Exchange and sustenance in the Cook Islands diaspora

Love food: exchange and sustenance in the Cook Islands diaspora

Kalissa Alexeyeff

Love food

While writing this article I e-mailed a Cook Islander friend of mine, Jean, and mentioned in passing that its topic was the food Cook Islanders take as gifts when they travel to visit relatives abroad. As a non-Cook Islander, the quantity of gifts, particularly those of food taken to and from the islands, has always intrigued me. Every flight leaving the Cook Islands capital Rarotonga, features locals hauling sacks of taro or coconuts onto check-in scales (and bemused tourists observing this blatant disregard of the twenty kilogram international baggage allowance). Flights from Auckland to Rarotonga are filled with the smell of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) emanating from 50-piece buckets purchased at Auckland airport. Jean’s e-mail arrived only hours after I had sent mine and it was the longest e-mail I had ever received from her. Seven passionate pages of food memories, events, and analysis which attested to the remark often made by food scholars about ‘the ability of food to both generate subjective commentary and encode powerful meanings’ (Sutton 2001: 6; Appadurai 1981: 494). The most arresting aspect of Jean’s e-mail was the emotional intensity attached to her memories of food gifts. Before I received Jean’s reply the focus of this article was primarily the material aspects of food exchange that is, the type and quantity of food gifts that travelled with Cook Islanders. After reading Jean’s thoughts, my focus shifted somewhat to the affective qualities of food exchange. The central aim of this article became to connect the material and the affective characteristics of food gifts and exchange among Cook Islanders. I want to begin by quoting sections of Jean’s e-mail which vividly conveys the affective materiality of food gifts:

Food–my favourite subject. I’d like to say something to add to

your food paper, if you haven’t got enough info already.

When I was younger, always prior to returning to NZ [New Zealand]

where I was attending school, I have memories of family members

thoroughly cleaning and patiently peeling fruit and vegetables,

cooking fish and poke [arrowroot pudding], and shaving coconuts so

they would pass inspection at customs and quarantine in NZ. I think

my family knew from the experience of previous travelling relatives

that having a phyto sanitary certificate from Rarotonga was no

guarantee your food would get past NZ quarantine officers who were

taking no chances of an island bug getting through and threatening

New Zealand’s agricultural industry.

A drinking coconut would be shaved within an inch of its life so

no stray bugs could hide amongst the hair fibres. The officer would

pick it up and inspect it closely. I remember once when a woman in

front of me in the queue had her goods taken off her, despite the

certificate, because the food was ‘doubtful’. She started to cry. I

felt sorry for her but at the same time I couldn’t help feeling

‘it’s just food, why cry over it?’ There was plenty other food in

NZ which could be substituted for what she had lost I thought. I

didn’t realise then what it meant to her. I was still young. I

didn’t understand the importance to her of this particular parcel.

This food represented the love (aro ‘a) of her family for her; the

best gift they had to give her. On a deeper level this food also

meant ties to her homeland … Food nurtures not just our bodies but

also our kinship ties and spiritual ties to homeland.

Actually, these memories evoke sad feelings for me because not

only have a lot of the relatives who sent us food parcels died …

but I am reminded that this is the way they showed their love for

us …

Cook Islands people don’t have the words to say (nor the Western

habit) of saying ‘I love you’, in fact there is no word for love in

our language. Polynesians have always known that deeds speak louder

than words, which is why little importance is placed on words. I

suppose it went without saying ‘words are cheap’.

Jean’s e-mail moves from personal reminiscences about the food her relatives prepared for her to take to New Zealand, to observations about the role of gesture and speech in Polynesian culture. Gifts of food, she suggests, display familial love and connection to home in ways words cannot. Her memory from twenty years ago of a woman crying over food that is taken by quarantine, vividly evokes the loss and lack of familial nourishment which distance from home can create. This image leads Jean to recall her personal sadness about those that fed and loved her and who have now passed away.

The role of food in remembrance is beginning to receive attention in anthropology (Sutton 2001; Seremetakis 1994). In what follows I pick up one strand of this scholarship, the exploration of how food comes to commemorate home (Bell and Valentine 1997). (1) I trace the way food travels the Cook Islands diaspora and the affective values attached to this food. In particular, the connection between love and food that Jean makes in her email. In order to explore this connection I firstly turn to Marcel Mauss’ ([1954] 1988) and Niko Besnier’s (1995) analyses of gift exchange as both these theorists discuss the role of emotions and aesthetics in gift giving in ways that are relevant to Cook Islands styles of prestation. Secondly, I provide a general summary of the Cook Islands diaspora before moving onto a detailed example of the types of food that circulate among Cook Islanders. As I noted above, when Cook Islanders from home visit family abroad they take large quantities of local food with them. They return with gifts of food and other goods from relatives abroad that far exceed home gins in quantity and cost. This exchange has been characterised as an instance of the one-way flow of the Pacific diaspora (Loomis 1990b) that is, the flow of goods and money from family abroad to those at home as ‘remittances’.

In the final section of this article I present a different reading of this flow of goods and money among Cook Islanders based on the contention that gift giving is premised on reciprocity of both objects and affect. I propose that the affective weight of Cook Islands home-grown food cannot be matched by gifts of overseas food stuffs of equivalent economic value. Home-grown food creates affective excess when it travels overseas. It presents the bounty of home; the bounty of food and the bounty of sustaining loving relationships. It also represents the palpable lack of this sustenance abroad. My primary objective in this article is to focus on the way food and emotions are exchanged among Cook Islanders in an attempt to supplement discussions of Pacific migration and travel. I argue, following Epeli Hau’ofa’s insights (1994, 1998), that attention to the affective as well as the material aspects of exchange presents a picture of the Cook Islands diaspora that is defined by interdependence, circularity and reciprocity rather than one-way exchange and dependence.

Affect and exchange

Jean’s analysis of food gifts supports Marcel Mauss’ classic definition of gift exchange as creating and sustaining relationships between persons and groups. Jean’s e-mail also highlights a lesser, but nevertheless persistent, theme in The Gift about the role of emotions and aesthetics in exchange. The gifts of food Jean remembers are ‘alive with feeling’ (Mauss 1988: 22) and provide an example of the way gift exchange provides people with the opportunity to take ’emotional stock of themselves and their situation as regards others’ (1988: 77-8). Although emotions and feeling are not central to Mauss’ work he does offer glimpses of what a study of affective exchange might include. In his discussion of Polynesian economics he suggests that:

[Polynesian] exchange is not exclusively goods and wealth, real and

personal property, and things of economic value. They exchange

rather courtesies, entertainments, ritual, military assistance,

women, children, dances and feasts; and fairs in which the market

is but one element and the circulation of wealth but one part

of a wide and enduring contract. (Mauss 1988: 3)

And later: ‘The circulation of goods follows that of men, women and children, of festival ritual, ceremonies and dances, jokes and injuries. Basically they are the same.’ (Mauss 1988: 44). Here, courtesies, dances, jokes, insults and food are not simply symbolic lubricants of economic exchange but have material and affective exchange value in and of themselves. They have their own unique aesthetics and affectivity as things exchanged, gestures and sentiments are not merely appendages to the real business of economic exchange.

In the Cook Islands there are many instances of ritual exchange that illustrate how sentiments and gestures circulate along with goods and money. Each year on the island of Aitutaki a celebration called koni raoni is held on 26 December and New Year’s Day. Large groups of overseas Aitutakians return to participate in this and other Christmas events. (2) Koni raoni means dance round; each year one of the four main villages travels around the island on trucks and motorbikes, led by a pickup truck of drummers who signal their arrival, and perform at each village hall or sports field. The village members are dressed in kaleidoscopic tie-dyed T-shirts, sarong (pareu) and shorts. Hats are made out of palm fronds and sweet smelling flowers. Ei (neck wreathes) made from colourful sweets hang from dancers’ necks. After a brief prayer and religious song, the visiting village performs to a range of popular Cook Islands songs, old favourites and drum-based dances. As the momentum gathers, members of the host village dance in front of the performing village and members of the performing village dance out of their group to join the hosts. The hosts in turn show their appreciation by waving money in the air and throwing it into a collection bucket at the end of each set of dancing. After the show the performers eat and drink at houses in the host village until the truck of drummers come past moving everyone onto the next village.

It is general knowledge among Aitutakians that the purpose of koni raoni is to ‘raise funds’. The money is used by the performing village for community projects; food for functions, renovation of a church hall or meeting house. (3) However, to say that the koni raoni–dancing, drinking, donating money and eating–is only, or even fundamentally, about raising funds, is to commit a kind of vulgar materialism. Many people who participate in the koni raoni talk about it as a time of intense sociality which includes sharing food, drink, laughter, gossip, dancing as well as money. During the koni raoni exchange of money facilitates the exchange of dancing, the amount of donations and number of people dancing determines the length of the performing village’s performance. The more money the host village gives the longer they get to dance. Dancing also assists with raising money. As one woman commented to me: ‘If a song gets in your heart you can’t hide your money, you get carried away and just want to keep dancing and keep giving money’. I remember her at the koni raoni in 1997, wearing a wreath of gardenia on her head and a huge smile on her face. She is dancing towards the performers, her arms upstretched and her right hand is waving a twenty dollar note.

In arguing for a consideration of the affective nature of exchange I am not suggesting that economic considerations be dismissed. However, economic reductionism cannot explain the profound impact that acts of exchange can have on people. The koni raoni is neither solely symbolic nor solely material; its symbolic, aesthetic, affective qualities cannot be reduced to economic quantities. The koni raoni is one instance of the way in which many Cook Islanders I knew considered economic transactions as emotion-driven actions (Besnier 1995: 16). Money is exchanged through dancing, an action which displays an individual’s and a village group’s pleasure in sociality and at performing exchange.

‘Words are cheap’

The gestural quality of exchange is something Niko Besnier (1995) discusses in his study of Nukulaelae (a Tuvaluan atoll) literacy. He argues that on Nukulaelae, the emotion alofa (the linguistic equivalent of the Cook Islands aro “a, love) is the primary means through which economic exchange is understood and practiced. This is the way a Nuknlaelae person explained the concept: ‘If you have alofa (for someone) … you should have something desirable in your hand … if yon keep saying alofa, alofa, and you have nothing (to give) in (your) hand, that doesn’t count as alofa.’ (Besnier 1995: 98)

This explanation of alofa is remarkably similar to Jean’s understanding of the importance of actions in expressing love. She says that Cook Islanders ‘don’t have the words to say (nor the Western habit) of saying “I love you”‘, rather they express love through gifts and gestures.

Both terms alofa and aro ‘a do not convey a sense of ‘being in love’ with a person, but can refer to divine love; love of God or a spiritual connection to homeland (Besnier 1995: 98). Aro’a includes notions such as affection, kindness, generosity, pity and sympathy. Aro’a also means gift or present, for example, ‘I give, forgive or welcome you with a gift’. To give aro’a (love) one gives a gift (aro’a). Besnier (1995:99) defines this materiality of love as an ‘economy of affect–the flow and exchangeability of affectivity on the one hand and economic resources on the other’, one gives because of alofa and alofa is emphasised by a gift. In a similar fashion, many Cook Islanders express their aro ‘a through the exchange of material goods. Aro’a forms part of reciprocal obligations, and attachment’, to kin and the wider community.

Besnier’s ‘economy of affect’ is extremely relevant in the Cook Islands context. Expressive forms such as dance and gestures such as parcels of food, are the sentiments and material of transactions. Jean’s e-mail clearly connects love and gifts, objects exchanged have emotional as well as material value. They are part of same affective economy aro ‘a, love generating from her family and from her homeland. For Jean, it is not words that fortify this love but gifts of home-grown food.

Gifts of love are a particularly prominent feature of exchange among Cook Islanders who are separated by large geographical distance. In the next section of the article I examine in detail the dynamics of gift exchange in the Cook Islands diaspora. I am particularly interested in how local food is thought about and experienced. Jean’s e-mail suggests a cleft between the Cook Islands conceptualisation of local food and New Zealand food. New Zealand food is seen to lack something. This lack, I suggest, does not lie in its calorific value but emotional substance. The woman Jean recalls as crying when her food is deemed ‘doubtful’ is not crying over the loss of physical sustenance or exchange goods, but for her loss of familial nourishment, aro’a.

The Cook Islands diaspora

The unstated premise of Jean’s e-mail is that it is commonplace to undertake travel with large quantities of food and other goods. For Cook Islanders, and many other Pacific islanders (Hau’ofa 1994), it is accepted practice to travel with tropical food stuff, island brooms, mats and applique quilts (tivaevae). White goods, eskies of meat, buckets of KFC, synthetic patterned blankets and music videotapes return with islanders going home. These accoutrements are usually gifts for, or from, family members at home and abroad.

Cook Islanders regularly undertake travel to visit relatives at home and abroad. More than two-thirds of Cook Islanders live overseas. Recent figures estimate over 52,000 live in New Zealand and around 20,000 in Australia (Statistics New Zealand 2002). The number living in the Cook Islands in 2000 was around 14,000 (Cook Islands News 2001). Although Cook Islanders have migrated in significant numbers to New Zealand and beyond since the 1920s, the Cook Islands population has declined fairly dramatically since structural adjustment policies were introduced in 1996 by the Asia Development Bank (ADB) and New Zealand Overseas Development Agency (NZODA). As a result of these policies the public service, which employed over 60 per cent of the paid workforce, was cut by half. Combined with lack of jobs in the private sector many people saw migration as their only option.

One of the main reasons given for emigration from the Cook Islands is the islands lack of potential for economic growth; their distance from trade centres and lack of resources. Like many Pacific nations, the Cook Islands are often characterised as having a MIRAB economy. That is, an economy defined by migration, remittances, aid, bureaucracy (Siikala 1991: 9; Denoon et al. 2000: 402). A New Zealand Overseas Development Agency report (1997: 19) states that money sent home from New Zealand totalled NZ $2.5 million in 1986. (4) This figure only includes money sent home (via money transfer services); it does not include money taken home as gifts. The figure also does not include money spent by overseas Cook Islanders on airfares for kin, reverse charge phone calls from kin, or the cost of transporting items requested from home. These things would presumably make remittance figures significantly higher (Loomis 1990a, 1990b).

Much work on remittance patterns in the Cook Islands and other Pacific nations tend to emphasise the flow of goods and money from abroad to home (Connell 1990, 1991; Loomis 1990a, 1990b; Lockwood 1993). Relatives who live overseas are believed to be weil off and are placed under considerable pressure to provide for family at home. While I have no doubt that the pressure to remit money and goods exists, I think that characterisations such as MIRAB and remittance economies do not present an adequate representation of the nature of Cook Islanders’ relationships. This contention is not new; a number of Pacific islander scholars have made similar arguments, most notably Epeli Hau’ofa in his important work ‘Our Sea of Islands’ where he says that:

Islanders in their homelands are not the parasites on their

relatives abroad that misinterpreters of ‘remittances’ would have

us believe. Economists do not take account of the social centrality

of the ancient practice of reciprocity … They overlook the fact

that for everything homeland relatives receive they reciprocate

with goods they themselves produce, by maintaining ancestral roots

and lands for everyone … This is not dependence but

interdependence. (Hau’ofa 1994: 157; and see Jolly 2001; Newnham

1989) (5)

Travel among Cook Islands communities also displays interdependence and reciprocity. Relationships between Cook Islanders are maintained by frequent visits, e-mails and letters to and from home. Many Cook Islanders abroad return home at Christmas time and important events such as twenty-first birthdays, baptisms and weddings are postponed until the Christmas season. Family groups have reunions and funerals to attend at home and overseas. Village and island church, sports and dance groups regularly travel to and from the Cooks, New Zealand and Australia. In what follows I examine in detail the visit of one person, Mama Mata, (6) to her relatives in New Zealand in an attempt to complicate this scenario of one-way flow in the Cook Islands diaspora. I do this by examining the food Mama Mata travelled with and the gifts she received in return. Mama Mata’s trip I argue replicates the ‘economy of affect’ discussed earlier, it suggests that many Cook Islander relationships are sustained through reciprocal exchange in an economy where monetary value is not necessarily the defining feature. Nor is this exchange simply symbolic but rather it is affectivity which marks and defines the exchange of material goods.

How to say ‘I love you’ in the Cook Islands: Mama Mata’s trip

For the majority of my time I lived on Rarotonga with a single, middle-aged woman whose name was Mama Mata. Mama Mata’s family is from the island of Aitutaki–an island which is an hour’s flight from Rarotonga. Although Mama Mata had not lived on Aitutaki since the 1960s when she was a teenager, she kept in regular contact with relatives there. Her parents had also left Aitutaki and moved to New Zealand. They had been living there for twenty years and during my time with her Mama Mata decided to visit them for two months. Mama Mata had not been to New Zealand for many years and did not expect she would go again due to health reasons. Her parents were also of poor health, they could not undertake plane journeys and had not returned home for ten years. Mama Mata feared they might not live much longer. The trip was highly significant for Mama Mata, she saw it as an opportunity to provide her parents with home-style food that she knew they loved, she told me that her mother said ‘island food’ available in New Zealand was tasteless and she often had ‘cravings’ and ‘dreams’ about real ‘island food’. (7) On Rarotonga, Mama Mata was a renowned cook, her speciality was poke, arrowroot pudding made from banana, mango or pumpkin which her relatives who lived on Rarotonga would request she make for their functions. Cooking was her gift, so it made sense for Mama Mata to prepare food in order to show her aro’a for her parents.

What did not seem to make as much sense was Mama Mata’s total preoccupation with organisation of the gifts. She set about planning them months before her departure; she was on the phone constantly, had trouble sleeping and was a bit snappy. I could not see how the preparation of a bit of food could have such an impact. What I did not reckon on (and only came to appreciate as I lugged her baggage to the airport) was the amount of food she was preparing and its significance. It was later still when I realised that the types of food Mama Mata took to New Zealand were particularly Aitutakian delicacies, obtaining them required a lot of organisation including calling on those in her ‘debt’ (from poke mainly), and giving gifts for those that provided her with raw materials and other services. The details of Mama Mata’s preparations indicate just how much effort went into her display of aro’a for her parents; it demonstrates in concrete terms how an ‘economy of affect’ works.

During Mama Mata’s preparation time, I made a number of trips to her home island Aitutaki for research. On one of my visits, she asked me to take two pineapple cream pies for her nephew and a bottle of bourbon for a cousin. The nephew worked for Air Rarotonga–the Cook Islands national airline. I mentioned to Mama Mata that I did not particularly want to get off in the plane and publicly give him the cream pies, as I knew people would speculate about this gesture. Mama Mata said that I was being selfish. I had to take the pies as he was a ‘good boy’ because he let her relatives in Aitutaki send food over on the plane to her without charging cargo costs. A week before Mama Mata’s trip to New Zealand, the cousin who had received the bottle of bourbon sent Mama Mata (via the nephew) a box of crabs, two sacks of mangoes and two large containers of arrowroot. All the items were distinctly Aitutakian; the crabs and mangoes were varieties only available on Aitutaki.

Mama Mata’s presents to her cousin and nephew were given to demonstrate her attachment to them and to incur obligation. This system of exchange was a central element of her understanding of relationships; goods and services are obtained primarily through gift exchange with relations and friends not by direct monetary payment. In this system, money could be given as a present, but it could not be given as direct payment. (8) Because I was living with her and she did not want to be ashamed of me (white people have a reputation for being stingy), Mama Mata spent a lot of time coaching me on the appropriate gifts I should present to people who had given me gifts, participated in an interview or provided me with some other service. However, when I tried to suggest that there was a relationship between the gifts she gave to people and the gifts they returned back she would strongly disagree and assert that gifts were given purely out of generosity. She would insist that Cook Islanders are ‘naturally’ generous and hospitable people. Speaking of her father, Mama Mata said:

If he saw someone walking on the road he would call them ‘come,

come’ (aere mai), even a stranger. He would ask them inside and

offer them food. Even if we had hardly anything he would give it.

He encouraged us to be generous and share, he told us that if you

give you will receive ten-fold. (9)

While Mama Mata quite explicitly presents a ‘what goes around comes around’ version of gift giving, in my attempts to uncover the ‘rules’ of gift exchange among Cook Islanders I would often annoy people by mentioning reciprocity. The most common responses I heard from Mama Mata (and a number of others) were either ‘you are always talking about giving back, you don’t have to give back’, or ‘you just give what you can’. The casualness of these statements belied what I considered to be an exacting exchange system. The system of exchange presented by Mama Mata is a clear example of Mauss’ (1988: 1) claims that exchange of gifts are ‘prestations which are in theory voluntary, disinterested and spontaneous, but are in fact obligatory and interested’. To highlight the interest and reciprocity attached to gifts does not, I think, make these transactions a form of ‘social deception’ based solely on ‘economic self-interest’ (1988: 1). Exchange based on self-interest does not preclude that gifts can also display aro’a, love and attachment to others as I suggest Mama Mata’s trip demonstrates.

Mama Mata cooked and cooked. She had two lists for her trip, one was attached to the refrigerator and detailed the things she was taking over for family. These included taro, coconuts, a dish made from the crabs fermented in coconut, mango and papaw poke. Her second list, which she called her ‘wish list’, was a list of things she wanted from New Zealand. The wish list was kept in her purse, as it was not for public perusal. She showed me it once. It said iron, ironing board, food processor, sheets, blankets, and money for new motorbike. These were things she would in part purchase for herself but she was also hoping that relatives would obtain them for her. A number of people I knew on Rarotonga said they kept lists of who attended major events (twenty-first birthday parties and weddings) they hosted and recorded each person that attended, the type and estimated cost of their present. The point of this record was so that equivalent (some say exact) gifts could be presented in return when the occasion arose. This is something Jukka Siikala (1991:16-17) notes in his study of myth the Southern Cook Islands. He says lists of gifts given and received are recorded in puka papa’anga (genealogy books), usually old account books in which information on genealogy and land rights are recorded as well as a record of donations given to the church and gifts given and received.

In the days before Mama Mata departed, family members on Rarotonga dropped off food items that she had requested from them. Some stayed to give their opinion on how the food should be packaged. Others stayed to help peel taro–a laborious and itchy job, it needs to be cleaned thoroughly, cut into pieces and packaged in special plastic bags which are only available from the Department of Agriculture. The night Mama Mata departed, our next door neighbour and I helped take her baggage to the airport. We arrived very early and Mama Mata’s baggage was weighed-in by her cousin. This was not a coincidence; the cousin swapped shifts to accommodate Mama Mata. A suitcase, four eskies and two plastic sack size bags of taro were piled on the scales. They weighed 239 kilograms. Even by local standards this was considerable excess which would have been unlikely to be let through by anyone except by a forewarned relative.

When Mama Mata returned from New Zealand a month later she had brought with her a 50-piece pack of KFC for close relatives and us. KFC is the most popular present from overseas. I have never had anyone adequately explain to me why KFC is so popular (or why a KFC store has not opened on Rarotonga, there is ‘Southern Fried Chicken’ a local shop whose chicken does not taste the same); most make comments such as ‘it must be the secret herbs and spices’. I image KFC’s popularity is partly to do with chicken being the staple meat of the Cook Islands but local chickens are considered rangy compared to plump overseas chickens. KFC is also perhaps an immediate gift that can be shared with relatives who come to pick up people from the airport. Mama Mata also returned with enough money to buy a new motorbike (NZ $2,000). She told me that most of the people who came to visit her in New Zealand gave her money as well as some goods. The minimum she received was NZ $100 plus a bed quilt and some sheets from a woman she did not even know (but who was a cousin of her mother’s).

A few weeks later, two crates arrived from New Zealand. The crates contained four sacks of potatoes, two bags of onions, a stereo, tea-towels, blankets, two dish racks, six catering size tins of Nescafe coffee, an ironing board, legs of lamb, steak and bacon and much more. I was completely astounded. Mama Mata said they were presents from her brothers and sisters and other family members. Meat is a popular gift as there is no local cattle industry so imported meat is expensive, as are white-goods. That same day, the man from next door (our landlord) came to get his share of meat. Mama Mata was at work but she had given me instructions about what to give him. I fetched his parcel from her industrial sized freezer and we stood looking in it for a while. I finally said what I thought we were both thinking: ‘There is an awful lot of food in this freezer’. To this the next door neighbour replied: ‘It is not all for her, it’s probably to send to Aitutaki’. Indeed, a number of these goods did get redistributed; meat, potatoes and coffee were sent to family in Aitutaki. It is a commonplace to give large quantities of gifts of food as it is assumed that the gift will be shared. What I thought was extraordinary, the quantity of goods arriving from New Zealand and the effort gone to transport them, was seen as quite normal and accepted practice.


Mama Mata’s trip, the food she took with her and the food, goods and money with which she returned, can be interpreted in a number of ways. If the exchange was measured in purely economic terms, it could be argued that the trip was a micro-example of the economic dependency that is seen to characterise the Cook Islands diaspora. Mama Mata took away big but came back with bigger. However, if Mama Mata’s baggage is weighed in terms of an affective economics of the type suggested by Niko Besnier, a different conclusion may be drawn. It would then appear that food from home, from Aitutaki and Rarotonga, has a higher affective value than food and goods from overseas. Mama Mata’s food created an affective surplus–239 kilos of local food was returned at least three times over. This return does not point simply to the higher ‘symbolic’ status of local produce but to its actual status, its affective materiality within a particular sort of economy. An economy governed by love–the aro’a of home, homeland and aro’a of kin. In these terms Mama Mata’s gifts are a bounty, food imbued with love from home. The amounts remitted from New Zealand kin testify to their lack of aro’a of the home grown variety. Local food as I have suggested is a form of ‘consuming geography’ (Bell and Valentine 1997); it signifies home as a place of physical, social and spiritual nurture.

Another interpretation of the gifts exchanged on Mama Mata’s trip is that it was a form of competitive exchange where New Zealand relatives are obliged to give bigger and better gifts than those they received from Mama Mata. While there are a number of instances of competitive gift exchange in the Cook Islands (such as the koni raoni celebrations mentioned earlier), I would suggest competition is a more salient feature of group exchange (between kin groups at weddings, village and church groups) rather than exchange within a group, primarily kin and also among friends. The amount of goods and money that arrived from New Zealand would not have to be outdone by Mama Mata in the future but, if I am correct, the return gifts were seen as just that; gifts that were an equivalent expression of the aro’a Mama Mata presented.

Mama Mata’s trip also demonstrates the different ways aro’a can be articulated across the Cook Islands diaspora. Islanders from home display their aro’a with gifts from home, especially gifts of home food. Although some ‘island food’ is available in New Zealand (for instance taro and poke), it is considered tasteless when compared to home-grown produce. Food gifts from home are the best one can give. Cook Islanders living in New Zealand give gifts in return which express the aro’a of their situation, while they may not have access to the bounty of home-grown food, they do have money, something most Cook Islanders lack at home.

I have tried to show here that aro’a as a feeling is expressed through gift giving practices. Aro’a is simultaneously about exchange of material and affect. Material exchange of gifts generates feelings and, as Mauss (1988) suggests, relationships. Gift exchange constitutes, manages and re-creates relationships. In the examples I have detailed in this article, gifts of food are a central way in which Cook Islanders maintain important relationships–relationships that signify deep attachment to kin and to home islands. To conclude I recount one final anecdote which occurred while Mama Mata was in New Zealand. Mama Mata’s uncle would come around to feed the pigs at the back of our house while she was away and on one occasion we fell into a conversation about the rate of emigration and speculation about whether Mama Mata would even return from her trip. He declared that unlike so many other Cook Islanders he would never leave home. For Mama Mata’s uncle, food–its abundance at home and its lack abroad–was the metaphor he used to express why he has never left home despite pressure from his wife and some of his children to migrate to New Zealand:

I don’t want to go to New Zealand because here, if I am hungry, I

can just ask for some food. There’s no food over there. Over there

you just look at the sky. All you have to eat is wind-burgers. It’s

not money that is important it’s food.

Mama Mata’s uncle felt that food encapsulates important relationships. In New Zealand where people may be more concerned with looking after themselves rather than being hospitable and generous to kin, it is not possible to ask for food. Over there, food is obtained by working in an economy based on money not affect. Without money you are left looking at the sky with only the wind to eat. On Rarotonga in contrast, food is plentiful produced by the aro’a of people with the right attitude … all you have to do is ask.


(1.) I use the term home in the broadest sense of a geographical and imagined place, a sense of belonging and identity, and attachment to a community of people (Clifford 1994, 1997; Brah 1996).

(2.) These groups are called tere parties (literally travelling parties). Tere parties are a fascinating aspect of the travel Cook Islanders undertake but they are beyond the scope of this article. Tere parties are usually organised by island, village or family membership depending on the purpose of travel. Travel is undertaken for almost every type of activity. Church groups tere for religious anniversaries to raise funds for a church projects (a new church or church hall), the Boys or Girls Brigade tere for brass band competitions, sports groups tere for international and regional competitions, dance groups tere for tourist promotion or group holidays, teachers college and school groups for educational exchange. Women’s groups tere for conferences and fundraising. Family groups travel for family reunions, weddings, important birthdays, headstone unveilings (after a relative dies the family will save to buy a headstone, a few years later when the headstone is bought there will be a service to unveil it on the grave site). These reunions are held both in the Cook Islands and in New Zealand. The purpose of many tere parties is to raise funds for community projects.

(3.) The koni raoni is a form of competitive exchange. Each village is expected to give more than the performing village gave them the last time. For example in the 1996-7 koni raoni the village performing on New Years day 1997 gave NZ $1,400 to the village that they hosted on Christmas day in 1996. This village reciprocated NZ $2,800. The total takings for the day was NZ $14,000. It is said that because villages tried to outdo the others with generosity, donations started getting out of hand and a limit of NZ $2,000 per village was imposed. This limit is often ignored.

(4.) More recent statistics on remittances are not, to my knowledge, available.

(5.) In his thesis on pearl farming in Manihiki (a northern atoll in the Cook Islands), Raymond Newnham (1989) argues that Manihikians were actually remitting money and pearls to relatives in New Zealand. The island’s burgeoning pearl industry ended after Cyclone Martin in 1997.

(6.) This is a pseudonym.

(7.) Seremetakis (1994: 3) suggests food that is not home-grown (from home or shop bought) is considered ‘tasteless’ because they do not generate memories of place-identification and community life.

(8.) That is money is ‘not a physical thing but a social relationship’ (Gregory 1982: 20). In the Cook Islands money seems to operate as both a ‘thing’ that facilitates commodity exchange and it is also incorporated into gift exchange (again see Gregory 1982: 46, 116; Toren 1989).

(9.) See Sutton (2001: 50-2) for similar narratives of hospitality and generosity in Kalymnos.


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Kalissa Alexeyeff

Gender Studies, The University of Melbourne

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