Monday, 19 January 2009

An English heart flooded by Maori spirit: Parihaka and its International Peace Festival

It is with great trepidation that I begin this attempt to put into words some sort of summary of the events spanning the 10 days I spent at Parihaka. I think back to how wound up I became when writing a few months back that what I could express of my experience as conveyed through words seemed so far from the real truth of what I wanted to share. I felt (and still feel) as if the residual background worry of not being able to do justice to my experiences by trying to capture and share them with words or photographs, was actually hampering my own experience of each present time I found myself in, twisted as that may sound! So, I decided I needed to be free from that worry for a while and forced my own removal from the internet and mobile phone world, I’ve hardly taken any photos either, for the last 5 or 6 weeks. It’s greatly increased my clarity of understanding of life; living pure and simple, feeling more in tune with myself and nature, and such magical flow has happened. But returning to the city, to technology, the internet, to this piece of writing, is a sacrifice I am delighted to make for the people of Parihaka, I know I cannot convey all of my experience but my aim is to get the message across that deserves to be spread; even if just one person reading is inspired by it.

Parihaka is a Pa site in Taranaki on the West Coast of the North Island of Aotearoa (the Maori name for New Zealand, meaning ‘land of the long white cloud'). This is the fourth year of Parihaka International Peace Festival. 3 days of music, eco workshops, films, healing and speakers’ forums to celebrate and promote a unified consciousness with all races of the world in our quest for peace amongst us all. I could never have imagined quite how actively this message is promoted by all that is said and done at Parihaka.

The site is beautiful and very unique. The mountain of Taranaki looms in the distance. It’s a classic volcano – a big point on an otherwise mainly flat landscape. Past eruptions have dispersed volcanic flow which has settled across the land in the form of beautiful little hills. So as far as layout for a festival goes it’s great because the music stages can go on the flat bits and there’s plenty of hill space for people to sit on and take it all in, plus a creek running through the middle. The snow-capped volcanic mountain sits proudly in the distance to the east, the ocean to the west. Small boulders are scattered around which artists have carved intricate designs into, and up by the community buildings are nestled the remains of stone walls built in the 1800s.

Parihaka is a very important site in the history of the Maori people. Over a hundred years ago it was a thriving Maori community from which people were captured and sent to the South Island to work as slaves for the British colonists. Many never returned. The Maori, who at first welcomed the British onto their land to share in its benefit, were robbed of that which is most sacred to them – their whenua (land) and their whanau (family/community). It was at Parihaka in the 1800s that the Maori elder Te Whiti was the first to ever use the art of ‘passive resistance’ – peaceful protest and complete passivity in the face of oppression, a practice that was adopted by Gandhi yet its birthplace here is a fact omitted from most history books.

I could now go on to recount the many horrors and wrongs done to the Maori race – the tribal people who lived in harmony with nature on this island for many years before Captain Cook ‘discovered’ it – and in particular with reference to this site. But as is the message and spirit I have come to understand from the community living at Parihaka now, there is little point in dwelling on the past, and every point in focussing on the now and building for a unified future.

I arrive in Parihaka at 1am on the Sunday night before the festival weekend ( Fri 9th-Sun 11th January), to volunteer during the week with the set-up. My first time ever in a Maori community, I am welcomed into the marae - the building into which people in the community come to eat, drink, relax, discuss, play music and generally meet and be together. Considering what the English have done to the indigenous races of the world I was a little apprehensive as to how my arrival would be greeted, but could not have been more warmly received, as if I was one of the family.

There is a lot to learn from the Parihaka story and the Maori people....

Ko te poo te kai hari it e raa
Ko te mate te kaihari it e oranga

The beautiful classical language of Maori uses the words above to describe that “Just as the night brings forth the day, death brings forth life” – that through the depths of despair, one can discover the vitality and joy of what it is to be alive. The Maori struggles of having land seized, people imprisoned and killed and freedoms quashed, have only made stronger their spirit and resilience to move forward. Despite countless tales of abuse the prevailing sentiment here amongst the people is still one of such positive spirit, a view of humanity as one race and an actual living realisation of this belief through kindliness to and cooperation with all who come to visit, no matter what colour or nationality.

Maoris have a strong sense of their tribal identity and this is displayed in their upkeep of customs which they take delight in sharing with everyone they meet. For example the powhiri welcoming display and speech given at the beginning of the festival to welcome all the visitors to the land, the greeting a Maori gives when they meet you; a touching of the forehead and nose and a sharing of the breath, which they say is so that the spirits of two are united as one. I have a strong sense of déjà vu on a number of occasions in this place and soon feel very connected with the land and people; perhaps there’s something really deep causing this, or maybe it’s because the whole community is so welcoming that everybody feels very at home and comfortable here; their stated intention.

Meal time in the marae consists of the ringing of a bell to round everybody into the dining room area, followed by a short speech delivered in Maori giving thanks for the food provided. Then it’s an orderly queue as everybody digs in to the feast on offer: salads, stews, curries, vegetables, bread. Young and old, national and international mix and talk over their meal and each person does something to help with the tidying up. Everybody is concerned for everybody else’s enjoyment, assisting each other with pleasure, and it is a delight to be involved in. This feeling resounds throughout practically everything that occurs here at Parihaka!
Evening times often involve music jamming and it is here that I somehow find the courage to just go ahead and play my harmonica in front of people (almost a complete first for me). Guitars are played, tobacco is smoked, tea is drunk and stories are shared. Laughter abounds and getting to know the characters here is a pleasure. For the first couple of nights I sleep in the marae’s communal sleeping space where I set up a mattress on the floor. The walls are lined with framed photos of deceased ancestors of the community. This community may be poor but they have a lot of pride for their marae and for their ability to look after guests by maintaining mutual respect and care for the space and tidiness of the communal areas. Everybody here says hello to each other, smiles and chats. In Maori ‘Hello’ is ‘Kia Ora’. The community kids run around all over the place and nobody locks their doors.

Each day in the run up to the festival, more volunteers arrive, hailing from Germany, Switzerland, Australia, Italy, France, Bolivia, Canada and USA. Communal breakfast time is set for 7am, and on Tuesday since I’m one of the first in the kitchen I decide to attempt to make a pot of porridge big enough for about 40 people. I get the quantities a little wrong but am thanked sincerely for getting involved. We have an hour or so to eat and mingle before a meeting is called to discuss what needs to be done for the day. Signs need to be painted, caravans towed, fencing built, wooden seats erected, gorse cleared, flags put together and up. The whole process is very organic and people disperse into teams, everybody is here with a common purpose in mind and nobody needs to be hounded into working because we’re all here to help make this festival a success. Still, I don’t grasp the concept immediately, the days are long and I end up trying too hard to do too much and worry about how it’s all going to get done in time, I try my best to help everybody and by the time Thursday arrives I have a stinking cold. I put this down to a general lack of sleep and exhaustion from doing/worrying too much (the week before I arrived here I was at another festival where I worked, partied and had little sleep also). I make hot lemon, garlic and honey drinks to fight it off.

By the time the welcoming powhiri on Friday morning begins I’m sitting amongst Maori elders feeling very emotional (I feel really ill and tired today, I’m surprised I woke up feeling worse). I don’t know exactly what is going on or if I should be sitting on the opposite side of the grass but I am assured I am fine where I am since I have been helping all week. Well over a thousand people have gathered for the festival’s opening ceremony. From the side I am sitting I watch as various members of the community here stand and call out over the gap, in a combination of spoken and chanted Maori, and then some of the women start to sing/chant, from both sides of the grass. I am not sure why but tears are rolling down my face, it’s not that I am sad; I am in fact enjoying the experience. I allow the emotion to be felt as some sort of deep connection is occurring here! Much is spoken in Maori and I take the general gist of this to be about giving thanks and welcoming visitors to the land. Then the queue commences as each and every one of the people who have recently arrived at the pa are individually greeted; hugging and exchanging breaths in the traditional way with the 5 or 6 representatives from the festival / pa community currently standing to welcome them. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.

I am reassuringly told by several people that I should relax and enjoy the festival; my physical and mental energy are very much depleted meaning I have little choice BUT to relax. So the festival commences and I sleep for a while in the giant marquee that’s been erected for volunteers. Rather than trying to help everybody all of the time I decide that it’s obviously meant to be a quiet one for me and that I will spend time listening to the various public speakers that are planned and continue in my course of learning about the Maori culture and the true meaning behind the festival .

At the opening discussion in the festival Speakers’ Forum, Te Miringa (festival director) speaks of Parihaka’s focus on the kinship of humanity as one whole, and discusses what is most important to the Maori - the whakapapa – this word encompasses their ancestry, their land, their sense of place, and sense of belonging. In discussing this he reminds everyone to think about the importance of knowing where you are, who you are and how you’re going to be who you are. I know it’s the reason I am travelling. And to consider far enough back in time is to know that all of us share common ancestors anyway, we are really all cousins who have come from out of the forest; nature put us here, not the other way around.

The message is of togetherness and united humanity, I am so happy and in agreement I want to cry!

Of course the musical acts performing at the festival have their own messages to give as well and the first bands on Friday night reawaken my joy at being involved in the set-up of the festival as most if not all of the bands appearing have conscious / socially aware lyrics, as well as some fine dancing tunes which hype up the crowds and fill me with new energy. There’s truly some great music in this country!

I wrote this in my notebook on Sat 10th January:
“What stands out the most about this festival are the Maori and the young. It’s a steep learning curve and I am enchanted by the welcoming, friendliness, approachability and concern of the Maori people to everybody they meet. And their youngsters, who from the outside could so easily be judged for their appearance and perceived ‘attitude’ (hiphop stylee) are all so friendly, easy to talk to, respectful and kind to all. I have heard and seen no harshness towards me (the outsider, the English girl) and feel a deep affinity with these people. I want to learn more and to help protect their culture, history and traditional it feels a shame that I’ve had little energy to fully experience and engage in the festival, the music, the eco forums etc, I know not to worry because in doing so I have had a subdued status which has allowed another side of things to become apparent – that of the beauty and plight of the Maori people. They care so much about every individual’s enjoyment of life and all they really seem to want is to enjoy their lives, protect their culture, families and future. I think it’s beautiful.”

I also listened to Hone Harawira, member of Aotearoa New Zealand’s Maori Party, who delivered a heart warming, personal and honest speech the likes of which you could never imagine an English MP making. Jokes, swear words, even self ridicule! He discussed the goings on in the Middle East and suggested that the only way New Zealand can help is through the premise of ‘Helping yourself before you can help anybody else.’ Meaning for everybody in the country to focus on looking after each other, so that New Zealand can realise its potential to become a unified country and stand as a beacon for the rest of the world. There is plenty of conflict within the country including a lot of racial prejudice towards the Maoris due to gangs, violence and drug taking in the cities. And to be honest I don’t find it hard at all to understand why young people become a part of this - domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse in their families, combined with a deep subconscious lack of belonging stemming back to when their tribal rites were stripped by white colonists – being part of a gang must somehow fill that gap, especially if they’re stuck in the city far from nature. I imagine growing up in that situation how hard it would be to break the cycle. Yet I have met Maoris at Parihaka who were previously caught up in all that and are now dedicating their time to their community and the education of their young. ‘Leading by example’. Here on display is the true nature of Maori spirit, showing that the only way individuals can help with these issues is to put positive focus into their own lives and communities, whoever they are.

Being immersed in this Maori community has shown me how the simple act of believing in the genuine desire between humans to love and help each other, and seeing and feeling that in action and being a part of it, is creating a ‘virus’ of positivity that I feel certain to be causing positive change further afield.

At Parihaka they are actually doing something and BEING the positive change they want to see. Community, togetherness, respect for one another and for nature and the land. Sharing; shared struggles and strifes, shared laughter, shared music, shared food, shared duties and tasks, shared burden, shared enjoyment. Shared ideas, shared knowledge, shared understanding that everyone is an individual and needs their own space and identity and freedoms, whilst existing as part of a community where the whole functions beautifully outweighing the sum of its parts.

There is no sense of class, superiority or prejudice here. People have roles within the community but all are considered as important as one another. In terms of the festival, the volunteers who help to pick up litter are treated just the same as the performers – with respect, welcoming and an open heart. Everybody is valued for the part they have to play in making the event a success. Massive credit to these guys for organising such an excellent 3 day festival with no previous experience, and portraying such a strong and important message with such grace and passion.

On the final day of the festival, high winds cause the main stage framework to buckle and the stage has to be cancelled. No-one’s spirits seem affected by this, as Te Miringa explains: “We organically adapt and use obstacles as opportunities”. As I finally am feeling a bit better, I find myself being offered work at another festival the following weekend but it would involve me leaving here on Monday. I decide I want to stay a bit longer, to learn and connect further with the people who live here, and to help pack up and clear the site of litter. By the time I reach Wednesday I am walking around an empty site collecting plastic bottle tops and ringpulls and breathing in the air full of renewed spirit and positivity. It is from atop the hill overlooking where the main stage recently stood that I witness, for the first time in my life, the sun setting over the ocean.

As the immensely long list of different personal encounters, conversations, musical and visual experiences whizzes around my head I feel an overwhelming sense of joy and kinship. I feel a striking affinity with these people, and their ‘facing the challenges, being a part of the solution’ approach to life; demonstrating that love and peace when combined with positive intention, education, resolve, compassion and action, are the seeds of a bright future where humanity lives in harmony with itself and nature. Why not?