Anybody Home? Pacific Island of Niue Hit by Exodus

The oral traditions that were once strong on the island are in danger of disappearing, he says. He remembers as a young boy going into his grandfather's bedroom at 5 in the morning, before he went to work, to hear him tell stories about fishing and working in the bush.

"It's really hard. The more you stay away from home, the more you embrace other cultures, especially the Western culture," he says. "There's nothing much you can do about it."

Yet on Niue there is a sense of optimism, a belief the exodus might finally be halting. That's thanks to more tourism money coming in and a renewed sense of national pride.

Roy Pavihi, 26, is part of a youth group that's learning to make canoes, using traditional tools like chisels and modern ones like electric planers. He works from a building near the old Avatele school, where it seems the roosters never stop crowing. He says he thinks the project is encouraging people to stay.

"We need to follow the skills of our forefathers," he says. "Our village was renowned for fishing and canoes."

It's a way to keep the old knowledge alive, and comes with a bonus: catches of wahoo, tuna and mackerel for those who master the vessels.

One person who was never tempted to leave is Maihetoe Hekau. At 73, she remembers when families had little or no paid work, and instead tended their plantations, raising taro, tapioca and bananas.

A Niuean proverb has it that if you keep your bush knife sharp — or stay motivated — you will clear yourself a bigger plantation.

Although she attended high school in New Zealand, Hekau says she always loved the relaxed lifestyle on Niue, and figured it was the best place to raise a big family.

How big? She laughs, embarrassed to say. More than 10? Yes, she says, more than 10.

These days, she says, she uses a tablet computer to keep in touch with her children, most of whom live on the island. In 2003, Niue became the first country to offer all residents free Wi-Fi, one of several technological upgrades that islanders say make the isolation easier to cope with.

New Zealand is gradually reducing its aid to Niue, arguing that its contributions to the trust fund and its investments in tourism are helping the country become more self-sufficient.

This year, most Niuean government workers had their five-day work weeks reduced to four days at the same pay. The government says it helps people spend more time in their communities, while critics say it was because the budget is stretched and there was no money for promised raises.

Niue Premier Toke Talagi remains bullish on his country's future.

"I know that some people tend to look at us and say, 'Well, you're not viable,'" he says. "You need to define exactly what you mean by that. We were viable before anybody else came here. We were independent before anybody else came here."

"Our task at the present moment is to use tourism to try to create opportunities so that people in New Zealand, or anywhere around the world that Niueans are living, will consider Niue again as a place for them to come back and live," he says.

Niue government figures indicate about 7,000 people visited the island last year, double the number from six years earlier. Air New Zealand this year scheduled extra flights during the Southern Hemisphere winter tourist season.

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