazines about celebrities). When we landed on Kwajelein, the big U.S. military base, only authorized people could get off and on. When we landed on Kosrae, it was supposed to be the turn of the right hand side of the plane to leave, but it was raining heavily. So, they just swept the plane on one side and then the other.

In any event, after 11 hours of hopping from island to island, we arrived at Pohnpei. More in my next post!