Glenn Jowitt

In search of the Cook Islands

Mark Scott continues his exploration of the Cooks, looking in this article at the southern islands.

Written by       Photographed by Arno Gasteiger, Glenn Jowitt, Mark Scott and Kennedy Warne

When the plane engines cough to a halt there is stock-still silence. These southern islands are broad and flat, featureless—so different from the pic­ture postcard atolls of the north. Fos­silised coral rock, like a cemetery of shark-toothed headstones, surrounds the runway.

The raw white rock reflects a blistering heat, but beyond lies a thick forest that prom­ises shade. It is on this year’s anniversary of independ­ence—Constitution Day, as it’s known—that I find myself on Mauke, easternmost of the Cook Islands.

In the cool of the night I take a walk through my vil­lage—a moonlit Chagall vil­lage composed along a flow­ered lane, snug asleep under  the crowing dominion of roosters. The independence celebrations are some days ahead.

There is no getting used to roost­ers. At first I respond to these rau­cous-larynxed popinjays with know­ing tolerance, reasoning that if the locals had learned to live with their  noise, then so should I.

August Meyer sells the new, tourism-oriented Rarotonga in downtown Avarua
August Meyer sells the new, tourism-oriented Rarotonga in downtown Avarua.

One morning a particularly discordant screecher outside my window broke this tolerance—the rock was at the ready. What stilled the hand was fear of looking foolishly papa’a. Then, next minute, I hear my 70-year-old neighbour racing out to the street, shouting “HAH!”, rocks in both her hands. There is no getting used to roosters.

On the Sunday I arrive at church early. This church is famous for more than the Chilean silver dollar inlay on the altar—a reminder of slave-trading days. It was built in 1882 to serve two villages which, after the shell was completed, couldn’t agree on the manner of interior decora­tion. The wrangle escalated to the point where they simply walled the church into two parts.

Some years later, with the cooling of tempers, the parti­tion was removed. The vil­lages may have been recon­ciled, but the two halves of the interior, in colour and de­tail, remain at loggerheads. Each village still sticks to its own half, on pews that for more than a hundred years have been reserved for the same families.

It’s from these pews that a handful of early-corners­(6′ gangly spare-framed fisher-5 men in elderly suits with their wives in white lace—start limber­ing up their voices. From the cor­ners of the almost empty church the men start singing—stags call­ing to one another across a valley.

The women kick in, their voices giving a light sparkling edge to the roar; a sprinkling of diamonds. My pew doesn’t be­long to me, so I’m gently ushered to one side. When the pastor be­gins the service he takes care that his legs straddle the line that still divides the church.

In downtown Avarua a street vendor offers the catch of the day: fresh tuna.
In downtown Avarua a street vendor offers the catch of the day: fresh tuna.

Standing guard at one church entrance are two gigantic—and anatomically explicit—stone phalluses. One early American visitor to the island, Sylvester Lambert, wrote: “It took a while for missionaries to work out what they were for . . . then they tried to have them torn down, but the New Zealand government protected the Maori’s right to do as he pleased with the church he’d built.”

The island buzzes with prepara­tions for the independence celebra­tions. I catch one group at rehearsal. Young men, with marlinspike­shaped drumsticks, strike up their stop-go helter-skelter beat on hol­lowed logs. Waiting in the wings, young women are tuning their hips.

Older mamas are plonked like pears on the pews, ready to give the benefit of their experience. They unfurl their fingers through the air. “This way, you young girls!”

These girls are not wearing fixed-focus smiles, but frowns of concentration as they move to­ward perfect time with their neighbour. For an hour they prac­tise. There is a blur of pandanus leaves, a tracery of hands, a faint smell of coconut oil and sweat. At the point of satisfaction, a couple of the older women stand and do a celebratory tamure. Then it’s time for the dancers and drum­mers to form a choir. Young voices soar.

Watching on, I become aware of just how different these islands are from papa’a experience. They’re a place where from birth children are immersed in movement and music—that they soon make themselves. Where among the first memories is the sensation of a mother or an auntie or a father oiling, massaging and ma­nipulating your limbs. Where a child is born to the summer-holiday feeling of open space, freedom to roam, sunshine . . . a summer holiday with a sense of purpose: the added disci­pline of having to gather, cultivate and catch for the table—and there is always enough.

Under the perfectionist hand of a conductor, the choir will sing on un­til the sounds flow through and un­der each other like the finest woven mat. Again and again they practise the same song. A teaspoonful of air escapes a nostril half a second late. Up comes the hand. Clap! “Do this again, please! From the beginning.”

Expatriate Australian John Abbott tests perfume made at his Rarotonga cosmetics factory.
Expatriate Australian John Abbott tests perfume made at his Rarotonga cosmetics factory.

Soon the big day arrives, and, amassed by the wharf, a hun­dred gather in a collection of uniforms lifted directly from the cigarette card series De­fenders of Empire. There’s Pathfinders, Girls’ and Boys’ Brigades, Cubs, Scouts, Brownies.

Behind a faded Union Jack and a newer Cook Islands flag, they march in swinging high-step to the school playing field, where everybody waits for the floats to arrive. There is competition for the best float. Behind three school desks set out in the field are the judges.

The department of agriculture has a truck which sports a collection of crops. Around the edge of the tray are tacked various slogans. The felt-tip pen on brown paper says: “Be a grower, not a tourism. Keep the envi­ronment fresh! Hide your body from chemicals!” Two men with tanks on their backs walk in front of the truck, spraying in the air like saluting tug­boats.

Another float is swathed in tie-dye pareu (lava lava). Long a tourist shop mainstay on Raro, tie-dye has now found its way to Mauke. At an earlier exhibition of tie-dye cloth staged by the Mauke Young Women’s Associa­tion the fabrics were laid out in vari­ous stages of production so that, as one woman told me, the people “can’t think we just got our pareu from Raro.”

Still another truck has sev­eral older women dressed in suits, sitting around a table playing cards. They’re swig­ging mightily from empty whisky bottles and puffing up large on unlit cigarettes. They’re deep in garrulous ar­gument. The felt pen says: “The History of Our Govern­ment.”

Rarotonga has a new breed of resident: "puppies"—Polynesian urban professionals. With jazzercise in the afternoon and nightclubbing all night (below), it's a world far removed from the subsistence lifestyle of the outer islands.
Rarotonga has a new breed of resident: “puppies”—Polynesian urban professionals. With jazzercise in the afternoon and nightclubbing all night (below), it’s a world far removed from the subsistence lifestyle of the outer islands.


The tray of one truck is full of swaying dancers being lec­tured by a Bible-quoting preacher. Amongst them, a young man covered in soot repre­sents the early gods. He is resisting the message, but eventually creeps sadly away.

The pareu float wins the prize, for its daring—the innovation of tie-dye. Soon a kerosene-soaked bamboo torch, carried aloft by a runner, trans­ports the constitution flame from where it was lit a minute before—behind a hedge.

Years before, I’d spoken to the newly elected Mauke MP, Viane Tairea, and had been impressed by his determination to bring develop­ment to his island, and so arrest the slow bleed of population which has drained most of the outer islands of their vitality, and, to a lesser extent, has sapped Raro itself.

“I want to tell my people that if you want a video you can get that video by staying on Mauke, by working the land on Mauke. If you want a truck, then Mauke can give you that, too.” I wanted to see how that promise had panned.

Not just for Mauke, but for the rest of the Cooks, it is a crucial promise. Because if the Cook Islands look like paradise to New Zealanders, in the islands it’s the other way around. Some 23,000 Cook Is­landers live in New Zealand, while only 17,000 remain in the islands. The long-standing reasons for exo­dus comprise a bitter brew, but for many the exodus itself has turned bitter.

One in three islanders living in New Zealand is without work, and now that there is a six-month stand-down for the dole, fewer Cook Island­ers are leaving. Many believe that the high rate of islander unemployment in New Zealand has a lot to do with attitude—papa’a attitude.

Apii McKinley is one who re­turned disillusioned to Raro, where she now runs one of the island’s bet­ter restaurants. “In New Zealand eve­rybody looks down on you as an is­lander. You have to crawl everywhere for a job, for a place to live. Here you’re looked upon as exactly who you are.

“In New Zealand I tried my hard­est to be better, because that was how I was brought up, but no matter what you do they look upon you as dirt, good only for factory work.”

Apii applied for a job as a waitress, but was told by the owner that she wasn’t suitable—nothing personal, but islanders weren’t suitable. “Two years ago that man came here to my restaurant and said to my [papa’a] husband how nice the place was. My husband replied, ‘No, you should speak to my wife, she’s the back-bone here.’ Then we recognised each other. I tried to be gracious about it, but in my heart I wanted to tell him how people like him under­mine our qualities so much, our confidence as a people—what we have to offer.”

Tourism is now the major em­ployer in the Cooks, but only Raro has an industry of any size. For those who can’t find tourism work the dif­ficulty of making a living from the land is a further reason for exodus. The Cook Islands can grow virtually anything; the problem is marketing. Farmers have been so mucked about by unreliable shipping and conflict­ing crop advice that it’s remarkable anybody attempts to grow anything for export.

The problems are as old as the trade between New Zealand and the Cooks. Successive resident commis­sioners, in the time of New Zealand colonial control, attempted to force a reasonable service from the Union Steamship Company, whose ships often arrived late or left for more lu­crative ports without loading the waiting cargo. Carefully picked and sorted, fruit was simply left to rot by the ton.

Attempts by a Cook Islands grow­ers’ co-operative in the 1920s to break free from the artificially low prices rigged by traders were met with a simple refusal to ship fruit grown by co-operative members.

Despite these difficulties, the twenties were a time of relative pros­perity—growers on Raro bought new cars and trucks, and built new houses. But in 1935, and then again in 1942, changes to shipping sched­ules saw the fruit trade collapse. These years triggered a wave of Maori migration to New Zealand.

Tom Davis recorded one grower’s post-war lament: “Is it our fault that the ships no longer come? Is it our fault that we now have a fraction of the oranges that you remember? Can we believe that in five years from now the ships will be waiting to take our produce away? We have heard those promises so often, and been told that we were to blame—for being lazy. They allot us space . . . then the steamer comes and there is no space left.”

But shipping is only part of the problem. The history of horticulture in the Cooks is about growers being exhorted to develop new crops at great expense and effort, only to have the market snatched from them—even when shipping was available. Australian oranges flooding the New Zealand market destroyed Cook Is­land oranges.

In the last two decades, millions have been spent getting pineapples established on Atiu and Mangaia, and bananas on Aitutaki. A measure of success followed, and these outer is­lands crawled back toward viability. People returned from New Zealand to work their land.

Four years ago I met one such grower. Tangi Jimmy had never wanted to leave Atiu—where his fam­ily remained while he supported them from New Zealand. Like most households, Tangi’s extended family of 13 spanned at least three genera­tions.

“When I study about it, my life is better in Atiu. You make more money in New Zealand, but with power, rent and food, the extra disappears. But in Atiu there was no money at all, so I had to go. When the pineapple come, I decided to come back.”

Tangi was working his plantation at dusk when I met him. Five of his children were there too—digging, weeding. All six were covered in fine red dust bound to their skins with sweat. “For years I work so hard on the pineapple, but I know I’ll get nothing. People don’t want to plant again.”

Their labour was in vain because, despite the money invested, Rogernomics, at one stroke, killed the pineapple and killed the bananas.Our Pacific Island neighbours lost tariff protection, and couldn’t com­pete with Queensland, Philippines and Ecuador.

On this trip, four years later, I learn that Tangi has given up his planta­tion, but has been able to find work at a local guesthouse. Atiu now pro­duces no pineapples for export. Gour­met coffee, packaged on the island, is a success in a minor way, but vanilla plantations promised by a French concern have come to nothing. The migration has been renewed. Fifty leave each year from an island where fewer than 900 remain.

The land has suffered, too. On both Atiu and Mangaia, in the south, heavy erosion from the pineapple plantations has stripped the islands of much of their topsoil, delaying horticulture development by years and polluting the taro swamps.

I spend only a day on Aitutaki. In that time I hear of lost markets, of abandoned banana plantations. One grower tells me: “New Zealand has a choice, you know. You import Cook Island produce or you import Cook Islanders. That’s all we’ve been do­ing—exporting growers and their families.”

Aitutaki, the next most populous island after Raro, is lucky. It’s fa­voured by a large, spectacular lagoon around which a tourist industry is developing. It is David Lange’s Cook Island holiday destination.

Aitutaki is the home island of Sir Albert Henry, the father of independence. Cook Islanders still accord him his title, despite it being stripped from him by the Muldoon govern­ment for flying in voters from New Zealand for the 1978 election.

The island, pre-war, was fertile ground for independence sentiment. Its resident agent, A.A. Luckham, had habitually flogged young women for misbehaviour. Word of conditions reached New Zealand through an ar­ticle written by Julian Dashwood, an Englishman resident in the Cooks, who told of floggings for cohabita­tion, and other restrictions.

“Governed, for the past six years by an ex-warder, the tenor of life here swings along at the same bright tempo which would find its counter­part in the exercise yard at Mount Eden. Curfew rings in the village streets at 9pm, by which hour the inhabitants, on penalty of a heavy fine, are all required to be indoors.” “It took six months after publication of the article for the New Zealand Labour government to order a stop to corporal punishment.

The Cooks were not alone when it came to this kind of treatment. Just 40 years ago, frustrated Niueans assassi­nated a New Zealand resident com­missioner who was notorious for his ill-treatment of the islanders. The three assassins were sentenced to death, but were granted clemency when the scope of commissioner Larsen’s activities became known. Larsen arrived at his post from Raro, where he had been police chief.

New Zealand’s management of its Pacific colonies has not been a his­tory to be proud of, but the Cooks escaped the kind of oppressions Sa­moa endured. In 1929, New Zealand police machine-gunned a Samoan pro-independence protest march, killing nine. Ten years before, when influenza struck Samoa, New Zea­land refused outside help, while the corpses piled up in what the United Nations rated in 1948 as one of the most disastrous epidemics this cen­tury—one that killed 7,452, or 19 per cent of the population.

The New Zealand censor carefully vetted films due for Samoa. He wrote in a 1929 memo: “One of the princi­pal concerns in Samoa is to see that the white man is not brought into contempt by the exhibition of films which would tend to lessen the re­spect of the natives for the white man. Even a picture with the famous dog Rin Tin Tin would be question­able, as the dog frequently fights and overpowers the villain—a white man.”

No such lunatic racist restrictions applied to the Cooks, which, in the twenties, had seen such a prolifera­tion of movie theatres that a world record of movie seats per capita was claimed. But the relatively lax hand in the Cooks, guided by a quieter civil service smugness, also applied to the provision of services, the develop­ment of the economy, medical care, education. Resident commissioners who supported Cook Island attempts at self-reliance were the exception. Most of the ruling class, idling away their postings in their starched walkshort precursors, were content to blame the laziness of the native for any shortcomings in New Zealand’s rule.

Cook Islanders had a different per­spective. Jane Tararo, a Mauke ariki, or chief, spoke for many in the post­war Cooks. “Everything we ask for here, we ask because as Cook Island­ers we deem it to be important. These things we are not given. Everything that seems to us untimely and expen­sive, we are given, whether we want it or not.”

It’s still happening. Australia gave a twin-engined ambulance launch for Penryhn that the health authorities could never have afforded to run. The engines chew $300 worth of gas for a return journey across the atoll that costs $50 with an outboard on a perfectly adequate dinghy. So while Penryhn islanders must fill the split tyres of their tractor with concrete, and clinics go without running wa­ter, a $40,000 boat lies idle.

Tou Tavake (foreground) sits an engineering examination at Tereora College, the largest secondary school in Rarotonga.
Tou Tavake (foreground) sits an engineering examination at Tereora College, the largest secondary school in Rarotonga.

It is now 26 years since independ­ence, and on Raro, at least, there are few visible scars left from moribund earlier times. Returning to Raro from any of the outer islands is to encoun­ter traffic noise, a bustling of folk on their way to somewhere—a sense of optimism. Although New Zealand tourists make up half the volume of visitors, the downturn in New Zea­land has had little effect on hotel occupancy.

The tourism-fuelled prosperity has its price, though. The president of the Cook Islands Christian Church, Reverend Tekere Pereeti, is one con­cerned: “Many of these hotels and businesses are outside owned . . . the milk is drained away. The local peo­ple are employed, but their wages are a very limited amount of money. The people are encouraged to work for money and leave the land barren—to stop toiling the fields. The worker in the hotel can dress in the style of the tourist, and people are attracted to that. They don’t realise that the land is their treasure.

“In the northern group they are very strong in the church, but in Rarotonga . . . When tourists come, they bathe on Sunday, and now the local people follow that, too.”

I want to know why it’s wrong to swim on Sunday. “Our country is very small, so we must put our trust in God to protect our very small coun­try. That’s why we put aside this Sun­day. People are losing this respect.”

I want to know why it’s wrong to swim on Sunday. “Our country is very small, so we must put our trust in God to protect our very small coun­try. That’s why we put aside this Sun­day. People are losing this respect.”

The introduction of a full-scale cash economy is bringing other change. Jazzercise has hit Raro. The prevailing dress style is now pony­tails with fluoro bobbles, leotards, designer sweatshirts. Apres-planta­tion chic is no match for the apres­aerobics new-corner. There’s a new word in the language—”puppies”: Polynesian urban professionals. Up­ward mobility is in.

Dr Roro Daniel is one of the young educated who aren’t sure about the worth of these changes. “These peo­ple go to jazzercise and pay $6 an hour for the privilege, then they go home and pay some more for a can of food from New Zealand. My parents never worked for money, and they could look after 14 kids. Now, I’m paid a salary, but we can’t afford to have another child, and we’ve only got three.”

Others talk of Raro becoming a bellhop society pulled further away from its cultural foundations by over­heated expectations massaged by contact with the unreal tourist life­style.

But the eventually inevitable tour­ism-induced corruption of spirit—the glass eye, the filtered smile, a new flashiness—is only a price to those who don’t have to pay it, and it’s a lesser price than continued exodus to New Zealand.

Images of simple village life, with sweet villagers giving their all to the passer-by, may be picturesque, but the Cook Islands is under no obligation to be picturesque. Instead, Rarotongans feel an obligation to earn a reasonable living, to join the last decade of the 20th century. Tourism is the entrance fee.

“The gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life…” The Cook Islands embraced Christianity in the early 1800s and have remained devout ever since. The principal denomination is the the Cook Islands Christian Church (CICC), represented in Mauke, as elsewhere, by large whitewashed plaster building with Gothic doors and windows. Each year the islands celebrate Gospel Day, commemorating the landing of missionary John WIlliams on Aitutaki in October 1821. Events on the day include choir and marching competitions and performances of nuku, religious plays.

For all that, the impact of 35,000 tourists each year has yet to ruin Raro. Traditional goodwill towards the visitor survives intact. There is just about always genuine interest in who you are. Walk anywhere and people will call you over, with a twist of the hand. How do you like our island? Where do you come from? Ah, I lived in Mt Roskill for four years. Too fast for me. Given the throng of open­mouthed papa’a strolling the island at any moment in shorts and boatshoes, this level of interest is both reassuring and sad.

It is gratifying to be welcomed so graciously, but the energy of this wel­come—and the inherent trust—is about an investment in human rela­tionships that in a tourist context is seldom repaid—or understood.

Cook Islanders still respond to itinerant and sometimes unseeing tourists as if they were neighbours or family—not necessarily because the visitor engages special interest or be­cause they’re being generous, but because that is the cultural obligation. Relations on a small island are inti­mate, and the intimacy is extended by pleasant reflex to the visitor.

One Kiwi tourist raved to me about the generosity of a family he stayed with. “They put me up. They fed me. They took me out. Nothing was too much. They didn’t ask for anything!” He was genuinely touched by what in his terms was unusual kindness.

But in Cook Island terms, giving isn’t solely about generosity; it’s about establishing an obligation that you know will be reciprocated in the future. I’ll look after your family to­day, so you’ll look after mine tomor­row. Rarotongans involved in the tourist trade, while still warm and welcoming, have learned to ration the reflex. Most others have yet to learn the necessary lesson. This is how tourism is extractive of human spirit.

Jesus arrives in Jerusalem by truck during a nuku practice in Rarotonga.
Jesus arrives in Jerusalem by truck during a nuku practice in Rarotonga.

There is a surprising absence of bitterness on the part of people with very little who, being human, must aspire to the comfort and excitement of the artificial tourist bubble that they daily witness and attend upon.

Nursing a Coke all night in a local bar while the tourist guzzles a week’s wages worth of cocktails; walking in the rain while they zip by in flash rentals; seeing them spend up large on presents to take back to prosper­ous far-off lands—add all the ostenta­tion and advantage together and it’s a bitter pill to swallow, surely?

Apii McKinley answers: “Oh yes, but we have more than the tourist has. We have the right to live here, the right to own a piece of land for ever and not pay a penny for it. To say, ‘This is my land,’ every step I take.”

This self-confidence is one reason why, in the Cooks, there is not the zeal of the New Zealand Maori ren­aissance—whose sometimes off‑putting touchiness is more about powerlessness than anything else.

The Cooks already have at least part of what New Zealand Maori want: their own land, language and, as far as ever is possible, control of their own destiny. Cook Islanders do not need to underline anything by the tone of demand.

In this way, a stay on the Cooks gives some glimpse of what New Zea­land might have been like had pakeha settlement not so assiduously stripped Maori of land—the founda­tion of all prosperity and its accom­panying tranquillity. (The vaunted spurning by New Zealand Maori of matters material is a strategy chosen by all minorities who don’t actually have the choice.)

For all that, ownership of land in the Cooks is a sore point. Although foreign ownership of land is prohib­ited, actual possession of land for some Cook Island Maori is a dream made distant by the 99-year leases—sometimes for a shilling a year with­out review—that were a feature of New Zealand rule. Many Cook Is­landers sit unwillingly in New Zea­land while, back in Raro, foreign-owned businesses, once a year, post off that shilling.

Protected from the searing tropical sun by individual coconut frond shade houses, young cabbages are growing healthily in Mauke's rich volcanic soil.
Protected from the searing tropical sun by individual coconut frond shade houses, young cabbages are growing healthily in Mauke’s rich volcanic soil.

There is another, darker side to Cook Island equanimity. It’s to do with a quiet stealing of pride man­aged by more than a hundred years of papa’a domination.

Apii expands: “There is a feeling of inferiority. People will feel their English is not so good. They will defer to the papa’a. Perhaps it’s not knowing how to run a business as efficiently as Joe the Kiwi up the road. Some feel that all papa’a must be millionaires.”

George Koteka, the Principal Medical Officer, adds: “You know, I got caned a lot of times for speaking Maori in school. You’d be playing marbles—cheating away there—and the teachers’d come up: ‘Eh! You’re speaking Maori!’—and they’d cane you!”

As with New Zealand Maori, the early learning of English was the ex­pression of a then confident culture seeking to absorb the new. It is not well known that New Zealand Maori parents petitioned to have their chil­dren punished for speaking their mother tongue in schools.

Makuiti Tongia, director of the National Museum, puts it this way: “When two cultures get together, the weaker one imitates the more power­ful . . . but this has generated a sense of dependency, a loss of power, and it’ll take some time before the loss is even realised.”

With the imitation has come repu­diation of self. An early Pukapuka chant graphically illustrates how:

“I sit at the feet of God, Bright are my beautiful clothes.

I gaze into the fires of Hell, Where sharks, rats and heathens are writhing in the flames.”

The heathens were family. Pre-Christian times are still wiped from the mind as an age of great darkness; the coming of the Gospel is an impor­tant public holiday throughout the Cooks. Notwithstanding the bestial­ity of Christian Europe, no amount of ethnic context could explain away the cannibalism and near constant warring of the pre-Christian Cooks as involving anything but darkness. Christianity brought peace, but it also attempted to expunge all traces of former ways. Those carvings not shipped back to London were de­stroyed. Tattooing was outlawed; kava ceremonies banned. Samoans, with a larger, more concentrated population, successfully resisted like missionary efforts on their islands, but the Cooks, divided into small population groups, were easily swayed.


Skilled hands make pandanus products in a Mauke craft collective (top) while two women show off their floral-print tivaevae (decorative cloths) at a craft display (bottom).
Skilled hands make pandanus products in a Mauke craft collective (top) while two women show off their floral-print tivaevae (decorative cloths) at a craft display (bottom).


Makuiti Tongia has a museum without carvings, save for those he’s now commissioning. Another who’s trying to rebuild the past by freshly carving old gods is Michael Tavioni. “I think the New Zealand Maori are luckier than us. They could hide their things, keep their things. The mis­sionaries influenced us a great deal, and we have lost our artefacts be­cause of this. People here think cul­ture is dancing, but that is only a minor part.

“You know, when I see a Samoan kava ceremony, I’m jealous. I see their tattoo and I’m jealous, because I don’t even know what ours looked like. What’s done is done, and all we can do now is pick up the pieces, but how? How can you do this when you don’t know what you have lost?

“We look at power and progress in terms of Western values, but for how long can we ride this tourist thing—until some whim overseas decides otherwise? If we keep going, we’ll end up like New Zealand, believing this is the only kind of happiness. Traditional values? It doesn’t matter what happens to the world economy—we can always live from our sea and our land. Traditional life is very stable. That is power.”

The Cooks doesn’t have full independence, but is bound to New Zealand constitutionally in a way that guarantees freedom of entry. Although the relationship for the Cooks is perfectly volun­tary, this status of semi-inde­pendence prevents the Cooks from getting preferential Euro­pean Community assistance—this at time when New Zealand is cutting back aid, ostensibly be­cause of the relative prosperity of the islands. In reality, it is only Raro that is prospering, and when the aid is dropped it will be the outer islands who will suffer.

Already, schools are being hit hard by budget cuts. A visit to Mitiaro—with a population of 300, the smallest of the southern group—confirms the abject state of school resources. Mitiaro’s school, which caters for new entrants up to intermediate age, has a single atlas (an ancient Dutch edition), a single world map (which has been patched together so many times it is hard to distinguish the tears from the countries) and a set of 1950s Funk and Wagnall encyclopedias which are described by Canadian social studies teacher Leroy Wayne as “a joke.”

“I just burned two boxes of irrelevant, out of date books sent by your government,” he says. “How am I supposed to teach these children about their place in the world when I can’t even show them what the world is like?”

The traditional New Zealand policy of benign neglect toward Pacific islands received a shake­up following the ANZUS rift and the Rainbow Warrior affair. Then, French efforts to win favour with the near neighbour of Tahiti and Mururoa saw fears that New Zea­land was losing the Cooks to the French. Certainly, islanders, many of whom have blood ties with Tahiti, cast envious eyes at the level of assistance France gives to agricul­ture there.

The French have staged a highly visible presence in the Cooks. Their aid has been in the form of practical assistance, and not cash grants. New Zealand, giving $14 million a year in aid, remains the principal donor, fol­lowed by Australia with about $1 million.

While children clamour for piu piu (video games) in Rarotonga, simpler amusements are at hand on Mangaia, the southernmost island in the Cooks group (below).
While children clamour for piu piu (video games) in Rarotonga, simpler amusements are at hand on Mangaia, the southernmost island in the Cooks group (below).

But bald aid figures are deceptive. Dick Chapman, a Cooks economist, explains: “What’s overlooked is what the Cooks gives back to New Zealand. Trade with us generates $21 million of tax for the New Zealand govern­ment, let alone the value of the jobs in New Zealand . We also spend a lot on employing New Zealand expatriates. Fifteen thousand New Zealand tour­ists visit here instead of outside the New Zealand currency area. In all, we calculate we’re worth $70 million dollars annually to the New Zealand economy.”

In this context, aid can be seen as simply a premium for securing trad­ing influence. A more intangible re­turn is the obligation placed on the recipient. While France paraded vari­ous Cook Island politicians through Mururoa, New Zealand is generally respected for its hands-off attitude toward the direction of Cook Island affairs, both foreign and internal.

Despite the odd posturing call from politicians, there is little desire to sever links with New Zealand. With more Cook Islanders living in New Zealand than in the Cooks, the issue of free access remains the deter­mining factor.

But free access is no life-line. As with other island nations that enjoy the same relationship, free access has tended to steal away the talented and innovative. People with half an eye on an escape route to paradise have a low tolerance for frustration. When frustration is always an important goad for change and growth, the prob­lem is a critical one.

In some ways, high unemploy­ment in New Zealand and the six-month stand-down for the dole have already benefited the Cooks. People are staying on, or they’re returning and bringing fresh energies to bear on old problems.

Rarotonga, at least, enjoys one of the more go-ahead economies of similarly-placed Pacific islands. Many Rarotongans own successful busi­nesses, and development strategies on the island appear to be working.

Work has resumed on a $70 mil­lion Sheraton complex some see as necessary to add a new class of high-spending tourist to the low-budget mainstay. Although the Sheraton will conform to the planning edict that no building be taller than a coconut tree, others believe the project to be an expensive folly that will speed the destruction of Raro’s special flavour.


The Cooks’ future as a major off­shore banking haven seems assured. This year the country was approved by Hong Kong authorities as an alternative offshore domicile for Hong Kong listed companies. These com­panies will now be able to incorpo­rate in Raro but still work within the Hong Kong stock exchange laws. Only two other offshores have been granted this privilege, neither of them in the Pacific.

There is a small manufacturing sector that, until recently, was boosted by clothing operations estab­lished by New Zealand companies. One Australian expatriate, John Abbott, is scathing about the condi­tions that Cook Islanders were ex­pected to work under.

“The clothing manufacturers from New Zealand came here and set up literal sweatshops in overcrowded tin sheds. No incentives, no amenities, and the workers got paid a pittance. They gave work to people who didn’t have any, but they exploited them. Then they moved on.”

The Cooks could do with more of John’s calibre—so could New Zea­land, if it came to that. He runs a cosmetics factory that exports $300,000 a year from sales of $750,000, but it is his management philosophy that impresses.

“The first thing any manager should do is look after his workers, and any European coming here, well, that becomes a special obligation. I want to make this a model factory, a pleasant environment.”

He’s built a swimming pool for the staff. “It gets really hot here, and they can have a little dip. They’ll feel re­freshed, and work better for it. If you give people incentives, they’ll reward you. Greed is rewarded by greed.

“One of the objectives, I think, is to keep the money here in the Cooks, and to produce as much as possible from the raw and natural materials available. We use a 100-year-old soap press. Why? It does the job, and it employs people. If you do it with heavy investment, in a sophisticated US of A style, then you’re back in the big city, arntcha.” Among other em­ployers, John’s management philoso­phy is not spectacularly popular.

The principal area of foreign in­vestment is in tourism, and the no­tion of owning a south seas lodge has sprinkled the island with some inter­esting folk.

David Gragg, an erstwhile oil well salesman, is one claimed by Raro. “I’ve bin ten years here. I had a through ticket to New Zealand—I’d never heard of Raro. I got off that plane and never got back on. I still got the ticket … they won’t pay up on it!”

David’s Paradise Inn, a converted dance theatre, is rapidly acquiring a special reputation. A guest notice explains the odd idiosyncracies thus: “If you are on the east side of Paradise you’ll see through the trellis Ngati’s house. Sometimes they come home late singing. Sometimes they get up very early to go fishing. In any event, they will wake you up, so you may as well go fishing with them, just ask them. If that doesn’t wake you, then I’m sure the roosters will. Try to think of it as cultural experience.”

David and his staff are no greasing moteliers—no-one on the Cooks is—but the Paradise housemaids rule the place like strict aunties, with a bril­liant line in invective: “Another bloody journalist who knows noth­ing about the Cooks, eh? Well, don’t believe what he tells you . . .” says Tina, motioning to David—who has been steadily eavesdropping. Says David, straight-faced: “How many times do I have to tell you to stop talking to the goddam guests.” The Cleesian free-for-all is a welcome tonic to those suffering plastic poi­soning.

David never tires of answering the phone with a dry “Paradise here.” He believes it is one. “Sure, there are hassles, but what’s a hassle? There are hassles, and then there are has­sles . . . okay, have we got that straight? The problem will come if people stop being happy about tour­ism. Then it’ll become like Tahiti—the first thing that goes are the taxi-drivers, and then this place’ll be ruled by greed and fear, the same as any­where.”

A client may ask for a "cut and polish", he probably isn't expecting a car-wash brush sweeping his crown. But what could be softer asks Rarotonga's open-air barber Miringa Vaevaeongo.
A client may ask for a “cut and polish”, he probably isn’t expecting a car-wash brush sweeping his crown. But what could be softer asks Rarotonga’s open-air barber Miringa Vaevaeongo.

Another refugee is Bob Healy. Gaunt, unshaven and slopping around in tattered clothing, he is for all the world an old-hand beach­comber. But he isn’t—he arrived just this year from New York. He worked there for 20 years as an inland rev­enue inspector—not cos he liked tax, you unnerstand, but because of the pension, right? Every holiday, he and his wife would spend looking for their retirement island.

I wonder if it isn’t a little quiet in Raro: “Nu Yoick! Dere’s more to do here! In Nu Yoick it’s too dangerous to go out; it’s too dangerous to stay home! Ya stay home, wid allya locks on da door til it’s time to go back to woick. I’m on da fourth floor, right? Da lobby’s locked, security’s dere, everybody’s got three locks on dere door and still ya broken into.

“All my life I’ve lived in a cold climate and I really hated it! Now I’m my own bwoss . . . have I been wait­ing for dis day! Wid all da foliage around it gives you da feeling you all alone in da jungle. I kinda like that.”

Bob’s wife is due out shortly. In the mean time she sends an ever-growing file of newspaper clippings that tell of rapine and chaos: garbage strikes, new murder records. The tax inspector on early retirement gives them pride of place on his noticeboard.

Raro is relatively violence-free. Even in the crowded Banana Court bar there is none of the shoulder-swaggering vibe of many New Zea­land bars, where any minute you ex­pect What you looking at, pal? fol­lowed by a flurry of fists.

The greatest risk in the Cooks is having a sweaty arm thrown over your shoulders and being intermina­bly buttonholed by a drunk whose incoherence is generally exceeded only by the repetitive loquacity of the orations—orations that very seldom turn sour.

Problem kids sent back from New Zealand by worried parents have in­troduced a very pale imitation of street kid credo. Hanging out for too long at the piu piu parlour is about the extent of the problem. (Piu piu is Maori onomatopoeia for video ma­chines.)

Video violence, particularly de­picted sexual violence, is seen as one reason for the few serious crimes that have begun occurring. One attempted rape that would not rate a mention in New Zealand was answered with fierce public condemnation culmi­nating in the Prime Minister, Geoffery Henry, leading a march against male violence.

It was television coverage of the attempted rape that helped generate the outcry. The Cooks is developing a healthy questioning press that is one of the more outspoken in the Pacific. The young reporters tackle issues with an energy that would shine in any New Zealand newsroom.

The station itself is a foretaste of the kind of local stations that one day will offer budget community televi­sion. Eighteen-year-old Eddie Bur­rows, as his first ever job, single-handedly directs the evening news with the nonchalance of a piu piu master. The news is read in both Maori and English. The newscaster wears flowers. The acoustic egg car­tons are out of sight.

The news is sometimes five min­utes late, and there are other hiccups. But no-one minds. The night I was there, the personal computor they use to generate titles got out of whack, mixing weather forecast details with people’s names, or keys as they’re known. While reporter Jason Brown tangles with the keyboard, Eddie calls: “For Chrissake make sure you don’t key him in as a cloudy front.”

Mangaian back yard.
Mangaian back yard.

Eddie takes a call soon after the news finishes. “It seems we had the last guy repeating what he said three times, like a scratched record . . . you  see, it was in Maori, so we didn’t know what he was saying.”

Schools are giving new em­phasis to teaching Maori, in a new syllabus that is also about achieving a viable pride in local matters. This replaces an educa­tion which concentrated on goals which had little way of being achieved in the Cooks. The bal­ance between giving expecta­tions a Cook Island focus—and unfairly confining them—has yet to be struck.

Viane Tairea’s promise to Mauke is about that island fulfilling its people’s ambitions. Mapu Taia, the principal of Mauke school, asks: “Is it a bad thing to confine their expectations to Mauke? At the moment, all they want is white-col­lar jobs, and there aren’t any. But they have been conditioned to think that.”

Deidre Carr is a New Zealand teacher at the Mauke school: “Whatever our education does, it certainly doesn’t produce farm­ers. It’s been all about getting them off the farms, and that means off the island. Agriculture is a very low status subject, but agriculture need not narrow a child’s mind. The amount of knowledge that goes into farming in New Zealand—there’s much more to it than pulling weeds.”

I visit a government plant nursery on Mauke. I want to find out what parents are telling their children. One  farmer, Tapui Akamoeau, tells me his son is in Raro, doing his last year of secondary. What does he want for his son? “I want him to go on studying and not comeback here! What’s here? Maybe to be a scientist!” On an island where, to establish a playground, children had to carry bags of soil to school to infill the jagged coral rock, higher education is a first priority.

One 15-year-old school girl, Margaret Teariki, confirms the moti­vation: “I’m trying my best at school to get a high paper. I’m thinking of being a secretary, a typist. Only the ones who don’t pass, stay. Those who pass go to Raro for better schooling, and they don’t come back.” Margaret wants to get married some day. “I prefer two sons, so they’ll be enough to look after the plan­tation.” Will the plantation be on Mauke? Maybe.

Although there is rejuve­nation on Mauke, it remains a big maybe. Certainly, where Mauke before exported no produce, I learn that it is now one of the few outer islands with an export trade, some of it to service Raro hotels. I learn that whereas other islands have lost people, more are returning to Mauke. But despite this, there are only a few full-time farmers. Most still hang on to make-work govern­ment jobs. There are only the begin begin­nings of confidence in the island’s future.

At the government nursery I talk to workers who appear to be on their tea-break. Their message is not hope­ful. They say they’d like to go full-time farming, but as Tapui Akamoeau tells me, “I might end up planting and no money coming in. This year I got two dollars a carton for capsicum from the New Zealand market. Well, the cartons cost me two dollars! That was a lot of work for nothing. I can’t leave my job with this worry.”

One success story on Mauke is the export of fragrant maire vines to Ha­waii. The hundred or so women, known as maire mamas, who fashion these ei (wreaths) get paid upon delivery. The trade returns about $350,000 a year.

Aircraft days are always special occasions on the smaller islands. On Mauke, a departing passenger breaks into dance as she waits for her flight. For most of the islands, departures exceed arrivals—a continuing pattern of emigration prompted by the search for jobs.
Aircraft days are always special occasions on the smaller islands. On Mauke, a departing passenger breaks into dance as she waits for her flight. For most of the islands, departures exceed arrivals—a continuing pattern of emigration prompted by the search for jobs.

Kura Guinea organises the Mauke end, and also admin­isters a revolving loan fund of $10,000 gifted by the Dutch. Houses on Mauke now sport small luxuries—maybe an electric fry-pan, a sewing ma­chine, a patch of lino.

Nane Oa is one mama. I find her out by the beach in a rough thatch shelter where her fami­ly’s come for the school holidays. A daughter fondles a kid goat in the shade; another kid nibbles at left­over coconut. There are cast-iron pots on a fire, clothes hung in trees.

“The children! They spend all day on the beach. They nagged us to come here for the school holidays. It’s a nice break.” Even islanders need to get away from it all—to a Crusoe ex­istence. But Nane is awaiting the ar­rival of a new $1500 Kawasaki motor scooter—paid for by the Dutch money—which she’ll repay with maire earnings.

One who has likewise found a fu­ture in Mauke—in this case encour­aged to return by Viane Tairea’s David Bellamy-style enthusiasms—is Maru Ngametua. He worked for four years as an electronics repairman in Raro.

“In Raro I had no land, or even access to plantations, but ever since I was a kid I was doing planting or fishing, and that’s never got out of me. I went to New Zealand, and all my uncles were saying `Stay!’, but there’s not enough people back here in Mauke to bring it up to standard. If there are more people like me, maybe we can do better for the island.”

Viane Tairea: “We can work to help people like Maru, who’ve been in­spired to come back. It’s such a small place, you only need half a dozen like him to make the difference.”

Maru’s wife Sue is a schoolteacher from New Zealand. Together, they have a commitment to innovation. “I’m not going to farm the way my father did. I’m going to use compost. I’m lucky my father isn’t around to work under—he’d burn the rubbish. The way we were brought up by par­ents is to enforce their way . . . there is still thinking like that. I have built a new canoe with plywood, instead of the dug-out, and everybody asks, `So, it’s not leaking, then?”

Trapped or free? Many outer islanders feel that traditional patterns of life—fishing, planting taro, raising pigs—are a dead end, and jump at the chance to travel to Raro. Even here, the opportunities are limited, and Rarotonga is often just a stopover on the journey to New Zealand or Australia. Young people like Rahui Pupuke (left) and William Marsters (right) of Rarotonga may well face a jobless future, whichever option they take.
Trapped or free? Many outer islanders feel that traditional patterns of life—fishing, planting taro, raising pigs—are a dead end, and jump at the chance to travel to Raro. Even here, the opportunities are limited, and Rarotonga is often just a stopover on the journey to New Zealand or Australia. Young people like Rahui Pupuke (left) and William Marsters (right) of Rarotonga may well face a jobless future, whichever option they take.

I learn from Maru about fishing. “You don’t just sit out there, you know. You have to paddle against the current and wind to keep over the line, maintain the correct depth. One  hundred fathoms is about the average depth.

“For ground-bait you use coconut, a fish-head and a rock. You wrap this up in leaves, and tie it to the line, so that with a good tug the leaves will fold out, releasing the ground-bait. The rock’s there so you’ve got some­thing to tug on. If the species you want is at 80 fathoms, you release the bait at 70 fathoms, and pay out your line so that it follows the bait when it sinks.”

When a strike comes, fishermen must be quick to toss the bulk of the line out of the tight confines of the canoe. Maru is experimenting with a winding mechanism. “You can see the line spinning in the water like an engine. One fish once towed me away from the island for an hour. I could only just see Mauke, and there was a chop and an offshore breeze. Another fisherman came to help me, and we got that fish, killed it. It was a tuna the size of a pig.”

Big fish—ones that don’t fit into the canoe—are tied to the outriggers. Outriggers don’t so much provide flo­tation as a counter-weight to help with balance. Handling 80 kilograms of fighting tuna in a swell in these tiny canoes is one of the great feats of seamanship.

Fishermen generally work in groups. “Before, everybody divided up the fish equally between every­body. They still do this on Mangaia, but now, with fridges and freezers, there is no need to divide. People can keep their catch fresh, so they don’t have to give it away. You give some fish to your mate, but it’s not like before.”

On these islands a version of the kava ceremony still survives. In Atiu, men gather in bush huts around hol­lowed tree stumps (or more usually, these days, plastic kegs) of bush beer, made from oranges. At these tumunu a cup is passed with ritual around the group. There is formal oration and prayer.

Tumunu were forced into the bush through being outlawed, just as kava had been be­fore them. Now, although perfectly legal, the bush location remains.

On Mauke, the drink­ing club has moved back into the village, but strict rituals remain. The Mauke doctor, Archie Guinea, ex­plains. “Before you go to drink, you must have food and firewood for your fam­ily. If you don’t look after your family, or you misbe­have, they’ll suspend you for a month.”

Archie, a Scots bear of a man, with his wife Kura, runs one of the island’s two guesthouses. These, and small guesthouses on other outer islands, are the overlooked Cooks tourist destinations. Staying there, you become the guest of the whole island, which, in turn, benefits di­rectly from your money. Stock-still silence should be worth gold.

For Mitiaro youngsters Matapakea Aurupa (left) and Ngatokutoru Ngaiorae, the big questions are still years away. For now, life's a flapping, snapping turtle.
For Mitiaro youngsters Matapakea Aurupa (left) and Ngatokutoru Ngaiorae, the big questions are still years away. For now, life’s a flapping, snapping turtle.

Archie enjoys his guests. “We get some strange ones . . . people think­ing we’ve still got bones in our noses. They bring little bottles of iodine to dab in our sores, teach us scripture. They come with a holier-than-thou attitude—`I’m going to paradise, and you’re going to number four boiler’—that kind of thing.

“The experts . .. People come here for three days and publish a report the size of a telephone directory. Shouldn’t you be doing it this way,  that way, or how about this other way? They say so much money’s been given to the Cooks, but these people give it to themselves for preparing these reports.

“Video is the big change. It’s en­larged the island database—much of it information of dubious character, but it’s better than before. When I first came here eight years ago it didn’t take me long to realise that people didn’t have the slightest idea of what was a sheep or a train—far less what’s a micro-organism. I used to show films about everything and anything, and the people’d soak it up like a sponge. You see, when specialists spout their ruddy clutter of advice, the people here have nothing to judge it by.”

On the flight back to Raro I stop at Atiu and renew a friendship with Roger Malcolm, owner of the Atiu guesthouse. I chance my arm with a theory, my own clutter of advice.

“Why is it that the government pays planters $4600 a year for make-work when this money could be used to provide price support, so that peo­ple could go back to the land full-time, with confidence. If New Zea­land is going to cut out budgetary assistance completely, they’d better replace it with something like this.” This remark sparks some passion.

“Why don’t they? I wish I knew. All a government job does is take away eight productive hours—the growers have to fit their planting around their jobs. In Mauritius the government has subsidised crop prices—and it builds trade volume, infrastructure, develops the land, builds the confidence of a healthy economy. Even if they never remove the subsidy, they’re no worse off.

“The problem in the Cooks is that Rarotonga is doing fine, and that’s where the MPs live. They don’t experi­ence the three-day power blackouts or the droughts. Outer island means outa sight and outa mind.”

Undaunted, Atiu is now planning to revive pineapple for the Raro tourist market. They’re aiming at 50 tonnes a year, a tenth of the 1985 vol­ume. Roger, together with local shareholders, even bought a boat in readiness for the trade. It ran on to the reef last year, and was wrecked, but the islanders have replaced it.

On the plane back to Raro, I think of this determination. I think of Maukians building their own airport, and now their own irrigation dam; of children carting soil to school each day to make a playground; of Maru experimenting with compost; of the maire mamas—the patches of new lino, the electric frying pans.

Most of all I think of Nane Oa and her new Kawasaki scooter. I had made sure to be there when she got it . . . out there at the beach, away from it all. It might as well have been a BMW.