Published in Cook Islands News
When a wave sent her through the window of her house and across the village of Tauhunu, Barbie Bailey felt no pain.
She was among the most severely injured by Cyclone Martin, but remembers in those moments only the feeling of being cloaked in warmth.
“It’s like something wrapping me,” she remembers now, 18 years after Martin destroyed her home and her island. “This thing cover me and that’s it.”
She believes it was a gift from God, on whom she called twice.
Barbie and her Manihiki people cloaked themselves, during and after Cyclone Martin, in faith, in community, in love. They turned to the Bible, to their tupuna, to their strong island heritage, to each other. Their losses were big, but their spirit was bigger.
Seventeen months ago, I was commissioned, under a joint venture between the Cyclone Martin Charitable Trust and Cook Islands News, to write a book about Cyclone Martin’s impact on Manihiki. The first time we met to talk about the project, over sandwiches in her office at Parliament House, trustee Niki Rattle told me the experience would change my life.
“I’m telling you, Rachel,” she said, with tears in her eyes, “you’ll never be the same.”
The day I wrote those words on a napkin, I knew to anticipate a journey through great pain. What I didn’t anticipate was being cloaked in the warmth of the Manihiki people.
For a writer, there is no higher honour than to tell stories about people whose lives teach us lessons about living. Entering into a community as special as Te Fuinga O Niva is an honour even greater.
Manihiki cloaked me in aroha. People sent letters, bags of fish, text messages, and sacks of uto to Rarotonga. They gave gifts of pare rito, carved parau, kikau brooms, pearls. They called me, prayed for me, went to the seashore at dawn to invoke the protection of the spiritual guardians of Manuhiki-taku-vaka. They sustained me and my team. A handful of talented people I am blessed to know – editors, graphic designers, artists, and photographers — worked sleeplessly and for nominal compensation because they were drawn to the soul of an island 1100 kilometres away.
My name is on the cover of Mātini, but it is not my book. This book belongs to the people, whose spirit carried it from concept to completion.
Surviving and recovering from Cyclone Martin required extraordinary strength, but so, too, did supporting this project. For many Manihiki people, agreeing to be interviewed was itself an act of courage. In speaking with me, they brazenly defied spouses, neighbours, and members of their families whose lingering pain and rightful distrust of outsiders made them resentful of the project.
Manihikians contributed to this book in obvious ways – by bravely telling their stories – but also in ways most readers won’t know about. Niki, Ana Katoa, and Kora Kora spent hours doing the undignified job of asking people for money. Staff at Cook Islands News printed banners, designed logos, and worked overtime receipting orders for no pay. Manihikians organised last week’s blessing ceremony; they set up the hostel, gave pigs, cooked food. A Manihikian offered his hotel as a venue for a launch event the following night; another turned up with his team of dancers and singers and drummers. This week, Manihikians in New Zealand are making preparations for launch events in Auckland and Wellington.
The miracle of Mātini is that it exists despite financial and logistical difficulties, bitter quarrels, family feuds, and a brain injury I suffered in a motorbike accident weeks before deadline. More than once this project reached, and teetered on, the brink of collapse. Each time, the magic of Manihiki was its salvation.
Last week, during the hakatapuhanga ceremony, Barbie bestowed upon me a tifatara. To me, her gift of a cloak symbolises the beauty of this book – the dignity of the Manihiki people, the fortitude of their spirit, and the depth of their aroha.
Kia hua kia tata kia maharahara i te tahua tanga.