Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Being Truly Welcomed

Haere mai! Haere mai! Haere mai!Once! Twice! Thrice! Welcome.

During Mark’s first week of work, we were invited to a Whakatau, a Maori welcome ceremony, at the hospital -- which I wrote about briefly in a Facebook post -- but will explain better here along with a second more elaborate welcoming Powhiri (pronounced pofiri - that controversial wh being an f again) for all new students and their families I attended at Nikko’s high school yesterday morning.

The invitation to the event at the hospital on January 21, stated: “Gentlemen must wear long trousers; ladies must wear a skirt (preferably long).” (Later I read on a website, “You are expected to act in a dignified manner, for Maori accept your physical presence as representing all your ancestors. It is considered rude to show disinterest during these proceedings, walk in front of a speaker or talk.”) An elegant younger woman of Maori heritage who works for the local Maori health center greeted us and explained what we were about to experience and told us that she would be our guide, ensuring we didn’t do anything embarrassing. The women entered the room first, but the men would be seated in front of the women to represent their role as defenders of the women, she instructed us. We were serenaded as we walked into the room by a female Maori elder wearing a carved horn necklace and matching earrings and then a group of staff (mostly non-Maori, or pakeha, a commonly used Maori term for New Zealanders of European descent) sang a traditional waiata (song) for us.
An older Maori man in tweed jacket -- "Uncle Bill" everyone calls him, he told us later – then welcomed us and our ancestors with lots of gesturing and lyrical words (his energetic brandishing of a walking stick had Alex a little scared at a few points) into the family of the local iwi (tribe), along with other recently arrived doctors from South Africa, Sweden, Britain, and India. (He repeated many things three times – interesting in light of some of the Greek traditions we are familiar with through Mark’s stepmother’s family.) Mark, who had been volunteered to represent our small group, followed our guide’s prompt and explained where everyone was from and thanked the hospital for the warm welcome. (He did great despite his reluctance to be the spokesperson. Of course, I would have happily done it but women are not permitted, our guide had explained apologetically. She had also asked if we would like to share a traditional song of our homeland but we declined, feeling a bit strange about singing the US national anthem as she had suggested given that we were only one of the countries represented. I later read that, “Visitors that sing of their homeland or in their native tongue are said to bestow their hosts with the voice and sound of their ancestors… a great gift and honour.” Not sure that our off-key version would have been a gift…)

The short ceremony concluded with a lovely brief song, which I wish I’d understood at the time but see the original and translation below. Then we went through a receiving line in which we pressed noses with everyone (a hongi – photo above and more on that below). And then they served tea. (This place is a fascinating mix of Maori, British, and frontier culture.) The manager of the hospital spoke after the Maori ceremony and welcomed us also, saying that now we would always carry a piece of Wanganui with us, no matter where we went (although they hoped we would stay!).

Te Aroha Waiata with translation
Te Aroha (Love)
Te Whakapono (Faith )
Me Te Rangimarie (And peace)
Tatou. Tatoue e. (Be amongst us all)

The powhiri version of the ceremony at Wanganui High School to welcome the new Year 9s and other new students (Nikko is a Year 10) on Monday morning was more elaborate with performances by the high school’s award-winning Kapahaka (traditional dance and song) group. I obeyed both my don’t-look-like-a-rude-American-tourist instincts and the pleading of my 14-year-old son not to bring my camera, but see a photo of the high school dance group above – although in traditional dress, not school uniforms, which is what they wore on Monday. They were really impressive and I spoke later to their advisor who said I might be able to come watch them practice so I can understand the movements and meaning better – and possibly learn something to take back to Lois and my world jazz dance classmates at FlynnArts! In my ignorant state of the moment, I will say that the movements of the women are a little reminiscent of Hawaiian hula, but all the dance is accompanied by song and the men’s movements are much more vigorous.

Monday’s event followed a similar format to the smaller gathering at the hospital with the female students in their white blouses and grey wool skirts entering first, followed by the boys in white polo shirts and grey wool shorts , while the student group sang and danced on the stage of a large hall. Teachers and parents filled in the back rows. When all were in the hall, an older woman sang an initial welcome (this song, I later found out, signals to visitors that they are free to approach and acknowledges the ancestral spirits of those in the room – it does have an wistful, haunting tone and apparently represents the bottomless source of ancestral tears) and then an older man or elder (kaumatua) spoke. The principal and another school staffperson (vice-principal?) also welcomed all students to the school (in Maori and English) and included some international high school principal rhetoric (e.g. “Be proud of yourself and do yourself proud.”) Towards the end, the elder articulated a really nice point about the hongi being an exchange of breath or life, bringing all present together as part of the same family. At this point, you are no longer considered manuhiri (visitor), but are now tangata whenua, one of the people of the land. From that point on, you share in the community's duties and responsibilities. In earlier times, defending the group or tending crops – in our case, it means taking call in the hospital I suppose, or doing your English homework.

I did a little research on the tradition of powhiri and found the following illuminating website for anyone who wants to know more: www.newzealand.com/travel/about-nz/features/powhiri/powhiri-introduction.cfm. A couple interesting points I thought worth including here: “The various elements of the powhiri serve to ward off evil spirits and unite both visitor and host in an environment of friendship and peace. The word powhiri encapsulates two important concepts to Maori. Apparently, the word Po can be translated as a venture into the unknown or a new experience, while Whiri is derived from the term Whiriwhiri meaning the act or experience of exchanging information and knowledge. " This seems particularly apt for our entire adventure here in New Zealand.

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