We belong to a large and truly awesome family of many cultures and as we gather for a wananga, Easter weekend on a Marae is easy. The jobs are shared, the games are fun and the stories are woven into the mesh of the family history and wrapped around us like a korowai as we listen and make sense of where we fit. Some things become clear, and some become very murky indeed.
Tara and Leilani wait to greet Chee at the airport.
There are around 110 of us and we’ve traveled from different destinations to all meet at Parihaka Pa, a place where although we are not tied by blood lines, we are by deeds. I say ‘we’ as although this is Gilbert’s family I feel so very much a part of it, and for me, it is we.
We arrive around lunchtime Good Friday and greet each other enthusiastically before we are ready to greet the ‘Tangata te Whenua’, or I should say, be welcomed by them. Family photos are taken in of Gilbert’s eldest sister, Mother and GrandMother, who have all passed, so they may be left to rest here and be another link to this place, now part of our Papakaainga. Many of the Maori customs are so beautiful and I was able to remember this aloud as we sat and introduced ourselves. Anihera had suggested I might be a Marae virgin. “No! I said. It’s been a long time between visits but I attended your Great Nanny’s Tangi when I was new to this Whanau and another Wananga at Whatawhata some years ago. This is in fact my third marae stay and I feel very comfortable here.”
Having been in the family for some fourty five years I have a fairly good knowledge, but there were so many threads to untangle as Ruakere, an elder tells us stories of Parihaka’s past and our link, and while I am fascinated by it all, his gentle voice washes over me and I feel my head dip. The room had mattresses right around the outside edge walls and either side of the middle roof supports. Being afflicted with the ability to nod off, even if standing up, I had carefully considered the options. I chose the hard wooden seat down the back, next to Blair so I could quietly sneak out for my kitchen duty soon.
Just the two of us sat quietly there. Alas, I do drop off, but as I jerk my head upwards sensing something, I look up to see all 100 or more present looking straight at Blair and I. Eeeek! Could it be I have been snoring I wonder, as I hear Ruakere say “There, above those two, you will see their photos.” I look above and behind me and stand up pointing to the photos he is referring to, just so it looks like I was actually thinking, not sleeping as it appeared. However as the story moves on there is no shame, as I see many around us are snoozing spread out on the mattresses. I listen a little more and then realising I am well over my time, I slip out to join the others in the kitchen.
We are on dinner duty and being ‘boil up’ we must start early so that by dinnertime the meat is falling softly from the bone and the watercress is little more than a green swirl in the soup with kumera and potato still just firm until you bite, while doughboys sit proud like small clouds on the surface. The secret of this deliciousness is in the cooking time. Long and slow. I’m supposed to be one of the team leaders but luckily they know I’m unreliable and have started without me. Tara tells me I am the kuia who checks everything and makes people do it again, but on this occasion there is someone older, wiser and more to the point, Maori, who fills this role. She nods at me and hands the watercress preparation over. I’m stood at the sink opposite Amy and we have fun catching up as we heave great bunches of watercress from the box to the sink and separate the good bits from the not so good bits. All the while behind me bread is being kneaded, rolled and cut and if I look up, behind Amy, Anihera is dipping the cut bread dough into a bowl of water to take away the flour before dropping it into a huge pot of oil to deep fry the bread till golden. Tonight these will be served with the meal, split apart and lashings of butter pressed inside. It’s as delicious as it promised to be.
After dinner the older ones enjoy catching up, while the teens are sent with guitars to back rooms and younger ones are settled. I head to bed early as I have a headache milling around in the background of my head. We’ve been two days on the road for work before arriving here and I’m exhausted. I’m lucky as I can sleep at the drop of a hat.
Lights dimmed and mattresses in place in the wharenui, I stretch out sheets and snuggle into my pillow and nod off quickly. One of the special parts for me is the sleeping…we claim a spot and drift off as a Whanau together with gentle murmurings. Late ones slipping in when ready. I wake in the night and lie for a bit enjoying the rise and fall of the shared breath, as we are one…and of course the waking…a karakia stirs us as Wai knocks on the door at 6am and her beautiful voice, full of youth and promise, breaks the silence and greets the day with a prayer.
Catch up sessions are broken with meals and games and learning. Simone leads the Whanau challenges and no one knows what to expect as she sends us into Whanau groups. We easily feign a shy casualness while we assess the competition. Some more than others. Simone tries to even up the groups but most are reluctant to move and calls of ‘traitor’ ring out when they do. Simone sets the rules for the first game and it’s all on. Sa-ma-lia. A game the children have played since young and as a drinking game when older. There are squeals of delight as family champions know who they are. We need to keep playing in our own Whanau until we have two champions to send to the centre ring. Siblings make a circle and lean in. We all know who the best are but the spots are hotly contested just the same. Chee sits next to me and he should’ve beaten me hands down but he has baby Leilani on his knee that prevents him from snapping me out and and I go forward to the next round for our Whanau. I realise I should’ve bowed out as I’m useless at these games but my competitive spirit got the better of me. We get down to our two. Surprisingly it’s Seven year old Milan and his Mum Tara. Milan’s so excited, he’s nearly jumping out of his skin.
“I’m sorry, I yell to Chee over the squeals and laughter as we watch them walk over. I should’ve let you go through. I was never going to be a champion”. “It’s fine Mum, he says above the din, it’s good to have a kid in the mix. It might make the championship more compassionate”. As he says this our eyes watch as Tara squats down in front of Milan amid the bedlam of champions practicing. She appears to be giving him a pep talk. Reminding him this is serious. Chee and I burst out laughing as then she grabs his hands and begins to school him in the game, fine tuning the technique. ‘Focus!’ she seems to be telling him. “Jeepers! Not sure about compassion there, I say to Chee. Tara’s letting him know he’s in the big league now”. Game on!
Milan’s one of the first out but has enjoyed his moment in the sun and the uproar is massive as each player falls away. With the circle getting smaller each round. The next game is ‘Hi Ho’ and the floor is cleared for the finale as the thumping echoes around the hall. “You can do this, you’ve got my genes”, one of the mums yells to her daughter. The whole village must be wondering whats going on as the crescendo barely lowers before rising again. The game gets so fast its unbelievable and we have three pianists in the final. “See that, crows Aunty Fleur…All pianists!” True personas come through and in the ‘sing the next line’ game the competitors are complaining about their ‘buzzers not working’ and are quick to dob another out for wrong words. This is serious stuff, but its hilarious at the same time and the laughter nearly lifts the roof!
We then move outside for the ‘Ataxia challenge’. Gilbert’s family with this condition are happy to bow out and watch as the more able run around a circuit playing rock, paper, scissors…some of us with no idea of what we are supposed to be doing. I take a break and enjoy watching but am soon back in the game. In this the last one I am supposed to make my way from one side to another and we are in relays. I see we are close to finishing and there is me and Milan left in my team. “Get on my back” I yell at Milan and we wait for the sheet of paper we are supposed to use so we don’t touch the grass, only when its returned to me its been reduced to a tiny piece. I kick off my sandals, stand on the paper and scrunch my toes up, so they hold the paper tight and begin to jump like a rabbit. We are are bouncing haphazardly and I am laughing so much Milan is lurching off at crazy angles but hanging on for dear life. I can’t stop laughing and we are now the only ones left. We have lost but I am determined to get there, when Jo and a couple of the kids run forward and place paper in front of me so I can step one after the other and get there where we collapse into a heap of laughter. “That’s the end” Simone yells! “OMG that was so much fun”, I say to Milan as he slips off my back with a huge grin. I wonder if he contemplated falling or he had complete trust?
“If I had to choose one sound that typifies this weekend, Johno tells me later, it would be the sound of your laughter. Its everywhere!” he says smiling. “Why thank you”, I answer modestly. Was that a compliment? I think that was a compliment.
The next morning I arise and slipping out to the bathroom I take a sideways look and the sunrise behind the mountain is beautiful, though half hidden with bush and tree growth. In the bathroom Josie is in the shower for just a few seconds. They are gas so should be instant. Gee…. Im thinking lined up to be next, that was quick…”Good?” I ask her as she comes out. “Cold ” she replies. “OOOOKAY. I think I’m going to skip a shower today”, I say as I pack up my bits and we laugh.
Blair’s pic of the sunrise is amazing as its shared. “Wow!” Uncle Charlie is impressed. As a photographer in a previous life he usually takes the best shots but Blair is showing a real eye for it. I smile as I walk away hearing Charlie say, “…but where was he when he took it? I walked all around and I can’t see where he got that shot from. Was he on a hill somewhere?, what time was it? I don’t recognise that spot….” Haha Uncle Charlie. We all are learning this weekend!
Some have been up much earlier than us and a hangi is down ready for lunch. Its as delicious as it should be and is followed in true marae styles with steamed pudding, fruit, custard and cream. I can feel the love handles settling on my sides. Each day a little more, a little more. We’ve had an ‘Arks your Oncle & Aunty’ session and Des teases with “I’ll tell you later” until its finally his turn and he shares memories from his childhood forward, and as one of the oldest in the family they are fantastic. His detail taking us into rooms as he describes smells and furniture and clothes. His recall is amazing. Once again many of us have dropped off to sleep but its a hard life, and he is too soon stopped at page 21 of 67! WHATTTT! He promises to email copies as we hunger for more and particularly as he stops on a cliff hanger. The story of one of the children being struck with scarlet fever.
Tara is one of the team members who has lead a kaupapa of waste minimisation. The Pa is more forward thinking than many and they welcome her ideas and suggestions and while there are some sniggering and some confusion, there are many who are keen to learn. At the end of a four day Wananga with 110 odd people we have just two bags of landfill and some recycling.
The food waste having gone to the pig, a tap on the rock and the eels are there to eat the bread , bokashi and compost to the garden. It all works well.
I think many are surprised at that achievement. Its a tremendous result and one we can be proud of. Hopefully we have left the marae with new skills and goals.
It’s over all too soon and everyone has a final check for belongings, and a final squeeze of the babies as youngsters are seat belted in and convoys set off for home in various directions. Everyone is still buzzing days later as the Whanau Facebook page is filled with photo albums and warm fuzzies. There will be another and it will be just as great I’m sure.