Mei po kerekere mai – Maire, the heart of Mauke

Saturday 14 November 2020 | Written by Melina Etches | Published in Features, Go Local


Mei po kerekere mai – Maire, the heart of Mauke
Ngavaine Makitai in the makatea of Mauke to collect maire. MELINA ETCHES / 20111216.

When maire ei orders come from Rarotonga, three Mauke sisters get down to work, and trekking into the makatea with sharp jagged rocks is part of their labour. Senior journalist Melina Etches had the firsthand experience of maire ei making during her recent visit to the southern group island.

An ei maire makes you feel quite special, lucky, royal even. The fragrant leaves of the maire are soothing 

The islands of Mauke/Akatokamanava and Mitiaro/Nukuroa supply Rarotonga’s high demand for the native maire plant eis for special occasions, birthdays, weddings, official functions etc.

Laborious work is involved in the creation of an ei maire.

I have been to Mauke many times, but had never really bothered to hike into the makatea with the women.

Last week I had that opportunity when I visited the island with Cook Islands Tourism’s Daniel Fisher and Louisa Purea.

The island is as I remember it; warm and friendly (everyone waves and smiles) with bright coral roads – a stark contrast to its deep lush flora and trees that sweep around the island. It is a quiet, peaceful and a happy place.

Our guide Lisa Turaki (Tou Ariki’s wife) introduces us to three wonderful, heart-warming sisters Ngavaine Makitai (55 years), Tupuna Mo’o (60 years) and Joanne Stephens (62 years).

Their parents are Vaine Terepai John, who was also known as Mama Tango, and Rongoape John.

There are 11 siblings, all were born and raised on Mauke; but at present only the three women and a brother live on the island.

The women kindly shared with us their Mauke maire experience.

Siblings Joanne Stevens, Ngavaine Makitai and Tupuna Mo’o at their family homestead the “White House’. MELINA ETCHES / 20111208.

The weather has an important role in the making of maire eis, it is best picked when it’s been raining, says Ngavaine.

When maire eis are ordered from Rarotonga, Ngavaine has to plan for a time to head into the makatea – an unforgiving area of fosilled coral rock that juts upright with sharp edges and points.

Being the more robust of the sisters, she prefers to pick the maire on her own. “My sisters came with me once, but they took too long. They’re not used to the makatea, so I tell them to stay home, I’d rather pick it by myself, it’s faster,” Ngavaine says with a laugh.

On a sun-shining Saturday morning we follow her into the makatea; it had rained hard the night prior, so that was a good sign.

Ngavaine arrived on her bike dressed in a t-shirt, thick overalls that cover her ankles, shoes and carrying a sack - suitably dressed for the task ahead.

We three (Fisher, Purea and I) were dressed sort of mix matched, one of us wore shorts, we had socks and shoes.

I had felt anxious before we started, worried that I would hold up the team as I was seriously the most unfit and did not want to disappoint our guide who was there to get her maire, not muck about too much, and get out.

We start our trek into the makatea. It is not for the faint hearted.

There are sharp jagged rocks everywhere and a fall can cause serious injury, gaps along the path are so small you have to bend and squeeze under gnarled tree branches and through prickly pandanus leaves.

The makatea - sharp jagged coral rocks. MELINA ETCHES / 20111219.

However, the beauty inside the dense forest was serene like; so quiet, surrounded by coral, healthy green plants, the darkness of the ancient trees, the filtered sunlight streaming and refreshing light rain.

There is no soil, just the leaves from the trees that nourish the plants.

It’s good it rained a little to cool it down, she says, as it can get very hot.

Ngavaine indicates which maire to pick, “when you see branches with brand new leaves sprouting, leave those, they have been recently picked.”

She expertly continued into the thicker, tougher area part of the makatea while we took a break and rested.

Three hours later, we head back towards the coastal road. Ngavaine carries her full sack of maire with one hand and uses the other arm for balancing her motorbike.

At the clearing, it’s a relief to Lisa and Joanne waiting, with nu.

Picking the maire is only the first stage that takes between 3 to 4 hours, depending on the amount of orders.

“That’s why we don’t like last minute orders (or day before) from Raro. We don’t just walk outside our house and pick the maire from our garden, we have to go into the makatea,” says Ngavaine.

She took us through one of the easiest places to access, there are many other places that are way steeper and difficult, she adds.

We arrive at their huge brick white painted family house locally known as “the White House’ for the stripping of the bark and leaves from the stalks.

Joanne and Tupuna prepare to help too, mats are laid out, basins are ready, coffee is made and each has a pareu on her lap.

Sisters Joanne Stevens, Ngavaine Makitai and Tupuna Mo’o help one another and work well together making ei maire. MELINA ETCHES / 20111213.

“First you strip the leaves and bark from the stalk then kupu, tie it together and weave it, then spin, usually six strands make one ei,” says Joanne.

“It’s easier when it’s been raining so when you strip it from the stalk it glides off quite smoothly. But if it has been hot and dry, it becomes difficult to strip – we then have to use a tool to soften the bark all the way down one stalk, its tedious and takes much longer.”

Joanne believes there are enough maire to keep up with the orders from Rarotonga.

“New leaves and branches grow when the maire is picked, when you pick they multiply; but there have been times when the maire are eaten - by the wild goats!

“Rarotonga is the only market for the maire that brings in an income for the women here.”

What is special about maire?

Joanne explains: “Maire is mei po kerekere mai.”

“When you look at the maire, it’s like a gift that has been given to Akatokomanava. Maire is the pukuatu (heart) inside of us in Akatokamanava.

“And when you wear one, you feel very special, like you are royalty.”

Keeping the maire for weeks is normal practise for them, “we don’t throw it away after wearing it a few times, we keep it and hang them in rooms and we keep the stalks, until they have dried out completely.

“As the leaves dry, its scent changes…

“That why I call it the heart of us here in Mauke, we treasure it.”

The sisters work well together and help each other where and when they can.

Ngavaine returned to Mauke in 1995, she works at the Bank of the Cook Islands branch and part time at Kato’s store.

Joanne and Tupuna returned in November 2019.

Joanne Stephens proudly adorned with maire – the heart of Akatokamanava. MELINA ETCHES / 20111215.

“We love living back here, we get involved in community working bees and the functions, it’s so good to be here, this is my home,” says Tupuna.

“We like to promote our island.”

The siblings spoke of the recent trip of Apii Nikao, “every student who left had an ei maire.”

“Some of the kids told us they had never felt so special, some had never worn one and only see them on Ministers or higher people.

“So, it was good to see how happy and special the children felt wearing maire when they left for Rarotonga.”

The siblings also rent out their fully furnished “White House” to visiting groups.

  • The writer’s trip to Mauke was sponsored by Cook Islands Tourism Corporation as part of an initiative to promote domestic travel experiences in the Pa Enua.