What’s this guy doing here? Why is an African hanging around at Waitangi? No one asked me the question but I’m sure many were pondering it.
Over the last three years I’ve gone to Waitangi on Waitangi day and I reckon it’s one of the most amazing trips I make each year. But why do I keep going? Waitangi Day is always special for me because it is here that the relational foundation for our nation was laid. We are still on a journey of understanding what that means, but this is where it all began 175 years ago.
As an emigrant to New Zealand, I believe understanding place and history are vital in connecting to the soul of a nation. It’s not just about heritage but it’s about identity.
You may wonder how Waitangi could be important to a Kenyan, to an ‘outsider’? Isn’t your sense of identity connected to your roots in Kenya? Yes I have roots in Kenya, but I’ve been planting roots here too. Over the last six years my family has been trying to understand what it means to plant our roots deep into Aotearoa soil. It has meant to visit the beautiful places in this country, building friendships with Kiwis and seeking to integrate into New Zealand society. It has meant finding a church to belong to and getting involved. I haven’t picked up the Kiwi accent yet, but my daughters have.
And this is how it’s supposed to be. As I read the Scriptures, I see God calling his people to be pilgrims, people who are on a journey. And even when God’s people had been forcibly removed from their motherland, God still told them to see the peace and prosperity of the city to which he called them into exile (Jeremiah 29:7). Part of what it means to be God’s missional people is to be prepared to sink our feet into the soil of the place God has called us to.
Over the last few years, I felt that there was something incomplete with this journey of discovering and integrating into New Zealand. It was like a tree with lovely branches and fruit but without roots. So I began a journey of planting my feet into the roots of New Zealand. Here’s three key lessons I’ve learned along my journey.
1. It’s about People
Governor Hobson’s speech to the tribal chiefs in which he said “He iwi tahi tatou” (“We are all one people)” mirrors the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 2:11-22. Paul speaks of Christ, “who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility”. Paul knew what it was to work among two divided peoples, Jews and Gentiles, but also to see a ‘new people’ brought into being. Can we pray for a posture of unity as we explore our unique identity as kiwis?
Waitangi is special to me because it is through what happened there that this country was established. It means people like me are able to come and live here. Because of the Treaty, we have been welcomed to come and call this country our own. Without the Treaty I would not be here, I would not be welcome in this country. So I see God involved in the Treaty of Waitangi and it’s great that Waitangi day begins with a prayer meeting at dawn attended by politicians, local leaders (and anyone who is able to get there at 4.30am!). Which other country in the world begins their ‘independence day’ celebration with a prayer meeting?!
My involvement as a representative of NZCMS at Waitangi is in some small way a ‘coming home.’ Members of CMS were among the British missionaries who contributed to the original Treaty process in 1840. I also see the key role the missionaries, especially Henry Williams, played as trusted friends of Maori in the treaty formulation and promotion of it among Maori. While some scholars have painted some of the early missionaries as colonist puppets aligned with land confiscation, a careful reading of history must recognize that these missionaries, although not angels, came to New Zealand for the Maori people, offering support, education and translation work. This work was often carried on by Maori evangelists working among their own people.
I have many Pakeha friends after being in New Zealand for six years, but until two years ago I didn’t have many Maori friends. So I enrolled at Te Wananga o Aorearoa to study Te Reo Maori in order to communicate with Maori folk as I build friendships. I now have a number of Maori friends and I value their friendship deeply. This has been my bi-cultural journey connecting to Tangata Whenua.
2. It’s about Place
As I studied Te Reo, I learnt that it was not just about language. Like many African cultures, the class was a community. We prayed for each other, played games and enjoyed kai together – and somewhere in the learned some Te Reo. But the most significant discovery for me was the importance of place among Maori. Its interesting that when you introduce yourself, you talk about where you comes from before you even say your name! So I decided I wanted to visit as many places of significant for Maori as I could. I’ve since been to Onuku Marae in Akoroa, there the Treaty was signed in South Island. I’ve been to Rangiatea Church in Otaki built by Te Raupaha who had been greatly impacted by the Christian message. I’ve been to many other places of significance in North Island.
But Waitangi beats them all! Why?
3. It’s about Posture
Although People and Place are important considerations in finding our roots, I’ve found that a posture of learning, of being a student of culture, is vital in helping me appreciate the beauty of culture. Although there are many things I have not yet understood about Kiwi culture, I have learned to ask questions and not assume. I believe the Treaty of Waitangi has the potential to cultivate a unique national identity if we approach it with a learning posture. I believe the spirit of the Treaty should be one we seek to live out as we model a posture of ‘peace-making’ in this complex, multi-cultural world.
I also go to Waitangi day not just to look back but to celebrate the present and look to the future. I go to celebrate a rich multi-cultural event earthed in a healthy and vibrant bi-cultural relationship. Unfortunately what we mostly see in the media is the negative side, but a lot of great things happen at Waitangi: families on the beach, cultural groups doing variety shows, a stunning array of great kiwi food including mussel burgers and just a lovely holiday atmosphere. It’s like a big camp for the whole country where thousands of kiwis of all shapes and colours gather to celebrate. I think we need to learn the art of celebrating.
But its more than just celebrating the past. The treaty of Waitangi looks to the future too. Looking out over the Marae at the Dawn Service and seeing representatives of iwi, government, church, and New Zealanders from up and down the country strengthened my conviction that the Treaty is still a significant factor in developing a deeper bi-culturalism and a richer multiculturalism. While we must be aware of the continuing disparity between segments of the Maori population and wider New Zealand society, I do believe there’s significant progress in social and economic development among iwi. Asking what went wrong with the process will take us only so far. Instead we are better to focus on what is going on now. If we are to avoid criticism and conflict and embrace cooperation and consensus we must learn from our history and take the best of its strengths to build into the future. I believe God is doing something unique in New Zealand and I want to be able to listen to discern where he is at work so that I can join him!