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Coming ‘home home’: An Aotearoa Māori discovers ancestral resonance in Rarotonga

Sunday 24 December 2023 | Written by Candice Luke | Published in Features, Weekend


Coming ‘home home’: An Aotearoa Māori discovers ancestral resonance in Rarotonga
Candice Luke’s CV now extends from baking, to domestic cleaning, to being an original member of one of the most dynamic and inspiring charities in South Auckland, Community Builders Trust NZ. Ōtara Kai Village/23122217/ 23122218

Candice Luke’s first trip to the Cook Islands in 2008 awakened a deep connection to her Māori heritage and sparked a passion for storytelling, now leading her to become a journalist for Cook Islands News.

The magic of the Cook Islands made its first mark on me back in 2008. Stepping off the plane into the thick, humid air, followed by the perfume of white flowers that I came to learn were called tiare māori. Koha aroha from locals to their visitors and returning whānau. Showered with golden tanned menemene and boisterous katakata, I couldn’t help but to feel comfortable in the most peculiar way.

Not because it’s strange to feel welcomed, on the contrary. Though I arrived as a wahine Māori from Aotearoa with Irish and Scottish ancestry, as I bobbed around on the back of the truck, I just felt so at home.

Born, raised and loved in South Auckland, the “hood” as many call it, that was the only home I’d known. Back then I was fresh out of high school and “over it”. The “it” being socio economic struggle and the judgement of what felt like the rest of Aotearoa due to the negative portrayal of us in the media. Over being told Māori aren’t smart when some of the most brilliant people I knew were my elders. Over the mindsets around me that were restricted to the box a colonised society dropped us in.

Candice Luke with a copy of the Cook Islands News during her first trip to Rarotonga in 2008. Fifteen years on, she joined the daily newspaper as a journalist. CANDICE LUKE/23122210/ 23122211

I tried Sydney as a place to learn and grow but the grass wasn’t greener for me there. So back to Ōtāhuhu I went. Soon I would explore the place two of my waka, Aotea and Kurahaupo, departed from in what scholars call the “Great Migration”. My favourite academic, my Nana Joyce has imparted much whakapapa to her mokopuna since we could walk about where our ancestors’ feet have stood proudly; but that’s a story I don’t have the mana to share.

Kayla, my best friend since we were 14, is a Tuara girl. Like many of the New Zealand nationals who visit these shores, she came to attend her little sister’s birthday and brought me along for the celebration. Her sister, mum, papa, nena (rest in love) and many whanaunga were here so I was blessed to have more than a tourist’s insight into life on the island.

Of course, I enjoyed tanning on Muri Beach, gorgeous ika mata courtesy of papa, and a kanikani on the party bus, but one of my most vivid memories from that trip is with Kayla relaxing at Miros Cafe in Muri, reading the Cook Islands News. The stand out yarn for me that day was about stonefish injuries. “Loitering stonefish,” I read the headline aloud, bemused, and we giggled.

I asked papa if he had ever been unfortunate enough to experience a stonefish sting. He had! Nostalgia sparkled in his eye, as it does when kaumātua recall their youth. That moment is like its own cinematic experience; I know that what I’m about to hear comes from the archives of the heart, good or bad. Papa taught this Kūmara girl to always keep a pair of reef shoes and stay up off the sand and coral, lest I was asking for a trip to the hospital or even the grave.

I fell in love with the climate, the flora and fauna, and yes, even the kuri who follow you around in case you drop a cheeky snack for them. The scent of Cook Islands vanilla that would mark every person I embraced until now. The drums that beat like the hearts of my tūpuna as they practised this unique culture back in the rās. And the people. How inviting, how full of mana, and how much like family you feel to me. 

Candice Luke at the Avana harbour, the departure point for the “great migration” to Aotearoa New Zealand. CANDICE LUKE/ 23122214

Back in Aotearoa life took me on a haerenga, as it should, through different career paths and connections. My CV now extends from baking, to domestic cleaning, to being an original member of one of the most dynamic and inspiring charities in South Auckland, Community Builders Trust NZ. Through years serving my beloved “southside” I got to know the ins and outs of the best and the worst parts of society. I was submerged in humankind.

And there the story telling seed sprouted. This passion has sat within me since birth; my second name is L’amour after the novelist Louis L’amour. Following my ultimate calling led me to mentorship under the Te Rito Journalism Project, writing for the New Zealand Herald, and now, sitting at my desk under the aircon in the office of Cook Islands News.

Here I strive to be a great mokopuna to my whānau, an even better tupuna to the next generation, and a mouthpiece for the people of Rarotonga and the pa enua.

From the loitering stonefish to a voice of the fifteen stars. I vow to hear you, see you, and tell your stories with mana.

He mihi nunui te aroha kia koutou katoa mo ou koutou manaakitanga ki ahau.