Whānau, for Life!

I’ve seen quite a few blogs lately. All of them written by young travellers. Young students, sharing their experiences of Aotearoa (New Zealand. My home sweet home). Most of the ones I have seen have come from students studying at AUT (Auckland University of Technology).

In them you can almost feel the warm golden sands of the Hokianga between their toes, smell the sulphur pools of Rotorua, hear the silence of the wind swept Remarkables and taste every morsel of food that the students taste along the way as well. You can feel their nervousness and excitement when they venture out on their own and in groups. You hear and feel when they don’t get something right, and taste when they learn something new, devour it ravenously, and store some away for when they may need it next. You can feel their nervousness when it’s the start of the Semester too. Wide eyed, fresh new faces streaming in to uni looking forward to the start of their journey as an adult learner in New Zealand. That takes balls, to say the very least. New surroundings, new opportunities, new friends. It’s officially on like Donkey Kong.

International students have extra hurdles though. New surroundings, new opportunities, new friends, and in a new country. It must scare the wits out of them at first, but their routine quickly sorts them out, and they’re usually too busy to worry about their hometowns until their uni timetables are sorted. However, it’s sometimes in those small hours of calm, when it’s just international student and quiet, that homesickness can pay a visit, and can mess with them. This is where the AUT International Student Noho Marae comes into play.

Above: Ngā Wai o Horotiu Marae

“The Noho”, as it is lovingly referred to, is a weekend marae stay that occurs on the first weekend of every semester at Ngā Wai o Horotiu Marae at AUT.

International students pay a small fee to be hosted by AUT staff (which includes alumni from previous Noho Marae who are either still studying at AUT or are home for a visit). Throughout the weekend the students are taught a poi (for the ladies), a waiata ā ringa (action song), tītītōrea (stick game), and a haka (for the men).

On the Saturday evening the students perform what they have learned to the entire Noho staff and VIP guests. They learn, eat and sleep at the marae. It’s only fitting that they perform what they have been taught in the same arena.

It’s inception came by way of two close friends meeting up and discussing the possibility of hosting foreign students … international students … to teach them a little about Māori culture. This concept was, as it still is now, an important, forward thinking opportunity. Not only for the university but for the Faculty of Māori Development. It was a chance to give something unique and precious to New Zealand, to students from other countries who sometimes knew next to nothing of the indigenous culture of New Zealand.

All new students come through the doors of Ngā Wai o Horotiu to be embraced by the notion of whanaungatanga (kinship). It is the powhiri process, the cultural process that begins at the marae, that helps to unite the student body.

It gives the students a feeling of ‘home away from home’, an extended family, somewhere to lay their hat. Somewhere to feel safe and included.

The Poutokomanawa (the heart of the marae) inside the wharenui (meeting house) depicts a woman holding a new born baby. The woman is the maternal aspect of the university. She represents the stability of whānau (family), aroha (love) and acts as an anchor for the students to ground themselves when they’re feeling out of sorts or homesick.

The new born she holds represents all students who enter the gates to study at AUT. When students study at AUT they are … her babies, they are hers to look after from the time they arrive until well after they have graduated. They are whānau; and whānau lasts for life.

This is what makes the AUT International Student Noho Marae unique. The sharing of tikanga Māori (Māori Culture and protocol) with the beauty and colour of different cultures from around the world.

The wharenui shows how much everyone belongs by the painted rafters on the ceiling. Each rafter represents a different cultural group, which means that the marae is not just a home away from home for one people, it is home away from home for all people.

The reach of the Noho is massive.

What is equally as massive is the organisational side of it. Resources, staff and food; three of the most important elements to run a Noho Marae. The resources that are used at the Noho all come from the university. Ngā Wai o Horotiu is an important resource, without her we literally have nowhere to host our students. Workshop materials such as dacron and wool for poi making, the rākau (sticks) that are used for Tītītōrea, to the paper used for the booklets that the weekends program is presented in (which also has the words for the items the students perform); all of these resources are provided for by the mighty few who help to fund the Noho where possible.

The food which is bought the day before for the entire weekend is budgeted in months before.

Everything is carefully calculated so as not to be too wasteful. The only resource available to the Noho that monetarily costs very little are the staff. They are all volunteers and all are AUT alumni; more importantly, they are all whānau.

It’s been an amazing road to travel for the volunteers to say the least. As one of the volunteers, I honestly cannot remember (and neither can anyone else in the crew most probably) how many times I’ve heard “Ko wai tō whānau”, sung Pōkarekare Ana, had the Tītītōrea beat stuck in my head or even how many times I’ve almost burned my throat from showing the students how ‘Whānau Māori’ haka because I went too hardout for the demo and forgot to pull back. On the flip side though, I also cannot remember how many times I’ve hugged a student who’s become overwhelmed with what they’re doing at the noho.

How many times I’ve heard, “I was starting to feel homesick but the whānau make me feel safe and part of a family”, or how many times I’ve heard, “I don’t think I’m going to eat for a couple of days after this”, and this beauty of a line, “Kia ora whānau! Whānau for Life!”.

I think the crew would all agree though, that the Noho not only brings different cultures together as an international whānau village, but it also helps to strengthen our own ties, as we, the staff, have all known each other for years. Those ties are so strong that our children call each other cousins (though we may not be related by blood, our whanaungatanga, kinship, makes us family) and our children call the adults aunties and uncles. This link the children bring is also important. No marae is a marae without the sound of children.

Above: Whānau members modeling their hoodies. These have been designed specifically for the Noho.

Our global marae has grown in the last 15 years. As staff we have seen complete international strangers go from student, to family.

From being 20 somethings and single, to late 20’s/mid 30’s, partners and parents. We have seen many happy occasions, and experienced the loss of a whānau member as well. We’ve had announced to us the births of our many “Noho babies” here in NZ and around the world.

We’ve shed tears when students have left to return to their home countries, and we’ve wanted to hug them until they pass out when they come back to their second home or when we’ve visited them.

We’ve witnessed break ups and make ups, wedding proposals, received copious wedding invitations and had the honour of having children being named after us (that’s a fib … it hasn’t happened yet … this is the hint ;)).

As staff we have also had the opportunity to show the students that come to the Noho and our own children, what it is to give of yourself. As I said earlier, we are all volunteers, and majority of us have been part of the Noho staff for well over 10 years. None of us is paid to take workshops, or cook, or clean. We do what we do for the love of it. We do, however, get the most amazing non monetary payment in the world. We get to share our love and knowledge of our culture with total strangers, who, by the end of the weekend, know a little more than they did before and love our culture as much as we do.

This non monetary payment also spills over to the tamariki (children) who come to the noho as well.

These children (my children, the children of our other staff members, the children of our past students), these little sponges are now learning through us the value of giving, of responsibility, kindness, aroha, of being pono (truthful). These values all come from and lead to one word: whānau. In all that is taught to the students over the Noho weekend, the word whānau underpins everything.

At the end of the weekend the staff are completely ‘haddit’ (a colloquialism that I’m guessing actually means something like “had its day”, therefore, absolutely and unequivocally exhausted). We farewell our new whānau members by asking them to perform a little something from their home countries as a koha (gift) to the hau kainga (home people).

Every year they blow our minds. We hear songs that we know from previous years, we hear new songs as well. We see the person who, when they first arrived, didn’t really like standing out in a crowd, but at the end of the weekend is standing proudly, singing a song from their home country. We see each and every country stand and give their all. They aren’t shy or too embarrassed, because they know they’re with whānau. It’s beautiful.

The staff have another couple of gifts to give before the students leave the marae. A pendant, a keepsake of the Noho Marae. This semester they received a pounamu (greenstone), in the shape of a pikoura (twist).

The pikoura represents the never ending unity of whānau and friendship. So even when they’re annoyed at people, can’t be bothered texting or calling, unfollow or delete them from facebook, that pikoura (or any taonga that has been given over the years for that matter) is the reminder that they are and always will be “Whānau for Life”.

Above: Pikoura, laid out, ready to be given to our new whānau members.

The last gift the new whānau members receive is the gift of food.

As the wharekai (dining room) is being tidied, our kitchen staff prepare food parcels for whānau to take home with them so the leftovers won’t be wasted.

Everything goes. Leftover hāngi, bread, cream, custard, fruit, vegetables, steamed pudding, ice cream, salads, cold cuts, milk, the lot must go and we refuse to see anyone walking out the doors empty handed. Then there’s always time for another hug before they leave.

Once everyone has gone the volunteers finish cleaning the marae; once finished, they pack their gear into their cars, but before they lock up, they take the time to sit down and debrief.

I am one of about 60 staff, past and present, who has seen the progression of the Noho. One team member remarked that when the Noho was still in its infancy, a lot of the food that was served was prepackaged and processed, which, then, made things a little cheaper and easier. These days the food bill can vary depending on ingredients needed and the number of students, but the food is fresh and as ‘real’ (meaning not much of it is processed) as possible.

This staff member knows better than anyone how strong the Noho is. He started out as a young, fresh faced international student, he came to the Noho Marae and loved NZ and the noho so much that he became a staff member at AUT and has been a Noho staff member ever since.

I remember when we used rolled up newspaper or magazines as our tītītōrea sticks. These were perfect for what we needed at the time, but by the time we had them replaced they were looking very … ‘haddit’. Seeing photos of students using rolled up magazines can, weirdly enough, bring back memories of past students and time well spent. My other memory is how much my own children have grown since my partner and I first became staff/whānau members.

By these measures alone it is possible to see just how far the Noho has come. My children know exactly when it’s time to prepare for the Noho weekend. They know exactly why we go, and what their jobs will be when we get there. My partner and I have no need to remind them of what needs to be done, because they have been taught since they were little. We’re hoping that by preparing the kids this way, and going to as many noho as we can, it will help to keep the fire burning within them, and that they will carry on with it when they’re older.


What does the future hold for the AUT International Student Noho Marae?

Everything. As long as there are helping hands to guide, minds to mould and staff wanting to be a part of a kaupapa larger than themselves, the Noho and everything about it will remain as strong, if not stronger, than it is now.

We celebrated 15 years of operation at the start of the semester (March 2016); that’s 30 Noho Marae to date. Here’s to another hardcore, full on, fun and love filled 15 years with an amazing and hardworking crew. We look forward to it, and look forward to welcoming future whānau members.

Whānau 4 Life!


Author: Andrea King

Wife. Mother. Sibling. Friend. Raised by nan. Slightly weird. But still rather normal. ... kia ora :)

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