Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner is a poet, activist, and performance artist from the Marshall Islands. In 2014, Jetñil-Kijiner addressed the Opening Ceremony of the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Summit, an address which included her reading of the poem “Dear Matafele Peinem,” which was written to her daughter.

The poem brings home to readers that climate change doesn't just threaten "nations" in the abstract, but affects specific people, creatures, and land that are part of those nations. The poem's particular power rests in the voice of a mother making promises to her baby daughter—promises that every parent who loves their child can understand. But it's also apparent that these are promises that no single person could bring to fruition on their own. Even a whole nation, especially a nation such as the Marshall Islands, which has minimal effect on climate change, cannot, through their own power, bring about the changes necessary to stop climate change.

That is where the power of advocacy and activism come in. Passion and caring are important motivations in advocating both for ourselves and for others. The Christian call to love our neighbors as ourselves precludes actions of a "greedy whale of a company sharking through political seas," and "backwater bullying" (in the words of the poem), as well as being one of those "who like to pretend/that we don’t exist."

Caring for others, as exhibited in the poem, includes advocating loudly for those who are most vulnerable with "hands reaching out/fists raising up/banners unfurling/megaphones booming." In addition to this kind of activity, it is also lived out by "families biking, recycling, reusing,/engineers dreaming, designing, building,/artists painting, dancing, writing." Changing habits and working in other ways for the benefit of the planet is another form of activism.

As you read the poem below, does the reality of the crisis come home to you in a new way? Are there actions that you are drawn to as a result?

I highly recommend that in addition to reading the poem, you also watch the YouTube video below the text of the poem in which the poet reads the poem at the 2014 Climate Summit. Hearing the poem in the voice of the poet adds even more power and poignancy to the words.

Dear Matafele Peinem

by Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner

dear matafele peinam,

you are a seven month old sunrise of gummy smiles
you are bald as an egg and bald as the buddha
you are thighs that are thunder and shrieks that are lightning
so excited for bananas, hugs and
our morning walks past the lagoon

dear matafele peinam,

i want to tell you about that lagoon
that lucid, sleepy lagoon lounging against the sunrise

men say that one day
that lagoon will devour you

they say it will gnaw at the shoreline
chew at the roots of your breadfruit trees
gulp down rows of your seawalls
and crunch your island’s shattered bones

they say you, your daughter
and your granddaughter, too
will wander rootless
with only a passport to call home

dear matafele peinam,

don’t cry

mommy promises you

no one
will come and devour you

no greedy whale of a company sharking through political seas
no backwater bullying of businesses with broken morals
no blindfolded bureaucracies gonna push
this mother ocean over
the edge

no one’s drowning, baby
no one’s moving
no one’s losing
their homeland
no one’s gonna become
a climate change refugee

or should i say
no one else

to the carteret islanders of papua new guinea
and to the taro islanders of the solomon islands
i take this moment
to apologize to you
we are drawing the line here

because baby we are going to fight
your mommy daddy
bubu jimma your country and president too
we will all fight

and even though there are those
hidden behind platinum titles
who like to pretend
that we don’t exist
that the marshall islands
and typhoon haiyan in the philippines
and floods of pakistan, algeria, colombia
and all the hurricanes, earthquakes, and tidalwaves
didn’t exist

there are those
who see us

hands reaching out
fists raising up
banners unfurling
megaphones booming
and we are
canoes blocking coal ships
we are
the radiance of solar villages
we are
the rich clean soil of the farmer’s past
we are
petitions blooming from teenage fingertips
we are
families biking, recycling, reusing,
engineers dreaming, designing, building,
artists painting, dancing, writing
and we are spreading the word

and there are thousands out on the street
marching with signs
hand in hand
chanting for change NOW

and they’re marching for you, baby
they’re marching for us

because we deserve to do more than just
we deserve
to thrive

dear matafele peinam,

you are eyes heavy
with drowsy weight
so just close those eyes, baby
and sleep in peace

because we won’t let you down

you’ll see

    Text taken from Kathy Jetñil Kijiner’s blog post, ‘United Nations Climate Summit Opening Ceremony — A Poem to My Daughter,’ pub. 9-24-2014: https://www.kathyjetnilkijiner.com/united-nations-climate-summit-opening-ceremony-my-poem-to-my-daughter/.

The recording below is set to begin just as the poet begins the reading of her poem.

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