Women of Courage by Gail Huff Brown


At the U.S. Embassy, New Zealand we are reflecting and celebrating International Women’s Day with #womenofcourage. Over the past 18 months, Mrs. Gail Huff Brown, wife to Ambassador Scott Brown and previously a professional TV news reporter, has been interviewing outstanding women and publishing the “Pacific Women Leaders” blog. This blog, published on the U.S. Embassy website, is a representation of #womenofcourage in this region! Here, Mrs. Gail Brown shares her highlights from this year, and looks forward to continuing to find stories of Pacific Women both in the Islands and throughout New Zealand.

During my time in New Zealand I have learned an expression that some women are brought up with: “Kāore te kumara e kōrero ana mo tōna ake reka” which translates into, “The kumara (sweet potato) does not brag about its own sweetness.”

The women I have met from New Zealand, Samoa, Cook Islands and Niue are humble and modest about their accomplishments.  I’ve been impressed by how they value their history and ancestry in all that they do, often putting others before themselves.  While they’re often well known in the communities they serve, we’re hoping to use our blog to shine a light on these amazing women – letting a broader, international audience know about their achievements.  We want to give them a chance to share with the world what they are doing for their people.

Among some of the incredible women that I have interviewed, I had the honor of meeting Fealo Fani Brunn, the first female Samoan to captain the traditional voyaging vessel, Gaualofa.  This 22-metre voyaging canoe uses no modern instruments or equipment to sail the Pacific. Fealo Fani’s male crew knows their captain can navigate the ocean like her ancestors did hundreds of years ago, and they respect her for her bravery.

I also got to meet Fiafia Rex from the tiny island of Niue who founded Oma Tafua Whale Conservation.  By identifying and tracking the oceanic humpback whales that travel past her island, Fiafia is helping to conserve the ever-dwindling population of these magnificent, endangered creatures.  Because this area of Niue is where mother whales bring their calves for nursing, Fiafia understands the importance of protecting them there when they are with their young.

Another woman we profiled is Niki Rattle, who, resides over the Cook Islands Parliament as Speaker of the House.  The 66-year-old is one of a handful of women working in local government, and, as a child in her native Island of Manihiki, told me she never dreamed she’d be sitting in Parliament one day.

And there’s Nora Swann, a fashion designer who founded the beautiful Pacific Fusion Fashion Show in Auckland.  Her show has given international recognition to dozens of Maori and Pacific fashion designers who otherwise might never have gotten onstage.  Nora, who is of Samoan and Niuean descent, also takes her message of positive self-esteem to local girls in the school system by teaching the importance of inner beauty.  

There are many more women that we’ve had the honor of meeting and interviewing.  As we continue traveling around the Pacific Islands and New Zealand meeting even more courageous women, we’ll continue to share their exciting stories.  While the kumara will never brag of its own sweetness, we will always be here to showcase the strength of these incredible women.

Gail Huff Brown.

The Pacific Women Leaders series, so far…

Fealofani Brunn.
Fealofani Brunn.

Fealefani Brunn

I am happy to introduce the first woman in the Pacific Women Leaders series, Fealofani (Fani) Bruun, Samoa’s very first Yacht-master Captain knocking down barriers while building confidence in other women within her community.  

She glides through the water like a dolphin; an effortless dance combining wind and sails. The fierce woman who captains this vessel commands a fleet of muscular men who know better than to argue with her, or, with Mother Nature. “She” is the Gaualofa, a 22 meter va’a (voyaging canoe).  And her captain, Fani – is the first woman to captain this traditional voyaging vessel. Sixteen crew members handled the massive sails, and at the same time enlightened my husband and I on how to sail this great va’a in Apia’s marina.
Read more…

Suisala Mele Maualaivao 

Papali'i Mele Maualaivao.
Papali’i Mele Maualaivao.

Like the colourful decoration perched above her ear, Papali’i Mele Maualaivao reminds me of an exotic Pacific flower – bright, and bursting with enthusiasm. She channels her energy into empowering women across the Pacific region out of her office in Apia, Samoa. This leader is helping to tear down gender stereotypes and encourage Pacific women to speak out against violence. Read more…

Ema Piutau.
Ema Piutau.

Ema Piutau

I met a fearless young woman, Ema, who has spent her professional career working in the criminal justice system in my new found home of New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington. Ema is serious about delivering justice and she has committed her life to advocating for Pasifika communities.

Ema works for the New Zealand Department of Corrections as an Advisor for the Legal Services Prosecution Support Team.  Among her many roles, she advises probation officers and corrections staff on pending criminal cases. Read more…

Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson.
Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson.

Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson

Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson proudly speaks about her culture as the reason why she started her work as first a journalist then as an environmental writer, communicator and now a policy advisor on environmental issues relating to oceans and climate change.

“Perhaps it is in the fact that I was born in Savaii, of a mother whose passion was for the environment,” she told me recently. Read more…

Niki Rattle.
Niki Rattle.

Niki Rattle

“It’s the sweetest coconut juice in the world,” says the Speaker of Cook Islands Parliament, Niki Rattle as I sit down to interview her on a hot  November day in Rarotonga. The coconuts have just been chopped off the tree right outside of her office and at first I’m a bit shy about drinking the juice straight out of the shell.   She assures me the raw juice is good for me.   And I take a sip, not daring to refuse the Madame Speaker’s command.

This is her quiet time.  Within the hour, she will welcome MPs on day one of the final parliamentary sitting for the year.  With 24 members, the room will be full of mostly men.  After all, there are only four women serving in the Cook Islands Parliament.  She wants to change that. Read more…

Ana File-Heather.
Ana File-Heather.

Ana File-Heather 

Ana File-Heather, owner of Red Door Coffee Bar and Unique Island Streetwear.

Ana File-Heather is desperately trying to hire a new barista.  She owns the Red Door Coffee Bar in Rarotonga, Cook Islands, but, ironically, coffee isn’t the main thing she wants to sell.  This creative businesswoman is using coffee to lure tourists and locals alike into her shop where she then leads them to the back room for the real sell: Unique Island Streetwear, which consists of hip T-shirts and clothing designed by Ana and her team. Read more…

Jacqui Evans.
Jacqui Evans.

Jacqui Evans

I met with Jacqui Evans, director of “Marae Moana”.

At the young age of sixteen, Jacqui Evans became fascinated with the beauty of the local marine life of the Cook Islands. Being a local, she would attend school trips to snorkel in the lagoon where she was always mesmerized by the beauty of the coral. These experiences inspired Jacqui to want to commit her life to marine health and sustainability. Read more…

Sera Tapu-Ta'ala.
Sera Tapu-Ta’ala.

Sera Tapu-Ta-ala 

No one understands the serious health problem that diabetes inflicts on Pacific people better than Sera Tapu Ta’ala.  As a Clinical Nurse Specialist at Kenepuru Hospital in Porirua, she has spent 16 years specializing in the education and management of treatments of diabetes – one of the biggest health issues facing Pacific people.  Of Samoan descent, Sera says her passion is to help fight this growing problem. Read more…

Verona Parker.
Verona Parker.

Verona Parker 

When I sat down to interview Verona Parker she was still the General Manager of TV3 in Samoa.  It’s a job she loved. However, change came in July when it was time to leave the television stage to focus on the home front full time.

Verona was General Manager of TV3 for three years, taking the position when the station was on the brink of shuttering.  Now, with new owners, TV3 is doing well and Verona can feel proud about the legacy she left behind. Interestingly though, broadcasting isn’t a profession she ever thought she’d pursue. Read more…

Nicole Rex.
Nicole Rex.

Nicole Rex

If there’s one person you can count on to throw a party and pull together a crowd, it’s Nicole Rex. She has been involved in numerous Pacific and community events across Auckland and Wellington, including the Polynesian and Pasifika Festivals. Born in New Zealand, her large extended family is Niuean. Her grandfather, Sir Robert Rex, was First Premier of Niue from 1974 – 1992. Nicole works hard to keep her family’s legacy alive and to teach her island traditions to the next generation. Read more…

Nora Swann.

Nora Swann

I met with Nora Swann, Designer for the Pacific Fusion Fashion Show.

“I’m creative, flamboyant, loud, and fun.  That’s me,” Nora Swann declares when asked to define her personal fashion style.  She loves to visit op-shops to buy different patterns and textiles and turn them into fashions and accessories.  While Nora is tall, beautiful and fashion model material herself – it’s quickly apparent that her position as an entrepreneur and role model for young people are what most shine through. Read more…

Vanessa Masoa.
Vanessa Masoa.

Vanessa Masoa

By profession, Vanessa Masoa is a Careers Development Consultant to the Tertiary Education Commission (formerly Careers New Zealand). By passion, Vanessa Masoa is a determined competitor who loves the adrenaline rush of playing rugby. She now works to combine these skills by volunteering her time in mentoring young athletic girls who want to play rugby. Read more…

Vania Wolfgramm.

Vania Wolfgramme

Vania is a former rugby player for the famous Black Ferns.  She loves the sport. Now, as the Women’s Rugby Development Manager at New Zealand Rugby (NZR), her job is to share her passion for rugby with other young women and encourage them to try it.

The mother of a young toddler, with a second baby on the way, Vania has been in the management position since 2012. Among the programs she’s successfully developed what is known as the Pasifika Aotearoa Cup (PAC), credited with bringing more women into the sport. Read more…

Fiafia Rex.
Fiafia Rex.

Fiafia Rex

I met with Fiafia Rex – founder of Oma Tafua (To Treasure Whales).

Endangered whales have a special friend on the tiny island of Niue, deep in the Pacific Ocean. Her name is Fiafia Rex and she founded Oma Tafua, The Whale Conservation in Niue more than 10 years ago. In what has become one of the oldest conservation projects on the island, she’s helping to educate people about ocean and marine conservation. Their island, a coral atoll, boasts unsurpassed water clarity and Fiafia’s goal is to make sure that the ever-changing ocean remains a clean and safe Pacific highway for whales. Read more…