People who know how to relax and make the most of their lives are generally healthier and happier. They also live longer.
Long-term stress can increase your blood pressure and your risk of having a stroke or heart attack. It can interfere with digestion and weight loss and sleep patterns. It can also cause acne and hair loss.
The experts say that to beat stress, it’s important to do things you enjoy. In this section, we’ll introduce you to some people who enjoy their life in local ways. We’ll also highlight some reasons to celebrate being local.
E no’o rekareka ‘ua koe i roto i to’ou piripou.
“This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” —
The deep green palm fronds sway in the breeze. The lichen-covered trunk tells stories of ancient growth. The coconuts, nū or niu, hold a promise of extinguishing thirst, welcoming a visitor, and growing anew.
Having grown up in Pukapuka and Hawai’i, I have seen a coconut tree every single day through louvred windows of early morning light. Only recently, however, did I learn the depth of its uses and what really makes it the tree of life.
In Hawai’i most of this knowledge has been lost. Shops sell boxes of coconut water from Brazil and Asia. In Hawai’i, coconut trees look barren. The government pays tree trimmers to cut off all the nuts so that they don’t fall on the heads of tourists. Lawyers might come. Tourists might disappear. A coconut becomes a liability. Hence the coconut trees in Hawai’i have no coconuts.
“I weep for the coconut trees that have no children,” says Pukapukan Johnny Frisbie.
Not until I travelled back to Pukapuka as an adult did I realise that all coconut trees are meant to have coconuts and that throughout Polynesia, they have sustained populations for thousands of years. Until then, I did not understand.
In Pukapuka, people respect, honour, and use all parts of the coconut tree. If you cut off the fronds the wrong way with a machete you get fined by the village leaders. Truckloads of uto get evenly shared out to families within each village. Teenage boys shimmy up the tree to throw down coconuts for visitors, feasts, and daily sustenance. For a day on the motu with Papa Charlie Frisbie, I drank five niu and ate one uto and needed no other food. The coconut tree taught me its many uses through the way Pukapukans used her for everything:
Mama Liata wore the rib of a coconut palm in her ears to keep them open when she didn’t feel like wearing her Sunday earrings.
Mama Mima wove a fishing basket that hung over Lewu’s shoulder when he went fishing on the reef.
Six-year old Teatua wove a green ball out of the fronds and threw it to her older sister Kani down the sandy road.
Ten-year old Kalowia and her pack of girls wove pinwheels and let them spin in the wakalua wind.
Tere cut up the trunk for seats to sit around the fire.
Annie gathered all the coconut husks to light the fire for her Saturday umu.
All the kids at Niua School wove the palm fronds into pola to re-thatch the homes on the motu. They sold the pola for $1 each and raised thousands for school supplies.
Yokana and her cousins sat atop an aluminum boat with a knife, peeling off the green leaves and plaiting together the spines to make the strongest brooms.
Marurai carved up parts of the tree trunks as beams for my wale pola.
Roboam and some other men made honey, and eventually alcohol, by tapping one of the coconut trees for its sweet sap.
Anna made a salad from the heart of palm dressed in lime and coconut cream.
Tangitane sucked on the inner cabbage of the sprouted palm and on the husk of the mangaro like a lollipop.
Moko put the coconut husks in the mud, dried them out, and plaited sennit with the kids at school.
Yetu Yetu sat on the veranda at night with a group of men drinking coconut homebrew out of polished coconut shell bowls.
Mama Mauwake lit the dried coconut shells as candles that radiated warmth from her veranda.
Temara put the grated coconut out in the sun mixed with gardenia flowers. After a week, she squeezed the oil into an old jar and carefully used a spoonful to massage her father’s leg.
Ani squeezed fresh coconut cream using the fibre from the coconut to strain the cream.
Fancy entered the beauty pageant wearing an outfit made entirely of coconut jewellery, skirt, and hair piece.
The Reverend Casey served perfectly cut cubes of uto and niu to the congregation every Sunday communion.
From toy and shelter to food, this list only begins to scratch the surface. In the Pukapukan Dictionary over 77 words are listed under the coconut. There is the coconut midrib thrown as a challenge to strangers or enemies: kalevamanu. There is the flesh of a young coconut: kiko and the flesh of a mature coconut: ipiipi. The stages of a woman are compared to the stages of a coconut: from the first stage of a young pikiaka, to the fresh young niu, to the nearly matured mukomuko, to the immature fallen koali, to the sprouting uto, to the aged yakali used for coconut cream, to the brown dry maimaya with no milk inside. An overly stubborn person might be compared to an over-matured uto plant: lauka. A particularly sweet person might be called a mangalo, the sweet coconut with an edible husk. The coconut covers it all.
It is a wonder that churches have not been built in the coconut tree’s honour. Beyond her beauty and grace, she offers us strength, wisdom, and the whispers of ancestors.
Dr. Amelia Borofsky
Tetini ‘Ti’ Pekepo is a lot of things — tattooist, artist, carver, builder, husband, father — but he’ll tell you he’s first a voyager.
“It’s in the blood,” he says. “We Polynesians have always had it in us.”
Years of sailing on traditional vaka have connected Ti to the world around him, to his ancestors, and to himself. He’s been on solo journeys — once he did 34 days alone on the boat he keeps in New Zealand. He’s also been on grand journeys, like the seven-vaka voyage to the mainland United States in 2011 whose message to the world was: Wake up. Start caring about the oceans and people who depend on them.
Since the Polynesians crossed oceans without maps or compasses, carrying out the greatest voyages in the history of the world, the Pacific has been the territory of explorers. Polynesians are still a travelling people — seemingly everyone has family members living overseas — but the popular movement to reconnect with a seafaring past began just a few decades ago. Since the Hawaiians built Hōkūle’a in the mid-1970s, kickstarting a renaissance in traditional navigation throughout the Pacific, Cook Islanders have been reconnecting. Others, particularly in the outer islands, never lost the connection.
Ti began sailing on traditional canoes since the early nineties, after he was given the manuscript Papa Tom Davis was writing, later published as Vaka: Saga of a Polynesian Canoe.
“Hey, Māori boy, isn’t your waka Tākitumu?” Papa Tom’s son, Tere, had said to him at a bar. “I’ve got a book about your waka.”
Ti learnt from reading Vaka that in the old days, voyagers were respected people; they were ta’unga, skilled professionals who possessed great mana. They were people of honour and courage. Knowing he was descended from founders of islands made his heart swell with pride.
He began studying more about his legacy — navigating, sailing, exploring, seeking adventure and spiritual growth and heightened awareness about the world. Years of sailing on Te Au O Tonga and Marumaru Atua taught Ti to understand and appreciate the history of the places he comes from and the oceans connecting them.
He’s learnt about respect for the ocean, its benevolence and its wrath, and about discipline and faith. He believes the old rules still apply: Voyagers should be respectful people who don’t drink or do drugs on board. They should be spiritually strong. They should be humble, willing to listen both to captain and fellow crewmembers and also to natural rhythms. Above all, they should be eager to learn.
“I believe if you’re going to do anything you must understand it, and that comes through time,” he says. “That’s why people do apprenticeships — it takes time, and the more you do it the more you understand your craft, the better you get. I believe within us we’ve got the power to achieve whatever we want if we really put our minds to it. But nine times out of 10, you’ve got to do a lot of study first.”
Voyaging has taken Ti to 23 islands in the Pacific. His only regret about his journey on traditional vaka is that it didn’t begin earlier.
“I’d encourage our young people to not really think about money too much but to get out there and have fun and do what makes you excited,” he says. “Do it because you can.”
Live recordings of five Cook Islands ute and imene tuki, recorded over a century ago, were recently re-discovered. This is the story of the recordings and why a famous composer considered local singing one of the world’s great musical treasures.
“The most beautiful music I have [ever] heard, either complex or simple, was the singing of the Rarotonga natives in the Cook Islands… I am a great admirer of Bach, Wagner, Delius, Scriabin, and several others responsible for the complex music of the world, and yet I say that the singing of the Rarotonga natives appealed to me, and to several other composers more than anything we had ever heard.”
These words were written in 1926 by Percy Grainger, an Australian-born, European-trained, internationally acclaimed pianist and composer with a lifelong interest in world music. His wild mane of golden hair and good looks contributed to his “rock star” status in the music world of the early twentieth century.
Grainger toured New Zealand in 1909 and in Wellington met with the Māori leaders Apirana Ngata and Peter Buck. He offered to transcribe recordings of Māori music then being collected in an effort to preserve Māori culture. During his New Zealand tour Grainger also met Alfred J. Knocks, an interpreter and native agent living in Otaki, and discovered Knock’s wax cylinder recordings of a group of Cook Islands singers attending the International Exhibition in Christchurch in 1906. Of that exhibition one admirer, the author and lexicographer Frederick W. Christian who later became head teacher at Mangaia School, wrote: “Only the people of coral lands can sing as they sang… now like flutes… now like the notes of a guitar… now like a sweet and deep-toned bell”. The recordings had such a profound effect on Grainger that he spent a whole night attempting to transcribe the music. He telegrammed his mother: “never heard the like, treat equal to Wagner, I am godly lucky.” He returned to Otaki a month later to hear the music again from Knocks’ recordings.
To find out more about Cook Islands music, Grainger briefly visited Rarotonga, en route from America to New Zealand in May 1924. In his account of that visit, he wrote: “Our boat had nearly 24 hours at Avarua (Rarotonga). It was from these islands that the lovely music came… quick ant-like improvised polyphonic…singing of great harmonic charm. You can imagine, therefore, how much it meant to me to see the people and place whose music I had studied and loved so keenly.”
Almost 30 years later, his enthusiasm for Cook Islands choir music remained as strong as ever. He wrote in 1938 of “the boundless enthusiasm (never before or since aroused by any other music) I felt for the Rarotongan improvised part songs [which] has a marked and lasting effect on my pianistic concert career”.
Grainger never returned to Rarotonga, but he remained, to the end of his life, a champion of Cook Islands music, rating it for complexity and beauty, second only in the world to the music of the German composer Richard Wagner. He wrote: “In my opinion, the choral music as sung by the Polynesians in Rarotonga, Samoa, Tahiti and other islands, constitutes the greatest contribution to this type of music that has occurred in my lifetime. It is more important than anything that has been produced in Europe.”
So what did Grainger hear in ute and imene tuki that fired his enthusiasm?
Grainger believed western music had taken a wrong turn when it began to be written down. He argued for a new music, freed from the written form and the domination of harmony or rhythm, a music that provided equality between the parts, and “a chance for all to shine in a starry whole.” He admired unwritten music precisely because it was free to change and evolve during performance. Grainger contrasted this to western European music, where the performers were required to faithfully follow the written score, and thus subjected to “tyranny of the composer.”
He found elements of his ideal of “free music” already existing in Cook Islands music. He tried to replicate what he had learnt from Cook Islands music in his own compositions, to ensure “that a fairly large range of personal choice was allowed to everyone taking part [in the performance]”, he wrote. In Cook Islands music, successful improvising is repeated and becomes part of the choir’s routine. Improvisation that is unsuccessful is never heard again. In this way, a body of work is added to and renewed. This kind of innovation is the work of individual grassroots performers, not gifted individual composers.
Grainger’s analysis of Cook Islands ute emphasised the democratic and grassroots nature of Cook Islands music making. Cook Islands music provided the composer with an example of an ideal world in which social cohesion and individual freedom were regarded not as opposites but as inseparable from each other. It is this achievement, of a collectivist society which permits individuals to improvise, experiment and create new possibilities, that Grainger contrasted favourably to the individualism and elitism of western music and society.
As far back as I can remember I loved dancing. It was a passion, a need, and a love. I remember when I was little I used to tie on pāreu and dance for my parents or even their friends. I used to love watching older dancers and wish I could move like they did. I loved their costumes and movements and would try my best to mimic them in the safety of my bedroom.
When I look back at how I learnt to dance I feel there was a lot of bits and pieces and traits that I took from other dancers. Mimicking what you saw was a big part of it. At first all my actions were choreographed by older and more experienced dancers. But today my most favourite form of dance is dancing from the heart.
When I dance a solo for a function I rarely ever choreograph it. I pick songs I know, love, and can relate to, then on the spot I move to the words, rhythm, and emotions the singer portrays. This form of dance is my most favourite to watch. It’s the moment when you see the dancer literally bare his or her soul to the audience and you can relate so much with every move.
I love being on stage. I get this sense of freedom I don’t feel like doing anything else. I have joined a Dancer of the Year both in Mangaia and Rarotonga, Miss Tiare and Miss Cook Islands in Rarotonga, Miss South Pacific in Pago Pago, Te Vara Nui Cultural Village in Rarotonga, Te Maeva Nui both in Mangaia and Rarotonga, and danced at many functions. Every performance was different but every single moment on stage fueled my love and passion for dance.
When I first thought of going to university I wanted to do something I loved. I spent years pondering what I would study. Then, it hit me: I had to be passionate about it. I wanted to wake up in the morning excited. After four years of working in graphic design and two years of dancing at Te Vara Nui, I realized I had a huge passion for dance and thought, ‘Why can’t I study this?’ At first I couldn’t find any schools that offered courses in cultural dance. I then attended Victoria University of Wellington studying Pacific Studies, Cultural Anthropology and Tourism. I decided if I couldn’t study what I loved I would study the cultures it was in. Halfway through my second year I discovered Whitireia Performing Arts School in Wellington, which offered a degree in Cook Island, New Zealand Māori, Samoan and contemporary dance. I was very excited but decided to finish what I had started first before embarking on a new journey.
On my final year at Victoria University I started to question if I should go to Whitireia. I had attended one performance and felt it to be very contemporary. Being brought up in the Cook Islands and studying at Victoria had instilled me with a protective instinct for my culture. After much thought I decided that if I didn’t do it I would wonder for the rest of my life, ‘What if?’
In all honesty I found the course to be a bit of a letdown. Granted I learnt a lot about the body — our muscles and movements — but I felt that the dance that I had learnt as a child wasn’t represented in this course. It was a different dance form, a more contemporary one. I fought against it for most of the year until I realised I only had to perform that dance form in the course. I was in control of my own dance style, and like the beginning of my dance journey, I had the ability to pick it apart and choose what I would apply to myself.
We travelled overseas and performed mostly New Zealand Māori performances but the Cook Islands and Samoan dancers were performed on a few occasions. I loved the look on the faces in the crowd when they saw a completely different culture to their own. When I was performing the Cook Islands ura I was excited and happy. Living away from home has made me a louder and prouder Cook Islander. It has strengthened my identity, and a lot of that has to do with dance. The words in our songs, the rhythm of our drums, and our movements are very unique and they are ours. They are a part of the foundation we as a people stand on. Dancing connects me to my home and my heritage, and takes me back to the days I was a child trying to swing my hips because I felt the love for it in my blood.
I will never stop learning. I will always love my culture. Ura will always be a part of who I am.
I’ve come to Luduina Williams’ home to see her compost heap. An officer with the Ministry of Agriculture brought me here to see it because he knows I want to write about sustainable growing.
The compost heap is large and well-kept, but now that I’m here I’m interested in everything else, the evidence of a sustainable life lived on Rarotonga, a place where these days it’s easy to eat takeaways. Luduina and her husband Angaroa compost waste and grow food but they also filter rainwater, ferment noni juice, make their own medicine, and cook the chickens they catch. They have one of every kind of tropical fruit tree you can imagine and some vegetables, too.
“It’s important to live local,” Luduina tells me. “It matters a lot. Helps us stay away from the doctors. It’s as simple as that.”
When she was in her thirties, Luduina began to be constantly sick. She had always used an inhaler for asthma and gotten seasonal allergies, but suddenly her symptoms got worse. She was breaking out in rashes, getting pneumonia frequently. Soon she and Angaroa had spent thousands of dollars on appointments with a private doctor, house calls, injections, and expensive medications.
“I was getting jabbed just about every week,” she says.
Dr. Robert Woonton recommended she change her diet. Her parents suggested she eat only local foods but she didn’t want to hear that; planting, harvesting, and preparing healthy foods was more work than buying meals. She continued eating the things she always had — milk, butter, cream, sugar, flour — and baking cakes for the family, one of her favourite pastimes.
Luduina, who also goes by Aunty Mama, searched for other answers. She read on the internet about allergies and how they’re often caused by toxic chemicals. She thought about her long relationship with chemical fertilisers and pesticides. As a kid she spent every afternoon helping her dad on the plantation, weeding with her bare hands after he’d sprayed. Now, as an adult, she tended and sold houseplants, always treating them with chemicals.
Aunty Mama decided to start feeding her plants naturally. She made a compost heap and filled it with yard rubbish and organic waste. The change in her plants was dramatic; a lemon tree that had never fruited produced lemons so large and sweet you could eat them whole.
“I saw the changes in the plants and I thought that could be me, you know?” she says now. “The plants were transforming into this beautiful, luscious green, getting healthy. I thought that could be me. I thought I’m not going to live like this anymore.”
She started changing the way she ate. Then, in her early forties, Mama had a stroke. Afterward she couldn’t use the right side of her body. Her right eye wouldn’t close. For three days, she stayed in her room, refusing to see anyone. She had drugs to manage the flow of her blood but the doctors said there wasn’t anything they could do about her wide-open eye. Mama remembered a Mangaian healer in Titikaveka she’d taken her brother to see before he died. The woman made a mixture of poroporo leaves, local lime, and coconut oil, and dropped some of it into Mama’s eye. She says she was blinking before she got home.
Today she shies away from making medicine for anyone outside her family. She knows that the effectiveness of a treatment depends on a patient’s faith and habits; she doesn’t want to risk being blamed if someone doesn’t get better. She knows, though, that the treatments work.
The message she wants to share is simple: Live local. It’s good for you.
“We can’t blame the doctors for our health problems,” she says. “They are doing their work and we should be looking after ourselves in the first place. No one tells us this. We don’t know all of this until something hit us.”
Sewing tivaevae is about more than making a quilt. It’s long represented a chance for women to come together and chat about their lives. It’s also an expression of commitment and dedication; a tivaevae that takes a year to sew is not a cheap gift. Tivaevae mark special occasions, including birthdays, weddings, funerals, and hair-cutting ceremonies. Many mamas won’t sell theirs. The tivaevae is more special than anything money can buy—a celebration of culture and community, and also of love.
Tutai Ataera had little memory of his birthplace, the village of Kavera, the home of his ancestors, in the Arorangi district of Rarotonga.
He’d come to New Zealand as a two-year-old. But nobody in Auckland ever let him mistake his adopted land as home. They gave him names so he would always know he did not belong. “Coconut” was the least hurtful. They couldn’t pronounce his name, Tutai, and in their voices it sound like “tutae,” the Māori word for “shit.”
Mainly they called him Boonga.
“It means Pacific nigger, I suppose,” Ataera says. “A slang word for Polynesian.”
There was only one other family of Cook Islanders in the Weymouth district of South Auckland, which meant the other kids’ focus on Ataera was relentless. He had two options: shut down, or fight.
By his teenage years he was taken from his family and placed under the care of the court. This put him among other kids who’d been dealt the wrong cards, some who’d been abused, or had alcoholic families, all who one way or another had found their way into the criminal justice system. They were birds of a feather, and they found more trouble together.
“You keep calling someone an idiot,” Ataera says, “they will start acting like one.” Finally, at 16, he was deported. He arrived back on Rarotonga thinking finally, at least, he would be home. But he quickly discovered differently. He was an outsider here, too; he couldn’t speak the language, climb a coconut tree, rake the rubbish, or even feed a pig.
“I came to my homeland and they treated me like a foreigner, even here,” he says. “Because I didn’t know anything about being an islander.”
And so as he settled into Rarotonga, he decided he would no longer be defined by others. He would be not only be a Boonga, he would define what that meant.
“I had been trying to run away from being a Boonga,” he says. “Then, I learnt to be a Boonga.”
For the next years he apprenticed himself. He studied the language of his people. He learnt how to climb a coconut tree. He offered himself as a student to the ocean and to the night skies. He walked the land and learnt its quiet secrets. He found teachers waited for him, everywhere.
“When the pupil is ready, the teacher will appear,” he says. “I believe the God of my people was helping me to navigate myself to where I was trying to be.”
Papa, as Ataera became known on Rarotonga, studied the history of his people’s contact with European culture. He studied Christianity, and the old religion of the islands. He examined the origins of the Polynesian people, the mystery of who the ancients were and how they’d come to populate the far reaches of the South Pacific. “Where did we come from?” he asked. “How did we get here? I was trying to trace our footsteps back to the homeland…I thought maybe that is where I’ll feel at home. Maybe that is where I will belong, and not feel like a foreigner any more.”
He found two old men, Papa Tom Davis and Papa Ron Crocombe, who were steeped in knowledge and served as guides for his wide-ranging research.
“It was at a time I was hungry for knowledge and they were there,” Papa says. “These are well-travelled men, and I asked them, what is the will of God? These are 80-year-old men and they weren’t religious and they didn’t go to church. They simply said, ‘To help each other. That is the will of God.’”
Papa was on a voyage. To accompany his journey, he began creating art, first with a mask-like painting he titled “The Navigator”. Through the mists of time, he’d begun to catch glimpses of a world that was not as vanished as he had once supposed.
“The spirit of the navigator, it’s the spirit in our people, it is always there,” Papa says. “It is the spirit that made us go across the ocean. And it’s courageous, it’s witty, it’s intelligent. And that needs to come out of us, all of us, but it’s been pushed down by a mental genocide. We’ve been brainwashed to be something else, to put aside what we are, or who we are. We are a kingly people, and that has been suppressed. Like the Native Americans, they were a kingly people — but their, what we call mana, has been suppressed.”
At times, Papa lost hope. In a history littered with suffering, where was God? For a while, he became an atheist. At another time, he delved deeply into the history of Christianity. “This is all about people in the bloody Mediterranean,” he thought. “How is it going to help me as a Polynesian person?” Finally, as he immersed himself in the old gods of his people, he began to see a larger picture. There was no conflict between gods old and new.
“That religion was dismissed because it sounded too close to Christianity, because it sounded too similar,” Papa says. “Io created the heavens and earth, and Io created man…It was too close to the Bible version. But then I traced our people back, and found that they had a belief, and they believed in a God that they prayed to when they left the shores of wherever they lived. They had faith in their God that brought them here to paradise, to where we live now. And because of their faith, it helped me to believe that there is a higher power, there is a higher consciousness — our people probably were in that zone where they were in contact with that higher consciousness, or else they would not have taken those journeys across the ocean, if they didn’t believe something would take care of them.”
Albert Einstein once wrote that the universe is a hostile place unless you know its laws, and then it is a friendly place. Papa’s investigations began to reveal these natural laws, and gave him a lens through which to understand how the clash of European and Polynesian cultures had dimmed the mana of his own people.
“And our people lived by those laws,” Papa says. “Everything was seasonal. Voyaging, the laws of the heavens, which star would be where…they had names for them. And they believed in the Creator of those things. The only information we had of our people was just cannibalism.”
To Papa, the ocean exemplified these laws. When he’d arrived back in Kavera, he knew nothing of its ways. And then the ocean became a teacher. The ocean taught, Papa says, “that I’m not to be fucked with, and if you read me well, I will look after you. And it took me a couple years to learn to respect her and understand her and read her. And after that, from there to now, I can go to her, and get a good feed, whenever I want.”
He also learnt how to plant. The same lessons of abundance emerged from the same laws.
“Follow the moon, follow the tides,” Papa says. “That has been passed down, and it always works. Today’s planting is all commercialised…But over here, if you grow enough just for your family, and you follow the seasons, you have enough. You will never run out. Learn to respect the land, and it will produce fruit for you. Always.”
Papa had awakened as if from a long slumber, one that had begun in Auckland. In that old nightmare, he realised, the things that had seemed most desirable were in fact the instruments of imprisonment. He untied the cords of bondage he’d created for himself and found what he’d been looking for.
“Freedom,” he says. “I mean, for me it was freedom to express my true self, to be who I am supposed to be. Where if I stayed in New Zealand I had to live those conditions, which is 9 to 5 robotic life, picket fence and all that stuff. It’s all pre-programmed for you. I guess that is what I was trying to run away from — I don’t want to wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning and all my neighbours are turning their lights on, everyone is brushing their teeth, everyone is getting their breakfast done, and everyone is backing their cars out, everyone is going to work, and everyone is in a traffic jam, and it goes on and on. Freedom from that…from the Matrix.”
“They have lost sight of who
Although Western education has given them new skills,
There is an emptiness, a void,
It is the spirit of the Polynesian mariner
Who returns to the helm,
To lead once more, this time from the past to the future,
Surfing new waves….”
Tutai “Papa” Ataera, from inscription to the painting, “The Identity Seekers.”
Papa’s art had changed. The colours brightened, the masks disappeared. Life likewise gained lightness, and ease. He and his wife, Pepe, played music together, and delved into the message of Bob Marley, the Jamaican reggae singer who during the 1970s became an international prophet for colonialism’s dispossessed.
“We refuse to be/what you wanted us to be/We are what we are/That’s the way it’s going to be….Tell the children the truth,” Marley sang in a song “Babylon System,” one of many that spoke directly to people who sought an identity deeper than the shambles of their recent history.
Papa marvelled when he realised that so much of what Marley sang came directly from Christian scriptures, which of course told the story of another displaced people. He re-approached the religion he’d grown up with.
“So we had contact with God, but then how do you make personal contact with this God that our people knew?” he asked. “To find out, I had to go back into the Bible — that there is this guy, named Jesus, he supposes to be the gateway, and no one gets to the Father except through him. So I found a guy with an attitude, and I liked his attitude. And that is what it was: he had a nondiscriminatory attitude. He didn’t hate. He believed if we followed him we belonged to a universal family — his father, the higher consciousness, or whatever you want to call it. And I felt happier here, and found home here, in that place…a universal home. It doesn’t matter where in the world you are, you can belong to this place and feel at home and not give a shit about everything I had just been through.”
The will of God, he remembered from Papa Tom and Papa Ron, was to help each other. Papa and his wife looked after people who likewise may have found themselves adrift. There were teenage boys all around the islands who reminded Papa of himself when he was younger. Some had no parents; others had parents who’d left them behind, with grandparents, as they went to New Zealand or Australia.
“We’ve got a lot of them here,” Papa says. “And they usually grow up and lose direction.”
A group of these boys had started bodyboarding, mostly off the west coast of the island. One of them was—is—called Bird. A Betela native who’d spent some time in New Zealand, his nickname is derived from his given name, Manutai Metuakore. But Bird also frequently emits a joyful, bird-like laugh that is somehow in keeping with his name; rarely is anyone in his company not laughing along.
Bird grew up sickly. He’d contracted rheumatic fever and most believed he wouldn’t live to see 20 years. He spent part of his childhood years in and out of hospitals and still gets a monthly injection.
“And of course he was the smallest of the lot, so you going to feel sorry for him,” Papa recalls. “So all we could do was lift up his spirits. ‘Grab a board. Let’s go out there. You won’t die.’ And he’s still alive, and he shouldn’t be.”
Bird remembers that the very first time he bodysurfed.
“I didn’t like it,” he says. “I got my first wipeout, and that was it. I quit for one year. I got teased at school, and that was it.”
Bird is a friend of Papa’s son, Shannon. Papa took him along with them fishing and hunting and mountain climbing. “Enjoy your environment, enjoy your land, enjoy who you are,” he told the boys. “You don’t want to live in paradise and not see it. You might miss it.”
Encouraged, Bird went back beyond the reef, once again testing his heart on the waves. This time, he caught a wave, and it changed his life, instantly.
“It wasn’t just about surfing,” Papa says. “It was about them knowing who they are, as Polynesian people, and enjoying the ocean, and enjoying the land, and enjoying what their ancestors have left behind for them, and remembering that and not losing face of who you are in a world in where we wear masks and try to be something else. Don’t be shy to be a Boonga. We should be proud to be Polynesian people; the things that our ancestors accomplished, their blood, their spirit, is still in you. It’s in every Polynesian young person. I think if they learn that, then they will have more pride in themselves.”
And that is how the Boonga Boys began.
“To us, Boonga was like a boys thing, a group — that’s our name, that’s our crew,” Bird says. “But we found out the real meaning of Boonga and we accepted it after that. It’s how we live, and look after each other. Family.”
Part of living is that sometimes life will slam you. To surf the waves outside Rarotonga’s reef is to feel pain and fear — the scrapes and bruises from the reef, the sheer panic in the long moment between the wave spitting you out and the impact of rock on skin and bone.
“It brings something inside of you that you haven’t felt before,” says Bird. “Like the feeling of fear. You have a split second to decide what you will do…When you drop in and ride just one wave, it will tell you what kind of person you are.”
The Boonga Boys, who now number around a dozen, have been documented extensively on video. If they have a single defining characteristic as surfers, it is joy. They appear as pure spirit, unleashed, at one with their place in the play of things.
“We were an ocean-going people,” says Papa. “If this is as close as we can get to it, and enjoy the thrill, then that’s part of it. That’s part of being Polynesian. We invented that sport. It is part of who you are, and there is nothing wrong with being who you are. Education disagrees with that; they try to make you somebody else. They tell you to forget who you are. Our young people grow up yearning to be who they are; they are going to tattoo themselves and try to regain their identity. The future Boonga will be highly intelligent, university graduated. It’s already begun. They love their culture and they embrace the white man’s culture, and the conclusion is a better off person.”
“Suffer it all, and spit out the rubbish,” he adds. “That is the Boonga attitude.”
Nine years ago, the Boonga Boys suffered a loss. One morning after a surf one of the boys, Peter Pokipoki, took off on his motorbike to Matavera. A truck towing a boat trailer was backing out onto the road and he didn’t see it in time and collided. He lost his leg. He was immediately flown to New Zealand for medical care. He was gone for a year.
Peter lived through some dark days that year. When he slept, he had a recurring dream about riding barrels. Then he would wake up and remember, all over again, where he was, and what had happened. He was far from the ocean, and from his brothers, and he didn’t know if things could ever be the same.
But he is a resilient lover of life. His spirit returned. Even the nurses at Middlemore Hospital in Auckland were drawn to his buoyant charm. “The nurses gave me cakes and Playboy magazines on my birthday,” Peter says. “I met a lot of patients throughout my stay, because they were down. I used to be like that, after it happened, but now I am out of that. So I am happy I’m still alive.”
When he returned to Rarotonga, the Boonga Boys wasted no time in getting him into the water. Shannon had his gear. Peter tucked his prosthetic leg in the bushes. Papa, who Peter calls “like my second father,” had come to the beach and was shocked when he saw the leg poking out from the hedge.
“He thought it was a dead body,” Peter says, laughing.
“Go, bro,” Shannon told him. “Get back out there.”
As the water coursed over him and opened back up to the sky, he thought of his dream in the hospital.
“That was the first time I actually remembered how I was, back before then,” he says of the first wave. “And I think that is what the dream was: don’t worry, you’ll get back to it. Just relax, recover. It will always be there.”
The boys were protective. Ina Katu, of Aitutaki, remembers how people looked at Peter.
“It was pretty sad at first, because a lot of people stared at him,” he says. “It wasn’t nice. We always had to carry him into the water.”
But the boys also told him: get over it. For a while, he tried surfing with a covering on his leg. “‘You got one leg,’” Bird recalls telling him. “‘You can’t change it.’ So he ripped the whole thing off, and you just see that steel. And it looks cool.”
What Bird told him next came straight from the gospel of the Boonga Boys.
“Feel proud,” he said. “Be yourself. And no regrets.”
Anybody, Bird says, can be a Boonga Boy.
“If we saw a white man walking down the beach and he just caught an octopus, we’ll straight away say, ‘That’s a Boonga right there. He knows how to survive.’ You catch a wave — ah, that’s a Boonga right there,” Bird says, with a giggle.
There is no strict definition.
“It’s like everything you do with your life, pretty much,” Ina says. “If you are in need of some cash, you go pick mangoes, or coconuts, and sell it to the tourists, or the restaurants…You go fishing and even if you can’t sell it, give it to the locals. It’s taking what nature provides, but not too much.”
“That’s the island way,” Bird says. “Keeping our mana true, our culture alive. That’s the Boonga way on the land, the same on the sea.”
Peter knows that Boonga means different things to different people. But like Papa, he has chosen to define it for himself.
“In their language, I would say it means Polynesian nigger,” Peter says. “But in ours, I would say, ‘An island survivor.’”