‘Tahiti Nui’ is a sad song. It’s been going through my head the last few days in Marie Mariterangi’s voice – a sad throaty, Tauamotuan voice, stilled for ever now by cancer. You don’t hear ‘Tahiti Nui’ much anymore in the islands. It’s an old song, a lament that dates back to phosphate mining days on Makatea Island in the Fifties. When you hear Marie wail it, you want to wail it too, even if you don’t understand the words.
In California the shortwave signal doesn’t start to come through clearly for Radio Australia and Radio New Zealand until about 11 p.m. The radio was my Christmas present to myself back in 1982, when I got my first paycheck on Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. I found it in South Seas International, the biggish duty-free owned by the Hendersons. She’s a Maori Cook Islander; he’s a Kiwi Cook Islander. If I’d known then what I know now about Maria, I would have campaigned hard to be best friends.
The world’s cameras were suddenly trained on Tahiti at the beginning of last month after the nuclear-bomb test that ended France’s three-year moratorium. Pictures of violence at Tahiti’s international airport at Faa’a and in downtown Papeete were broadcast all over the world. What was missing were interviews with Polynesian Tahitians – or Maohi, to call them by the name they call themselves.
I sat through the two long nights with my shortwave, taking notes and worrying, but knowing, at least, what was happening. One of my heroes, Oscar Temaru, was interviewed at the scene by Radio Australia. An outspoken advocate of sovereignty for the islands of French-occupied Polynesia, Temaru was elected mayor of the district of Faa’a, where Tahiti airport is, in the mid-Eighties. One of his first official acts was to declare Faa’a a nuclear-free zone. I felt sure that he’d end up in a French prison like Pouvanaa a Oopa, Tahiti’s great freedom fighter of the Forties and Fifties.
I was worried that the French had finally got an excuse to lock Temaru up, or worse. Pouvanaa had been falsely accused of trying to burn Papeete to the ground with petrol bombs. It had been nonsense, of course, but the French convicted him and exiled him at the age of 64 to spend eight years in solitary confinement in Baumette prison in France. His health broken, he was pardoned and sent home to die. He didn’t. Instead, frail, wheelchair-bound, Pouvanaa won back his seat in the Territorial Assembly and continued to fight for autonomy for his people and an end to nuclear-weapons testing. He died at 81. Now that Papeete was burning would the French accuse Temaru of masterminding the violence and destruction? His hoarse, weary voice was reassuring. ‘The only way to achieve our struggle is through peaceful means,’ he declared. Denied access to broadcast facilities, he had had to take to the streets. It took him two tries, he said, before he could persuade people to listen.
Demonstrations have almost become a way of life on Tahiti in the last few years, as the Maohi struggle to draw attention to issues like employment, taxation and justice. According to Temaru, this latest demonstration started with a group of hunger-strikers protesting at the resumption of nuclear tests. The group had gone without food for days. They were weak and sat on the ground holding placards. A crowd had grown around them. Gendarmes asked the hunger-strikers to leave. They refused. The gendarmes tear-gassed them. The crowd erupted in rage and became a mob intent on destroying the airport the nuclear industry depended on.