In times of crisis and disaster, marae open their doors without question. The reason for the unfailing response is manaakitanga, a word that carries far more meaning than simply hospitality. As Siena Yates writes here.
When flooding overwhelmed Tāmaki Makaurau at the end of January, videos hit TikTok thick and fast to show the rising waters. On Instagram, lists were fired out on where to get help.
Instantly, on those lists, as places of refuge and help, were our marae — ready, just as fast as social media, to respond in real time.
Something stirred in me, as I kept seeing: “This marae is open.” “There’s an emergency centre at this marae.” “Send donations to this marae.”
Pride? Yes. But worry, too, knowing the people of those marae would be working non-stop to help others, even though they were also in the thick of a developing and uncertain situation.
Anyone who’s spent time working on a marae knows how intense it can be.
There’s everything that goes into preparing kai, from breaking up every loaf of bread in sight for the stuffing, to peeling a couple of sacks of potatoes with a knife because you were too slow to get one of the peelers.
There’s organising the wharenui and wharekai. There’s setting out tables and chairs and, later, dragging out mattresses. There’s kai to be served, tables to be cleared, hundreds of cups of tea to pour, and an endless stream of dishes to be done.
That’s not to mention all that goes into the ōkawa, the formal, side of things — sorting your kaikaranga, kaikōrero, that last-minute whispered debate about which waiata you’re going to do, making your way through the hariru line that feels like it goes round the block in time to run over and welcome everyone in for a kai. And that’s just for your run-of-the-mill noho, let alone a national state of emergency.
Which is why something else rose up in me too, as I saw our wharenui doors open without delay or excuse through all the crises this year. It was something close to anger.
Our marae were being casually bullet-pointed in a list of official services without anyone acknowledging that they’re not an official service provider.
It felt like they were being taken for granted. Our people provide the same things as emergency and relief services but with neither the training nor the funding.
Labour’s Māori caucus eventually acknowledged that when they announced a $15 million package to fund a Māori-led recovery response after Cyclone Gabrielle. They also acknowledged not only the extent, but also the speed of marae and iwi responses.
That was after the fact. The reality is that none of the people of our marae wait around to find out if there’ll be money coming down the track. When you ask them why they do what they do, they say: “That’s what we do as Māori. That’s manaakitanga.”
It’s what Te Kou Panapa said when he spoke to me from Manurewa Marae, deep in recovery mode, soon after the Auckland flooding. While running back and forth picking up jobs on the marae, he summed up manaakitanga as a form of “sincere aroha”.
Te Kou was part of a team of 80 kaimahi split into two shifts working around the clock. One taking care of the day-to-day operations, and the other awake and available from 7pm to 7am in case anyone walked in needing help.
The priority was making sure that everyone who came in the door could be fed. Then sorting and distributing donations, hitting the phones to check on some 5,000 people in the rohe, caring for the wairua of those who turned up with mirimiri, and knowing how to spot and look after the ones struggling with anxiety.
That’s an issue which Te Kou says is “huge in our community at the moment”.
Those kaimahi on shift also helped new arrivals pick their way through the bureaucratic tangle of social services, relief funds, and healthcare options to get what they’d need for longer-term recovery.
“We have to think about how our tūpuna would’ve dealt with these kinds of things,” Te Kou told me. “That’s our obligation and our responsibility as marae, to uphold the mana and the tikanga of our tūpuna.”
Te Kou explained it as “mahia te mahi”, getting the job done, and he barely had time to stop and even say that, because the next job was waiting.
A 2013 study on how the Ōtautahi/Christchurch earthquakes affected communities found that the effect on marae workers and volunteers at that time was “intense”, noting that marae leaders and whānau raised concerns about mental and spiritual wellbeing.
Researchers mentioned whānau at Rehua Marae, who worked 24-hour shifts, or more, to feed and care for a huge number of manuhiri for more than six weeks following the February 2011 quake that killed 185 people. As a result, some whānau reported issues with stress and burnout which, on top of the trauma of the quake itself, had concerning mental health implications.
More than a decade later, on the East Coast, a tikanga expert and Tairāwhiti councillor, Rhonda Tibble, is part of a similarly intense, and ongoing, response to Cyclone Gabrielle.
“Many people are absolutely tired,” she says. “Their stress levels just can’t take any more. But when our whānau are able to see the community spirit and feel the warmth of others in what is, otherwise, just absolute devastation, it helps to lift the mamae.”
She explains that manaakitanga is about maintaining the mana of another. Its meaning is to āki, or exhort and encourage, others with your actions.
“It’s a requirement that the energy expressed and given should enable the other, empower the other, and, with respect, elevate them in whatever way is required at that time.”
In his seminal book on tikanga, Tā Hirini Moko Mead explains that manaakitanga is always important, no matter what the circumstances might be. Even when a visiting party is hostile, manaakitanga must still be upheld.
“Some might be motivated by anger or by greed to act against the expected principles of behaviour,” he writes. “In the end, however, a judgement is made about their failure to observe the expected requirements of tikanga.”
It helps to explain why extending manaakitanga matters to such an extent that whānau will burn themselves out physically and mentally to uphold the principle.
“If your manaaki is not what it should be,” says Rhonda, “that creates a loss of mana for your space, and you don’t want to be that person who diminishes the mana of your marae.”
She gives the example of Kapaterangi, son of Te Uhu, who lost his leadership status to his teina, his younger brother Te Marangai, when he failed to show proper manaaki to a visiting ope — and Te Marangai welcomed and hosted them instead. The failure resulted in mana shifting permanently from one whānau line to another.
“It’s not just in the moment,” she says. “It’s a slight upon the people you come from and there can be shame for an entire whakapapa as a result of not affording the proper and expected manaakitanga.”
“Manaakitanga also creates fealty, which is not just loyalty, but the obligation of reciprocating in the future. That’s why we see with our marae that they bring everything possible that they can bring to support our people.”
It makes me worry even more that this kind of strength of conviction can be taken advantage of. For instance, it’s largely unrecognised that all marae responses are voluntary.
But Rhonda points out that this is more a result of misunderstanding than of malice.
“Very few New Zealanders understand who we are as Māori. Most will be lucky if they’ve been to a marae more than two or three times in their life. When you have that lack of knowing and familiarity, then how can you rate it and understand it?”
There, perhaps, is the silver lining to crises like Cyclone Gabrielle, which do get more people to marae. As Rhonda says, it tends to be in our darkest hours that we learn the most about each other.
But she’s hopeful that, with Māori history now being taught in schools, it will no longer take a disaster to get non-Māori to a greater place of understanding.
For me, understanding what manaakitanga means to those upholding it, whether others expect it or not, helps alleviate those feelings of anger and injustice.
The government acknowledgment and funding also takes away some of my worry for our kaimahi. Even though there’s no doubt they’ll step up again and again, it means that next time, they may be better staffed and equipped to do so.
So, for now, I can focus on pride. I’m proud to see Māori continue to overcome, and continue to help others, without complaint. Now that I understand more about the tikanga of manaakitanga, I’m also proud to be of a people who value their treatment of others above all, no matter what the crisis is.
Siena Yates (Te Rarawa, Te Aupōuri, Ngāti Kuri, and Tainui) has written for Stuff, the New Zealand Herald and WOMAN magazine. She was born in Morrinsville and grew up in Te Puke in the Bay of Plenty. She’s a graduate of Waikato University’s Te Tohu Paetahi programme, a full-time, full-immersion reo Māori course, which she completed last year.
This piece was made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
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