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SEA Currents: SSV Robert C. Seamans
June 11, 2017
Stanford@SEA: The Palmerston Community
For this blog post I want to share something I wrote about our time in Palmerston a few weeks back. Its bit delayed, just like the time it took to process what an incredible experience it was.
Church hymns still resonating in our minds, the rhythm pulsing through our veins, we made our way to the gazebo area where Mary Marsters and her family ate lunch together on Sunday after church. We sat in silence waiting for all members of the family to arrive. There was nowhere else to be on Palmerston atoll in the South Pacific. Nothing to do on this white sand island, with thick grove of coconut trees, surrounded by green lagoon and the deep blue of the Pacific. The fish had been caught, the rice and taro had been cooked and a lavish spread awaited. It's a simple but idyllic life on Palmerston, a three-day sail from the nearest of the other Cook Islands. Upon arriving on the island earlier that morning, Mary and her family adopted three classmates and I for the night; we waited for everyone to gather for the feasting to begin.
Seven family members arrived for the Sunday ritual: Mary's daughter and son in law along with their three children, her brother and herself. She said grace before everyone scampered off in different directions to assemble the dishes they had prepared for our lunch. The three children ran from the house to the gazebo for what seemed like hours, shuttling new pots of steaming hot food to the table. Rice, taro, parrotfish (fried and pan seared), coleslaw, fried pork, and ceviche. To top it off, each of us received a freshly macheted coconut to drink from. My eyes widened each time they laid a new plate on the table, shocked by the generosity and effort that went in to our Sunday meal.
For us, as a cultural experience, it was perfect. But for Mary, she missed family members no longer on the island. Mary's husband was in Rarotonga at the time. Awaiting a doctor's appointment scheduled for October, he had to leave on a ship in May to make it in time due to the lack of traffic between the islands. She had a son in New Zealand for work and a daughter in Rarotonga as well. This was familiar story among the extended family on this island; the young move away, attracted by bright lights, bigger towns and the trappings that come with a cash economy. At this moment, Palmerston has only 40 people left.
It was only a few months before that I had learned about Palmerston. Accepting the opportunity to sail across the South Pacific Ocean with Stanford@SEA, I received our cruise track, which included the island of Palmerston. It was then that I learned it was a lightly, and I mean very lightly, populated island about a three-day boat journey from Rarotonga. Reading through the class syllabus, Palmerston stood out as the island I most wanted to visit. Nothing could have prepared me for the intense sense of community we felt immediately upon stepping foot on their sandy soil. They insisted that we stay in their homes and bring our dirty laundry with us as well. I was bowled over by their generosity, even embarrassed that these people who had so little, were eager to give us all they had. And they were deeply interested in us: we were new people with new stories to them - they wanted to hear from as much as we wanted to hear from them.
Rob also seemed moved by their generosity; he prompted us to think about our time in Palmerston by asking how they could afford to give so much away. A fair question. There is nowhere on the island to use currency and the only source of income (as far as we could tell) comes from selling their fishing catch to people on other Cook Islands.
When we snorkeled around the reef, we saw plenty of beautiful parrotfish; however, upon talking to islanders it became apparent that the size and number of these reef-chomping fish had dwindled over the years. They used to catch fish two to three feet long; now they consistently catch one-footers. Many islanders refuse to think or discuss this issue, seemingly because they rely on God to provide them the resources they need. They believe that the fish populations depend on God's will rather than any overfishing.
God, however, cannot explain other cultural phenomena like the fact that the younger generations seem to be more interested in their iPads and the latest hits rather than learning the hymns and community songs their parents and grandparents have known for years. Mary fretted that the children seemed uninterested in preserving this important part of their culture. When I asked her why she thinks that is, she just shook her head and responded, "I don't know." The Protestant church is quintessential to the Palmerston community. Beyond the Sunday church affair when services are held at 6am, 10am and again at 4pm, Palmerstonians gather at their newly constructed church on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays as well for shorter ceremonies. Mary attends them all.
After we finished eating, the youngest family, Joy - age 7 - enthusiastically toured us around the island - less than a mile in circumference. It was easy for her to show us each and every nook and cranny that mattered to her. During our walk, I asked her about her family members who had left the island, wondering what she thought of Palmerston in comparison to Rarotonga and New Zealand. She was emphatic. She would definitely end up in Rarotonga - "for the shopping."
Mary confessed that she spent her 30s off island, living in New Zealand to obtain retirement benefits. Because all Palmerstonians are New Zealand citizens they are entitled to its old-age benefits if they spend ten years or more on the mainland. In New Zealand she lived with her son and spent much of her time gambling in Auckland's casinos. She was excited to return home after ten years and has since become one of the "aunties" of the island - leading hymns, church songs, and providing a foundation of culture that she hopes will persuade the younger generation to stay.
The dwindling population was common topic of concern. In our official welcome to the island, the island leader joked that we should have delayed our arrival to five years from now when the census-takers arrived on the island. Our class would double their population. Financial aid from the New Zealand government is calculated on population size, and every person counts on a scale this small.
These isolated incidents only furthered my curiosity about this place. It offered such a rich, and idyllic island lifestyle, and yet so many things threaten to allow the community to wither away. What will it look like in 20 years from now? That is a question that only the islanders can answer depending on the ways they chose to remain and interact with their community.
Since 2014, Palmerston has seen significant changes to its infrastructure. Previously, its only power came from a diesel generator; the island recently received funding to put in a solar farm. No longer does the constant hum of the generator overpower the sound of the birds and waves crashing on the shore. Their entire community runs of solar. Each and every child enthusiastically showed us this new advancement; the excitement was visible
in every Palmerstonian's eyes when they discussed it.
While more than half of the children move away when they come of age, there are a few individuals keeping hope alive for the community, like Mary's "adopted" grandson. His parents recently decided to move to Rarotonga, but he couldn't bear the thought of leaving home. His love for the Palmerston community, his relatives and friends, their school and their little island paradise kept him here.
Mary's daughter also opted to remain on the island. Now the headmaster of the school on the island, she has tailored the education system to help students who work at varying levels and paces. Her passion for the community shined through as she told us about her work, the new curriculum, and the teachers as well.
With a community richer than any I've witnessed, with a people brimming with generosity, and with songs and voices that would win any competition in the United States, I hope Palmerston remains the tight knit community we witnessed. Even as the younger generations go away for higher education, there seems to be something that pulls some of them back home. During our brief stay on the island, I saw a spirit of generosity, a sense of community that's rare to see in these modern times. I can only hope that the strength of familial relationships and the little island paradise they have counter the pull of social media, "shopping," and the prospect of new experiences in new places for the islanders. It's a special place, and one worth keeping.