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‘We felt at home’: The PNG village inspiring Cook Islands league teams

Saturday 21 October 2023 | Written by Supplied | Published in Features, League, Sports, Weekend


The light rain that began to fall as Cook Islands players and staff got off their team buses told them they were in the village of their ancestors, but Toru Arakua and Crystal Tamarua didn’t realise how closely connected their families were to Hanuabada, a coastal village in Papua New Guinea. senior reporter Brad Walter reports.

The village, in which houses sit above the sea on stilts, was founded by Cook Islands missionaries 150 years ago and members of the Aitu and Moana contingent were visibly moved to hear children singing traditional songs in their language.

Hanuabada, which has an estimated population of 15,000, is near downtown Port Moresby but the hundreds of children who ran to greet the men’s and women’s teams excitedly chanted: “Cook Islands, Cook Islands”.

“That was one of the most humbling experiences I have had in my life,” Aitu captain Brad Takairangi said.

“To see a village embrace our culture, people singing our songs and dancing was an experience I know we will be talking about for years to come.”

The players were still buzzing on Thursday (Cook Islands time) at a school’s rugby league gala day as they took time off from training for Saturday’s double header at Santos National Football Stadium against the PNG Orchids and Fiji Bati.

“As Cook Islanders we pretty much felt at home as soon as we went into that village,” said Arakua, the former Kiwi Ferns prop who will co-captain the Moana against the Orchids with Western Australian-born Anneka Stephens.

Crystal Tamarua and Toru Arakua are descendants of the missionaries who founded Hanuabada village. Williamson Wie/Pilai Piksa/23102010

“All of the kids were so welcoming, they greeted us with open arms and were like ‘it’s good to meet you’.”

For Arakua and Tamarua, it was likely they met distant relatives as the pair discovered that they are direct descendants of missionaries, led by Ruatoka, who travelled from the Cook Islands to Papua New Guinea in 1872.

“I was real surprised, I didn’t know that my family had come here and settled here,” Arakua said. “I was pretty much told that my great grandparents were the ones that had come here. I didn’t even know that.”

Tamarua was emotional when she learned about her family connection.

“They mentioned my last name and I was like ‘oh’, and they explained it more,” she said. “It’s an honour to be in the same place that they came to 150 years ago.

“I was just so humbled to see the kids singing the songs. They know more Cook Islander (song) than I do. You compare what they have, and they can find so much joy and happiness from nothing.”

As the players climbed the stairs to Ruatoka Memorial Hall on Metoreai Hill, the frenzied children ran after them like a scene from the Pied Piper.

Cook Islands players danced in appreciation of the reception they received in Hanuabada. Williamson Wie/Pilai Piksa/23102011

Rabbitohs prop Davvy Moale is the only regular NRL player in the Aitu team, but every player was a star in Hanuabada, and the boys and girls called, “Stevie, Stevie”, as they surrounded winger Steve Marsters, who plays for Thirroul Butchers.

“Us boys love that kind of stuff because we are playing footy for our islands and our heritage,” Marsters said.

“To see the kids running around, it was kind of like a block party, there was no curfew or going home and to see the young kids singing the songs, it was spine-tingling.

“We still can’t stop talking about it because we want to go back there and see them again. It’s something we will never forget.”

According to Moana coach Rusty Matua, the fine rain that greeted the arrival of the teams had significant meaning and he said the experience would inspire the Cook Islands players.

“For us, we call that tōmairangi, and that gentle rain is our tupuna – our ancestors – and our belief that they’re blessing us, so that also was an acknowledgment,” Matua said.

“Our chairman (Charles Carlson) spoke about the missionaries that came from Cook Islands 150 years ago and settled in that village.

“They came after the missionaries had just been killed and eaten a year prior, so they were pretty brave to go in there, but because they were Cook Islanders, they were able to connect with the local people and they stayed.

“You could see it in their looks that the Cook Islander blood is still in that village, and it’s very strong, as well.

“They’re keeping our traditions alive and the language alive, along with their connection to the missionaries that settled in that village 150 years ago.

“To see how happy they were to see us was really uplifting and inspiring for us, and it just gives us that extra drive to go out on Sunday (Saturday) and play for them and to represent them, because they were so connected to us and so thankful that we were there.”

Long serving Aitu team manager Charlie Hoff was in tears for most of the evening as the villagers interacted with the Cook Islands players, who responded to their welcome by performing traditional male and female dances.

“I’ve been on every trip with this team – to two World Cups and to America – and this has been the best one ever,” Hoff said.

“It’s not all about rugby league, it’s about our culture too, and my sister texted me from the Cook Islands and she said I was lucky to be here.

Moana players danced in Hanuabada. Williamson Wie/Pilai Piksa/23102012

“They couldn’t believe that those kids could sing the song. That is one of the hardest songs to sing. These boys can’t sing it and they are Cook Islanders.”

As the Cook Islands teams prepared to depart, women from the village emerged carrying large trays of fruit that they presented to the Moana players for the trip back to their hotel.

Moana centre Kiana Takairangi said the players felt like they should have been the ones offering gifts as they took so much from the experience.

“The whole ride home I just really felt like my heart was full,” she said. “It meant a lot to see our culture and our songs and our music being played in Papua New Guinea in that little village.”

“I think a bunch of us didn’t even know the song that they were singing, which was pretty embarrassing, but just hearing them singing their hearts out was really heartwarming.

“It is hard to put into words, but I know that a lot of us just walked away feeling really grateful and really inspired by them, and really proud to be Cook Islanders.”

The Moana will take on the Orchids at 4.45pm followed by the Aitu versus Bati clash at 7pm tonight.