In a busy modern world, the chance to sleep overnight on the marae is a precious opportunity to reconnect with each other — and to sample the unique fragrance of our shared humanity, Tainui Stephens writes.


I’ve noticed over the years that some of us get a bit bougie on it when we go to a hui somewhere. We might decide to stay at a motel rather than on the marae.

Sometimes there’s a good reason for that, especially at large tangihanga. Although everyone gets fed, a marae may not have the space or the mattresses to sleep everyone.

Sometimes people go to a hui because it’s part of their job, and the department or company budget extends to hotel accommodation. Sometimes the need for sleep after a long day’s travel and work warrants more peace and quiet than is available in a communal setting. Sometimes it’s just easier.

Easier isn’t good enough, however, if we want to protect one of the best aspects of being Māori: to know one another as we truly are. Well, for a short time anyway!

My first stay on a North Island marae was at Takapūwāhia, in Porirua, in the late 1970s, at a Māori Artists and Writers’ hui.

The wonderful kuia and poet Aunty Charlotte Solomon had taken a shine to me and insisted that I sleep next to her that night. She was a large woman, and very embracing. I was so happy to doss beside her, but was soon alarmed because I had no idea that anyone could snore that loudly.

I marvelled that despite the three mattresses between Aunty Charlotte and the floor, the foundations of the whare seemed to wobble when she reached the lower frequencies of what is humanly possible. Despite her voluminous exhalations, before long I was sleeping like a baby.

A few years later, I recall waking up after a night on a northern marae, and the first thing that greeted my bleary eyes were the dangling testicles of a famous Māori Battalion veteran. They had slipped out to say hello as the esteemed gentleman was pulling on his pants. It was Anzac Day, and I had been granted a vision of the balls that had helped liberate Europe.

The thing about staying on a marae is that there is a point when the tūpuna whare morphs from being a kind of spiritual boardroom into a big bedroom. In our bedrooms we let our guard down. We lax, we chill. We clean up, we get changed.

On a marae, the act of dressing or undressing can be as public or private as you wish. Nudity is never acceptable, but to shed your clothing and expose bits of yourself to others is a humbling experience.

Comforting, too, because, over time, you become very familiar with the diversity of body types across the age range. You realise you’re not so different after all.

A marae stay is an inescapably collective experience. And as a species, it has to be said that we are by nature a smelly bunch. We burp, we fart, we pong. We emit all sorts of odours that we mitigate with soap and perfumed products designed to make us sweeter than we are.

Thankfully, the ablutions blocks of marae these days are way less grubby than some used to be. The toilets are usually clean and work well. At worst, there may be a few spider webs about, and perhaps not as much toilet paper as you may require.

Sometimes a sewage system can come under stress when it receives the frequent contributions of hungry people who like their carbs. Rural marae can be prone to blockages or burst pipes. I recall a tangi at a small Tūhoe marae where the toilet block pipes had burst. The sanitation people from Whakatāne duly came out to fix things. I have a fond memory of a well-known local activist cackling with glee as he watched Pākehā wade about in shit: “Wiiii! Ka pai Pākehā. Mahia tō mahi tūtae nei!”

For most people, the biggest challenge in staying on a marae is whether or not they can get some sleep. Nights can get noisy. It depends on the size of the crowd, the acoustics of the whare and what time the lights go out.

It mostly depends on the hui kaupapa. If it’s a tangi and you’re sleeping with the recently deceased and their family, you can expect speeches, songs and wailing at any time of the night — especially when relations travel a long way and arrive late, or it’s the last night before the burial. These are occasions where you shouldn’t really expect to sleep. But with earplugs and a determination to pretend to be asleep you will at least be left alone. Unless you’re in the way of the hongi line, or the route to the loo.

That said, the soundscape of a meeting house at sleep can be a wondrous thing or a foretaste of hell for the newbie, if only for the realisation of how many ways it is possible for human beings to snore.

There is no difference whatsoever between men and women in terms of what is possible with their night-time beat boxes. Some nights it is all gentle waves lapping on a sandy shore. Other nights can be a storm of gale-force proportions — usually in the wee hours when the party people finally stumble in and then cark it.

My own antidote to marae insomnia involves a conscious decision to regard snoring as a kind of lullaby. That lullaby is comprised of the breath of life of my fellow human beings. The cadence and dynamics of people snoring is a part of the rhythm of existence. If I can tune in to that thought, the noise becomes something that lulls me to sleep.

The only thing that buggers up my theory are people with sleep apnoea. It’s the kind of snore that rises to a pitch and then suddenly stops as the breath gets taken away. The silence hangs in the air, and you’re not sure if they’re ever going to breathe again. Several seconds later, the snoring resumes, only to stop once more. Each subsequent gap seems longer, and each silence more nerve-wracking.

Other nocturnal sounds include lovers being lovers — in a good way or a bad way. If it’s in a good way and they can keep it discreet and quiet, only those who know, know. If it’s in a bad way, and it becomes a lover’s tiff, well, then you might have an issue, especially when you hear the F-word being muttered.

To me, there is nothing better than a good night’s sleep — or even a shitty night’s sleep — in a tūpuna whare. It’s not hard to close off your ears and let your eyes wander upwards to consider the carvings, artwork and structure of the whare. The ghosts of ancestry emanate from the walls. The vibrations of their words are etched upon the dust.

As your eyes begin to droop and the sounds of your companions fade away, your sense of smell may be the last sense to close off, but not before getting a whiff of human beings sleeping as one. It may be sweet or sour, but it is certainly real.

The old people talk of “te haunga o te tangata”. On a literal level, that refers to the stink of our physical being. On a deeper level, it describes the frail but fabulous humanity of each of us. Every hui is a lesson in life. And the lesson is: love your neighbour, regardless of their fragrance.


Tainui Stephens, of Te Rarawa, has been fully engaged in the film and television industry since 1984, working with a range of genre and content. He is particularly attracted to compelling indigenous stories that critique and celebrate the human condition. Tainui lives in Ōtaki with his wife and fellow filmmaker Libby Hakaraia. Together they and a small whānau team run the Māoriland Film Festival.

© E-Tangata, 2020

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