Youth on the other side of the world

© Pierre de Parscau / Fondation Tara Expéditions

15 November 2016

She’s been observing us for 3 days from the island’s rare hilltops  a tongue of greenery in the northwest region of the Cook Islands. From aboard Tara, anchored at the entrance of the lagoon, Aitutaki looks like the end of the earth. To encounter life on this land, you must venture beyond a deserted main street and take a familiar route: the road to school.

A wide lawn serves as a playground, classrooms open to the outside, a soggy tennis court. Located in the heights of Aitutaki, the school looks almost like a tropical campus. On porches sheltered from the rain, English language mingles with Maori in conversations and lessons. Kimi is putting a tiare flower in her hair when I call out to ask the way. Her face breaks into a big smile, then she leads me on a visit of the school.


p132013117-year-old Kimi, in front of her school © Pierre de Parscau / Tara Expeditions Foundation


« We’re all related here, brothers, cousins, nephews, you can take your choice! (laughs). Everyone here  knows everybody else. You can’t walk on the island without someone shouting ‘kaiman’ –   come here – inviting you to his house.» Through the plastic shutters of classroom windows I see childrens’ faces. Drawing classes, cooking, music;  here handicrafts have an important place and can sometimes prepare kids for an active work life. Kimi has been attending these classes since she was 3, growing up with other kids her age. At 17, she has reached the end of the school curriculum in Aitutaki. Like many young people of her age, faced with a lack of professional perspectives, she will have to consider leaving the island to pursue her studies and forge a future. Far from home.

Despite Aitutaki’s attraction for tourists, its economy doesn’t allow these young people to envisage a future on the spot. A few children of fishermen or farmers will work with their families, while others might hope for a civil service job, a promise of security. At the entrance of the woodworking class we meet 16 year old Leslie, who has just finished a shelf made of recycled wood found on the coast. The teacher here, from New Zealand, talks to her students about the effects of climate change on the Aitutaki lagoon, and about the increasing pollution.



Aitutaki, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean © Wikipédia


« The lagoon has become dirtier. Foreigners who come here often leave behind their trash, » says Leslie. « It’s not their island so they don’t care.»  On one of the worktables, some drawings evoke a vision of the future for these children. Open windows and seashells stamped with ink illustrate a link with the Pacific. « My father has a small fishing boat,» says Leslie. « On weekends he sometimes takes me out in the boat, or else we go for a picnic on the motu (author’s note: islets on the edge of reefs).  I’ve decided to stay in Aitutaki, near the sea. I couldn’t live far away from here.»

The 2 friends both have family in New Zealand, and still remember their first impression when they discovered Auckland a few years ago. « My first impression was ‘Wow’ » says Kimi. « What surprised me most was all the people in the malls. You could buy lots of things for very little money, whereas here you can’t find anything for $2. My brother went to live there several years ago, but he doesn’t come to see us anymore. It’s difficult for my family.»


p1320146Aitutaki schoolboys © Pierre de Parscau /  Tara Expeditions Foundation


On the tennis court, a water-soaked ball passes from one racket to another. In this region of the Pacific, sports are also an opportunity for youth. Among the children of Aitutaki, some are regularly spotted by foreign coaches to reinforce their local and international rugby teams. An opportunity in the form of an uprooting for these island families and for those young people who, like Kimi, will have to emigrate.

« I get home-sick very quickly. Here we grow up free and safe, while on the outside, people live in closed houses like prisoners. When you leave here, you leave your family, and part of your life behind.»

Among these exiled youth, some will return to Aitutaki to found their own families and invest in the region. For the others, the island will conserve their memories of childhood and the perfume of  paradise lost.

Pierre de Parscau

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