He says both could help change unhealthy eating habits that have become ingrained in society here, and he says the first step is to lead by example.
Kavana Daddy Mauriaiti has done what few other aronga mana (traditional leaders) have ventured to do: He has spoken frankly about a pressing national issue that has the Cook Islands at the top of the world ranking for chronic non-communicable diseases (NCDs).
He says Cook Islanders need to wake up and do away with the culture of kaikai (eating) that dominates the lives of so many, “stop being gluttonous” and lead more active lives. But Mauriaiti fears that for his island of Mangaia where NCD statistics are the highest in the country, it may be a little bit too late to try and change things.
They (aronga mana) should have done that earlier, get involved in the health of the people.”
The aronga mana and the churches both have considerable control on the lives of Cook Islanders and can work together to inspire people to change behaviour, says Mauriaiti.
What people eat and how much they eat is good place to start changing behaviour for the better, he adds.
“I believe that’s the cause of NCDs here in Mangaia.”
The shift from traditional foods that people grew, raised or fished to imported food has had a disturbing effect on the overall health of Mangaians, he says.
“But the thing is, it’s very hard to control the people in their hunger for what they’re used to eating now. If only that kind of food hadn’t been introduced, we would be better off now.”
Mauriaiti says the culture of overeating is out of control on Mangaia.
Large feasts are among the biggest problems and the CICC and he believes traditional leaders should lead by example by cutting back on their own banquets.
The annual massive Ariki Day feast is an example where restraint could be used and the annual holiday celebrated instead with traditional sports, has been suggested by the Koutu Nui (national body of high chiefs), Mauriaiti says.
Koutu Nui president Terea Mataiapo Paul Allsworth backs the Kavana’s views that the aronga mana have a responsibility to lead by example and take a more proactive approach to help reduce the country’s disturbing health statistics.
“In my view, this epidemic has to be tackled with all key stakeholders taking a proactive approach, government, who is the regulator and can effectively control the importation of sweet drinks, sugar, fatty foods and so on.
“The Ui Ariki and the Koutu Nui and finally the churches through the Religious Advisory Council and its many feeder memberships can work together.
“Through strong effective regulations and policies, bad eating habits and imported unhealthy foods can be eradicated and change can take place over time. Leaders must take the lead and lead by example,” says Allsworth.
“Words don’t make a difference it’s the actions and doing the best thing that matters.”
He suggests a positive start would be for each district to select an ambassador and hold monthly or regular competitions amongst the districts, led by their respective ariki and aronga mana.
“Prizes can be sponsored by our development partners who have funded this health initiative. This type of village and district competition is not new, as historically traditional sports were played a lot amongst the various villages and this should be revived again.”
One third of the Cook Islands population has been diagnosed with an NCD. In Mangaia 42 percent of the 499 people who live on the island suffer from an NCD, in Rarotonga 38 percent of the resident population lives with NCDs and increasing.
Up to 90 per cent of the Cook Islands population is obese or overweight. Around 75 per cent of people in the Cook Islands don’t do enough physical activity, surveys have found.
Those figures should be enough to motivate the two most influential sectors in society – the CICC and aronga mana to action, says Mauriaiti.
The islands’ six kavana form the Mangaia are ariki (house of high chiefs), who Mauriaiti says have a role in looking after the welfare of their respective puna (district).
He says the first issue is overcoming the deep-rooted thinking of “the more the better”, when having feasts.
“I know that’s one of the serious problem, but that’s the pride of the people.”
“If you make a kaikai with less food you will be urutoe (criticised); people will say they’ve been invited and there isn’t enough food to feed them meaning not just to eat, but to take home as well. For hosts the pride comes when the people cannot finish the food that’s been laid out.
“For our people, if the food is finished, it’s a sign of failure.”
Mauriaiti and Terea say this “misguided” belief has to change for the sake of people’s health. And the best place to start it is with the church and aronga mana, they say.
Says Mauriaiti: “We have to tell the people to change.
“I’ve been trying to telling the people not to bring too much food, not to make too much food, but you cannot control the appetite, the gluttony of our people because they are used to that kind of life.”