Marae

Karanga.

It was the seventh week of learning, the seventh and ultimate tuesday of Beginner’s Maori at Edgewater College, Botany, Auckland, June 27, 2006.

It was the seventh hour (post meridian, New Zealand).

The frost was glistening off the ghostly pale green moonlit grass, the still frozen air chilling the skin beneath woolly scarves, hats, gloves and thick coats.

Our steps padded softly, reverently, excitedly, through the college grounds, our legs moving with a briskness only low temperatures can encourage.

The laughter of the tutor, a patient, dedicated, kindly and talented Maori elder woman, brought a smile to her students tramping by her lead.

Reciting cherished Maori phrases in my head, I half listened to fellow students’ comments about the cold. I had felt greater extremities of coldness in my last land across the oceans. I didnt mind the temperature. And the white, eerie colours only made this place on the earth more magical.

As we rounded a corner I was taken aback, looking up at the archway entrance to the Marae. Glowering expressions came to life in a more natural way under the stars than they would under the sun. Wooden carvings of Maori figures climbed the archway in delightful, intricate detail. They were beautiful with glinting puaua shell green eyes catching the light of the moon.

After the tutor’s respectful prayer, we went through the open walkway and moved under columns that reared over us in the way of a Greek temple. As soon as we took off our shoes and stepped inside, I found it breathtaking.
Bright, primary, expressive colours mixed in such detailed, carefully painted Maori illustrations in separate portraits along the walls between columns. There were columns along the side and at the end of the same awe-inspiring Maori figures, but here they were even bigger.

The ceilings had solid beams painted with soft purple and blue swirling clouds. Just below the ceiling were square glass windows all round which let us see the stars twinkle faraway from this vast, carpeted and cosily heated hall.
Lulled by the spiritual, heartfelt, deep and meaningful intonations of the tutor performing a traditional hui for us to partake, and as different people did their own different role, I found myself, tired after work, gazing into the mystical night sky above…

Karanga refers to the ceremonial call of welcome performed only by the women of the tribe.

…The tutor was looking at me expectantly. So was everybody else.
I scrambled up to my feet to say my mihi to present myself to those present.
Silence. Speaking in front of a crowd had never been my strong point.

“When I step onto that mantle of the karanga, it takes me a few minutes to think back. Why am I there? How did I learn it all? And it was by watching my grandmother, calling to our ancestors.”

With a lump in my throat, I opened my mouth and talked through it as I had learnt.

“Tena kautou katoa
Ko Amanda taku ingoa.
Ko England taku whenua
Ko Sri Lankan taku iwi
Ray ra ko Sri Lankan English taku hapu.
Ko Tamaki makaurau kaiinga noho
Ko heketeri taku mahi
Ray ra tena koutou katoa.”

The stars sparkled vividly though that little window in the corner of my eye. And I sensed one star in particular was bigger, and brighter, than the others. It seemed to grow and grow, searing into my eyes as I went on. But I was nervous and not fluent and concentrated my utmost to remember how to say what I felt I had to say.

When I had finished, and relief and pride made me smile, I looked, naturally, to that star that had burned itself strongly into my corner of the sky. But where I had sworn that one star had been, there was an empty space of night, surrounded by little, modest specks of starlight.
Whatever had been there when I had been speaking was gone now.

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