Belonging is a basic human need—as humans we are relational beings that require interaction. Through the experience of many different interactions our sense of belonging is formed: to be held in a mother’s arms for the first time as she settles you to sleep, or to be invited for the first time to a birthday party. Weaving memories of family time in the flow of certain rivers, or creating nests, home places, in the shade of certain mountains. We are created from relational bonds and, in turn, we are created to establish relational bonds of our own. The highs and the lows of these relationships with people and place inevitably shape us, mold us, wound us, and heal us over time.

Currently, I am completing my tertiary studies at Victoria University, and, as I think it is for most of my class, I feel an expectation from our society to grow toward independence. In this modern understanding of life, it seems to me that success looks like graduating from university, working hard as an individual to capture an esteemed office job in order to provide stability for an assumed nuclear family. Outside of work, we’re free to retire to the lounge suite for several hours of TV and plan the occasional overseas trip.

This vision of being doesn’t invoke life within me. The stories of my upbringing led me to ask: where is relationship in that picture? Where in this life am I open to the kinds of diverse and ongoing relationships that will help me belong to a wider community? How will I be molded, broken, and healed?

I am fortunate to have already been shaped by a wide whānau and many places. My life is marked by culture, by gender, by social class. I am Pākehā. I am male. I have been born into privilege. These are markers that can easily be seen on the outside. However, like a tree, if you peel back the bark, there is a lot more that allows me to stand where I am today.

There is a sense of unity that is created when you host together, when you struggle together, and when you succeed together.

Te Upoko o te Ika (Wellington) is my home. I was born in Petone, and spent most of my primary school years in Paekākāriki—another word for paradise. For a time, I lived in Suva, Fiji with my family before returning to Kāpiti during my high school years. These times and experiences have created relational bonds—a tapestry of interwoven relationships and experiences that has taught me reliance over independence. As with many of the most valuable things I have learned, I have witnessed this through the example of my parents.

My mother grew up in Muritai (Eastbourne). At the age of five, she asked her parents where all the Māori people were, if this was their land? So her dad took her to Ngāti Pōneke kapa haka group, at one of Wellington’s urban marae. Mum was fascinated and began to attend regularly, she and her brother taking an hour-long bus trip back and forth each week for rehearsals. It being the 1960s, they were the only Pākehā in the rōpū (group). Her Eastbourne upbringing and my grandparents taught Mum many things, but she says it was the kuia and koroua, the old folk, at Pipitia Marae that taught her the most about what deep connection and belonging can look like. A big warm embrace of welcome and a plate of hot food that came unconditionally no matter your size, age, or colour.

Dad grew up in Woburn, the other affluent suburb of Te Awakairangi (Hutt City). However, he inherited a similar understanding of belonging during his time living in Ucunivanua, a village on the eastern coast of Viti Levu, Fiji. There he was immersed in a society that was based on reciprocity, focused not on the individual, but on the collective—valuing relationship over possession.

When I was eleven, I experienced a similar community, when our family moved to Suva, Fiji for a couple of years, as my parents taught at a theological college there. In this place, life was lived in community. At my new school, we shared lunch everyday, and every evening we played touch rugby with the Pan-Pacific neighbourhood. 

Arriving back in Aotearoa to start Year 9 at Kāpiti College was a shock to the system. It seemed to me that my classmates were so concerned about their image and social standing that some wouldn’t eat their own lunch for fear of not having ‘cool enough’ food. In contrast to the communal lunchtimes I was used to, the only time food was shared was when an apple came flying from Year 13 students across the field, as a form of social induction.

Despite this rough introduction back into a society dominated by individual competition, I think my time at Kāpiti College taught me one of the most valuable lessons I have learned. In order to belong to a place or people, you must be there long enough.

Prior to attending Kāpiti College I had moved around a lot. This was the first school I remained at for more than 4 years, and it was at the school marae that I began to realise the value that longevity brings. I learnt to prioritise manaakitanga (hospitality, care for others) when the teacher would interrupt teaching to allow our class to properly host groups of visitors—thoughts of individual performance in an upcoming assessment were put on hold in order for us to make our visitors feel welcome and valued. I saw the power of kōtahitanga (unity, solidarity) in our kapa haka group giving up lunch times and weekends so that everyone would be practiced and ready for kapa haka competitions. In these practices, when one person made a mistake we all went down for pushups, and when one of us succeeded we all celebrated. And if one of us forgot our lunch, there was plenty to go around, without the need for thrown apples.

There is a sense of unity that is created when you host together, when you struggle together, and when you succeed together.  While others may have found a similar experience of collective bond in their rugby teams, choirs, or clubs, I felt the life shaped by manaakitanga and kōtahitanga at Kāpiti marae offered me something more, something deeper. It made sense to a boy who’d just come from community life in Fiji, and I made a commitment to stick with this group of people.

This was an unusual commitment for a Pākehā boy in a predominantly Pākehā school. I found myself being questioned and teased by my Pākehā friends for interacting and hanging out with “the Māoris.” And to be fair, my mates at kapa haka and in Māori classes didn’t quite understand why this Pākehā boy was involved so heavily at the marae either. It didn’t matter.

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Despite my external difference, Kia Āio te Noho (our kapa haka group) was a place of real belonging for me, offering support in the often hostile environment of high school, and shaping my identity as I joined with the rest of the rōpū in helping others when they were in need.

Towards the end of high school there was a moment that confirmed for me the enduring value of this kōtahitanga, the power of belonging. I was a pallbearer at my grandfather’s funeral, a service that was in keeping with the culture of a middleclass, Pākehā male of his age. As I mourned, helping carry my grandfather’s coffin through the doors of the church, I heard the voices of my people, of Kia Āio te Noho, erupt as they farewelled and honoured my grandfather, a man many of them had never met. In their passion (their ihi, wehi, and wana), our connection—our unity—was tangible.

Their presence and voices acknowledged that my story was constructed from interwoven relational bonds with many people: my tūpuna (my ancestors) and all those who have influenced my life. As I belonged to my grandfather, I also belong to my brothers and sisters of Kia Āio te Noho—these unseen bonds of relationship weaving a tapestry of connection. This is belonging. It was the kind of belonging that sends a shiver down your spine, that lifts stooped heads, that nourishes saddened spirits, that filled the eyes of all who attended my grandfather’s funeral with tears. It was the act of solidarity—of being present when I needed it most—that epitomised belonging for me and acknowledged that, in life and death, our stories live on through these relational bonds.

This kind of belonging isn’t easy. Allowing others to have a claim on our time, to commit to serving our community even when it’s inconvenient, or doesn’t fit our work schedule, confronts our individualised culture and our instincts for self-preservation. There are times when I just want to run to my room and escape from it all. At times this is a fine option, there are always times where a break from people is necessary. However I feel like I hear this kind of self-preservation and individual comfort too often encouraged as a virtue. “Escape, avoid entangling yourself in other people’s problems, and things will work themselves out.”

We can escape to a screen, behind a desk, or within the safety of a white picket fence. But when we succeed in escaping, when we succeed in keeping the complications of other people out, we also keep ourselves locked in. We can talk about bonds of belonging, but we are often tentative to make them. When we are ‘tied’ to someone we are forced to move with them. Through their ups and their downs, through the good and bad. However, increasingly we are being encouraged to fend for ourselves, to be self-reliant and self-sufficient. Our bonds are increasingly with objects rather than places, with our own desires rather than other people.

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I was talking about this the other day with one of my aunties. She said that no matter how nice it is to be fussed over and served by waiters and chefs at a restaurant table, it will never match the warmth of being invited to share a banquet at someone’s home, or being at the dinner table with your own whānau. It isn’t the food or the wine or even the environment that makes you feel like you belong, it’s the people.  Our connection with those around us is what sustains us.

In my whānau, putting on a banquet requires everyone to contribute, so that everyone can sit down to enjoy the meal. Some of us are better cooks, some take care of the cleaning, and some make sure the table is beautifully set in the way only they know how to do. But it’s the faces around the table, sharing stories and meals together over the times we make for each other—that is the picture of belonging to me. It’s the knowledge that, if you weren’t at that table, with those people, you would be truly missed.

So I encourage you to be long in a place, to look to the needs of the collective before your own desires, and to be present at the banquet wherever it may be, or whomever it may be with. From my experience this is how the seeds of kōtahitanga start to grow.

Author

Kirke Sawrey

Kirke is studying te reo Māori and environmental studies at Victoria University, and is part of a Catholic worker community in Wellington that provides hospitality to those who need a place to stay, or just need a cuppa and a chat. He grew up in Urban Vision—a network of intentional communities and an order of the Anglican Church. Sharing music and going tramping are just some of the ways he fosters his passion for connecting with new people and exploring new places.

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