“Each image has its own story, I am so emotional right now,” he said of the images, now showing at the National Museum.
They were of his home, where he grew up, but he says it felt “different”.
“That’s where I came from and I’m saddened. Seeing it like this, it makes it so real”.
He says he couldn’t even recognise the abandoned homes depicted in some of the photos, and who they had belonged to.
Leaving his homeland when he was 12 to go to school in Rarotonga, he never moved back, although with two brothers still there he goes back to Mangaia every two years or so. He went on to teach for 11 years, later becoming performing arts officer for the Ministry of Culture and before moving into tourism. He retired in 2016 and celebrated his 60th birthday with family in Bora Bora. President of the Mangaian committee for 10 years, he is now patron.
He says with a population of well over 2,000 people when he was growing up, Mangaia was a vibrant beautiful community. “You would see people on the road and everywhere, and now you just see goats. There would be people planting and moving through the plantations, but now the plantations in the hills are empty.”
About 60 of Papatua’s family from Rarotonga, Australia and New Zealand, came together on Mangaia for a reunion over Christmas. “There were 13 of us siblings but now there are nine left. My two brothers are planters, they live off the land. Our father was a planter, so they are good at it. We talked a lot about depopulation at the reunion.”
He says he remembers the beginning of the drift off the island.
“I sensed people leaving and leaving for good and that was the saddest feeling. I noticed that once one family moved, it caused some unrest, and the family next door would want to move too. A brother moves and the sister says, ‘I want to go too’, and then everyone wants to go. At the reunion I could see that the ones that have left will never come back. They have homes and jobs.”
He says as a boy he never wanted to leave Mangaia. “I did a lot of travelling and I did one year in New Zealand at teacher’s college, but I was never tempted to live there. I won’t leave Rarotonga now, this is my home and my roots are in Mangaia.
The shift, he believes, came when transport became easier. “You can go, so you do go. But what is it going to take (to reverse depopulation)? It will take new projects, businesses, free enterprise, the government to start something up…
On Mangaia he was impressed to see that the older people have initiated agricultural planting for the young people. “The young people there are getting involved and they are selling what they grow. They even sell to hotels in Rarotonga. It’s the older people trying to keep the young people on the island, to the best of their ability. But it needs a lot more than that. Absolutely.”
He says everyone who can talk about depopulation should be.
“Us older ones. We need to tell our story. What are we doing? What can we do, what can the local government do? We need to do something. Find a way.
“Are we just going to let this go, turn away and do nothing?”