The Te Ulu o Te Watu Training Institute officially opened in Pukapuka as part of the new vision for Cook Islands Tertiary Training.
In addition to consolidating current tertiary offerings, consultant and current director Jim Matheson looked to expanding the programs in the outer islands. Matheson said he choose Pukapuka and Aitutaki for the first outer island programs because “Both have very different economies and communities from Rarotonga and both have a significant youth population not engaged in training.” Secretary of Education Sharyn Paio said one of the main goals of tertiary training in the Cook Islands is “to ensure access to all.”
The Te Ulu o Te Watu Training Institute affectionately known as ‘The University of Pukapuka’, currently has 40 youth enrolled in courses and 60 in the overall programme. “We want the programme to get localised to the needs of each particular island community,” said Matheson.
In Pukapuka this includes offering college completion courses, opportunities relevant to the largely non-capitalist economy, and reviving the long-standing village youth groups. The majority of the youth want to stay on the atoll, going out for holidays and returning, always to contribute back to their community.
“If I had a million dollars,” said vice-chairman for the youth Paelo Lavalua, “I would fix our harbour, make a building for our school, and help my community here.”
For the last month, Yato village youth have been taking a woodworking course from master wood carver and Government Representative Marurai Marurai. As a volunteer teacher he exhibits the natural local gift for passing knowledge on. “I made my first model vaka at nine years old,” said Marurai, “and my first large vaka for fishing at 19. The youth today don’t know how to do this anymore. I want to pass on the knowledge of my father to this next generation.”
One of the core mottos of the programme is using the knowledge of the past to lead the future. The woodworking course, which currently focuses on making model vakas and kumete, teaches how to choose the wood and use only an adze and a chisel to carve. The woodworking items will get sold at an on-island market day, and eventually exported to the Rarotonga market. Aleti Katoa, course assistant who worked for four years at Island Crafts said “the good thing is that there is heaps of wood over here, not like in Raro where they have to buy the wood. Also our Pukapukan style is very different and it takes a lot more time”. As of this week, the woodworking course will also enjoy the benefits of a very large toolbox filled with routers, drills, chisels, sanders and more from the Cook Islands Trades Training Center.
Ngake village youth have taken to mechanics, already fixing six chainsaws, two generators and a washing machine within their first three weeks.
“The community is surprised by what the youth can do. Now they all want to bring in their items to get fixed,” said Iotama Lavalua, head mechanic for Pukapuka and volunteer teacher for the course.
The youth started charging $10 to fix an item, thus starting their first on-island small business.
“I want to pass my knowledge on,” said Lavalua, “I don’t have time to fix everything on the island and right now if I go to New Zealand everyone has to wait until I get back.” Two of the chainsaws came from Nassau to get fixed, and to the surprise of many bystanders, two young women fixed them in less than an hour.
Loto village youth have been engaged in a computer course, many using the computer for the first time and all using the internet and email for the first time. “My head hurts,” reported Anne William after two hours at the computer searching online business courses and finance information for her trades goods store. As the computer teacher, I recall a friend in rural Spain saying, “I taught them how to move a mouse, and they taught me how to watch a potato grow.” In my case, I am teaching computers and co-ordinating the tertiary program and in return, learning how to watch taro grow. I actually believe I have the better end of the deal.
The motto of the program is not only, “Bringing the World to Wale” but also to bring “Wale to the World.” It is not only about bringing outside knowledge to the atoll via trades school visits and internet training, but also sharing the rich local knowledge with the world. Wale has rich ecological knowledge, conflict resolution skills, complex social organisation, sports ability, fundraising skills, humour, chanting, dancing, language, weaving and carving to share with the world. As a leftover from colonial education that devalued local education in favour of ‘Western’ models, local knowledge has become devalued among some of the youth themselves. “I want to help preserve all this knowledge,” said one of the participants Rainga Ataela, “it may be lost in another generation.”
Liata Maru Alison, Pukapuka’s women and youth officer, will start a master weaving course as part of the effort to involve more young women in training. The youth have also started an active combined village youth group called “Lopa, Tamawine o Mataaliki,” which has already hosted a successful dance fundraiser and will host a market day and a mako (chanting) competition. As Matheson said: “The youth themselves are the resources.” Owen Williams, the next director for the Cook Islands Tertiary Training Institute, who has worked with a variety of Maori, Pacific and Cook Islands organisations, agrees.
Additional programmes in works for the Te Ulu o Te Watu Training Institute include work experience placements, a dried fishing business, on-island training from the Cook Islands Trades Training Center, and University of the South Pacific (USP) courses. Nine of the 10 Niua School teachers have already been enrolled or re-enrolled in USP and will take the introductory ‘Success at USP’, offered by Niua School principal Tekemau Ribabati who taught as a lecturer at USP Fiji. It is also hoped that eventually, college completion programmes and internationally recognised certificates will be made available.
While the emphasis of both the Aitutaki and Pukapuka programme is to offer on-island employment opportunities to the youth, Cook Islanders remain migratory and need skills that can transfer across borders. In Aitutaki, the programme run by Shelley Van Mourik and Junior Vaikoa called Te Rito has also achieved measurable success providing individualised training and already enrolling one student in hairdressing school in New Zealand and placing one student in a banking position on-island. Research shows that the court system does not resolve youth crime. Jail time and punishment tends to increase recidivism and create career criminals. Education, jobs and a strong cultural foundation provide alternate pathways. Te Ulu o Te Watu Training Institute, and other tertiary programs, have planted their roots.