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Tribute to Kanak independence activist Susanna Ounei

Tribute to Kanak independence activist Susanna Ounei

Written by Dr. Teresia Teaiwa

The tangi for Kanak independence activist Susanna Ounei, who died unexpectedly in Wellington on Tuesday 21st June, 2016, will continue at Tapu te Ranga Marae (44 Rhine Street, Island Bay, Wellington) until she leaves here to return to Kanaky on Friday. During this time, Jessie Ounei and Toui Jymmy Jinsokuna Burēdo Ounei will be here, and encourage anyone who would like to pay their respects to their mother to come to the marae. The Po Whakamutanga (the formal final farewell to Susanna) will commence at the marae at 4pm on Thursday 30 June. All are welcome to attend.

Susanna Ounei was a significant figure in Kanak independence movement. She also played a significant role in the Māori sovereignty movement in New Zealand in the 1980s as an inspiring speaker at many hui. A passionate and committed activist she is mourned by family, friends and those who met her in passing.

Susanna Ounei first came to New Zealand in early 1984 to learn English, after losing her job in Noumea because of her involvement in the Kanak independence movement. She was sponsored by CORSO and the YWCA and later involved in projects with them. In 1986 she married New Zealander David Small who became a Canterbury University academic in after completing a PhD in Education in 1994 on the politics of colonial education in New Caledonia. In 1997 their marriage broke down and Susanna remained on the island of Ouvea in New Caledonia until returning to Wellington with her two adoptive children in 2000.

“Born in 1945, Susanna Ounei got involved as a young woman with the Red Scarves, a radical group formed in 1969, advocating for independence from France for Kanaky New Caledonia. (I remember her telling me she worked in the bank at the time, and because she had a salary she was often feeding and bailing out her comrades!) As the movement evolved from a Front Indépendiste into the FLNKS (Front de Libération National Kanak et Socialiste), she became a voice not just for independence and socialism but also for gender justice in Kanaky.

Her activism extended into the wider Pacific through her engagements with both the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific (NFIP) movement and the Pacific women's movement. She attended the UN's Third Conference on Women in Nairobi in 1985 where she met one of her inspirations, Angela Y. Davis for the first time. (They would next meet 22 years later in Wellington, New Zealand, when Davis--who was one of my PhD advisors--was on a speaking tour).

The 1980s in Kanaky New Caledonia saw a number of traumatizing events, including the massacre by French settlers of 10 Kanaks at Hienghène and the murder of independence leader Eloi Machoro by police in 1984, the massacre by gendarmerie of 19 Kanaks on Ouvea in 1988, and the assassinations of independence leaders Jean Marie Tjibaou and Yiewene Yiewene by fellow nationalist, Djubelly Wea, who was also killed in the fracas. The 1980s were also when Susanna had a period of residence in Aotearoa New Zealand, completing a degree in Sociology at the University of Canterbury, and writing and publishing influential pieces on Kanak independence.

In the 1990s the secretariat of the NFIP, the Pacific Concerns Resource Centre, was relocated from Auckland, New Zealand to Suva, Fiji and Susanna was appointed to its decolonization desk. This is when I first met her. During that time she was actively involved in organizing and galvanizing Pacific women for the UN Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. The period of the late 1990s also saw France invest heavily in New Caledonia in an effort to subvert the nationalist movement.

Dismayed by what she saw as the co-optation of the will to independence in her homeland, Susanna Ounei lived in voluntary exile in Wellington for the past sixteen years, raising two children as a solo parent, battling with health problems and yearning for her homeland of Kanaky/New Caledonia the whole time.

My friendship with Susanna really intensified during this period in Wellington. When she was well she attended seminars and conferences that we held at the university, and in the early days gave guest lectures to some of my Pacific Studies classes. She was the first person outside of my family to discern that I was pregnant with Vaitoa in 2002, and in 2006 she helped me find a beautiful beaded second hand top to wear for my wedding. Her official birthdate is August 15 (although she learned later in life that this may have been an error), so a couple of times we celebrated our August birthdays together, and at least one of those times was with Claire Slatter.

With her two children Jessie Ounei and Touie Jymmy Jinsokuna Burēdo Ounei now grown and raising families of their own, she often talked about moving back to Kanaky to lend a hand to the struggle...especially as more and more of her former comrades began to pass away.

While in Wellington, Susanna never failed to join her voice to movements for justice--from tino rangatiratanga/Māori sovereignty, to anti-corporate globalization, a Free West Papua and a Free Palestine. You could be sure to see her in public demonstrations of solidarity with anyone under attack from the state, like the 18 activists and their communities targeted in the 2007 New Zealand Terror Raids and the Waihopai Spy Base protesters of 2008.

Susanna was an awe-inspiring figure whose kindness and generosity I was privileged to receive and whose fury I have also survived. She was a true Warrior Woman.”

ENDS

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