The disheartening result is that a depopulation crisis spawned decades ago persists into the present.
But bare-boned statistics don’t tell the whole story. They ignore the stories of hope and opportunity, the stories of resourcefulness and determination, the stories that prove the Cook Islands can be, for her people, an economic pasture of the greenest shade.
I do not intend to analyse here the Cook Islands’ economic circumstances, nor do I intend to decry the country’s unemployment rate and the forces propelling it. Instead, I intend to tell a story that paints Rarotonga as a career incubator of sorts, a safe place in which locals can nurture and foster their talent and ambition.
I know dozens of young people who returned to Rarotonga after completing their education and professional training abroad. Most of them found employment they might never have found in places with higher levels of competition and lower levels of connection. As a big fish in a small pond, so to speak, they were able to obtain jobs that might have eluded them otherwise.
One story I take particular pride and pleasure in telling belongs to my cousin, Brie Zeman (nee Mangakahia). A Cook Islander who has lived and worked in Rarotonga, Tahiti, Australia, New Zealand and the US, she has found paradise to be the most favourable climate in which to hone her craft.
That wasn’t always the case.
The story begins several years ago, when Brie first discovered her passion and penchant for photography. On a whim she purchased her first SLR camera, and almost immediately she began to see the world differently.
Whether she was having dinner with her family, watching the waves, or walking down the back road in the morning mist, her mind was mulling the pictorial possibilities.
The seed had been planted.
Upon meeting her husband Julian, whose family lives in the US, her focus turned toward brighter lights and bigger cities. Her dream became to study photography and start her own business abroad.
“We were always itching to get back to the States because we thought all the opportunities were there,” Brie said.
But as she awaited the green light from the US Department of Immigration, she began to rethink her plan.
“We were in limbo for so long,” she said. “I was waiting for my green card, waiting to go back to these opportunities over there. And one day we sat down, Julian and I, and decided to make it work here, see how it goes, see if we don’t have to leave the island, if we can make enough money to be able to stay and save.
“We decided to go all out and get a loan and really think about putting some serious money and time into this business.”
So they did. This year, Brie and Julian registered their photography business, calling it Turama Photography in recognition of the central role light plays in the art of photography.
They expanded their online presence and diversified their marketing strategy. They started a blog and a Facebook page, which garnered over 100 viewers in one day. And the reservations started rolling in. Already, Brie is booked through to September.
“Things are looking good,” she said, “and I think this (story) proves there really is opportunity here.”
Her advice to other young Cook Islanders seeking opportunity at home?
“All you can do is try,” she said. “You might be surprised.”
She shoots weddings, food, travel, landscapes, portraits, and commercial events. She is thankful to her husband, who believed in her potential from the outset, and gave her gifts not of jewellery but of camera lenses.
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