In the Cook Islands a “know-it-all” is nicknamed a “scientist.” Ruatonga-born Teina Rongo, however, is a real Cook Islands scientist holding a Phd in Marine Biology from the Florida Institute of Technology. He began studying marine biology in 2001 at the University of Guam. He is the Climate Change Adviser with the Office of the Prime Minister and lives in Rarotonga with wife Jackie and their two children. His parents are Ngatoko Rongo and Teraitirere-ki-Avaiki Rongo and he has five brothers and three sisters.
FSB: “What did you like best about primary school in the Cook Islands?”
I have mixed memories about primary school at Avarua. I remember the harsh methods of the teachers with their corporal punishment, and being embarrassed by teachers and classmates because of my slow learning abilities.
But for the most part, I have good memories of fun activities such as sports where we competed against other schools, playing seasonal traditional games like teka and rore fighting, and other games like patapata. I also have good memories of eating all kinds of seasonal fruits as I walked to and from school with my siblings and friends, whether it be on the side of the road or venturing into peoples’ yards to gather these.
Swimming at the Avarua Harbour after school was perhaps the most fun thing to do, but at the same time the fear of getting in trouble for taking too long to get home after school cut into this enjoyment. Apart from primary school-related activities, we also had our home chores such as feeding the pigs after school, cleaning the yard, and pa`i taro work that we had to complete before heading to the rugby field for club training during rugby season.
Hiking into the mountains with neighbourhood kids to look for coconuts for the pigs was also a part of my chores, and this would often become a competition to see who has the biggest pile of coconuts.
Overall, life as a kid on Rarotonga was very busy, and we had no time to sit around and do nothing. Time for ourselves was normally on Sundays where we didn’t have any house chores to do, so after our church activities, the all neighbourhood kids would do more mountain hiking just to sit on treetops and admire the view of the island.
I never had a close friend in primary school because I was very shy and a bit of a loner. I did have a number of friends, and I still keep in contact with a few of them on rare occasions in Rarotonga to reminisce about our primary school days.
FSB: What made you choose marine biology as a career?
Growing up, my family lived a subsistence lifestyle where we often fished during the weekends and sometimes after school if we weren’t on the pa`i taro. This upbringing developed my passion for the ocean and nature in general.
Nevertheless, my family has always had a strong interest in science; for example, my father was a science and math teacher for many years at primary school level, and my eldest brother Teariki is a geologist trained at Otago University. In fact, my entire village of Ruatonga has often been referred to as a village of ‘scientists’, both real and self-proclaimed! We had great role models growing up in the likes of the late Tony Utanga and Rangi Moeka`a, the Tongia family, the Kapi family, and many others. Therefore it was an easy choice to decide to pursue science as a career, especially growing up in such an environment.
FSB: What was the hardest thing about studying overseas?
My very first semester as an undergraduate at the University of Guam was perhaps the most difficult for me. For pretty much the first year, I didn’t have any acquaintances. I spoke very little English and in order to converse with somebody, I had to practice in my head what to say before verbally expressing it. The toughest part though was not being able to communicate easily with family back home, and also being far away from home where no other Cook Islanders lived. Yet, the latter was perhaps a blessing in disguise as it forced me to improve on my English and allowed me to concentrate on my studies without getting sidetracked. I knew this was happening to other Cook Islands students studying abroad at USP and in New Zealand where many of their families and friends were around. Guam being a tropical island helped me with transitioning to life there over time. What I learned growing up in Rarotonga became very handy; I did a lot of spearfishing on Guam to supplement my food as I had limited means to get by on.
FSB: What inspires you most?
For me, inspiration can come from both a positive or negative event that influences your life. My inspiration came from a negative place early on. I was the “dumbest” in my class in primary school, constantly belittled by teachers and students alike. This gave me the inspiration to better myself academically. On the other hand, my mother was my biggest positive inspiration in my life. She always provided for us with what little she had available to her.
She was a very humble person and a hard worker who never stopped looking for solutions when faced with problems. Her motto to me and my siblings was “Ea`a roa koe e tuku i te au”, or “never give up despite the adversities you face”. This motto greatly inspired me through my pursuit of higher education, and it continues to inspire me throughout the events of my life.
FSB: “What do you love about our country the most?”
While the vast geographical spread, the unique geological formations, and biological diversity of the islands in our country are a major attraction for me, the most important thing I love about our country is the Cook Islands people.
What saddens me, however, is that our people are leaving overseas and we are being slowly replaced by foreigners. I hope that we quickly realise the uniqueness and beauty of our country and truly do everything we can to maintain it and stop its degradation.