When Speaker of parliament Niki Rattle was guest speaker at a USP Plus meeting recently, she kept her audience enthralled with the intriguing story of a very full and exciting life.
At the meeting, several Cook Islands women’s organisations joined with USP Plus to celebrate International Women’s Day in what was to be an all-women event moderated by Jaewynn McKay.
Well, that was the intention. But because family is so very important to her, Niki chose to share the story of her remarkable life by including a number of family members, and the format of the evening changed somewhat.
Koteka Lawrence Rattle-Wichman, Niki’s four-year-old grandson, escorted her to the podium, her 10-year-old grandson, Te Ina Rere Colin Rattle-Nicholas, delivered the traditional Manihiki welcome, and Daniela Ngametua Daniel, Niki’s 11-year-old grandnephew, performed a Manihiki chant and beat the tin drum.
Rattle was born in Manihiki in 1951, and christened Tutonga Puapii Picknic Apii. She has 11 siblings and six feeding siblings
In addition to family, many other themes ran through Niki’s description of her life.
She says that early on, she learned the importance of both commitment and education. Five days a week, her father would paddle a boat across the Manihiki lagoon from Tukao to Tauhunu, and return, so his children could attend school.
Their father’s determination that they receive a good education was rewarded when his son, Daniel, was awarded a scholarship. This resulted in the family migrating to Rarotonga.
In Rarotonga, as a 10- year-old, Niki still had a long commute to school: she walked from home, opposite the Punanga Nui Market, to Apii Nikao. But a papa’a family took pity on the little girl who had to walk so far. So she moved in with them, teaching the family Maori while she learned English.
The arrangement was repeated when Niki started at Tereora College. There she became a prefect and later head laboratory student.
Then Niki’s mother became unwell, and almost died. She asked Niki to look after the family. Fortunately, her mother recovered. As part of giving thanks for her mother’s return to health, Niki committed herself to giving priority to looking after her family as well as others.
This later resulted in her embarking on a nursing career. Soon after the family moved to the industrial town of Kawerau in New Zealand’s North Island, Niki began nursing at Whakatane, and seven year later moved to the timber town of Tokoroa.
She then answered an advertisement for a “Pacific Nurse” to work for NZ Forest Products at Kinleith. There she met her first husband, Lewis, an American. She says she was attracted by his accent and wit.
They relocated to the United States, and Niki nursed there. However, Lewis could not settle. They returned to New Zealand, where Niki continued her career at Middlemore Hospital, initially as a theatre nurse and then in the maternity ward in preparation for midwifery, but that career move was short-lived.
Life changed dramatically when Lewis was diagnosed with a brain tumour and given only five months to live. They decided not to fight it, but live those months to the full. Niki’s love and care meant Lewis could stay at home, rather than being hospitalised.
They employed a man to do some renovations around the home. After Lewis died the man kept visiting, and started to look tidier and tidier.
Eventually he confessed his intentions – “I have watched two people in love. I have never seen that before. I want some of it. I would like to look after you.”
That man was Colin of black shorts and singlet fame. The pair have now been married for 30 years, and are as much in love today as they were three decades ago.
In fact, enduring love is another recurring theme that Niki shared: “Love in our life is the thing that keeps us going”.
Daughter Josie was born in 1986, sister to Georgina who was born in 1970. Clearly both daughters have their mother’s genes: Georgina is studying for a Masters in Psychology degree, using Cyclone Martin as a case study. Josie won an international award for food and beverages. Husband Colin is an accomplished black pearl jeweller, and son Paul is a talented designer and jeweller.
Niki captivated the USP Plus audience with her humorous yet poignant stories.
In 1990 Niki, Colin and their children moved to Manihiki, having been away 30 years. Though she could not believe how small the island was, Niki was pleased to have returned. Life had gone full circle.
Niki worked in Tukao as a nurse. Colin tried to adjust to a diet of fish, rice and coconut, for breakfast, lunch and dinner, “Monday to Monday”.
When Colin became ill the family returned Rarotonga, where they began to build a family home in 1993. “We are still building it”, said Niki reflecting on an ever-growing family.
She returned to nursing at Rarotonga Hospital, but soon questioned whether her priority should be work or looking after her children.
Family commitments won, though Niki was soon coaxed back to work, this time for the Cook Islands Red Cross. One of her many achievements during 19 years as Secretary General was to organise the gifting of land, and then construction of a permanent home for the Red Cross headquarters.
Another was to strengthen the organisation to the level where it was a nominee for the 2015 Cook Islands Development Awards. These were designed to pay tribute to people, projects, international partners and organisations who made a special contribution to the country’s first 50 years since self-government in 1965. Cook Islands Red Cross won the Best Decade Development Award, 2005-2014.
In her local, regional and international work with the Red Cross, Niki demonstrated her “never say no” and “hands on” approaches to community service. The seven fundamental principles of the Red Cross also reflect Niki’s values and practices – humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality.
In a historic first for the Pacific, Niki Rattle chaired the 31st International Conference of the Red Cross Red Crescent Societies in Geneva in November 2011.
Held every four years, the conference includes representation by 194 state parties and 186 national societies, with over 2000 delegates and guests of honour. One of the latter was Cook Islands prime minister Henry Puna. He was impressed with Niki’s skills as chair, saying that if she could manage a meeting of over 2,000 people she could look after Parliament, with its 24 members. History shows that never a truer word was spoken.
In 1997 Niki and her two children again headed to Manihiki to spend some time with her father. They sailed on the Avatapu. It caught fire, and all passengers and crew had to abandon the small ship. They were in two life rafts and a small boat for over 33 hours, before being rescued. All possessions and cargo were lost, and the family never made it to Manihiki.
But Niki got there later that year. Just a few days after Cyclone Martin devastated Manihiki, Niki travelled to the island and set up a medical clinic in the open, using a table made from a plank of wood torn from a house, and drums as legs. A tarpaulin covered the floor by day, and covered Niki by night, as she slept on the job. After six exhausting weeks of relief work, she returned to Rarotonga.
In closing her presentation Niki spoke of her grandchildren as like a love affair – all joy and no responsibility. She also acknowledged her husband, Colin. She says that when she told him she was off on yet another trip, his response was always, “I am missing you already”.
At the end of the evening Clerk of Parliament, John Tangi paid an impromptu tribute to Niki for her modesty and her unprecedented humanitarian approach as Speaker in the Parliament of the Cook Islands. He announced that Niki had been invited to represent the Asia Pacific Parliamentarians on Population Development at the upcoming Global Parliamentary Conference in Washington, DC, and also that Niki, along with New Zealand, now represented the Pacific Branches of the Commonwealth Parliamentarian Association on its London-based Executive Committee.
The door prize, a copy of Ron Crocombe’s E Toa, donated by USP Cook Islands, was won by Dr Teariki Noovao.
In her closing remarks, Jaewynn McKay commented that Niki was an excellent speaker to mark International Women’s Day. She had taken the audience on an amazing journey from humble beginnings on a remote island to the “big lights” of Kinleith and Whakatane.
Niki’s life story would make a terrific movie script, with all the elements – love, romance, duty, service, fire at sea and other tragedies, travel, love lost and found. A life spent turning negatives into positives. But before the movie comes the book. Niki has it half written. We wait, patiently!
The next USP Plus meeting will be held on April 5 at the USP Campus in Takamoa, starting at 7pm. Jenner Davis, now based in the US, will provide insights to her amazing personal and professional journeys through life.
- John Hay