For the last two months, all of Pukapuka attended nightly song and dance practices to prepare for the opening of the new cyclone shelter.
Anyone not attending received a two-dollar fine. This helped explain the high-quality entertainment for the grand opening.
Pukapukans have been waiting for the cyclone centre since 2005 when the European Union first earmarked two million Euros for the project. The project stagnated.
In danger of losing the funding, finance minister Mark Brown made the needed financial bridge.
“We have Mark Brown to thank for bringing this project back,” said Prime Minister Henry Puna in his opening remarks.
“It’s a real success story for small island development in the Pacific and for EU-Cook Islands partnership,” said Adam Jensen of the European Union.
Pukapuka island secretary Lewu Katoa agreed, saying: “We have had development projects from New Zealand and Australia but nothing of this size and from the European Union. It’s awesome.”
The delegation – members of which by coincidence were all wearing shades of blue – arrived onto the islet of Motu Ko at 11 in the morning. The delegation included head of the political section for the European Union’s Pacific office in Fiji Adam Jansen, the social sectors delegate for the European Union’s Pacific office Shaleshni Prasad, Prime Minister Henry Puna, finance minister Mark Brown, foreign affairs secretary Jim Gosselin, Pukapuka member of Parliament Tekii Lazaro and his wife Dresser Lazaro. Lenaic Georgelin and Adrian Oancea and the DEVCO staff at European Union headquarters in Brussels could not attend though they contributed hard work to the project.
The delegation left Motu Ko on the barge and puttered their way to the main island of Wale. Kaui Dariu could be heard chanting the challenge chant across the lagoon. The children of Niua School, the island leaders and all religious denominations warmly welcomed the delegation onto the shores of Pukapuka.
The delegation proceeded up the path, which the local community had spent weeks preparing. Mataiapo of Loto Mangere Malo cut the first ribbon and Puna the second ribbon.
Mayor Rotoika Tengere gave an opening speech, saying the collaboration between Pukapuka and the European Union had not yet finished. Two porches from the original design, electricity, emergency supplies, furnishings and needed telecommunications remained. In his speech, Puna said Pukapuka would be the first candidate for the government’s solar power project, before Manihiki.
Jensen said the European Union (EU) wanted the building to be used as a community centre.
“We learned from the Kiwis in Manihiki that it needed to be a useable building maintained and enjoyed on a regular basis,” he said. “The celebration today showed me that it will be used.”
It has been renamed the Pukapuka Matala Community Centre after the land on which it stands. Sports, village feasts, dances and meetings will happen there.
After the speeches, the delegation proceeded to the feast table with 100 percent local food since the Samoa boat did not arrive before the opening.
The table held coconut crabs, seabirds, pork, fish, and different varieties of taro, papaya and cucumbers.
“What a treat to eat the sea birds, a real delicacy, after 20 years,” said Gosselin, who had worked previously in Pukapuka.
The food came mostly from the motu food reserves and the local chiefs had opened up reserve fishing in the lagoon for the occasion.
“It’s good to be home,” said Tekii Lazaro.
Puna said he wanted to sleep outside in the kikau hut but was warned about the mosquitoes. Brown said he would like to return and spend more time on the motus and learn about their ecological systems.
After the feast the real celebration began with each village singing makos (chants), imene tukis and pautautaus (songs of ridicule) and dancing kapa limas and ula paus. An impressed Adam Jansen said: “I could not believe the quality of the performances and it was clear that they had all been done around the theme of the cyclone shelter just for the occasion.”
The children in particular stood in awe of the building.
“I went to the bathroom,” said Prasad, “and the children all gathered together admiring the shower, the toilets, and the sinks.”
Fifteen year-old Ritee William summed it up saying: “I have never seen anything so big here on my island of Pukapuka. I have only seen this kind of thing in New Zealand before.”
Upon departure, the delegation received gifts of hats, kumete, canoes, paddles and brooms all made by the local community.
When asked about next steps, everyone in the delegation agreed that a return trip for longer was needed.
“I miss it already,” said Prasad as the 24-hour trip came to a close.