Editorial: Temata stood beside the vulnerable

Tuesday December 10, 2019 Written by Published in Editorials
New Zealand high commissioner to Cook Islands Tessa Temata  (third from left)with the Te Vaerua community board members earlier this year. 19052414 New Zealand high commissioner to Cook Islands Tessa Temata (third from left)with the Te Vaerua community board members earlier this year. 19052414

It’s easy to casually throw around words like “strong”, like “brave”, even “hero”. But for New Zealand High Commissioner Tessa Temata, who died in office this week, these words carry real meaning.

When I met Tessa six months ago, we talked of the challenges she’d faced working across the Pacific – New Zealand, Cook Islands, Indonesia, Kiribati, Niue, and Papua New Guinea. In particular, she spent 10 years in PNG as a diplomat, as chief executive of her own security firm, and as country director of aid organisation HOPE Worldwide.

This was at a time when a New Zealand diplomat, Bridget Nichols, was fatally stabbed by intruders in the Solomon Islands – and Temata, too, knew the dangers.

At HOPE Worldwide, her medical clinics were raided and her staff attacked three times in a week. “Every year, our staff have to endure robberies and attacks, sometimes at gunpoint,” she said then.

She didn’t say this but, from what I know of her career, Temata didn’t preach about poverty and abuse and violence from a safe distance. Always, she stood alongside those who needed her help.  Yet is wasn’t the deliberate brutality of thugs that caused her the most pain. It was the inadvertent brutality of under-development. Those, especially women and children, who suffered disease and exploitation.

She told me the greatest dangers in the islands on which she worked were the unfortunate tragedies that might have been averted by better planning and infrastructure. I’m putting words in her mouth here, but I think she was referring to the impacts of poverty and inequality.

She was proud to return to Cook Islands. “It is a chance to close the circle on voyages that saw my parents leave their homes to pursue a vision of a better future for children that hadn’t even been born,” she said.

But I do not think she was under any illusions: there are those exploited here, not at gunpoint but rather by economic disparity and discrimination.

It is sad to lose her so young. I believe she would have been proud of this final posting, back home to the islands her father came from. But I also know she would say there is much work still to be done.

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