Na te aro’a e tāmā i to’ou mamae.
“Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves.”
ME TIME IMAGE**********
We can’t find balance in our relationships if there’s no balance in us. It’s like the flight attendants tell you when you get on the plane: put on your oxygen mask before you help others with theirs. You can’t fill someone else’s cup if your cup’s empty.
Caring for yourself means doing things that make your mind, body, and spirit feel good, every single day. Many of us spend our free time — our “me time” — watching TV or scrolling through Facebook or Instagram. Those things keep us busy, but do they refresh us? Do they make us feel better?
What do you do to refresh? We asked some people on the street.
Lagoon swim. — Glenda Tuaine
Gardening, trimming, weeding, potting, planting, watering. It’s so relaxing and joyful to produce beautiful results. — Rosie Blake
Going for a swim. — Augustine Kopa
Mowing lawns. Smell of fresh-cut grass and physical activity without actually exercising.— Liana Scott
Reading 30 minutes or more every day. — Geoffrey Thor
Sailing on vaka Marumaru Atua. — Alex Teariki Olah
Paddling. — Vaea Melvin
Sitting on the beach or on a paddleboard and just listening to all the magical sounds of the Cook Islands — ocean, wind, laughter, waves crashing on the reef. — Charlotte Piho
Early morning walks. Good music. Swimming. Appreciating the gifts of life. Being thankful. — Lania Tuaine Vakamoce
Picking flowers, making ‘ei katu, eating fat juicy ‘āvake in the sea. — Teina Tuatai
Climbing the peaks! When I need a moment to myself, the mountains are the only place I can really find solitude and the different perspective gives me such an appreciation of this beautiful place. — Maria Tate
Nothing like a good sweat out cleaning the yard then hitting the sea for a swim and a refreshing lemon/ginger/honey drink, feet up in a pāreu , and chill. — Maria Tuoro
Here are other tried-and-true tips:
Get outside. Soak up the sun and the healing energy of the sea.
Exercise every day. Move naturally — rake, cut the grass, stop using power tools, grow a garden, bicycle, play sport, go for walks.
Get eight hours of sleep.
Make time for friends. Spend time with positive people. Laugh.
Talk or write about what’s on your mind. Communicate with people you trust when things aren’t going well.
Learn how to meditate. Realise that you do not have to be controlled by the thoughts in your head.
Listen to or make music.
Engage in cultural activities — dancing, drumming, carving.
Play a sport.
Do something creative — draw, paint, sew, build, write, sing.
Learn something new — an instrument, a language, a craft.
Write or speak a list of your blessings every morning.
Help someone else.
Feed your mind and spirit the right stuff. The story at right says it all.
Since 2006, 23 people have died by suicide in the Cook Islands. Another 30 have attempted. If you talk to the old people, they’ll tell you this never used to happen.
Research shows that 90 per cent of people who take their lives have some kind of mental illness, most commonly depression. Where there is family violence, trauma, sexual abuse, or bullying, rates of depression and suicide increase. But depression can happen to anyone, even someone raised in a healthy environment. There are causes most of us don’t even think about, among them birth control pills that affect hormonal balance, insomnia, and even an unhealthy diet.
American researchers have found that over time young people have become more anxious and depressed. Dr. Jean Twenge, a sociologist who has done extensive work on this topic, told New York Magazine that “the research tells us that modern life is not good for mental health”.
She also said: “Obviously there’s a lot of good things about societal and technological progress and in a lot of ways our lives are much easier than, say, our grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ lives. But there’s a paradox here that we seem to have so much ease and relative economic prosperity compared to previous centuries, yet there’s this dissatisfaction, there’s this unhappiness, there are these mental health issues in terms of depression and anxiety.” She thinks it’s because people aren’t as connected to their communities and also, perhaps, because focus seems to have shifted to “money, fame, and image”, and there’s “clear evidence that people who focus on money, fame, and image are more likely to be depressed and anxious”.
We do not believe medication is the answer for everyone who’s feeling depressed. Studies have shown that the majority of people taking antidepressants have never suffered from major depressive disorder; in other words, they are taking drugs to treat normal sadness, rather than developing strategies for coping with pain and heartache. Of her experience with antidepressants, reporter Kate Eckman writes: “Has anyone not had his or her heart broken? Has anyone not suffered a professional failure? Has anyone not experienced the loss of a loved one? These things may be painful, but they are not mental illness. As I look back on that day in the doctor’s office, I want to pull my 29-year-old self aside and hug her. I want to tell her, ‘You don’t need an antidepressant; you need to find… a new boss, job, career. You need to sit in meditation 20 minutes a day, twice a day, reconnect with your spirit, and pray. You need to surrender your life to a higher power, eat healthier food, rest, connect with your friends and family in a meaningful way.’ Feeling sad, out of sorts, anxious, or depressed at times is part of what it means to be human.”
At Lokal we believe in healthy local solutions, like faith, prayer, eating healthy foods, exercising naturally, showing aro’a to all people, and engaging with the community. We also believe in the healing power of a service like professional counselling. (To learn more about how counselling is not a papa’ā concept, see our ta’unga feature on page 36).
Memory Mills lost her 16-year-old son, Tremayne Nga, to suicide in 2016. We talked to her about how she’s coping and how talking about it is the first step toward healing. Here’s what she said:
There were lots of signs. I even sat at this table and spoke to him about suicide. If you knew him you wouldn’t think anything was wrong, he just smiled, he masked everything really well. I think people have to understand that underneath all that happy there’s something else going on. Tremayne and I had spoken recently about the 13-year-old boy that took his life – we were talking about it and I don’t know, maybe talking about it pushed him to do it. I have no idea.
People say tell your kids you love them. I told Tremayne every day, ‘Son, I love you, darling,’ and honestly I’m still trying to figure out why. People say he’s from a good family, so this shouldn’t have happened. Mate, got nothing to do with that. There are just no answers, I guess.
It affects the kids, not only in the immediate family but the extended family. I’ve got five sons and one daughter — Tremayne was right in the middle. My 11-year-old was Tremayne’s shadow. He told his cousin he wanted to go and be with Tremayne, so I sent him to Australia to be with family and heal. If I’m not careful he will head down that track and I know it. I’m battling with it myself trying to figure out how I’m gonna do it but right now I’m letting God lead me. That’s all I can do. My nephew tried to take his life after Tremayne; he was very close to Tremayne. When he comes around I don’t bring it up. I try to give him hope. We talk about the future, about things to look forward to.
As I’m reading the Bible more and more and listening to others around me it just boils down to being positive, I guess – turning everything into a positive instead of dwelling on the negative. I’m still angry, very angry – I’m angry at him, we talked about this, I told him he better not. I don’t want to go up and see [his grave]. I’m just trying to channel my anger instead of killing myself or taking drugs or something. I’ve got to focus on helping someone else not to go through what we’re going through. It is hard if you’re gonna live in the past. If you’re gonna keep on dwelling on what happened, you ain’t gonna get nowhere.
I think when we use the word mental to talk about mental illness, it makes people feel like they’re mental. No one’s gonna admit they’re mental and go get help. Depression is an illness but that thought of going to mental clinic… I wouldn’t go, I’d be like, I’m not going there, I’m not mental. Kids gotta have someone to open up to, someone who’s not gonna twist it and tell them they’re mental.
I found out a week after Tremayne died that some of the students he went to school with knew that he’d tried the week before. I wanted to smack the kids who knew but didn’t tell me. Seeing them all the time is a painful reminder. You need to tell somebody. If your mate’s talking like that don’t keep it to yourself.
I know a couple who have been through this and they refuse to even acknowledge their daughter. I’m the total opposite, I’m like come on guys, we gotta get out there. We gotta teach these young people that there are other avenues to take. I know Raros tend to, once it’s done, brush it under the carpet. I have a different attitude: We need to bring it out. Okay, so everyone deals with it in their own way but guys, we got to look out for our future. We got other kids and we don’t want this happening to them.
It matters, the type of music you listen to and what you do on the internet. The worst thing I ever did was let Tremayne on social media. The crap kids put on there these days, it’s unbelievable. And they’re mean. When kids are here at our house they’re only allowed an hour a day on technology and the rest of the day, they’ve gotta go and look for something to do outside. I don’t want alcohol, smoking, maybe just movie nights, ping pong, but in this house no one is to go on their freaking phones. It’s making them depressed. The crap on the internet is so depressing.
We need to get the locals talking. Stop bitching about each other and gossiping about each other and tearing each other down and work together. Be positive. We’ve all got to be around people who are positive. Life’s too short to be negative. I’m not a psychologist but I feel there are a lot of kids out there – a lot – that are not getting love from their parents and are being affected by mental and verbal and physical abuse. There are counsellors at school but the kids tell me they’re worried about their conversations leaking out. I want to create a little haven for kids where they can feel comfortable to come. That’s my vision. I want parents out there to wake up, parents who don’t know what their kids are feeling. Sometimes kids just wanna vent, you know? And as parents maybe we can help someone else’s kid; sometimes kids don’t listen to their parents but they listen to someone else.
IF YOU’RE HAVING THOUGHTS OF SUICIDE, REMEMBER:
Your pain is real and it does matter. There are ways to deal with it.
This too shall pass. You will feel okay again. Life is about cycles; there is no joy without pain and no rainbow without rain.
Suicide deeply wounds the people left behind. Your family and friends will struggle with feelings of guilt, grief, self-blame, anger, and helplessness. They may become depressed or suicidal themselves.
There is no shame in getting help. We all need support. There are counselling services available on Rarotonga or, if you feel more comfortable talking to someone over the phone, call:
With support from Bluesky Cook Islands, Youthline NZ offers a free counselling service to people in the Cook Islands. If you’re feeling depressed, you can call for free 24/7 and speak to someone in New Zealand who can help you talk through what you’re feeling. All conversations are confidential.
IF SOMEONE IS TALKING TO YOU ABOUT SUICIDE:
Take it seriously. Honour the courage it took for this person to talk to you.
Listen without judging. Don’t pretend to understand. Don’t act like the person’s problems are small; for him or her, the pain is real. Sometimes talking to a suicidal person can feel like talking to a brick wall, but messages of love and support will matter in the end. Tell an adult you trust or call 0800HELP.
Following the deaths of several teenagers by suicide, Cook Islands National Youth Council (CINYC) ran a campaign on social media to remind young people that their struggles matter and their voices are important. The council also organised a theatre competition, in which young people performed in plays about their problems at the National Auditorium. CINYC President Sieni Tiraa says that addressing suicide means paying attention to, and empowering, young people.
“We’re raised to respect our elders and do as we’re told and sometimes our opinion as a young person doesn’t really matter,” she says. “I’ve lived in many different regions of the world that really encourage independent thinking and create safe avenues to support young ones who want to reach out and speak out, whereas that’s not really the case here, and this was highlighted in a lot of the messages through the performances.”
Brain scientists have compared screens—TV, iPads, smartphones, and Xboxes—to cocaine. Research shows this technology affects the brain the same way addictive drugs do, releasing chemicals that make you crave more. Like heroin addicts, people dread quitting technology because with it come withdrawal symptoms. Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, who specialises in addiction, told the New York Post that it’s easier to treat heroin addicts than video gamers or Facebook addicts.
Constant exposure to screens limits our ability to focus. Some research even shows that sleeping too close to a smartphone has damaging effects on the brain.
In the 21st century, we know how to use electronics but we understand less and less how to communicate with people and connect with ourselves and the world around us.
A healthy childhood involves creativity, interaction with other people, and time in nature. Instead of drawing, reading, climbing trees and building forts, kids today spend their time blowing up digital enemies, watching violent movies, and keeping tabs on other people’s manufactured lives through social media. For a lot of them, everything off the screen is boring. The world is now full of technology-dependent children, who learn about friendship through Facebook, sex through pornography, and relationships through movies.
Scientists have definitively linked screen addiction to depression, anxiety, and obesity. It’s why the people who work in technology design, like Apple’s founder Steve Jobs, send their own kids to schools that don’t use technology. A book about screen addiction called Irresistible quotes rapper Biggie Smalls when referring to technology developers: These guys know not to get high on their own supply.
The internet and social media are incredible, powerful technologies—they connect us to people and ideas from all over the world. But like anything else, they’re best used in moderation.
The first time her husband hit her, Vaine Toa* put the kids in the car and drove to the police station. He’d come home drunk, convinced she’d been cheating on him, even though she’d been home all night.
She drove to the police station and he followed. He greeted the officer on duty and they started chatting. She said nothing. She returned home with her husband.
They’d married when she was 21. He was well-muscled, athletic, always making people laugh. Everyone loved him.
She grew up with a father who didn’t pay much attention to her; he was troubled, beat up her mum, numbed his pain with vodka. She mistook her new husband’s possessiveness for love.
When she made eye contact with another man he would punch that man in the head.
“I took that as woah, I’m really special to him,” she says now, a decade after leaving him.
Years later she would tell her mum and aunties she was afraid of him and they would tell her sometimes, men just have to blow off some steam.
“They just had that old-school island mentality,” she recalls. “They thought the whole island would judge the whole family because I had a broken relationship… I felt that deeply. That was supposed to be my support network. If you don’t have a strong support network—man. On a small island, you’re so trapped.”
One in three women in the Cook Islands has reported being abused, and plenty more just haven’t called the cops. Abuse happens to people of all genders and in all kinds of relationships—women abuse women, women abuse men, men abuse men, adults abuse children—but according to Cook Islands Police records, 97 per cent of domestic cases involve men abusing women. I have talked to men who were wrongly charged for abuse their partners inflicted and laughed at by law enforcement for reporting it. This story will refer mostly to male abusers, but abusive patterns are the same no matter the gender of the person creating them.
Researchers have different theories about why rates of family violence are high in the Pacific Islands. Some blame an aggressive warrior culture. Others point out that Māori historian Te Rangi Hiroa wrote, after spending time on Tongareva in 1932, that in island societies it was “strictly against custom” for men to be physically violent with women. Other scholars say the violence toward women was introduced. Wherever it came from, it’s safe to say colonisation made things worse. Statistics show that rates of family violence are higher among colonised people; for example, among Aboriginal people in Australia, Native Americans in the United States, and Māori in Aotearoa. An accepted theory is that the coloniser robbed men of their dignity and self-worth, and that in order to remain powerful many tried to control what they could: their women and children. Many scholars point out that the colonisers modelled violence and a male-centred worldview in a place that had long respected its women. Others blame today’s media—movies, video games, music, pornography—for making violence normal. Perhaps all of the theories are true to some degree.
Tiare Mātūtū*, a Ngatangiia woman whose ex-husband abused her for decades, believes violence in the home is a modern problem.
“I grew up with my grandparents and a whole lot of old people, and I never saw that kind of thing,” she told me. “They were always happy and if they weren’t happy they weren’t angry the way people are angry today. They talked it over, got together to fix it. I really believe the extended family made a difference, too —you just don’t have that extended family support anymore. In the Cook Islands, especially in Rarotonga, we’ve forgotten what family really is. We’ve become caught up in our own lives, chasing the dollar, and we’ve forgotten how a family used to work. When I was growing up I saw that togetherness, that unity. Everybody plants together, everybody helps themselves to the food on everybody else’s trees.”
Wherever the violence came from, it’s here. Sergeant Paraia Vainerere wrote in an unpublished report that “domestic violence is a more or less normalised part of life for many Cook Islanders”.
The cycle is in motion. Witnessing violence affects the chemistry of our brains and our behaviour; when we grow up around abuse, we usually end up repeating it. A man in his fifties told me he hated the way his father had abused his mother. Over the years he’s hit his wife, called her ugly, and broken one of her bones. A young mother in an abusive relationship shrugged and said: “Dad did it to Mum. It’s normal.”
Abuse, and especially the abuse of women, is a problem all over the world. People who abuse their families come from all classes, races, professions, nations, and religions. Research shows they don’t fit a certain mould; they’re broody and cheerful, poor and rich, religious and atheist, shy and outgoing. They don’t all drink. They have one thing in common: they believe that violently attacking someone, whether with words or with fists, is an acceptable way to deal with stress or anger. They believe it because they’ve learnt it.
They’ve learnt it from male authority figures, movies, and songs; they’ve been taught that by attacking someone else you can get what you want, and they may have seen it work.
A lot of abusive people have old wounds they never dealt with, such as sexual abuse or neglect by their parents in childhood. Hurt people hurt people.
“When you talk to these people, a lot of them feel worthless,” says Rebeka Buchanan, a counsellor at Punanga Tauturu who sometimes works for free and has taken women into her own home. “Some of that came from someone telling them they are useless. Puapinga kore. Their feelings are affecting their relationships. No matter what they do, they’re always angry, and they take it out on the person in front of them. We try to get to the root of those past issues – it takes brainwork and energy to stop and say yeah, what’s going on? Why am I so angry?”
A counsellor’s job is to help people work through past hurts and understand why they abuse or tolerate abuse. This is not a modern practice. Ta’unga had always asked patients to talk about their lives and childhoods, then listened for the root cause of the spiritual, mental, or physical imbalance they were treating.
“I’m merely a substitute for those ancient people,” says Sheldon Ramer, an American therapist who works with victims and offenders referred by Punanga Tauturu on the veranda of his Titikaveka home. He talks to people about God and honour. He won’t work with abusers who haven’t been sentenced yet; too many of them just want him to write a glowing report. Ramer stresses the need for men’s programmes; the danger of focussing only on victims, he says, is forgetting that abusers need healing. Locking them up isn’t teaching them any real, profound lessons; often, it’s just making them angrier.
Mark Henderson, a Kiwi therapist who works out of Avarua, agrees. He points out that seeing the male as the bad person can be problematic; often there’s hurt going back and forth. He approaches abusers as people who need healing. He wants to see men holding other men accountable, encouraging one another.
“That’s something we see women doing and I think we envy that,” he says. “I think it’s a natural human need, one that’s not being met for men. Because of this I think men often put pressure on women to provide all the emotional support – without knowing it, they’re being demanding. [As men] we need to be able to form intimate relationships with each other, to talk with each other about personal issues, but where do we learn to do that? Ideally we’d be observing it and learning from our fathers, uncles, grandfathers, and older male adults around us. Sadly it’s a missing part of many male developmental experiences globally.”
Henderson wants to help his abusive clients understand that they’re not monsters; they’ve just picked up a destructive behaviour, the way alcoholics pick up drinking, and they have the power to change it, if they’re willing to do some emotional work.
Both Ramer and Henderson have seen clients make big changes. They’ve also been struck by the spiritual awareness of the people they work with here.
“I’ve found the work with Cook Islanders to be profound,” Henderson says. “Their ability to connect with spirit so naturally, for me, has been inspiring and a privilege to witness. Europeans often get stuck in their heads – we lead with our heads. I find that to be very different with Pacific people generally and that allows for a broader and deeper whole other dimension of understanding, integration, and healing to take effect.”
Help for abusive people is available, but funding for support services is spotty and the stream of clients is steady. Staff at Punanga Tauturu have selflessly donated time and resources, but like the police, they can’t solve the problem on their own.
Sergeant Sharon Kareroa, 29, handles the Domestic Violence Unit pretty much by herself, though she has supervisors and mentors and officers to dispatch. She works in a little office at the front of the Avarua station with a bookshelf and a couch; here she makes sure victim statements are done correctly and signed — cases have been dismissed because they weren’t signed — and each week she visits the homes of repeat offenders to remind victims they aren’t alone and abusers that breaking the law has consequences.
Domestic violence is one of the most commonly reported crimes in the Cook Islands, behind theft and motor vehicle accidents. Kareroa has a lot of houses to visit. She also has another mission: to change the way people see the police responding to domestic violence. She helped some other officers put together a training manual to educate the police about why it’s important to conduct interviews in a private room, for example, or to avoid asking insensitive questions.
Kareroa is aware that most survivors of domestic violence have cop stories – cops turning up and giving an abuser a lift to his mum’s house down the road, cops warning women not to file charges, cops asking victims questions about what they did to deserve it. Women all over the world can tell these kinds of stories. Kareroa is also aware of court stories – lawyers telling the court a victim deserved what she got, JPs issuing only warnings, interrogators making a woman feel like it wasn’t rape because her husband did it. Women all over the world can tell these kinds of stories. There are also the administrative challenges; most cases are adjourned, sometimes five times, so before an offender appears for sentencing, he’s free to punish the woman who reported him. Sometimes the police will enforce the No-Drop Policy, which forbids a woman from withdrawing charges before appearing in court, and then the offender gets let off anyway.
Both Kareroa and Police Commissioner Maara Tetava agree that police can’t reduce domestic violence on their own. They need help from leaders, politicians, teachers, and pastors. They need help from parents.
“We’re doing what we can,” Kareroa says. “But it’s just not enough.”
A community problem
Survivors of abuse tell stories about reaching out for support and being denied it. They talk about the family members who blamed them for picking the wrong partner or told them to be better wives. They talk about the church leaders who made them feel sinful for walking away from a violent marriage. They remember the police officers and lawyers who made them feel like they deserved what they got.
They remember feeling abandoned.
“When you get told you’re stupid and useless all the time you start to believe it,” said Jane Irinaki*, a Matavera woman whose ex-husband once beat her so violently she spent seven weeks in the hospital. “I did at one stage and that’s not a nice feeling. You need people who remind you of the truth. People don’t want to get involved; they think it’s a private domestic problem. They really do need to get involved.”
Tiare Mātūtū* thinks often about the meetings at the end of the driveway that saved her life. The first time Jehovah’s Witnesses came to the door, her husband told them in Māori to get lost. She had wanted to scream at them to stay, please, but instead she watched them go.
They came again, several weeks later. She answered the door and told them to meet her at the bottom of the driveway. She wanted to tell them everything – that he hit her if he came home from a night at the Fishing Club and dinner wasn’t waiting for him, that he raped her if she wasn’t in the mood to have sex. She wanted to tell them he kept a gun in the office and threatened to kill her with it if she left him. She wanted to tell them the older women in her family and the woman at the police station and a female Justice of the Peace had warned her not to report the abuse, either because they were concerned about her reputation or related to him. She didn’t tell them her story but she began meeting with them to study the Bible; with each session she felt stronger. Mātūtū never became a Witness but she credits those women with giving her the courage to finally leave her husband, to have faith when the child support did not come, to put two daughters through university in New Zealand by working three jobs.
“I found that strength through those women,” she says now, 10 years after she left her husband. “I am so blessed to know them. So blessed. And you know, life isn’t perfect now, but we’re free. Me and the girls are free.”
Abuse is profoundly confusing for a person who’s being abused. It might be hard for her to talk about it. She might just need someone to listen and empathise and encourage. She might just need to know she has options; there are a lot of good books about abuse and someone from Punanga Tauturu will answer the phone 24/7.
She’s probably wrestling with some pretty big questions. She may fear she won’t be able to support her kids if she leaves him. She may learn at church that God doesn’t support broken families. She may be ashamed of where she’s ended up or embarrassed to admit she picked the wrong partner. She may be in denial; she might blame alcohol, not her partner. (While a lot of domestic violence incidents are alcohol-related, alcohol does not cause abuse. This is a common misconception.) She probably loves him and understands how much he hurts inside, and desperately wants to nurture and love him into healing. She might not realise she can’t change him; he has to change himself.
Sometimes she is genuinely afraid that he will kill her, himself, or their children, if she leaves. Sometimes, he does. In 2016, a man escaped from the Arorangi prison and killed his ex-partner, her new boyfriend, and himself.
‘People think it’s okay’
Teina Ora* stayed because she wanted her kids to grow up with their mother and father. She wanted the happy family she pictured as a girl, so for seven years she hung in there, hoping her love would change her partner, who came from an abusive household where no one really talked about anything.
He broke her nose and forbade her from going to the hospital. He stopped going to counselling because he thought she was the problem. He demanded she give him any money she earned.
She left because of the support of friends, family members, and her female boss, who arranged to transfer her to their company’s New Zealand office. “I am really grateful for them,” she says now. “They saw it. They could tell. I took it day by day and with their support I slowly changed the way I was thinking.”
She applied for full custody of the kids and won; now she’s finishing a degree she had to abandon because of emotional stress. She’s working and living five minutes from her kids’ daycare.
“I’m happy now,” she says. “I forgot what it was like to be happy.”
She has this advice for people thinking about leaving an abusive relationship: “Your biggest weapon is the decision – it’s that simple. I made a decision to stay in an abusive relationship and I got a partner who thought I was nothing. The decision that you make and the people you surround yourself with – those are the two main things that will help you through. There is life after domestic violence. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. We are not punching bags. We are humans. You shouldn’t be living in something that is hurting you every single day and thinking it’s because you want your kids to be happy. What the children are seeing is not happiness, it’s sadness. It’s Mum crying every day. I didn’t want my children exposed to that kind of life. I believe that it does carry on into your children; they will do it to their families and it will never stop. I think a lot of women in the Cook Islands are trying to right the wrongs of their men, turn their negatives into positives, but meanwhile their children are seeing violence as a normal thing, as acceptable. Sons will think I can treat my girlfriend like that in the future, you know? Daughters are thinking Dad did it and it’s okay. I think that’s what’s going on back home. People think it’s okay. They need to know it’s absolutely not okay.”
For friends and relatives of people who are being abused, Teina has this advice: “You just have to listen. Listen and let them bring it out and try to sympathise. That’s all I would do. I’ve been through it and I just wanted somebody to sit there without judging me and saying, Look, we told you. If someone you love dies you don’t want money or food – spiritual food, yes, but not the kind you eat. You just want somebody to sit there and have compassion.”
A new lease
Jane Irinaki* recalls a time in her life when every morning, she packed her bags. She waited until her husband went to work, convinced herself to leave, and then every afternoon, she changed her mind and unpacked. She’d married when she was 16, kids a year later. Regularly, her husband pushed her and punched her and told her she was fat. Once, he strangled her so hard she was in the hospital for three weeks; another time, he raped her on the kitchen floor in front of their daughter. But for 10 years she listened to her mother and the ladies at church, who told her to stop making him angry and be a good wife. The bishop of her church threatened to excommunicate her if she filed for divorce. (Later, he did excommunicate her.)
Jane told her sister, who moved home from New Zealand to help out with the kids. Twenty-nine and newly single, Jane did three things: she took out a loan for a car, got her first-ever bikini wax, and made a promise to herself that she would never again allow a man to hit her.
“I’ve remarried and my husband now is a lovely man,” she says. “He would never hit me. He’s lovely and he allows me to be me, you know? It’s great. It got better. It took awhile, but it got better.” If an abusive person is willing to put a lot of time, energy, and emotional investment into unlearning his patterns, he can change. It takes work, but it’s possible. Sometimes it takes years; during this period, it’s best for a couple to live apart, somewhere a victim and her children are safe. If he doesn’t want to change and continues to use abuse to get his way, Jane says this:
“It’s not an easy decision, but life does not have to be that sad,” she says. “Life’s too short to just be taken away like that. Life’s pretty good. You don’t want to miss out.”
Senior Sergeant Ngatamariki Pouao, who’s both a pastor and a policeman, believes change has to come from within the church. While attending to crime scenes, he’s often heard a man quote from the Bible to justify beating his wife.
“These men believe that man is superior, that man is the head, the boss,” Pouao says. “They treat their wives like slaves and when you sit down and talk to them about it they say, well, it’s because I’m the man and I’m supposed to be the head of the household. The Bible said.”
Pouao’s goal is to put Ephesians 5 back into context. Verse 23, he says, tells wives to submit to their husbands, but the scriptures after it instruct husbands to submit to Jesus, who preached love, and to love and care for their wives as they love and care for themselves. There’s also Colossians 3:19, which tells men to love their wives and to “never be harsh with them,” and Romans 13:10, which says that love “does no harm” to others. Matthew 5 says calling someone an idiot will earn you “hell fire” and Psalms 140:11 warns that disaster will follow men of violence.
“A lot of issues in our churches and culture – these are the things that are locking our people down,” he says. “I want to give people freedom. I want the people to know God has a purpose and a reason for each of us. He needs all of us in building this nation. He wants us to encourage and support each other.”
Punanga Tauturu Inc.
Run by locals, for locals
Behind Dental Clinic, Tupapa
21131 or 21133
24 hr lines 55142 or 55134
Free services for survivors include:
Help getting court orders (separation orders, non-molestation orders, court-ordered occupation of the home) quickly
Help applying for child maintenance payments
Help finding a new place or new job
TTA IMAGE **********
In 2016, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II presented Valentino Wichman with a Queen’s Young Leaders Award, honouring the young lawyer’s work advocating for the rights of people who identify as LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Trans-sexual, Intersex). Here are some paraphrased words from Valentino, who is secretary of Te Tiare Association (TTA).
TTA was set up to bring together, educate, and empower LGBTI people in the Cook Islands. We work to create better and safer communities, raise awareness of health issues, and promote equality within our nation and beyond it.
On the decriminalisation campaign:
We are wanting to amend the Cook Islands Crimes Act 1969, Sections 154 and 155, which establish that any “indecent act” between two men is punishable with up to five years’ imprisonment, and consensual sodomy is punishable with up to seven years in prison.
The whole conversation around the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the Cook Islands is difficult because there are a lot of people, including the government, that do not see it as an issue. The purpose of our campaign is to raise awareness and let them know that we may not have the same beliefs but we have the same values, like love and respect.
On the community’s response:
I had to talk to my family first. I told them, ‘I’m going to be doing this campaign and I don’t know what the repercussions are going to be’. Luckily, my family were really supportive. I’ve had threats. People ring me up and say stop it, I’m going to kill you, they call me names and they harass me. On the upside, I have also had a lot of support from many people in our community and for that I say meitaki ma’ata.
On the misconceptions:
There are a lot of misconceptions around our campaign. People think that we are trying to create new and special rights for LGBTI people, but we are simply stating that we should enjoy the same rights as everyone else. People also argue that this is a moral issue. They forget that there are a lot of moral issues that aren’t criminalised, like divorce, adultery, etc.
All of the major religions emphasise the importance of love and acceptance. These are Cook Islands values, too.
Samuel Marsden, an early missionary to Aotearoa, wrote in 1820, “There can be no finer children than those of the New Zealanders in any part of the world. Their parents are very indulgent, and they appear always happy and playful and very active.” Such a beautiful characterisation of pre-colonial contact Māori gives us a small window into life before the social and spiritual reconstruction by missionaries of the time.
With the introduction of a Victorian model of family, roles changed greatly for us as Pacific people. Aspects of this had a negative effect on the way we saw ourselves and those in the inner circle of our world.
Terms like “spare the rod and damn the child,” wives “submit” to husbands, and “honour your parents” have been misused for centuries and underpinned violence and oppression that was neither God’s intention nor a demonstration of love in any form.
What, then, for honouring one’s parents? I have often wondered what was the eternal intention when those immortal words echoed from atop Mt. Sinai, with an obedient Moses unaware of the confusion that would follow centuries later.
What is not confusing is that within the Māori world in which these Victorian missionary messages arrived, social constructs already existed with regard to the treatment, honour and love bestowed upon our parents, guardians and caretakers.
That our tupuna were venerated should give us some indication of what “honour” meant in the pre-colonial Pasifika mind. Our veneration for those gone before us was captured in our stories, myths, and legends. The old wisdom of our people paints for us vividly how we as Māori approached those given the sacred role of nurture, love, and care for the young and most vulnerable in our society.
If only early missionaries could have better understood the strength and honour that existed in a people who already knew a spiritual life and embraced the idea of a Supreme God. Or maybe they well understood this, but such aspects of Māori life were in contrast to the Victorian model they peddled — so to dismantle this caring, nurturing ideal was a necessary part of imposing their own culture upon ours.
The western world has since dismantled these Victorian values and has adopted instead a more humanist approach and open-hearted spirituality in its place. But this begs a question: why have we, as Māori, held onto these dated values with such vigour? These imposed values are seen as our own, adopted now as part of our culture and our way of dealing with these intimate and special relationships. Thus we forget the values we upheld prior to missionary contact.
“They are kind and hospitable to strangers, and are excessively fond of their children,” London artist Augustus Earle wrote of Māori pre-colonial families in 1832. “On a journey, it is more usual to see the father carrying his infant than the mother; and all the little officess of a nurse are performed by him with the tenderest care and good humour.”
This snapshot of the care and love bestowed by Māori as parents, and the love of a father pictured so vividly as tender, caring and of good humour — this is the kind of father we are asked to love and honour, and this is a picture closer to our true selves, as opposed to the urban, negative characterisation we see in movies and newspapers. The results of this new picture, of how we so often see ourselves, are tragic for families. As fathers, our true self is this figure that can be honoured because he is worthy of honour and can be loved, because love is love returned. Love is the currency we have built relationships on since we travelled in vaka thousands of years ago and traversed the great Moana Nui A Kiva. And it is love that will help us find our way back again. We are not just Warriors, and Kings and Mataiapo; we are also loving fathers and mothers with the capacity to be tender, caring and engaging. We honour and love our partners and our parents without restraint.
Our true selves sit so close to us that if only we truly understood our inheritance as Māori, this understanding could give us a real sense of the divine intention underlying our lives and relationships. Be it the treatment of our partners, of our wives, of our children or each other — the urban characterisation we have come to know, of abuse, neglect and violence, is actually a disfigured, grotesque mischaracterisation of ourselves as a people. How then do we reconnect with our true selves?
We can be like “Jake the Muss” from Once Were Warriors, standing in the car park alone, yelling that his family will be back — but we all know they won’t, because love has given them the strength to walk away. Love may in time save Jake from himself and help him move from this hurt, broken, violent cardboard cutout of himself to the man he was meant to be. Only love can truly rescue his heart. Only the divine can transform him from the inside out.
As men we have our carpark moments, yelling at the top of our lungs, knowing that only we can hear the shouting. Anyone we loved has left the room. It is in these moments that we can find redemption and honour, but only if deep in our hearts we experience and discover the God of redemption and honour.
We honour our parents not just because it is commanded, and not just because of the promise of long life; we honour our parents because when we do this we honour ourselves, and the God we serve. There is no honour in violence, in hurting people, especially those in our care. There is honour, however, in realising our true selves in the arms of a loving Father, who gave it all so we could have it too.
Thomas Tarurongo Wynne