We can’t thrive without community. I was reminded of this recently at a waiata roopu at Ruapōtaka marae. The immense joy on the faces of the kuia and kaumatua from being with each other was mesmerising. The laughter and singing and dancing seemed to stir up the walls of the marae. ‘It’s like a form of medicine for them,’ Doctor Dr Katrina Kirikino-Cox told me afterwards. ‘It’s rongoā.’
It’s easy to forget the healing properties of community when you are a writer and introvert who seems to thrive from being in isolation. People can be exhausting and the world is a lot safer in the confinement of a home. You can control who you talk to by simply turning off your notifications or ignoring messages. As my friend Mahia likes to say; stay safe, stay home. But the reality is, we need each other. Our tīpuna thrived in communities and from each other.
When I got the call inviting me to join the Creative Leadership Programme with Te Taumata Toi-a-Iwi, I was at a crossroads in my life. Someone once joked that my life is always at a crossroads and I laughed because it’s true. I’m always in a constant transitional phase but I’ve never felt the weight of it more so than when I was contacted at the beginning of the year.
To go from a safe space (being immersed in Te Ao Māori) and then back to a very unsafe space (the Pākeha world we live in now) was chaotic and confusing. I found myself frustrated at many things but mostly that te reo Māori and the world of Māori wasn’t easily accessible for me now because I had lost my community. My safe space. The epitome of loneliness is being surrounded by people but still feeling like you don’t quite belong and you can’t authentically be yourself.
The aim of the Leadership programme was to ‘foster a powerful movement of activists and enablers within the creative sector’. I’d never felt more nervous but I said yes because I wanted to belong. The setting for our first wananga was in Huia, a beautiful suburb in Waitakere. We sat snuggled around a fire, shoes off, wrapped in blankets, the sound of birds chirping at the window. Later on that day, three kererū would fly above us, letting us know of their presence.
The room was full of fierce, humble and curious wāhine who are extraordinary – and hold responsibilities within their own communities. I didn’t have to read their CVs to know this. The wairua in space told me that already. But I read their bios anyway and then felt more nervous.
The nerves soon turned to humility and it became an ahuru mōwai, a safe haven, for each of us to share who we are. Each of us navigate difficult safe spaces within our line of work. It’s hard being a wahine, but it’s even harder with many of us in the room being either indigenous, of colour, and/or queer.
But this does not define each of us. The power and knowledge and wisdom and love and years of experience within the room was like kai for my soul. And what became clear to me was the common thread that weaves us together. We came with a personal backstory and experiences that shaped us and led us on our individual paths, but what bonded all of us together was the instinctive need to be in service to our communities.
It is the fire that keeps us going. I have a journal with quotes scribbled down:
Three months later, we met again and this time we were joined by one more member of the roopu, Avery Ururangi Ladley. Jade had little Avery while she put on Whānau Marama at Commercial Bay and we welcomed the presence of a pēpi in the room. It was also nice to see what the others had been up to – time had passed and yet it felt like it hadn’t.
Jane had finished directing the incredible Scenes from a Yellow Peril which I watched from the front row with my mouth on the ground because it was bloody incredible. Faith was about to release the first poetry book from her publishing company Saufo`i Press.
Elyssia had finished as Creative director of Pride Festival and had new mahi at Te Taumata Toi-a-Iwi. There was so much to celebrate and as we talked and shared heavy kōrero, the same theme of community came up.
Writer Anahera Gildea was the guest speaker and she instructed us to ‘Never go alone.’
I looked around the room and a comforting feeling came over me reminding me that I was a part of something that I had hoped for. A community.
Another part of the programme was having a mentor. I’m privileged to be mentored by Dr. Hinemoa Elder. To sit at the foot of Hinemoa and hear her counsel has blessed my life in so many ways. It was Dr. Hinemoa that shared this whakataukī with me from Kingi Tāwhiao.
‘Ki te kotahi te kākaho, ka whati, ki te kāpuia, e kore e whati.’
‘If a reed stands alone, it can be broken, If it is in a group, it cannot.’
Or as Dr. Hinemoa says, “When we stand alone we are vulnerable, but together we are unbreakable.”
Illustration credit: Pounamu Wharekawa