To Kemem or Not To Kemem

November 26, 2012


  A kemem (say: kay-mem) is a first birthday party in the Marshallese culture.  Historically, because of the high infant mortality rates, when a child made it to their first birthday it was really something to celebrate.  Today, kemems are usually only thrown for first-born children and sometimes not even then.  Kemems are a big deal and big investment of time and money.  Fire will be one in February and because we'll be in States until January, we started discussing his kemem the other day.
  Let me start by saying that we are blessed to have such a good relationship with Fire's birth-grandparents.  They have taken Ciela in as their own granddaughter and they've taken D and I into thier family as well.  They have opened their home to us and are teaching us the Marshallese language.  This is something we never expected and we are so happy to have. 
  We have a few kemem options: a smaller party here on Kwaj at Emon Beach or big party on Ebeye.  Auntie and Uncle (as they've told me to call them) have offered to "let us off the hook" as far as a kemem is concerned.  They've said that Fire doesn't need a big party, that one at Emon Beach with the 20 people that we're allowed to sponsor over from Ebeye would be fine.  
 And they've been very up front about what throwing a kemem on Ebeye would entail.  If we have the party on Ebeye, we're going to have to go big: at least 200 people with the expectation that 300 will show up.  And we'll have to feed all of those people.  Here's the example that Uncle gave: 15 cases of chicken at $36 each, and that's just the chicken.  We'd need rice, fish, salad, beverages, and desert, at least.  And the charcoal to cook the food  And then the fabric, because we'd all have new clothes made.  And, and, and.  We'd be looking at spending at least a thousand dollars on this party. 
  My midwestern upbringing is screaming that this should be an easy decision: why spend a thousand dollars on a party for a baby who won't remember any of it?!  But another part says that this is a great way to spend that money.  That this is an opportunity to truly embrace the Marshallese culture and all that it entails, and to thank Auntie and Uncle for their kindness.  This could be a chance for us to demonstrate our commitment to our children's Marshallese heritage.
  What do you think?  Should we go big or go home on this or accept the reasonable financial limitations and have something smaller but possibly less meaningful? 

11-30 Update: More thoughts on this topic here: To Kemem or Not To Kemem, Continued

 
 

6 comments

  1. I think holding Kemen is wonderful idea, fo reasons you state, but you are way underestimating all the challenges of executing.

    First, with prices what they are on Ebeye, and unless rules have changed and you can bring food and beverages from Kwaj, $1000 for 300 people is way, way too low. Add to what you listed the paper plates, plasticware, cups, ice, and likely will need to rent the grills needed and maybe even tables to put all on. Suggest triple that $1000 and will be closer - and probably still under total cost.

    Then, how will you limit to 300 people? I suggest you not assume this will happen - ask your relatives exactly how this will be done. There are a lot, lot more than 300 hungry kids on Ebeye and all will go to your kemen if they can find a way in. Are you prepared to turn these kids away? If not, don't start.

    And finally, putting all this together, cooking, preparing, etc is a several day event. Presumably your Marshallese relatives will handle but again, suggest not assume -- check. Those two grandparents cannot do all of it.

    All best and hope post photos of event, regardless of where held.

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    1. You are hitting the nail on head, Anonymous! We still have to check but I don't think we can bring food over from Kwaj (I was hoping there might be different rules for ribelle but I don't think that will happen).
      And yes, just because we're starting with 200 and expecting 300 doesn't mean there won't be 500. We'd been warned that we'd have to buy charcoal but I hadn't thought of grills and tables...
      Auntie and Uncle said they would take care of the preparations and that the men of the church would do the cooking so at least that would be taken care of.
      Also, I worry that this might open a door that we hadn't gotten to yet, of money between our families. Teshie's family isn't broke, they have a house on the main road and one in Majuro and all the kids go to school, but of course, we have more money than they do. Does shoveling all that out for a party mean they'll think we have that money all the time?
      This is much more of a big decision than I thought it was.

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    2. Oy, I feel so negative.

      Church group helping out should solve a lot - will certainly or have access to grills, tables, etc. There will probably be a church donation expected but bet the grandparents are planning to take care of that.

      Most Marshallese, my experience, are not good a budgeting and tend to way overspend (can go into debt for years) on a kemen.

      All in attendance, even the little kids, will expect to receive a HEAPING plate of food, most of which will be wrapped in plastic wrap and taken home.

      Suggest before making decision you establish realistic list of what you will need to buy (food AND supplies). Then, get definitive response about what you can and cannot purchase and carry over from Kwaj. Next, personally visit a store on Ebeye and, list in hand, get a cost quote for all. Finally, recognize there will be unplanned expenses (just like for a very large party in the US) and put aside (my estimate) 10% - 20% additional for those.

      Then, make the call.

      The kemen WILL be a memorable event and WILL be special. Be realistic about that cost and then, if accept, can enjoy the kemen.

      Hope that if you hold, you post more about and offer up what learned, what worked, what did not, and, in the end, what it meant to you and to family.

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  2. I vote: do it! Teshie will remember through pictures and stories. I think you are right when you say this would be a way to demonstrate your commitment to Marshallese culture and thank Teshie's grandparents.

    Did Ciela have one? If not, can you find a way to celebrate her at the same time?

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  3. I say have it at Emon. Other parties and kemems have sponsored more than 20 people, you should find out how that was done. If you sponsor 20, can someone else sponsor another 20?...and so on? Or can you get special permission for a special event? This would also be a solution to having a ton of people your family doesn't even know show up.

    It would still be a huge expense but I agree that kemems are a very special and important Marshallese tradition. I know I will be having kemems for my babies one day :)

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  4. that very interesting story and I am glad many marshallese people will love to celebration on Kemem

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