14 Mar 2019

Niue and Niu Silani

From Eyewitness, 7:00 am on 14 March 2019

For more than a century, Niueans have been exercising their right as citizens of New Zealand to move here in search of a better life.

In the last fifty years, what started as a trickle of migration has become a flood.

More than 24,000 people living in New Zealand identify as Niuean. But in Niue, the population barely tops 1600.

There is some evidence that the trend has topped out and may even be slightly reversing. But when over 90% of your people live somewhere else, the story of your nation, your language and your identity inevitably becomes complicated.

Here are two of those stories.

Actor Shimpal Lelisi poses before the sign identifying his village of Liku in Niue.

Actor Shimpal Lelisi at his village of Liku in Niue. Photo: Shimpal Lelisi

It seems like kind of a mean trick.

Little Shimpal Lelisi was four years old and living in the village of Liku in Niue. It’s 1976 and his family had just given him some flash new clothes. Shimpal was excited. 

“We got new shirts made, to go somewhere.

“I didn’t know where we were going but it was somewhere big.”

He was right. Shimpal’s new shirt wasn’t for church or visiting. He and his family were leaving Niue to live in Niu Silani - New Zealand.

Shimpal’s folks weren’t being mean or playing a trick; they were trying to do the best by their family. But Shimpal wasn’t that impressed, and even less so by his first sight of Auckland.

“It was raining and it was dark and it was cold. And I was still in my shirt. My short-sleeved shirt.”

He was also a bit scared.

“Where are we and when are we going to go home?”

It would be nearly twenty years before Shimpal went back to Niue and by then, he wasn’t sure it was home anymore.

Liku is on Niue’s east coast, directly opposite the capital of Alofi. Shimpal was just a kid when he left, but he clearly remembers eating mangoes, fishing with his dad, hunting for delicious uga (coconut crab) and chasing other kids around the village. Life for him was good.

But Shimpal’s dad was a carpenter and he couldn’t find enough work. Mr Lelisi had left for New Zealand a couple of years earlier and now the rest of the family was following.

If you set aside the cold weather, the family had a reasonably soft landing when they arrived in Auckland, with plenty of relatives and people from Liku to welcome them and ease their way into jobs and housing. The idea was to earn good money, educate their kids and then go back home.

But there were some bumps. Shimpal found the tall buildings, the traffic and most, of all, the number of people overwhelming. He got lost one day on the streets of Ponsonby while coming home from school but he couldn’t ask anyone for help because he couldn’t yet speak English. He was lost for nearly four hours.  

On another occasion, Shimpal was run over by a van backing out of a drive. He woke up to find a crowd of people standing over him, asking him questions in a language he didn’t understand.

“I remember coming to, just freaking out and running home!”

But overall the big move from Niue to New Zealand went well. Shimpal has a successful career as an actor and TV presenter, with the animated series Bro Town and the movie Sione’s Wedding to his credit. The Lelisi family found jobs, a home and the new, better life they were after.

Not everyone who came here could say the same.

Abandoned house in Niue

Abandoned house in Niue Photo: RNZI

Mary (Mez) Aue is from Hakupu and Vaiea, on the southern end of Niue. Her connection to the island is deep and old.

“One of my ancestors threw a spear at Captain Cook!”

Mary's mum was a nurse and her dad managed several farms. She had the run of two family homes, two villages and the freedom that only a small, tight knit community can bring. By anyone's standards, this was a good life.

When Mary was nine her parents sent her to Auckland for school. She stayed with relatives but was made to do all the housework and was treated a bit badly.

Mary was miserable and wanted to go home. Her cousin told her parents, who decided instead that the whole family would move to New Zealand.

Mary was aghast.

The Aue’s shared houses with other families, then were given a Housing New Zealand property. Her parents found work; her dad did all kinds of jobs. Her mum, a nurse in Niue, became a cleaner here. Eventually they were able to buy their own home in Mangere.

But they struggled with debt and couldn’t always afford good food.

“(We ate) rice with a little bit of sugar. Niuean pancakes, which is basically just rice and water, was our staple…tomato sauce sandwiches.

“If you look back at our photos, we were really, really skinny.”

When she was a child, her parents put her on a plane to Niue for holidays as often as they could, so she would know about her home.

Mary can’t find it in her to regret the move to New Zealand. She has a life here now with her family, her church and her own business. but she has no doubt that life would have been different-  and better -  if her family had stayed put.

“We were better off in Niue. We had motorcycles, we had houses. There would have been way different opportunities and we wouldn’t have had to struggle.”

Shimpal Lelisi’s family never moved back to Niue. Shimpal himself didn’t visit the island for almost 20 years, not until he was cast in the classic Kiwi movie Topless Women Talk About Their Lives.

His character, Mike, flies to Niue to get married. When Shimpal stepped off the plane, he broke down in tears.

“I was overwhelmed. That feeling of it’s where you’re from, it’s where you belong.

“That’s when I thought about what my parents and my grandparents had left (behind).”

Niuean youth are seen as the key to retention and development of Vagahau Niue.

Niuean youth are seen as the key to retention and development of Vagahau Niue. Photo: Niue Youth Network

Shimpal is seriously considering a permanent move back to Niue. The island is just a three-hour flight from Auckland so he could easily come back for acting jobs. No different to living in Sydney or Melbourne, really.

And as a self-described Niuean-Kiwi, he doesn’t feel he has to answer the question of where home is.

“We are from the Pacific Ocean; the whole of the Pacific is where I’m from. 

“As long as I’m near the ocean, I’m all right.”

This story was produced using archival audio from Nga Taonga Sound and Vision.

 Logo of Nga Taonga Sound & Vision

Photo: Nga Taonga Sound & Vision