Let me tell you a story about a chair. Not just any chair. A traditional chair that made almost the same journey to the Western Front just like you did.
Do you remember the name of this kind of seat, carved from a single piece of wood? It’s called a No’oanga. It may sound strange to hear a word in your language again, pronounced by an inhabitant of the country that will never forget your sacrifice.
When The Great War broke out your people were still starting to adopt the Western life. In 1901 you were annexed by the British colony of New Zealand. A chair, the way Europeans consider it, was still new to your ancestors. The normal sitting furniture for the islanders was a stone or a piece of wood.
The No’oanga is actually a chair reserved for chiefs, or men of status.
But today, this empty chair is representing you, as you are the only Cook Islander who is buried in Flemish soil.
People will get to know your country better, Kiro, because this chair becomes part of an astonishing museum project here in Ypres that commemorates soldiers who did not return home from World War I. More than 100 chairs have made it to Ypres and the Cook Islands contribution is now one of them. And yes, I would really like to tell you how this all could happen.
In December 2018 the In Flanders Fields Museum did a last call to assemble the missing chairs. I shared this call with a few people from your faraway paradise island, and still cannot believe the impact of my message. May I introduce you to Mrs Moe Hobbs, Mrs Cate Walker and Mr Isaac Solomona? They responded in a way that still warms my heart and they have translated words into action.
Maybe the name Solomona rings a bell. Mister Solomona’s grandfather also served in this terrible war. So, his grandson saw this No’oanga in Parliament and the Clerk of Parliament and staff generously donated it when he told them about the Empty Chair story. The Queen’s Representative Sir Tom Marsters (who visited your grave in April 2017 together with his wife Lady Tuaine) and his official secretary mister Anthony Brown were also part of this project as they funded the etching of “Rarotonga Cook Islands” into the seat.
Before I end this letter to you, Kiro, I really have to tell you about that other object that accompanied the chair during the long trip to cold Flanders, a lovely and significant garland that definitely reminds you of home: the ei. Since ancient times eis have been used to mark special occasions. They are made from (native) flowers such as frangipani. The name ei comes from the proto-Polynesian word sei – which became ei or rei in the Maori language of the Cook Islands. As you remember there was a culture where your people put it on the men who were leaving the country to go to war. When the ship sailed away the men dropped the eis on to the ocean. If it floated back to shore that meant you were coming home.
If it floated by the current somewhere else – you were not coming back. This bright garland connects with the chair, which is empty, signifying that some men never came back. These men, like you Kiro, will always be remembered.
Their eis are forever floating.
Meitaki Maata to everyone who made this possible and is part of this wonderful story of remembrance. How deadly this war was, it gave and still gives birth to special friendships across the miles.