Translated, that’s ‘Welcome’ in Maori. I did experience a Haere Mai when I was eight years old and it was an experience I’ve never been able to forget.
When I was growing up in New Zealand I went to Waiwhetu Primary School and it wasn’t multi-cultural because there were just two cultures – the Maoris and the Pakehas (white people).
My teacher was Maori and a lot of his time in class involved playing the guitar and singing in Maori, smoking at his desk, listening to Muhamad Ali fight Joe Frasier on the radio or talking about rugby and telling the boys in the class if they were tough they’d play in bare feet.
He also accused me of talking too much so as a punishment I was moved away from my pakeha girlfriends and sat next to a Maori boy, Rua Tapatoru. Well that shut me up not because he was a Maori but because he was a boy and therefore not interested in my rainbow pencils, my pink pencil case or my perfumed erasers.
I remember Rua had been at school on the Friday but on the Monday his desk was empty. That’s when the teacher came into the room and told us Rua was dead. He said he had bled to death on his way home from school. I was terrified and visualised Rua walking home with blood pouring out from his body like a river. But then the teacher said he’d died of leukaemia and they ‘couldn’t stop the bleeding’. I had never heard of leukaemia and didn’t know what it was and I wondered, as I had been sitting next to him, if leukaemia was contagious.
Still reeling from the news, the teacher then told us we were going on an excursion. Back in the day there was none of this palaver of permission slips and OH&S nonsense. If the teacher decided we were going somewhere he just went ahead and marched us out the front gate. Parents found out later.
He told us we were going to the Maori Pa which is the Maori meeting house for the Maoris in that village. ‘Rua will be there so you’ll all get to say goodbye’. I was stunned. What did he mean, ‘Rua will be there’, he’s just said he’s dead.
We were put into two straight lines and walked out the school gates and headed towards the Maori Pa. Just before we entered the Maori Pa the teacher told us that it was Maori custom for the dead person to be placed in an open coffin. Rua would be in the meeting house in a position of honour at the head of the Maori Pa. For three days and three nights his parents would sleep on mats on either side of him with all the relatives, friends and other mourners bringing their mats and sleeping in the Maori Pa with them. At the end of the three days they would have the funeral.
We entered the meeting house in one line. It was crowded and noisy and filled with mats covered in brightly crocheted blankets. Kids were running around, men were playing guitars, women were singing and others were helping themselves to an enormous buffet. It seemed like a party and I was confused as to why no one was sad. But the teacher explained that these three days are treated as a celebration of Rua’s life but they will all grieve terribly when they have to say their final goodbyes.
In our single line we had to file past the body. I had never seen a dead person before and I was anxious and nervous. As my turn approached I could see what must be Rua’s parents sitting on mats on either sides of the coffin that was made of dark wood and lined with shiny white ruffled fabric.
Everyone managed to move past the coffin without incident but when it was my turn the teacher told Rua’s parents that I was the one who sat next to Rua in class. His parent’s faces lit up and I’m sure they thought we must have been good friends. His mother reached out her hand to me and asked, ‘Would you like to sit next to Rua and hold his hand?’ The teacher prodded me in my back to move forward and Rua’s mother started moving over creating a space for me to sit right beside the coffin. I looked at Rua and he was lying there with his eyes closed looking pale, grey and ashen. He was a horrible colour. I was horrified. I wanted to move away but his mother still had her hand outstretched towards me and was giving me this lovely smile but I couldn’t do it. I shook my head and took a determined step backwards and said, ‘No.’ Rua’s mother gave a look of great disappointment.
When I was six a friend of mine that I used to do ballet with was killed right before Christmas in a car accident. It was considered too traumatic for me to attend the funeral. Eighteen months later I was not only at a funeral of sorts but was being asked to sit beside the body and hold the dead person’s hand. I’d gone to school that morning to discover Rua was away, then told he was dead, then told he’d ‘bled to death’ which created terrible images in my mind, then told we were going on an excursion to see him so somehow I thought he must be coming back from the dead to say goodbye and now I was in front of the open casket with his mother asking me to sit beside him and hold his hand. No one had prepared me for a moment like this. I retreated to another part of the meeting house and didn’t go near the coffin again.
As we walked back to school I knew Rua’s mother had been disappointed with my reaction. It was too late now to fix the situation. But what I will do, I thought, is when it’s my turn to go to heaven, I’ll find Rua and then I’ll hold his hand.’
Has another culture ever put you in a situation that is completely out of your comfort zone?
The maori people eat a lot of kumera (sweet potato) so here is a recipe using one of their favourite ingredients.
Spinach and Sweet Potato Cannelloni
Degree of Difficulty: 2/5
Cost: This is an inexpensive family meal. My children loved this dish and asked why I didn’t cook more!
350g orange sweet potato, peeled, chopped
400g can butter beans, drained, rinsed
1 packet frozen spinach, thawed with as much liquid squeezed out as possible
2 tbspns finely chopped fresh basil leaves
1 egg yolk
1 packet fresh cannelloni sheets
700g jar tomato pasta sauce
1 cup grated tasty cheese
Preheat oven to 180°C (375°F). Place sweet potato in a saucepan filled with cold water and a tspn of salt. Bring to the boil and cook until soft, drain.
In a large bowl combine sweet potato and butter beans and mash until smooth. Stir in spinach, basil and egg yolk. Season well.
In a large baking dish pour in half the pasta sauce.
Put the cannelloni sheets on a board. Take 2 tbspns of filling and spread along the long edge of the cannelloni and roll up to enclose filling. Place in the baking dish seam side down. Repeat until all mixture is used up. You should have 8-10 cannelloni rolls. Pour remaining pasta sauce on top of cannelloni. Spread cheese on top of pasta sauce. Season.
Place in oven and cook for 30 minutes or until golden on top.
Serve with a green salad and some fresh Italian bread.
I found this recipe on the Delicious Magazine website but I have made some changes.