During a quiet moment last week, Phillipa Webb sat down with Island Council executive officer Vaine Wichman to find out what makes the fascinating atoll tick, and where the future of Tongareva lies…
During the visit of delegates to Penrhyn for the official opening of Exercise Tropic Twilight, it was difficult to catch a moment to sit down with Island Council executive officer Vaine Wichman.
“Sorry, I’ve just got to make sure we all get on the boat.”
“Just a second, I need to finish cleaning up here.”
“One moment, they need me for the speeches.”
Wichman was responsible for the smooth-running of the 24-hour visit of Cook Islands Deputy Prime Minister Teariki Heather, New Zealand High Commissioner Nick Hurley and a number of high-level army officials who attended the opening of the island’s new fuel depot.
The New Zealand-funded and New Zealand Defence Force-implemented project, which also involved strengthening a number of buildings, cost just shy of $1 million, and Wichman says it has put her home island “on the map.”
A proud Cook Island vaine, Wichman is more often in the news as president of the National Council of Women.
However on this occasion she was wearing her grassroots leadership hat and boy, did she wear it well.
Wichman has been executive officer for a year, and has two more years to work to strengthen the island council of the island.
Wichman said she would describe living in Penrhyn, with a population of about 300 (400 at Christmas time), as peaceful. So peaceful in fact, that locals on the island tend to have a distain for the hustle and bustle of Rarotonga.
But Wichman admits there are challenges to northern life.
“Working throughout the islands of the Pacific I’ve been fortunate to have lived in and visited some of the remotest islands and most beautiful pristine places in the Pacific.
“So I’ve learnt to address challenges as another sand hill to climb. Why? Working in the Pa Enua and rural areas of our Pacific has conditioned my professional outlook to acclimatise first and see the work space and assignments I am asked to do through the eyes of the people I am to serve.”
“Once I know how and why things are done locally, I then put on my ‘skill-based’ glasses and begin matching up the positives in the host island and the way forward, and work on reducing the negative attributes.
“This helps me a lot deal with the daily challenges that living in remote places will always provide. At the end of the day, the important challenge that always stays constant is working with our people, moving them to a warm and growing spot.”
Moses had to take a few thousand people through the wilderness for quite some time to lead them to the “promised land,” says Wichman.
“He stayed fixed on the goal, but the people challenged him with their humanness. That case study is probably a very important base lesson for anyone wanting to help our people in the Pa Enua, especially because of the isolation of the northern Cook Islands.”
There are shepherds in the world and there are sheep, says Wichman.
“Sometimes our workload can be shared by identifying the shepherds and working with them to move the sheep… because in the end, the sheep are really loving and seeking direction.”
Day-to-day, Wichman says she still struggles with the dreary chore of housework.
But in the workplace, she tends to the daily tasks of oversight, discussions, and informal meetings along the roadside and on the way to various work sites. Weekends are for rest, recuperation and time to reflect.
“I tend to tidy my house, the yard and the yard of my two uncles, as one of them has my grandmother and great-grandmother’s graves beside it and it’s a peaceful place to tidy up in the evening and place their fresh vases of flowers on for Sunday.
“The centre of Tongareva life is the family, the community, the island.”
In between all this, Wichman said she has been fortunate to be offered a part-time scholarship to complete her PhD.
Looking ahead, she says strengthening the island council to match the capabilities of the national government is key.
“Underlying that is an issue of trust between the national government and the island government to be able to resource together those projects that are priorities.
“That’s the challenge for not just the Penrhyn island government but all the Pa Enua – to be able to take on what national government does.”
Wichman says infrastructure priorities on Penrhyn include the wharf rebuild, a water harvesting project and resealing the airfield.
The airfield was constructed by the United States military during World War Two, and has not been resealed since.
“The airfield is an emergency facility – but who knows, eventually as we integrate ourselves into tourism, it could become a vibrant hub for the Northern Cooks.”
Wichman said the island was fortunate following the Te Maeva Nui celebrations earlier this year as more people came back to the island to begin building on family land. So depopulation has not been as much of an issue as it has on other islands.
Nevertheless, depopulation remains at the forefront of Wichman’s mind.
“We can only continue to hope for our children and future generations and work positively and smartly: It will rub off and they will come back.”