Early yesterday morning the phone rang. It was lytteltonwitch with some shocking news: she’d just heard that otakuu‘s husband had died. I raced to LiveJournal, and there was a post from otakuu telling her friends that her Beloved was gone. And if I needed further confirmation, the media was already reporting the death, as The Beloved (as otakuu always referred to him in her blog) was a senior member of Ngai Tahu.
My first reaction was utter disbelief. Only a few days ago she’d been planning a 60th birthday party for him for this weekend. I knew he’d been ill recently, but had no idea it was so serious.
My next reaction was “what can I do to help?” And obviously that was the same reaction her Bookcrossing and LiveJournal friends from all over the world were having, because a thread popped up asking how to send flowers from the US to NZ. I suggested that (to save wasting a fortune on Interflora) I could organise some flowers and they could pay me back, and suddenly there were more and more people asking if they could chip in for the flowers too. In the end, so many people were wanting to contribute that I suggested I buy one nice bunch of flowers and sign the card from everyone, and that the rest of the money people were offering be collected up and used to help otakuu in a more practical way – perhaps with groceries or help towards funeral costs. The response was amazing – I’d expected maybe we’d get $100, but by the end of the day I had nearly NZ$600 in pledges. Otakuu is such a generous and loving person herself, and has made so many friends around the world, that everyone just wanted to repay that generosity in her time of need. Never let it be said that a virtual community can’t be just as close as a “real” one.
[The rest of this entry is copied and pasted from an entry I wrote on LiveJournal describing the tangi for all those friends who’d so wished they could be there themselves]
All day yesterday, lytteltonwitch and I were debating whether we should go down to Waimate and visit otakuu. We wanted to, of course, because you automatically want to be with a friend when they are in pain, but we knew she’d be on the marae, and neither of us had been to a marae before, let alone to a tangi, and had no idea what the protocol was. In the end, we came to the conclusion that we just couldn’t face sitting up here all weekend without at least trying to see her, so decided to go down to Waimate, find the marae, and see what happened. If we were able to see her, that was fine, if not we could at least leave the flowers and a card with someone so she’d know we’d been thinking of her.
So this morning we set off down south. We only made it as far as Rolleston when my phone rang – it was awhina, who’d just got the message I’d sent her telling her about The Beloved and that we were on our way to try and visit otakuu. She wanted to come too, so we backtracked to Templeton to pick her up.
At Timaru we stopped for lunch and found a florist. We still didn’t know if it was appropriate to take flowers onto the marae (protocol differs from marae to marae, so nobody I’d asked in Christchurch was able to tell me), but we thought if we weren’t able to then we could at least drop them off at otakuu’s house on our way back. Being a Saturday, the florist didn’t have a huge selection of flowers available, but she did have some roses which we liked, and she suggested a few other flowers to add, making a really nice arrangement.
(Sorry about the unconventional background to the photo – just before arriving at the marae I realised I should have taken a photo to show all the livejournallers who had contributed for the flowers, so we ended up lying them on the grass at the side of the road to take the photo)
After a false start when a road that looked ok on the map turned out not to really exist we finally found our way to the marae. We knew that we wouldn’t just be able to walk up and knock on the door (you have to be properly welcomed when you go onto a marae), so weren’t sure what we’d do when we got there, but to our relief we saw people standing outside waiting to enter, so we asked them what we should do. They said we could join their group when they entered, and that way we could just copy what they did and not have to worry about not knowing all the protocols (awhina and I had both been to plenty of powhiri (welcomes) before, both having worked in education, but just attending a powhiri is very different from turning up at a marae by yourself!). It wasn’t until we’d been chatting with them for a while that we realised who these people were: some of the top management of Ngai Tahu!
They were waiting for the rest of their group to arrive, so we stood around outside the marae for an hour or so (one of the cars had got lost). In the Pakeha world, we would probably have just gone ahead without the lost people, as after all they were over an hour late. But Maori have a different approach to timekeeping (a lot friendlier one, really!), so even though these were all high-powered leaders of a multi-million dollar corporation, and the missing people were just a couple of their staff, we patiently waited for them, standing around chatting and enjoying the sunshine.
Finally the missing people turned up, and the group assembled at the gates of the marae, with the women at the front and the men behind us (note for any NZers reading this: you’re probably going to be utterly bored by this description, because you’ll know most of this stuff, but I thought the non-NZers would probably appreciate a full description). One of the women of the marae called to us in Maori inviting us to advance, and one of the women of our group replied, the two women calling to each other back and forth as we slowly walked across the lawn towards the meeting house (you’re probably envisioning one of those elaborately carved traditional meeting houses now, but actually it was just an ordinary wooden building like any small town community hall). We took off our shoes at the door and entered. In front of us, at the back of the hall, was the open coffin, with a feather cloak draped over it. Beside him sat otakuu, surrounded by the rest of his immediate family. We stopped in front of the coffin, and the women keened, then we moved to our seats on one side of the meeting house, the men at the front this time and the women behind. (At this point awhina totally broke with protocol by going up and giving the flowers to otakuu (she really should have waited until after we were formally welcomed). Nobody seemed to mind though – it was obvious she just hadn’t realised, and wasn’t intentionally being rude.)
On the other side of the meeting house were the tangata whenua, the people of the marae we were visiting. Two of the men from the tangata whenua stood up and gave speeches (one totally in Maori and the other half in Maori and half in English) addressing a lot of the speech towards The Beloved. The speaker who spoke partly in English was obviously making the most of having a captive audience of all these Ngai Tahu bigwigs, because his speech was very political, and was quite pointedly making reference to the recent in-fighting in Ngai Tahu. He kept emphasising the importance of unity and respect for different views. After each speech a waiata was sung, sometimes led by a woman and sometimes by one of the men. Then it was the visitors’ turn to speak, and two of the Ngai Tahu men made speeches, again followed by waiata. Their speeches (both used a mixture of Maori and English) were much less political – they mostly just talked about what a great loss The Beloved’s death was.
After the speeches we all stood up and filed past the family, either pressing noses or kissing each person. The line moved very slowly as people stopped to talk to or hug someone in particular, but again there was no pressure to get on with things – everyone could take as long as they wanted. As each person passed the coffin they again stopped and paid their respects to The Beloved, pressing noses with him or kissing him (I’m afraid I was the ignorant pakeha here – I didn’t feel comfortable about kissing a dead person, so I just touched my hand to his cheek, but again nobody seemed to mind).
When I got to otakuu I stopped for a while to hug her and pass on the messages of love and sympathy from all her bookcrossing and livejournal friends. We hugged and cried together for a while, and then I gave her the card I’d signed on behalf of everyone, and told her about the money that was pouring in from all over the world. She was astounded to hear how many of her friends had sent their love, and was so grateful for our support, and told me she’d need it more than ever over the next while. I gave her a little branch from my lemon tree – as I’d left the house this morning I’d walked past the lemon tree and remembered that the last time I’d seen The Beloved he’d been picking lemons from that tree and eating them whole (skin and all!), so I just had to take a branch down to the tangi. (Sorry, I’m starting to cry again here just remembering talking to her and how utterly distraught she was 🙁 ) Finally I moved on to let lytteltonwitch take my place and continued on down the line of family and the rest of the tangata whenua.
Back outside, we waited until everyone else had made their way down the line, and then we went into another part of the building for some food (you always eat at the end of a powhiri). There was a long long table (it must have been big enough to seat about 40, I reckon) with a proper place setting in front of each chair (this is only notable because anywhere else I’ve been where that many people needed to be fed there would have just been a big pile of plates and cutlery and you’d have probably ended up having to ear standing up) and large bowls of food down the centre. After a short grace was said we sat down to eat, and then it was just like any family dinner, with food dishes being passed back and forth along the table, and jokes and talk flying through the air, only on an enormous scale.
And in the kitchen even more food was being prepared, because as we ate we could hear another group being called in from the gate. Someone told us there’d be groups arriving almost constantly for the next few days until the actual burial, and many of the people would stay on the marae for the whole tangi. Each visitor gives a koha (a gift of money to help pay for the food etc) to the marae, but the sheer organisation needed to feed so many people was what really impressed me.
Otakuu and the rest of the immediate family didn’t come out to eat with us, of course. They’ll stay inside the meeting house at The Beloved’s side until he is taken to be buried (I think that is going to be on Tuesday). We wouldn’t get to talk to her again, either, so once we’d had our meal and said hello to the children (who don’t take part in the formal stuff – sensibly, they’re allowed to run around outside letting off steam while the adults listen to speeches!) we decided to head back home.
It may seem like a lot of bother to have travelled all that way and then had to wait so long and go through all that ceremony just to spend a couple of minutes with otakuu, but I’m so glad we did. It obviously meant so much to her that we were there, and it made me feel better that I was able to let her know that we’re all here for her.