On being proud of who you come from – what Maori taught me

Afrikaans pride

One of the first things that struck me when we moved to New Zealand was how proud people were of their heritage. They seemed to be proud of their ancestors despite the flaws and mistakes made in the past. Their love for their culture put me to shame.

I grew up in South Africa in the seventies and eighties. From my childhood I remember sanctions, bomb threats and bomb explosions and being both fearful and carefree at the same time. At that time I was proud of my ancestors. They’d overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to get where they were and we celebrated their victories during public holidays. I remember dressing up like a ‘Voortrekker’ (Afrikaans & Dutch Pioneers), with my little bonnet and Voortrekker dress.

Being only young I didn’t realise the stringent controls the Government placed on their citizens. I wasn’t aware of identification papers and propaganda. I didn’t question the status quo.

Then things gradually started to change. I learned that the rest of the world despised us. I learned what the sanctions were all about. I learned the people I was so proud of were regarded as criminals and evil by both people inside and outside of South Africa. I became ashamed.

For many years after I avoided speaking my native language – scared that I’d be labelled, at best closed minded, at worst, evil. The struggles of my ancestor’s survival in British concentration camps, their well known reputation of being hard working and their can-do attitude all faded away. I was left with nothing but the image of tyrants.

Once in New Zealand my thought patterns once again went through a transformation. My first real job was with a Kaupapa Maori service and with that came education and orientation into the Maori world view, their history, their hope for the future.

It is customary in the Maori culture for people to recite their whakapapa (genealogy) and I remember being really nervous when I put mine together. My whakapapa contained information about where I came from, my river, my mountain, my tribal affiliations. I felt exposed.

With the help of a wonderfully wise Kaumatua (Maori elder) I set about the task of working out my genealogy. It was he who reminded me about my ancestors fight against British rule. He relayed stories about South African men and woman he’d met during his many days, and gushed with adoration about their intellect and tradition of hard work. I reminded him of our darker history, thinking he would dismiss it to make me feel better. Instead, we discussed it at length. He helped me see what their faults and life errors could teach me. How I was able to use this knowledge to be a better me, and how I can learn from the past. The most important thing he taught me was that being proud of all the good my ancestors have done, does not mean I agree or endorse their mistakes.

I was surprised to find my heart fill with pride again. I once again marveled at my beautifully expressive language. I started to embrace my culture again, I started to be the person I was born to be.

Now, so many years later I recite my whakapapa with pride. I play Afrikaans music in my car, and I tell my children about the good and bad of my people. My people the Afrikaners.

Much love XXX

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