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From voyager to ‘coup’ leader

Monday April 23, 2018 Written by Published in Local
An interesting life: captain Garth Henderson splices a rope used to support the mast on voyaging vaka Te Au O Tonga. The picture was taken as the vaka was being prepared to sail to American Samoa back in 2008. 18042011 An interesting life: captain Garth Henderson splices a rope used to support the mast on voyaging vaka Te Au O Tonga. The picture was taken as the vaka was being prepared to sail to American Samoa back in 2008. 18042011

Vaka voyaging, MI5 training and leading university coups are just day-in-the life experiences for current financial secretary Garth Henderson.

Born in 1963, close to the birth of the nation, and raised in Nikao, Henderson is in love with his Cook Islands, he admitted during his USP Plus “Evening with Garth Henderson,” last week.

Growing up, he said that the original estimation of someone’s income was if they wore underpants to school.

“If they wore underpants, you had enough income. The underpants indicator, that was the measure I recall,” Henderson said.

Henderson also quickly learned that part of being a Rarotongan was to have an interest in land tenure, picking up on it due to his family’s land issues.

He ended up being quite integral to solving complex issues, but pushed back on the notion that culture and tradition was needed to find a resolution.

His family’s resolution came through the ability to negotiate, to look through the legislation, and the ability to balance different interests, he said.

“The idea that we need to look back to the past to resolve the present and future, I don’t know what that looks like, as there’s no institute talking about culture and tradition that is telling us how to solve modern issues.”

Of all the things that he has experienced, he said his vaka voyaging experience was particularly interesting.

Back in 2008, he used to travel to Avana harbour to fish every day, and after a while he began to notice a group of men standing around the two rotting hulls of Te Vaka te au o Tonga.

When he approached them, they told him that they were planning on sailing to American Samoa in three months, in spite of having undertaken no work to ensure the vaka was seaworthy.

He asked to join, and determined not to join the talkers, he got his tools and cut out all of the rot in the hulls.

Although he was happy to help, he did not want to go to sea with them, but he ended up accepting when they asked him to be skipper, despite having only sailed once before.

Practicing on computer games, as well as reading Cook Islands voyaging icon Sir Tom Davis’s book “Island Boy: An Autobiography”, the crew undertook a few sea trials before making the journey.

The journey to American Samoa was fine, with Henderson observing that “a floating log” could make its way to American Samoa. It was getting back to Rarotonga that was the tricky part.

“When we came back, we had to sail against the south-easterly. According to the books, Papa Tom said we could sail 45 degrees into the wind back to Raro, but this vaka could only sail 90 degrees into the wind,” Henderson said.

“In his book, Papa Tom decided after visiting Samoa, on his way back to Rarotonga that he would visit Tonga and New Zealand. During our trip I realised he didn’t decide that was the only way he could go.”

Ending up in Niue, he waited out a couple of weeks before riding the winds back home, and called the entire experience an “awesome opportunity.”

Another huge part of Henderson’s life was his involvement in the police.

Told that he would end up in jail if he didn’t join the Cook Islands Police Service, he was surprised when he was chosen to join the force, as they typically did not recruit “guys like me.”

He excelled right from the start, because he wasn’t afraid to put his hand up and get stuck in.

During the time he joined the force, the Iron Curtain (the boundary dividing Europe into two separate areas from the end of World War II in 1945 until the end of the Cold War in 1991) came down.

With the newly-opened borders, British MI5 intelligence agents were sent into the region to provide tactical training.

Although he was a traffic officer, he agreed to be sent to Tonga for six weeks of training.

Again he excelled, and was offered one of the two scholarships to travel to the United Kingdom to study further.

The police commissioner at the time denied the request, and further entreaties were rebuffed. He later told Henderson, “I wanted my best man around me.”

For his part, Henderson said that there was not too much regret there.

“There’s not too much regret there, because that whole life is about risk-analysis, and I didn’t want to live like that.”

As it was USP-themed evening, he also spoke about his time studying at the campus in Fiji, and said that one of his signature achievements was when he executed a “coup” within the student association.

During one student council meeting, a judge who was present revealed he was doing a review on the wonderful regional organisation that was USP.

Henderson and other non-Fijians at the meeting could not see that perfect picture that the judge was painting, saying, “the only time you listen is when you ask us to dance”.

After speaking to Ron Crocombe, who said that that kind of behaviour had been going on for a long time, he decided to act.

During the next USP elections, after seeing groups of the Fijian students fighting with each other, he approached the other “regionals” (the name for the non-Fijian Pacific Islanders).

He told them that if they all voted 100 per cent together, they could take the election. They were more than willing to participate, with someone even having a constitutional amendment ready.

They nearly clean-swept the election, winning everything except the presidency. And although people were worried about fights on campus, Henderson said he looked back on it as a significant achievement.

“We made a change by being a bit smarter, by cooperating and making sure that everyone gets a fair share.”

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