Friday, March 1, 2013

Return Migration

“An empty sack can’t stand.” LagiholoTuhega.

  Urbanization brought the people of the pacific to the cities of colonialized nations with the notion that life was better and there were more opportunities in the wealthier countries. What they didn't realize at the time was that because so many people moved to the city, their homelands ended up suffering. 

My grandfather was one of many Niueans who migrated to New Zealand in the early 20th century. He was from a small island called Niue commonly called the Rock of Polynesia. 

  Lagiholo Tuhega was born in Niue on the 9th of January 1927 and was the eldest of seventeen children. His mother Sisimata was Niuean and his father Kaifofo was half German and half Niuean. They managed their own store in Niue and his father was also a well-known tailor and boxing champ in Niue.

  He attended a Niuean residential school until he was 15, which was the end of ones school days back then. This was unusual as many Niueans around that time did not have proper schooling. He then worked at a hospital as a medical student but could not stand the blood, so he then trained as an infant school teacher. On the 13th of March 1944 at just 17 years old his parents put him on the Maui Pomare ship and sent him to Aotearoa.

  In New Zealand he worked as a blacksmith, saw miller, a shoe maker, bushman and steel metal worker. Life was far from easy back then, but the Niueans worked hard and together built or bought their own houses and paid for their community halls and churches.

  Papa was well read and had learnt the British ways of law and politics, industry and economic life, and during his life in New Zealand bought three homes and sold them all before going back to Niue. He wrote for newspapers and books about issues relating to land tenure in Niue and life for Pacific Islanders in New Zealand.

  In one article he said: "Many Niuean people in New Zealand would suffer great difficulties if it were not for the Church, Maori Affairs Department and help from earlier Niuean settlers. Social handicaps lead to a great waste of manpower, especially when the younger people get themselves into trouble with the police in their new-found land. No matter how much our church leaders warn them in the church services and social gatherings, weakness and sins generated in the metropolitan power are too great it seems. Countless youths of their school age were under welfare care. How these people will turn out in the future I'll never know."
 It was clear that Papa Lagi was a man who had real concerns regarding his people, the land and their future well-being.

  He met my grandmother Polly Tauhore Reid while he was in hospital. Nana was a nurse at the hospital and Papa was working in the forestry industry on the East coast. She is from Ngati Porou with European ancestry as well. They had 11 children together. There were 6 sons and 5 daughters with my mother being the second youngest of the lot. He believed education was very important for his kids and they attended some of the best schools New Zealand had like Auckland boys Grammer.

  In 1963 the Niue Government had made moves to introduce new land legislation in Niue which meant there was a chance New Zealand Niueans may lose their land and thus their identity as Niueans. A committee was formed, chairman and officers were elected, and an organisation called the Niue (New Zealand) Society was born.

  In 1964 selected delegates from the Niue (New Zealand) Society were invited to the Legislative Assembly meeting in Niue. They were selected by the New Zealand Niuean people who were angry about the chance of losing their land rights. Papa Lagi was appointed leader of the three member delegation and was accompanied by Professor Aikman (Constitutional Advisor) and Mr Jock McEwen (Secretary for Maori and Island Affairs).

  It was the first time Papa had been back to the island for 20 years and the experience had a profound impact on him. From the start his fellow members in the delegation adopted a very defensive attitude, but because of his time working in the land, farming and forestry industry in New Zealand he saw things alot differently.

  The controversial topic was the twenty year absentee landowner's clause which was to eliminate land rights of those living overseas for long periods. He could see that the Niuean Government were trying to utilize the land to bring about progress on the island which would improve the standard of living, but the other New Zealand Niueans who did nothing with their land, just wanted Niue to stay the way it was. He was sympathetic towards development of Niue.

  After one month on Niue discussing these issues, the Niuean Government said they will squash the draft proposals. Papa and the other members returned by ship to Auckland via Pago Pago, Apia and Suva with tickets paid for by the Niuean Government who he mentioned, treated them with terrific hospitality. 

  On arrival in New Zealand a meeting was called in Auckland as the people were eager to know the outcome of the Legislative Assembly meeting. In his own words he wrote: "True to the past, the coconut wireless had already got home unreal stories."
  People questioned why he did not follow the other two and he was called a coward because he chose to listen to the people in Niue.

  After ten years these people who criticized him eventually came around when they saw how under developed there land was. Luckily for them the government had developed some of their land but still most of it remained idle and useless. Negotiations continued without Papa as he decided to move back down to Nana's land with the whanau on the East Coast near Gisborne for a few years.

  He returned to Auckland in 1970 and then went back to Niue for a 4 week visit when the airport came into operation. Although he was still participating in some of the Society's activities he wasn't as close as in previous years. He was now planning on saving money to return to Niue to live.

  In 1974 Niue became a self-governing nation and during this time it saw a large number of Niueans move away. Papa thought it was because of uncertainty regarding the political future of the country. But it does seem to coincide with the big migrations from the other islands which had been happening over the last twenty years.

  At the same time the expats had concerns regarding adapting to the metropolitan way of life in New Zealand. He spoke of some of the changes and the uncertainty of acceptance in New Zealand and the economic pressures Niueans faced during the seventies. Adding to that was the constant hounding of newspapers about social misfits which reflected unfairly on the law-abiding Niueans.

  In 1974 Papa was one of the few New Zealand Niueans who decided to return to Niue. He brought for the first time his wife and their five youngest children including my mum. On returning he prepared his land for surveyors so that he could register the land. This would enable him to get a government loan to set himself up. This was not only for the family’s security but it would also stop other relatives from claiming our land.

  The people welcomed him with open arms but it wasn't always easy because some had objections to him getting the land he was born to. Eventually he got the land and the loan, and was able to build the house which remains there to this day.

  In 1975 Papa was employed by the Niuean Government as the Public Works Department Sawmill Overseer until his retirement at age 60. During his ten years in Niue from 1975 to 1985 he built a house for us to use as a family base and planted over a hundred coconut trees and improved the property.

  While working for the government he negotiated timber land leases; formed new roads to the five logging areas; planted over 10,000 exotic trees; was involved in the survey of 64,000 acres of land and after the tragic hurricane in 1980 he supplied over 500 mahogany logs to the government for lost canoes.

  He returned to New Zealand in 1985 because he was sick and needed a kidney transplant. He couldn’t get one but had to remain in New Zealand because he was on dialysis treatment for his remaining years.

  His final years were very sad, this was partly because he had been such a strong man all his life and when he got sick it meant he couldn't go back to his homeland and live the way he wanted.

  Papa passed away in 1995. His children took him back to Niue and according to his wishes he was buried on the front lawn of the home he built for the family.

  All our family either went to New Zealand or settled in Australia. The land is now looked after by my mum’s cousin and the house is rented out to anyone wishing to stay there.

   Now though it is a lot easier than ever to live a comfortable laid back life over there and still be a part of the rest of the world largely due to the introduction of the internet to the island. Niue is the first Wi-Fi nation ever in the whole wide world, with free wireless internet across the entire country. For some people who rely on the internet for finding and delivering work this can be a huge incentive to move back to the island once more.

   In Niue as of 2011 it is said to have a population of about 1,300 but some believe that is a lie and there may be under a thousand left. However there are over 40,000 Niueans living overseas with most of them living in Auckland.

   This is still a dangerously low amount of people and so there is a strong concern that Niue will become a ghost island. So for future generations who might wish to move back and live a more natural life, one needs to seriously think is living in larger wealthy nations really worth losing your culture and your identity? After all happiness is a state of mind so will the ‘all about the benjamins’ attitude to life really make you happy?

   Papa was very disappointed that he couldn't go back to live in his beloved Niue. There was so much more he would have liked to have done to help bring about a stronger economy for Niue. Now it is our turn to go back there and help bring progress and development to the small island nation.

  For urban Polynesian people being raised only knowing the metropolitan way of life they may have occasionally felt somewhat out of place in their urban surroundings and if so should really think about migrating back to Niue, not just to learn about the culture and see the uniquely beautiful environment, but also to appreciate what people like my grandfather did for us.

   With the everyday struggles of the metropolitan lifestyle, being in a demanding environment working for pennies and being judged unfairly because of the colour of your skin, what better way is there to spend your life than on an island paradise like the Rock of Polynesia? Niue.