Throughout history we have had leaders that have built nations by building its people.
Leaders like former New Zealand Prime Minister Norman Kirk who famously said in 1969: “There are four things that matter to people – they have to have somewhere to live, they have to have food to eat, they have to have clothing to wear and they have to have something to hope for”.
Or those that have brought their nation to its knees as happened in the 1930s in a post-World War Germany, where its leader would pound democracy with his will so hard that it would bend that steel so out of shape and so grotesquely, that it took the form of a swastika and millions would die and suffer under that symbol of oppression.
Our first Premier Albert Henry would beat away at the hardened steel of colonialism and empire until a new democracy was formed and shape what we now recognise as the Cook Islands.
Many would come after him and contribute to the pounding of that steel of democracy including our first Prime Minister Sir Tom Davis, Geoffrey Henry, Robati, Williams, Woonton, Maoate, Marurai and our current Prime Minister Henry Puna.
It is when one of those leaders passes through the veil from this world to the next that we feel that shaking, as if a tree in the forest has fallen. Crashing through the emerging layer of that forest to the canopy, down through to the undergrowth and branches, finally finding its resting place on the enua that once gave it life.
Kua hinga te totara i te wao nui a Tane is the Maori whakatauki that so captures this passage of life and the passing of a great leader. The totara has fallen in the forest of Tane and whatungarongaro te tangata toitū te whenua – which simply says, that as man disappears from sight, the land remains, speaking to our mortality and that life has a beginning and an end that none of us can escape.
A totara tree is for New Zealand Maori a Rakau Rangatira, which can grow up to 30 metres and live for between 800 and 1800 years.
But it is renowned not just for its height and stature in the forest, naturally giving shade and shelter to so many, it was also a primary wood used in the construction of vaka, pou in meeting houses and for carving.
Interestingly, it is also well-known for its medicinal properties, especially in the treatment of skin care and skin ailments including eczema.
It is therefore so apt that we use this whakatauki to describe the life of our Papa Dr Joe Williams, a mighty totara that stood in the forest of medicine and of building a nation, giving shelter to so many, and a shelter and shade that saw its branches reach from the village of Ureia in Aitutaki to Rarotonga and Aotearoa.
These long and virile totara branches has provided shade, shelter and vital treatment for eczema and filariasis. Any that went were welcomed and could take from that tree and find respite for what Dr Williams called the neglected disease of children.
In 2015, in an interview he said he had treated more than 250,000 patients, with one of those patients being my nephew who battled eczema for years.
Dr Joe Williams will be remembered as a servant to his community. He is an example for Cook Islands people and its leaders that a life time of integrity, and service is rewarded not with medals or awards, but in the lives of those you serve and to those who in their hour of greatest need found solace, comfort and respite for their pain and suffering.
Our thoughts and prayers are with Mama Jill Williams, the children and grandchildren during this time of mourning.
Te Atua te aroa.