She is now back on home soil in Rarotonga after a whirlwind month of travel to bring in the New Year.
After her week with world leaders, Rongo and her family rounded out the year with a two week holiday in Ma’uke where her husband’s family has genealogical connections and the names of their daughters come from.
“Our daughters come from Ma’uke so for me it was a real humbling experience to see where his family genealogy is and where the names of my children come from. Learning of the island and their culture and traditions and the uniqueness of the place; it felt like home for me.”
The family also took part in the traditional Rango Kere celebrations around Christmas Day as well as a 60th birthday celebration and unveilings, which Rongo says was very special and meaningful.
“Cook Islands is home and just hoping that we can continue to use our strengths and our skills to ensure our communities and children have these values that we want them to have moving forward.”
Rongo, who is an executive member of environmental groupd Kōrero o te ‘Ōrau, was invited to Kuala Lumpur along with 199 other emerging leaders from 33 nations and territories across the Asia-Pacific region, to participate in the Obama Foundation Leaders: Asia-Pacific meeting.
Held from December 10-14 it was a first of its kind for the region. This five-day gathering served as the kick-off event for a year-long leadership programme and was designed to further inspire, empower, and connect the leaders to change their world.
As for her trip to Malaysia, Rongo is extremely grateful to have been selected as part of the Obama Foundation’s inaugural Leaders Asia-Pacific programme. The gathering gave her an opportunity to connect with and learn from changemakers across the region with values-based leadership at the core.
The convening included skill building workshops and leadership development training, as well as community service projects at select locations in Kuala Lumpur.
A major highlight included meeting the 44th President of the United States of America himself.
“Though it was a short time we had to converse with President Obama, it was awesome that he made the effort to personally meet as many leaders as possible to find out where we’re from and the work we do in our communities,” says Rongo.
Barack and Michelle Obama were joined by other prominent speakers to discuss progress and opportunity in the Asia-Pacific region.
“One of the messages that really resonated for me is that we belong,” says Rongo.
“A lot of times we have ‘imposter syndrome’ where we feel that maybe we shouldn’t speak up because we are not supposed to be in the room. However, it was a positive affirmation to hear from Mrs Obama about some of her own experiences and to be reminded that we do belong, we have a voice, and we are not alone.”
Rongo says it was a valuable knowledge-sharing experience to hear from leaders and specialists across the region who are facing similar challenges as the Cook Islands, such as the issue of climate change.
“It was a critical point in time to share with others at the convening who didn’t necessarily understand the connection, and to build empathy for the challenges we are facing in the Pacific.
“It was raw and emotional listening to stories from my Pacific Islands colleagues that illustrated how climate change is already affecting them – from rising sea levels to devastating cyclones wreaking havoc on their communities.”
Rongo says she hopes to share what she gained from the convening through Kōrero o te ‘Ōrau’s work, in particular its youth education programme, ‘Ātui’anga ki te Tango for junior and senior students that focuses on connecting them to their environment through traditional practices.
“At the convening, I was asked how do we change the world. My answer was by chipping at it, one young mind at a time. It was also important to share that indigenous knowledge and practices hold the key to resilience and the way forward in the face of climate change.”
As part of the Obama Leaders programme, Rongo will continue honing her leadership skills over the next year through webinars and a virtual speaker series, as well as support, amplification, and other opportunities from the Obama Foundation.
“For 2020, I hope to be able to disseminate the information I learn and use it to guide the way forward for myself as well as our NGO.”