The Key to the Marae

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December 7th 2010
Published: December 7th 2010
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Harry looks into his coffee and listens to the house owner speak. Another man who half-rose to shake my hand observes with a lazy silence. A scruffy mullet falls over his big shoulders. It is as if he walked out of a barber shop mid way through a hair cut. The house owner talks with a soft, feminine voice; he, like everyone else I meet, is concerned about the summer rain. He praises my clear English- I return the compliment.

Harry talks in a clipped Kiwi slur, more clipped and slurred when I am out of the conversation: the schooling of his ten year old son, the good health of the house owner, the weight of the baby; “thirteen stone!” she chips in from the living room to raucous laughter.

When she enters the kitchen I cannot believe she is old enough to be a mother. The baby looks down on us with deep, serious eyes. “Pounds, I could believe” says the house owner with a wise grin after the dust has settled. Wise is an attribute I gave him before I entered the house, for he is the man who holds the key to the marae. A distant relative of Harry, and also a close friend.

We finish coffee and drive to the marae. The first building is a meeting house, with a triangular roof that drops almost to the floor. The air inside is heavy with the smell of cooked meat; an ash lined hole marks the spot of a recent hungi. Wooden figures sit on shoulders up the walls. The house owner strokes the rich wood of the figures, the curl of the neck, the cheekbones, the angry eyebrows. Ngati Porou, he tells me: “be strong like a shark, not weak like an octopus.” Harry does the same, as does Scruffy Mullet.

We remove our shoes before entering the second building. Damp mattresses are propped up to air. My attention is drawn to the red hooped rugby socks of the house owner. In his youth, perhaps- now he is too old and peaceful to play rugby. Instead, the woolly socks make him look like a toddler. Harry, rugby socks and rugby shorts, has the solid neck of a prop. His sharkish features are surprisingly intact.

This is a room full of photographs. Many are war portraits from Maori battalions; strong, dark faces. Harry and Scruffy Mullet study each portrait with a concentration that could lead one to assume that they, like me, are first time visitors to the marae. “Have you seen Joseph’s girl lately?” Harry asks, dropping his jaw line down with the V of his hand. “An uncanny resemblance.” In the presence of such a crowd, there is no hiding a fellow Ngati Porou. No one is alone; I imagine the mattresses covering the floor, a full house at the marae half way between Tokomaru Bay and Rangitukia.


9th December 2010

Kia ora mo to korero pai. Great to read your experiences and beautifully described. Kia kaha Jonathon.

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