Secondary school students spend weeks preparing for Polyfest, held in south Auckland’s Manukau Sports Bowl from 20-23 March. (Photo supplied)

Polyfest, the Auckland secondary schools Māori and Pacific Islands cultural festival, celebrated its 49th year at the Manukau Sports Bowl this week, with more than 200 teams from 69 schools performing their hearts out after weeks of gruelling practice. 

Sisilia Eteuati’s 13-year-old Sāmoan son tried out for his school’s kapa haka team. And it was tough.

 

My 13-year-old Sāmoan son has been doing kapa haka. It’s been hard mahi. Seven weeks of every lunchtime and 5.30-8pm on Mondays and Wednesdays. Weekend wānanga, too, so Saturdays and Sundays are full. He practised all day on his birthday instead of the party he’d planned.

It’s about the kaupapa.

He loved it. He was about it.

We don’t whakapapa Māori. Except that Hawaiki is definitely Savai‘i. According to my dad and any and every other Sāmoan you might ask.

We went to the noho marae. Scotty Morrison, star of Te Karere, and sweetheart of Māori nannies everywhere, was kaikōrero at the wharenui and talked to kids about how kapa haka was a taonga that survived continuously when so many other taonga were lost. How kids were part of keeping that taonga alive, and of bringing Māoritanga into a colonial school system. You should have seen their backs straightening.

I had tears in my eyes.

That night I update Facebook. It’s my kid’s first noho marae and I have all the feels.

I write:

In Sāmoan, we say ‘we will meet again in the children’ and this feels like the children of our ancestors who once navigated between our motu . . . meeting again ❤️

#roadtoPolyfest

That Friday night, they practised till 2.30am. They woke up at 7.30am on Saturday and practised all night till 1.30am. I dropped off panikeke. Got into the kitchen with the other parents.

Sisilia’s son practising in the sun. (Supplied)

On Sunday, I got to the kitchen at 6.30am. That’s kaupapa, right? Makes you wake up at ungodly hours of the morning when you never otherwise would. Has you joking with the other parents as someone does the fry-up of the leftover potatoes and kūmara, and someone scrambles the eggs. I reheat the panikeke.

The kids practise till noon. Then the kaiako tells them who will stand at Polyfest and who hasn’t made it.

My kid is one of four who’s told he hasn’t. Thirty-two other kids made it. He’s introverted still and the whites of his eyes don’t show enough in the pūkana. He is still growing into his height, and while he has all the kupu and actions, his body doesn’t ground them confidently enough.

“You’re reserves, but you can fight for your position,” the kaiako tells the four.

My son wants to know his chances. “Is there an order for which reserves get in?”

“That’s a good question,” his kaiako says. “Āe, there is.”

“May I know what number I am?”

“Four,” she says softly. Clarity is kindness.

“Hard luck, uce. I didn’t make it in Year 9 or 10, and look at me now,” say kids he’s been working alongside for seven weeks.

The other parents say less to me. They know. No one wants pity — and you want it even less for your kid’s heartbreak.

The kids practise for four more hours in the hot sun.

When we go home that night, my kid has hot silent tears sliding down his face. He wipes them away furiously.

“I know it’s hard. You worked really hard. I know it hurts.”

“That’s the measure of a man. Not how you get knocked down, but how you then show up. I couldn’t be prouder of how you showed up.”

“I couldn’t be prouder if you led the kapa haka. You were told you didn’t make it. And you kept working.”

“You don’t know, Mum. You’ve never tried really hard for anything in your life.”

It’s untrue, but I don’t want to tell him the thing I tried hardest for was for the relationship that didn’t work out, with his dad. I tried so hard for that. For him and his sister not eight months old. And it didn’t work out. Life has knocked me down.

It frickin’ kills me to feel my kid’s first heartbreak. And it’s over kapa haka.

I don’t try to solve it. I just hold him. Support him. Tell him I love him, that I’m proud. That the kaupapa is more important than one performance. That it’s about how he shows up now in the face of rejection. That kapa haka fits with our vision, that he learns te reo, and immerses himself in te ao Māori as much as he can in his school. I love him, I tell him. I’m proud of him.

That Monday, there was another five hours of practice. My kid shows up. That Wednesday was dress rehearsal. The reserves will stand for that, so I chase around town getting essentials for his costume.

Standing proudly on stage at Polyfest 2024. (Supplied)

My mum and dad are to travel to Sāmoa at 5am the next day. They show up. My brother, my daughter, too. We all turn up to watch my son in full performance kakahū. Feathers in his hair. To show in actions the things I’ve said in words. That we’re proud, that he’s supported, that he’s loved. That what matters is trying your hardest and showing up. Watching him perform, watching him try his heart out, I’m in tears again. So is my dad.

“I could understand everything in te reo,” my dad says. “They’re using more Sāmoan words.”

The days pass and my son is listening to his bracket on repeat. It’s Monday and he has another practice 5.30-8pm. Night falls as they polish up their transitions. Whakaeke to mōteatea. Mōteatea to waiata ā-ringa to poi. Poi to haka. Haka to whakawātea. I know them all now.

At the end, we have to leave as the school lights go out automatically. So my kid comes up to me in the dark. “Hey, tell her,” my daughter sings out of that darkness.

My son walks towards me till the light from the street falls on his face.

“I made it, Mum. My kaiako said I fought. And improved. I’m going to stand.”

 

Poet, writer and lawyer Sisilia Eteuati is the co-founder of Tatou Publishing and co-editor of Vā – Stories by Women of the Moana, a collection of 38 short fictional stories by Pacific women authors. Sisilia has served the public as a lawyer in Sāmoa, Australia and Aotearoa, and has had writing published across the Pacific.

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