Yesterday I was deeply honoured to be welcomed onto the Royal New Zealand naval base just outside Auckland, with a traditional Maori welcome, a powhiri. It was a deeply humbling experience and an introduction to a perspective on hospitality, which has been largely lost in our urbanised societies.
The ceremony starts with a traditional welcome by a woman, at the door of the Marae (the meeting house). Having taken off our shoes and been ushered in to the Marae, we are seated on a bench, facing the host community. Then a Maori elder, the Kaumatua, holding a talking stick, delivers in the Maori tongue a welcoming speech that links the past to the present. The language is forceful yet gentle, with key points emphasised by repetition of phrases – it has a rhythm and poetry that extend well beyond the words themselves. The Marae itself is a place where the wisdom of ages is preserved, through the spirits and the memories of those present.
I had come to talk about mentoring, personified in the ancient Greek literature by the Goddess Athena. The followers of Athena would have felt at home in this deeply reflective and caring environment. I was also touched by the mention of the white heron — a rare bird, symbolising beauty and goodness. It took my mind immediately to my home, near the Thames, where one of the joys of walking the riverside paths is the occasional, unexpected site of a white heron, stock still on a branch or log, then pouncing and gone in a flash. It is for me the epitome of peacefulness, patience and calm.
When invited to speak, I stepped forward with great emotion. I had come to talk about wisdom in a context that was much wiser than I. Then we moved to the hongi – the touching of noses and inhaling of the breath (life) with all the community. Having had a short practice before, I managed not to knock anyone out! There is an intimacy in this greeting that emphasises the message “you are now one of our family”.
I have never before been made to feel so deeply welcome among strangers. And it is a strange, but satisfying feeling to know that, if (when) I return to the Marae, my place will be amongst the receiving community, not the strangers.