Kiribati Community Celebrates With Festival

Last week Radio New Zealand posted an article about how people gathered from all over the North Island, New Zealand, to celebrate their connection to Kiribati through song and dance. It was their way of staying connected to an island that is more than 4000km away.

The 3000-strong Kiribati community in New Zealand were also marking its language week in Aotearoa.

The New Zealand Kiribati National Council (NZKNC) hosted an event in Auckland to mark Kiribati Independence and to end a long week of language, cultural and sporting events for its community.

Groups from Wellington, Bay of Plenty, Hamilton and Auckland gathered at the Bruce Pullman Arena, to celebrate and pay tribute to their homeland.

Secretary of the NZKNC Lydia Teatao said for her small community the annual language weeks were truly valued. “Everyone looks forward to July because that’s the time we come together and celebrate who we are. This is home.”

Each group from around the motu brought its own style and flare to the performance stage and with no age limits.

Kiribati Festival- photo from RNZ/Jogai Bhatt

For Susie Kabuati Dugmore, her cultural pride took over during her performance with the Kiwibati community group from the Bay of Plenty, to the extent of adding some ad lib moves. It was their first time joining the rest of the New Zealand Kiribati whānau in Auckland. “At first I was a bit nervous, but then we got on there and the spirit of dancing… surprisingly, the feeling just lifted me up… I was just so excited.”

Baiteke Tabane, 15, represented the Marewen community group based in Auckland. He said he wasn’t the most fluent in his language, but he knew the importance of learning and knowing it. “They speak it at home but most of the time I speak English because I’m not really that good. But it feels amazing once you know a new language… just give it a try.”

Kiribati mothers Tracy Cauldwell and Elizabeth Neemia both speak the language at home fulltime. It’s their way of preserving their mother tongue for their children. “We don’t speak English. Sometimes the kids speak in English back, but they understand the language very well,” Cauldwell said.

The event officially closed the Kiribati language week festivities.

As cliched as it sounds, Teatao said language was what kept migrant Pacific communities connected to home. “Language is very important… We teach our children and encourage them to see the language of Kiribati as important as English. “Without language, the next generation will be lost.”

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Te Maeva Nui Festival in New Zealand 2021

Journalist, Jogai Bhatt, of Radio New Zealand wrote an article about how the Te Maeva Nui Festival connects Cook Islands youth to their roots. 

Te Maeva Nui 2021 kicked off in Tāmaki Makaurau last Friday in Auckland, New Zealand, celebrating the best of Cook Islands dance, language, culture and food. The largest Cook Islands cultural festival continued on Saturday with nine Enua and Vaka groups performing over two days of competition.

Ina Maropai was excited to be back at Te Maeva Nui after last year’s event was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. She ran a food stall at the festival, selling mainese (Cook Island beetroot and potato salad), banana poke, steam pudding, donuts, and plates of chop suey and rice. “I’m excited, it’s good. It’s financial support with families, and I get to dance. And the kids get to learn more about their culture.”

Her neighbor Maria Tairea agreed. She said Te Maeva Nui gives the younger generation a chance to connect with their roots and showcase Cook Island traditions to the rest of the world. “It promotes our culture, our food, and our language. And I’m hoping they keep up with it because it’s very hard to find Cook Island children after leaving primary school who – unless they’re involved in the community – still retain their language.

“I love promoting our language. I go out to the Māngere Town Centre library, and I take all our artefacts, all our crafts, that my mum has done, that my grandmother has done, so other Pacific Islanders can see what we do besides dancing.”

For Marcia, Zoe and Jaylyn, the feeling of performing on stage for their community is indescribable. “It’s hard to explain. It just means a lot, finally performing, giving it all for family. We’ve been practising since February,” Marcia said.

The girls don’t speak their language fluently, but say participating in Te Maeva Nui really helps to learn. “It’s good to keep it alive, a lot of us kids don’t know our Cook Islands culture or language so it’s nice to kind of learn it again, and learn our history,” Zoe said.


L-R Marcia, Zoe and Jaylyn from St Dominic’s College. Photo by RNZ/Jogai Bhatt

Fellow performer Benji Timu said dancing at the festival had been an opportunity to connect with a side of him that he had previously neglected. “This is my first Te Maeva Nui. Over the years I’ve been sort of caught up in my Samoan side for most of my life, so this really is a step into reclaiming part of my identity, dancing as a Cook Islander. I only learnt how to dance in 2020 – the steps to get here have been quite substantial. Te Maeva Nui is the pinnacle of Cook Island dance.”

The festival is a vehicle for people like himself, born and brought up in a Pākehā world, to “feel our identity in ways that transcend the five senses”.

“Just being on stage … it was overwhelming. Overwhelming is an understatement of what it really felt, because it wasn’t just about what I felt, but what I’m feeling with my Takitimu family. During that time I’m just thinking about, this is part of our culture that has survived colonisation. Here we are, in New Zealand, in a Pākehā world, doing Te Maeva Nui. It’s just insane, it’s mind-blowing when you think about it in the past 100 years.”

Fittingly, the theme for this year’s festival is ‘resilience‘.


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Cook Islands Art in the Royal Collection

A couple of months ago Jean Tekura and Rod Dixon wrote and intriguing article that was published in the Cook Islands News. With the recent passing of Prince Philip, the authors wondered what official gifts that had been presented to Queen Elizabeth II, her consort, and other royals during their Cook Islands visits. This is what they found:

The British Royal Collection is said to be the largest private art collection in the world and comprises more than 300,000 objects including paintings by the great masters Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio, and Rembrandt.

The collection is housed across 13 British royal residences including Windsor Castle, where several Cook Islands pieces are currently on display.

These Cook Islands art works have been obtained as gifts during Royal visits to the Cook Islands or New Zealand, or on special occasions such as the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on June 2, 1953.

Makea Nui Teremoana Ariki, CBE and her husband Dr Tau Cowan MBE, represented the Cook Islands at Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, while Flight Sergeant Marama Nicholas represented Cook Islands’ war veterans.

Makea Nui Ariki brought to London two large, intricately carved pearl shells, one with a tamanu wood surround, as the Cook Islands’ official gift to the Coronation.

One shell depicts the prow of a double canoe “in which Polynesians first voyaged southward to New Zealand”.

The second, a shell measuring 8.5 x 27 x 24cm, portrays Captain Cook encircled, in a clockwise direction, by a Mangaian ceremonial toki, an outrigger canoe under sail, a traditional ’are, two coconut palms, a profile of the island of Rarotonga, a flying fish, a tern and a shark.


A shell shaped wooden surround, mounted with a giant carved pearl shell. Presented to Queen Elizabeth II by Makea Nui Teremoana Ariki of the Cook Islands on the occasion of her Coronation in 1953. (© Royal Collection, Windsor Castle). 21051465

The shells were shaped and polished by Ron Powell and the carving attributed to Pikai and Matakite Rangi Malo. The tamanu surrounds were shaped by Aaron Marsters. The two impressive and finely worked shells are currently on display in the Grand Vestibule of Windsor Castle.

Another Cook Islands item in the Royal Collection is a Mangaian ceremonial adze (39.0 x 17.0 x 8.5 cms) dating back to 1901. This item is described in the catalogue as a “square black stone blade lashed with plaited cord to a wood handle carved in castellated style with geometric designs, pierced with four holes towards the base and standing on 12 small feet….Lent to the British Museum by the Prince and Princess of Wales (later King George V and Queen Mary) in 1902; presumably presented to them during their world tour, 1901.”

The adze was indeed presented to Prince George and his consort, the future King George V and Queen Mary, in 1901 by Metuakore John Trego Numangatini Ariki, one of the dual Ariki of Mangaia.

In late May 1901, Numangatini Ariki accompanied Maretu Pa Ariki and the Resident Commissioner Lieutenant Col. Gudgeon to Auckland to meet the royal party and to attend the formal proclamation of the incorporation of the Cook Islands within the borders of New Zealand (Auckland Star, 31 May 1901).

On 11 June, 1901, the two Cook Islands Ariki joined the New Zealand Governor, Cabinet Ministers and other VIPs on a dais in Queen Street to welcome the Prince and Princess to Auckland.

At a later reception, a journalist from the Otago Witness (12 June 1901) observed: “They are both gentlemen in the truest sense of the word, but they have never seen a town before, and, though they are both middle-aged men and Kings in their own country, they will, for the first time in their lives, travel in a railway train [to Rotorua] on Thursday next.”

In Rotorua, the two Ariki were presented with commemorative gold medals by Prince George. Numangatini Ariki may have taken this opportunity to present his gift, the Mangaian toki.

A further Cook Islands item in the Royal Collection is a Tangaroa lamp, presented to Queen Elizabeth by Premier Albert Henry during her visit to New Zealand in March 1970. The carver’s name is not recorded. The Royal Collection catalogue describes it as a “carved, wooden statuette of a male figure decorated with a shell”.

The shell is decorated with a carved landscape depicting two traditional ’are, hills, clouds and coconut trees. The hardwood base has shell insets shaped in the form of the 15 Cook Islands. The figure is wired for electricity with a bulb set in the figure’s stomach.

The remaining Cook Islands items in the Royal Collection are mostly souvenir items produced for the growing tourist trade, accelerated by the opening of Rarotonga International Airport by the Queen in 1974.

At the time, Island Craft was also producing high quality museum reproductions that were, arguably, better suited as royal gifts.

Under Palace protocols, official gifts cannot be sold or exchanged, and automatically become part of the Royal Collection. This means, for example, that the Bahamas is represented in the Royal Collection by a painting of Nassau’s famous swimming pigs (Guardian, 23 April, 2020).

There is clearly some value of forethought in choosing official gifts. An example is the recent selection of an intricately carved and delicately lashed toki, carved by Allan Tuara, and presented to the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern by Prime Minister Brown on his first State visit to New Zealand in March 2021.

In addition to traditional carving, the Cook Islands has a strong contemporary arts scene, including painters, sculptors, fabric artists and photographers from whose output official gifts could be selected.

In 2012, Elena Tavioni’s clothing of locally designed and printed fabric was worn by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and in March this year, it was reported that one of Mahiriki Tangaroa’s most recent paintings had been purchased by the Governor General of New Zealand, Dame Patsy Reddy, for her collection.

With the 70th anniversary of the Queen’s Coronation in 2023, there may be a case for a gift by the Queen’s Representative of a selection of contemporary Cook Islands fine-art, significantly updating and enhancing Cook Islands representation in the Royal Collection, alongside Island Craft’s two lustrous Coronation pearl shells.

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Keeping Old Songs Alive in Fiji

Journalist, Felix Chaudhary, wrote an interesting article for the Fiji Times about how musician, William ‘Bigwilz’ Waqanibaravi, believed that songs of old still have a place in today’s COVID-19 stricken world after analyzing the response to his online charity concert event last week.

The Suva-based singer-songwriter said he did not expect people to respond to the ‘Lockdown Aid Livestream’ the way that they did.

At the time this article was written, about 3000 social media users had viewed his online solo concert in aid of non-governmental organisations – Fiji Council of Social Services, Foundation for Rural Integrated Enterprises and Development (FRIEND) Fiji and Lautoka community worker Allen Lockington.

The Samabula resident said he wanted to contribute towards the efforts of FCOSS, FRIEND Fiji and Mr Lockington because of the sacrifices they were making towards bringing relief to thousands of Fijians affected by the COVID-19 outbreak.

Bigwilz, a former Fiji Airways aircraft engineer, knows firsthand the challenges many are facing. Many of his former colleagues are going through similar difficulties. “Instead of wasting time lounging around and going on Netflix during the Suva-Nausori lockdown, I discussed the idea with a few friends and we put together the Lockdown Aid Livestream,” he said.

“It was the first time for me to do something like this and there were a few crinkles that emerged that I will work on to ensure the next one runs without any glitches.” Bigwilz said the online fundraiser began slow but began raking in likes, comments and emojis as the hours went by.

“When it hit about 3000 views, I was really surprised. But what surprised me even more were the reactions and requests for songs from Fiji’s past. And this was from youngsters right through to those who probably were there when the original artists performed those songs,” he said. 

“These were songs that everyone was familiar with, like Na Gauna – originally done by the PJ Twomey Serenaders in the ’70s – and Talei Ni Gauna by the Old Timers from the early ’80s. Other songs that drew a lot of attention were Kea Dau Voli Na Gauna, which was originally done by Waikoula Kei Tavua, Ratu Isireli Racule’s song Niu Dau Raica Na Vei Senikau and Liwa Mai, the beautiful tune composed by Ratu Manu Korovulavula.”

Bigwilz is no stranger to songs from the past. During his formative years in Sigatoka, he remembers listening to classic iTaukei tunes on an old transistor radio. When he moved to Nadi with his family, Bigwilz began rubbing shoulders with iconic local band Black Rose, which later became Rosiloa.

He later met up with Simione Rova, Phil Dakei and yours truly, and formed Makare – a group that gained popularity by revamping old iTaukei songs.


William ‘Bigwilz’ Waqanibaravi, photo from

His love for music was recognized by Talei Draunibaka and Nemani Vanua who invited Bigwilz to perform at their Tribute to the Classics show at the Grand Pacific Hotel in 2017. They asked him to perform Lakeba, a song composed by Gilman Lasaisuva who wrote it while he was doing a resident gig in New Caledonia in the ’70s. “It was easily one of my biggest challenges as an artist to perform such an iconic song in a packed out room.”

More recently, Bigwilz began a solo career and released a collection of classic iTaukei songs in an album titled Rai Lesu.

He believes the magic, penmanship and musical intricacies of songs of the past have a way of touching people’s hearts in ways that modern tunes just can’t seem to do.

“I believe that we have a duty to keep these songs relevant and to introduce them to the next generation. These songs have a unique way of taking people’s minds off the COVID-19 crisis by transporting them back in time. And I am grateful to be given the opportunity and platform to share these old songs with Fijians around the world.”

When quizzed about his favourite iTaukei tune, Bigwilz said it was Timoci Gucake’s Isa Noqu Lewa Au Domoni Iko (Ave Maria).

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Lifting People’s Spirits Among Pandemic in Tonga

Last week Radio New Zealand journalist, Sela Jane Hopgood, reported how a float parade in Tonga, which was initiated by the Ministry of Tourism aimed to lighten up the mood in the Kingdom amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Tonga’s borders remain closed to visitors.

The Tourism Industry and Cultural Festival comes after more than a year since mass gatherings, including the annual Heilala Festival, was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Fifteen floats took part and competed in the parade that started from the CBD to the Taufa’ahau Domestic Wharf.

Frederica Tuita Filipe awarded the prizes to the best floats in two competing categories – a cultural category and a business category.

There were cash prizes for first, second and third place and all participants received consolation cash prizes.

In the business category, first place went to Tonga Institute of Higher Education (TIHE) School of Tourism and Hospitality, second was a tie between the Ministry of Customs-Revenue and Digicel. The Ministry of Education float came in third.

TIHE lecturer Selita Kinikini-Latu said they wanted to create a float that reflected the vision of the institute, hence why the banner saying a ‘productive future’. “We wanted our float to encourage our young generations not to drop out of school, but to come through this stream of education in order to make their way up and help build the economy,” she said.

The theme for the festival was ‘beautiful Tonga’, and Kinikini-Latu said that TIHE’s School of Tourism wanted to highlight natural beauty and the beauty of nature with their float. “We didn’t buy new resources. The students donated the materials, so we used flowers and coconut leaves, anything we could find in our own backyards. We wanted our float and the work we have done to create the float to empower the young people and the people of Tonga to know that we do not need to have the wealth of the world to make a productive Tonga, we just need to make use of the resources that we have.


‘Productive Future’ float by TIHE Photo: Supplied / Tonga Institute of Higher Education

“The added banners seen on the windscreen and on top of the float were kindly done by Mr. Taniela Petelo and Mr. Saia Akoteu of Seleka Arts Gallery while the women prepare the ‘pola’ (weaving coconut leaves) and flower arrangement,” Kinikini-Latu said.

What made the experience special for the students at the School of Tourism was having their deputy director of education Dr Raelyn Esau participate with them in creating the float.

Kinikini-Latu explained that those who participated in the creation of the float had no experience in weaving, but worked as a team to figure out how to utilize the materials they had on hand. “We sat down and looked at each other, amused, at how we were going to weave designs together,” she said.

“Dr Esau was behind us all the whole time, so we collectively put our thoughts together and while we were brainstorming, Dr Esau managed to weave one pattern. “That was how it went, following each other’s lead when it came to weave the coconut leaves and the palm leaves.

Also featured on the parade were the colorful marching school bands from Tailulu College, Tonga College, Tonga High School and Teacher’s Training College.

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Shortland Islands Culture on Display

The Solomon Star ran an article last week about how the Australian High Commissioner to Solomon Islands, Dr Lachlan Stratham had praised the highly rich culture displayed by the people of Shortland Islands in the Western Province during the recent groundbreaking ceremony of the new Patrol Base Outpost in Lofung and Nila.

The Shortland Islands lie in the extreme north of Solomon Islands, just south of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea. The largest island is named Shortland (or Alu); others include Ovau, Pirumeri, Magusaiai, Fauro and Ballale. Lieutenant John Shortland named them in 1788.


Where are the Shortland Islands? Map from

The groundbreaking of the multi-million project last week has seen a display of vibrant and rich culture by the host island. Locals from within the communities of the Shortland Islands have gathered together to perform and displayed their culture in front of hundreds to a thousand onlookers and guests.

The displaying of the culture featured warriors dressing in local costumes as they welcomed the Australian High Commissioner and Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, and other delegates.

In his opening remarks, Dr Lachlan said, a vibrant and proud culture is the beating heart of every country. “The vibrant culture on displayed shows a very proud culture that shows a true identity. We are the Pacific family that shares one common good that values respect.

“Therefore, this spectacular art of cultural dancing and chanting displayed at the scene shows that this is your identity and you all should be proud of your highly and vibrant culture,’’ he added.

The groundbreaking ceremony ended with cultural entertainments from the local community and followed by feasting.

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Cook Islands Sailing Crew Inspired by Traditional Methods

Last week journalist Jamie Tahana wrote an article for Radio New Zealand about how traditional sailing methods inspired a Cook Islands vaka crew to make an epic voyage. 

Bobbing in the golden sunset on the calm waters of Avarua Harbour, sheltered by the lush, jagged peaks of Rarotonga, the vaka is an impressive sight. Its double hulls are held together by solid wooden beams, on top of which sits a half-cylinder wheelhouse nestled between two masts. Its fresh varnish glistens in the setting sun, its final throes buttering the tropical horizon a soft orange.

The vaka, Marumaru Atua, sits ready, waiting for the great and important voyage ahead.

This voyage, which started last week, saw a crew of mostly young Cook Islanders sailing to all of the country’s 15 islands and atolls, spread out across 2 million square kilometres of ocean. Starting from Rarotonga and heading north to Aitutaki, carrying on up to Tongareva, before turning around and down to Mangaia, stopping at each and every island between.


The Marumaru Atua, Cook Islands. Photo by the

But they are trying to reach their destinations the traditional way: using only the stars, the wind and reading the ocean’s currents.

It’s a journey they hope will inspire a renaissance of the knowledge that saw their tipuna navigate across the great blue moana, a knowledge that, today, has dwindled to the point of being endangered.

“To do a trip like this, to go to all of [the islands] one-by-one, as part of one big trip. It’s incredible, it’s very historic, it’s awesome,” said Alex Teariki-Olah, of the Cook Islands Voyaging Society. “It’s about teaching and maintaining the way that we sail these canoes in a traditional manner using traditional techniques and passing it on to the youth that we’re taking with us.”

The Marumaru Atua itself is a replica, one of about a dozen across the Pacific built using blueprints taken by an assistant to the British sailor, James Cook, in the 1700s which were found in the British library.

“The lines, measurements, everything are absolutely correct, down to the last detail,” Teariki-Olah said. “That is except for the modern materials,” like the lightweight fibreglass hull, or the more durable sails. “Our excuse for that is if our ancestors had these materials they would be using them.”

But that does not make it any less impressive. The evening RNZ visited, several crew were doing some final preparations on board, the vaka tied at the wharf outside the famous (or notorious, depending who you ask) Trader Jacks. From there, locals marvelled at the vaka as they went about their evening.

Ungraciously ascend the wobbly gangplank onto the Marumaru Atua and you’re instantly struck by the mana of the vessel, known affectionately by the crew as their mama. “Look after your mama and it will look after you,” they would say as they carefully folded ropes, or swept its deck an umpteenth time.

Dion Wong is one of the crew. He’s been hooked on sailing for years, he said, and would gleefully show the vaka off to anyone and everyone who asked. He demonstrated the tiny galley and the rudimentary shower system: a bucket tied to a rope at the back of the boat (“no point being shy on here,” he said, when the lack of privacy was raised). He crawled below the deck, into the tight and claustrophobic sleeping quarters; eight bunks, barely more than five feet long, in each hull.

But Wong takes the most pride in explaining how the vaka gets around. “We’re guided by the swells, the sun rising and setting, and then once the sun goes down then, oh I mean you’ve got the sky, you’re using all the stars.”

He proudly raised the ‘oi at the back, a giant wooden rudder that’s hand controlled 24/7. In shifts a person steers, keeping a straight path. Beneath the ‘oi, carved beautifully onto the deck, is the compass that maps the stars, which keeps them to their path. “Our stars, the sun and the moon, you know, they rise in different houses,” he said, pointing his toe at various names on the compass – Kainga, Ra, Oronga, Ngoio – with the vaka at the circle’s center. So if we’re rising, say, straight on East. You know that that’s gonna come on up and it’s gonna set in the opposite house, and we’re in the middle here.”

The helmsmen at the ‘oi will follow that path, steering a course to a tiny atoll in the vast expense of the empty blue Pacific.

But what about when it’s cloudy? Wong said there’s always a gap in the clouds to offer a peek at a star or the moon. During the day, there’s always something to train the eye on.

“An atoll, it’s got the big lagoon eh,” said Wong in a tone that would suggest the knowledge was obvious. “So you can see the reflection of the lagoon water on the bottom of the cloud. Look along the horizon. All the clouds are grey. [But] on the bottom you’ll see a blueish, greenish hue.”

Alex Teariki-Olah said it was this knowledge that had tipuna from across the Cook Islands, the wider Pacific and Aotearoa navigating from island-to-island as the great voyagers. But now there are few who can read nature in such a way. It’s a science that has become endangered, he said.

That is why there are a dozen young Cook Islanders on this voyage, all there to learn from the two master navigators who will be guiding them. At each island, they will disembark to meet with communities, to feast (kaikai), and to teach others about navigation, hoping to inspire more to join future voyages.

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Celebrating the Talents of Vanuatu Women in New Book

Vanuatu is to launch a literary first with an anthology of women’s writing. The new book features work from three generations of women spanning from just 20 to an octogenarian. Sista, Stanap Strong! contains poetry, fiction, essay, memoir and song. It was published by Victoria University Press.

The book’s stories span from the late 1800s blackbirding era, when raiders seized labourers for Queensland’s plantations, to independence in 1980 and the present day.

Most writers are resident in Vanuatu with others in New Zealand, Fiji, Canada and Solomon Islands.

Sista, Stanap Strong! tackles subjects including racism, colonialism and sexism head-on through a Vanuatu women’s lens.



The writers in this anthology have chosen to harness the colonizer’s language, English, for their own purposes. They are writing against racism, colonialism, misogyny, and sexism. Writing across bloodlines and linguistic boundaries. Professing their love for ancestors, offspring, and language – Bislama, vernacular and English.

The book’s co-editor Mikaela Nyman says the work aims to balance the entirely male historical narrative since Vanuatu was the colonial New Hebrides. “Whether you’re French or British and so forth. And that’s a very narrow perspective but the women seldom get to tell their piece and they were of course were not the ones in power,” said Nyman.

“And so this is really trying to rectify the previous record, both historical but also the literary ones. Let the women speak too.”

Poet Selina Tusitala Marsh called it astute and emotionally honest.

The launch and mini writers festival took place last week at the Vanuatu National Museum in Port Vila.

The book will be available for purchase by emailing

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Mexican Artist Depicts Unity in Cook Islands Murals

The Cook Islands News recently released a posting written by Alana Musselle about the vibrant artwork around Rarotonga by stranded Mexican artist, Gonzalo Aldana.

Aldana had painted over 20 murals around Rarotonga, each of them strongly portraying the vibrancy of Cook Islands culture. Present in his work are images of local flora and fauna, deities, and traditional designs and patterns all delicately woven through each of his pieces.

Aldana has worked and travelled in much of Europe including Spain, Germany, Serbia, Malta, Italy, Romania, and Bulgaria. His most recent stop before the Cook Islands was New Zealand. “In every place I travel, I share my art. I like to make sure that the culture of the country I am in is depicted well,” Aldana said. This is evident in each of his paintings as they all clearly portray the vibrant and rich feel of Cook Islands’ culture. 

With a passion for travel and expression through art, Gonzalo Aldana was pleased when acting Australian High Commissioner Peter Lothian came up with the idea to drive around the island and visit each of Aldana’s murals so that he could explain the meanings attached to them. 

The first mural they stopped at was located at Polynesian Tattoos at the Punanga Nui Market. Here Aldana painted a giant turtle he named ‘Freda’ across the exterior of the tattoo parlour.

Aldana said that in exchange for his artwork, tattoo artist Clive Nicholas also shared his own craft with him in the form of an arm sleeve tattoo. It was a very special experience to be able to share art like that, he said.

When describing his style, Aldana said he doesn’t like to be too “hyper realistic” but mixes realistic elements with more abstract ones like geometric shapes and traditional designs to create that fluid effect present in all of his work. 

Unity, family and community are three strong values the people of the Cook Islands hold dear, and Aldana has incorporated these values into many of his murals around the island.


Gonzalo Aldana standing outside the popular family business ‘Charlie’s’ with the mural he painted, representing the idea of family and union. Photo by Radio New Zealand.

Amongst these is the mural displayed at Charlie’s Restaurant, a dynamic piece depicting an eagle and a bulldog. Aldana explained that because this was a family business, the owner wanted to include the villages in which his parents reside: hence the eagle which represents Matavera/Ngatangiia, and the bulldog representing Titikaveka. Above the ‘Charlie’s’ logo there is also a symbol which is the Tahitian symbol of marriage and unity.

Another artwork conveying the idea of community, tradition and overall unity, which Aldana named ‘Hope’, is located behind the USP campus near the National Auditorium in Tupapa. This art work, commissioned by the university, depicts a Polynesian woman as “Mother Nature” and her ties to the land and sea.

He said it represents the idea of hope as the island tries to heal itself during the Covid-19 period where there were no hordes of visitors draining its resources. Tureheni File, an office manager with the university, said it represents Cook Islands students being rooted to their homeland but being able to grow/travel through the building of knowledge.

Aldana has stayed at the Black Pearl Puaikura for six months now where he has painted at least 15 singular murals in each accommodation unit. Owners Janelle Namana and Paul Stevens said that his artwork “gives us a point of difference”, and they have deeply appreciated his talent. 

Aldana has enjoyed learning about the culture of the Cook Islands and all the different elements of it that he has been able to weave through his work. He has been able to work with artists such as Mike Tavioni, who shared with him many of the different traditional legends and stories.


Photo from the Australian High Commission Facebook Page

The legend of how Maui harnessed the sun to make the days longer has been used at the Renewable Energy Office in Avarua. This legend coincided nicely with the idea of renewable energy, such as solar-powered panels, also present in the painting.

Aldana decided to include the idea of unity in this piece also, as it is perhaps the strongest value across Polynesia as a whole. The rays of the sun resemble hands reaching out to the sky all together, which was Aldana’s way of depicting the idea of family, the tribe and unity. 

Starting in Avarua and travelling around the entire island to view these artworks, Peter Lothian also had a highly enjoyable day. “It is nice for me to be able to get out and learn about things like this around the island. Diplomacy is all about getting to know a country,” he said. 

Aldana has contributed to the country in the way of beautifying it and is eager to practice his art more where he can. This is his way of leaving a beautiful mark that will remain long after he leaves to make his mark somewhere new.


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Writers on Samoan Language Week

Justin LatifLocal Democracy Reporter, wrote a piece for last week’s Samoan Language Week in New Zealand titled, “Rekindling Memories and Righting Wrongs: Writers on Samoan Language Week,” which was about how Sāmoan authors believe that their language was more than just a means of communication, but also a way to build confidence among their fellow youth.

For one children’s author, using her Sāmoan language is an act of decolonisation. For another group of Sāmoan writers, it’s a means to reconnect to home. It’s Sāmoan language week and for Reina Vaai just the simple act of speaking her mother tongue has powerful ramifications. “When our parents first migrated here, they were trying to assimilate – so speaking Sāmoan was not a good thing,” she said.

“But now there’s a huge revival from second-generation Sāmoans wanting to reclaim their language, participating [in Sāmoan language week] is actually an act of decolonisation.”

The criminal barrister turned writer has four books for children to her name, all peppered with the Sāmoan language, colorful characters and her culture.

Parents often tell her the books, which she distributes in schools and libraries both in Auckland and back in Sāmoa, are helping their families rediscover a love for their language “It’s been amazing to see the messages from parents, who can’t speak Sāmoan but are really keen to give these books to their children, so they can reconnect.”

Being proficient in the language has helped her work out her own identity in a western context, she said. “Growing up I wasn’t allowed to speak English at home, as my parents were huge on knowing my culture. And it’s really helped to guide me, as it’s been a foundation for my life as the language is a tool for me to better navigate different pressures as well as support my family.”

‘It gives you more confidence’

For a group of 10 student authors at Tangaroa College in Ōtara, sharing stories of home in a soon-to-be-released bi-lingual book has helped to rekindle memories of families back in Sāmoa, while encouraging New Zealand-born Sāmoan peers to persevere with their language skills.


Tangaroa College students, from left, Petala Nanai, Fipule Tanavasa, and Togisau Chan Sau, with their English teacher Debbie Riley holding the cover of their book- photo by

Local Democracy Reporting spoke with Fipule Tanavasa, Togisa Chan Sau and Petala Nanai about their experiences writing La’u Penina Tautele My Pearl of Great Price.

The trio all came to New Zealand for secondary school but have not seen their parents and younger siblings since the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in travel restrictions being imposed between the two nations.

Tanavasu, 16, said it had been hard not seeing her parents for such a long time, but contributing to the book had been a special way to recall life back home and it inspired her to want to write a second book about her family. “I know that English is our second language, but it’s important to keep our culture active and because our language is so important to us,” she said.

Nanai, 15, said being strong in her language gave her more confidence. “It’s important for our young people not to be shy to share our culture. I know we have to learn English because that’s how we’ll get jobs, but you have to know your first language, because then it’s easier to learn your second language. And it also gives you more confidence.”

Togisau Chan Sau’s message to his fellow Sāmoan peers was clear: “with the Sāmoan language and culture, you can be anything you want”.

Auckland councillor Fa’anana Efeso Collins grew up in Ōtara at a time when speaking only English was encouraged, so seeing the opportunities available to students at his old school was “inspiring”. He said, “I went to school at a time when kids were being told not to speak their native tongue at home. But language is a key pillar of one’s culture so learning and maintaining your home language is pivotal to your identity. As a semi proficient speaker of Sāmoan I take any opportunity to speak the language, however embarrassed I feel in certain contexts.”

The students wrote the book as part of an Auckland Council-funded project, which councillor Alf Filipaina said was to increase the Pacific language and te reo Māori content in libraries.

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