Tūrangawaewae: On Belonging And inclusiveness
Haere raa, ee te Rangatira
Haare raa, I runga I tou haeranga
Haera raa, I runga it te Rangimarie me te aroha
Maa ngaa manu koe e tiaki, ee arahi
I tow haerenga I runga I te waka moana
Kia hohi ora mai koe kit e kainga
The departing boat
Όταν το πλιο έχει σαλπάρει
Και από τα μάτια σβήνει στεριά
Με στα κατάρτια πετούνε οι γλάροι
Και εγώ σου λέω έχε για!
When I was invited by the Inclusive Aotearoa Collective to participate in their Community Voices webinar series on the topic of What’s Your Tūrangawaewae --- a Te Reo Maori concept of belonging, a place where we feel especially empowered and connected --- I hesitated to accept at first. Partly because I still feel a bit conflicted about my own sense of belonging, as someone who has long wished to be accepted by my chosen community but is constantly reminded of my “otherness”.
We were asked to come prepared to discuss a few questions that led me to reflect a bit more than I had anticipated. Although I believed I had largely dealt with my identity issues, this event offered me an opportunity to clarify where I stand (literately and metaphorically) and where my roots hold to, resulting in a renewed confidence and affirmation about both but above all a strong feeling of gratitude for my whakapapa and those strong but flexible island roots of mine that stretch all the way from the Mediterranean Sea to the South Pacific.
Around the same time and in a serendipitous way, I participated at a Karanga course offered by Te Noho Kotahitanga Marae at Unitec. In one of our gatherings I felt safe to speak to my Tūrangawaewae surrounded by fellow wāhine participants and the wise Whaeas that hold the sacred space of nurturing korero among us. I felt so deeply heard and understood in that karanga gathering that made it possible for me to share in my mother tongue a waiata relating to that archetypal island scene that all islanders are familiar with, when the ferry is leaving the port accompanied by the seagulls and someone farewelling the person that is departing. It was highly relevant to me as I was preparing to return to Crete, my ancestral island after two and a half years of being away and longing for family reunions.
This became my own karanga whakawātea with the guidance of Whaea Te Mamaeroa Cowie, one of the kaiako reo for the Wananga Reo Karanga, resulting into a Te Reo version so deeply and meaningfully contextualized to my imminent departure from the shores of Aotearoa (see above). The karanga spoke of farewelling but also wishing for a safe return and this spoke volumes for where I stood in terms of my Tūrangawaewae, being able to come and go between two places of belonging, one of birth and the other of choice.
What is my Tūrangawaewae?
I am an islander by birth, and by choice. I also happen to be an island studies scholar which gives you a good indication of my positionality. The question, however, was not about who I am, but rather where I belong, and where my sense of home and roots are.
I was born and brought up on the Mediterranean island of Crete and for the last 35 years, I have lived and worked in several and distinctively different communities around the world, including here in Aotearoa which I now call home, a home of choice, along with my birth island home.
It’s possible, I feel, to have multiple homes and also choose where to belong.
I like quoting the African writer Taiye Selasi's concept of 'multi-local' people, who feel at home in the town where they grew up, the city they live in now and maybe another place or two. So, in this case, I am a local to Auckland, Heraklion, and a couple of other spaces/places perhaps that have made me feel welcome and included. These places are not necessarily always geographically or ethnically identified but communities of practice, like groups of women, creatives and social changers.
I am trying to avoid mentioning countries as places of belonging as I feel they don’t represent who I am as a woman and as a feminist, with their hard borders and rigid rules of belonging that I feel are patriarchal in nature. I find it such so foolish of humans to claim ownership of land when it’s the land is generously letting us co-exist with and live of it.
Saying that, although all these places have had an impact on who I am and what I have grown to become over the years, I am strongly conditioned, to quote Timoti Karetu, by the physical, cultural and social environment of the island in which I grew up. As Selasi says, culture “exists in community, and community exists in context" and geography, tradition, and collective memory are still very important.
Islands are unique places that shape identities in ways that differ from mainlands, as my island scholarship also testifies to. Their geographical features (land surrounded by water) and their small-scale social groups where cultural interactions are densely intermeshed shape distinctive communities, defined by a collective identity and close, reciprocal relationships. A significant characteristic of the island is the direct and frequent contact between its members and the feeling of ‘belonging’ and ‘sharing’ that has developed over a period from within. Island communities are actively constructed by their inhabitants whose island identity results from this process. Mine is an eco-social and eco-cultural identity that has been conditioned by the island’s physical and cultural landscape.
This might be the reason why Aotearoa/NZ, Tamaki Makaurau/Auckland and most specifically Waiheke island in the Hauraki Gulf resonate with me, more so than other places I have lived, because of their connection ‘islandness’. The natural demarcation of an island’s borders defined by the moana offers me a much softer, watery and invitational way to understand my boundaries and my belongingness.
I often liken the feeling of living on a small island and being surrounded by the sea to that of being in one’s mother's womb floating in the amniotic fluid. I can’t think of a better ecological metaphor than that of the island/mother/earth, ocean/amniotic fluid/sustenance and connectedness/one source/life.
While on the mainland people ask me where my accent comes from, on the small island of Waiheke what matters is if you are an islander or a visitor. If you live on the island and are part of the community, that’s your tūrangawaewae.
The Venetian Port in Heraklion, Crete where the ferries arrive from Athens but also the view you get when you are about to land at the nearby airport, a symbolic and welcoming sight of your arrival to the island that presents you all at once different layers of the island’s history. (source: author)
The concept of Tūrangawaewae in my island culture
There are a couple of ways the concept of Tūrangawaewae is communicated in my island culture, one connected to place and the other to whakapapa/genealogy.
“Από που κρατούν οι ρίζες σου” (apo pou kratoun oi rizes sou) translates directly into “where are your roots holding to?”. There is something active and empowering in this question that I really feel drawn to, an implied understanding that my roots still hold me where I am in the present time and place, but also that these roots are more akin to rhizomes than roots in the traditional sense, as rhizomes are more resilient, flexible, communicative, and adaptable.
I love the etymological root of this word for all its symbolism: from Ancient Greek ῥίζωμα (rhízōma) 'mass of roots', from ῥιζόω (rhizóō) 'cause to strike root', a modified subterranean plant stem that sends out roots and shoots from its nodes. My island rhizomes are capable of generating new roots
Kawau island, Aotearoa/NZ (source: author)
We often hear the expression of being “rootless” or “without roots” or “uprooted” or “with roots left behind” when we leave our place of birth or the place of our ancestors. I remember once a conversation with a Singaporean taxi driver on the way to the airport who scolded me after questioning me about where I was heading to, where I was born and where I am living, and have lived in between (including to whom I belong as a wife…assuming I was married with children at my age). “So what are going to do, wander aimlessly without roots forever?”. Aside from the patriarchal tone of the scolding referring to a woman’s job to procreate and be by her husband, his assumption that I was rootless because I was choosing to live in different places (and not married at that), was interesting coming from someone who was clearly a migrant. He was expressing his longing for his roots, left elsewhere and unable to claim them, depriving, I felt, his ancestral rhizomes of their capacity to regenerate where he was.
The process of exploring linguistically this concept of belonging in my island’s dialect reassured me that not only do I know where my roots are but that these roots are still with me, enabling me to stand where I am now, stretching all the way from Crete to Aotearoa and Waiheke island; flexible enough to accommodate multiple belongings carrying the confidence of knowing what it means and feels to be part of something or a place that allows you to come and go, always there to receive you when you choose to return but not holding you down.
When I was growing up in Crete in small communities, the question wasn't so much where one is from. If you are on an island that has the sea as a natural boundary/border, the assumption was that you are from the island because your looks, your accent, and your surname would automatically confirm your belonging to the nisi/motu/island or a particular area of it.
However, there was another question which was more important I feel, not so much where you're from but “whom do you belong to” (pianou’se si/ποιaνου’σε συ)? In other words, who are your people. To me, that is a direct question about your whakapapa. Your genealogy was and still is a primary identifier, a way of recognizing who you are through your people and therefore where you belong (to a human collective, in this case to an island community).
I still marvel at my 84-year-old mother in her perseverance of asking these two questions to random people assuming that either of these questions will yield connections, mutual points of reference in an island where someone will know someone who knows your village or your relatives.
What words, icons, images or objects describe my Tūrangawaewae?
Belonging is a sensory experience, both individually and collectively. You engage with all your senses, visually, auditory, tasting, smelling, touching, and in a Buddhist kind of manner, through awareness/consciousness.
I experience belonging first at a deeply personal level when it comes in reference to my islandness: the islandscape, sea horizon, saltiness in the air, deep blue skies, olive trees, sounds of island music and dialect, the smell of “yemista” (stuffed vegetables in the oven) on a Sunday lunch table, the ferry sound leaving the port, the marina promenade. It's in all these sensed experiences that I become aware of where my belonging is situated, in regard to a physical place. It’s also where my beloved grandmother’s grave is. It’s where and when nobody asks me where I am originally from or where my accent comes from.
The matriarch’s grave at the village cemetery - Mesohorio, Crete (source: author)
Belongingness is found in the dialect of the island that my grandma used to speak to me and which I feel returning to in times I need emotional comfort. Language is after all one of the deepest ways of expressing belongingness. I can’t even start imagining the deep wound of Maori people whose own language was prohibited for so long.
I was recently reading in the Guardian a news story from Catalonia where a project of getting migrants to teach their language to locals is seen as an invitational act from the locals to belong, a symbolic act of mutual effort to reach to the other. We so often expect the new arrival to adapt to our ways but what if we genuinely and openly engage with the newcomers’ culture and language? Wouldn’t we all stand to gain when our new neighbor feels part of our neighborhood?
But belonging is also experienced at a collective level, it comes in the media where I see and hear myself and the “other” in equal terms (especially when that “other” is me, the othered, the newcomer); in the taste and smell of the food from different places catered not only in ethnic restaurants but in your average neighborhood café; in the awareness that I and you are not “the other” but as a manifestation of many ways of being.
While I was preparing for this webinar, I happened to have a conversation with a dear old friend, David, a Canadian Chinese man who experienced multiple migrations in the course of his long life including refugee status as a stateless person in Hong Kong and later in Canada. He talked about other people’s efforts to westernize him so he can fit in or be more acceptable to his friends. And he poignantly spoke of feeling belongingness for the first time when his wife’s American family unconditionally accepted him as he was. Belongingness does not have to be tied to a place, for David just being accepted by fellow human beings, as he was, was all it took.
It also reminded me of another conversation with a Japanese artist I met years ago in Kyoto, a bi-racial man growing up in the monocultural society of postwar Japan that longed to belong in the land of his birth. He spent his entire design career producing a single product, a pencil case in the shape of a person, but coming in thousands of versions with distinctive patterns and fabrics representing his desire to demonstrate that whilst we are all distinctively different, we are all coming in the same human shape. Being othered resulted in creating symbols of “togetherness” based on the common ground of our humanity.
What can we do to ensure everyone in Aotearoa NZ can find and talk about their tūrangawaewae, their place of belonging?
In this a highly diverse society, when you go to the supermarket, to a café or to work, you are constantly encountering people from other cultures whether they are recent arrivals or born here but still carrying the values of their ancestral land and whakapapa.
To me, belonging essentially means being included. There are of course many ways we can foster and nurture inclusiveness in Aotearoa. How could we do that? A good starting point would be by stopping the practice of attentional violence. This is a concept developed by Otto Scharmer from MIT who says that when we are not engaging in deep listening, we are committing attentional violence and that's the first step towards alienation. So, in order to rectify attentional violence, you need to engage in this deep listening process that involves an open mind, which brings curiosity about who the other person is, their culture, and values. “I'm curious to know about things that I don't know about others.“
And to put this into context, one should remember that attentional violence has been practiced in Aotearoa on the tangata whenua for so long, first by the colonizing authorities and then by a “settlers” society that was consciously and unconsciously unwilling to let go of their privileges. Because if you do “listen” deeply, you cannot possibly ignore the other, their needs and rights to their language, culture, spirituality.
Scharmer says that's not even enough, an open mind requires also an open heart. It's not enough to be present in someone's life, you also need to practice presensing, a composite word of being present and sensing. Listening from a more open-heart means that you're not only listening to the facts but also, you're listening to detect how the other person is feeling. That's how you can better express your solidarity, in a more profound way that creates the conditions to be more proactive in including others.
And this links to a third and much deeper level of listening and that's the level of Open Will, which is generative and manifests as an act of solidarity that is paired with action. Drawn from eastern philosophies, this means that we are all part of one source. That you and I are just different manifestations of that oneness and once you see the other who might look distinctively different and behaves differently to you, because they have a different language, accent, skin color, hair looks or clothing if you think of them as part of you as part of the source that you are part of, it invites you to be more engaged and become proactive in creating spaces for this other because the other is also a part of who you are.
So how do we foster inclusiveness? I believe we all need to come from a space of generosity of spirit that brings in an open mind and an open heart and recognizes that we are all of the same source.
“I feel you feeling me”, as Thomas Hübl invites us to experience, a relational attunement that helps regulate our nervous system that leads to a relational resonance that creates a sense of safety and there is no better way to do that than through presensing. I feel before Aotearoa embraces an inclusive future, a historical correction needs to take place and that’s only possible with us feeling the tangata whenua feeling us and vice versa.
A few days after my webinar participation I happened to visit an exhibition on Magical Uprooting by the Sur Collective (a group of Latin American migrant women artists) at Studio One/Toi Tū in Auckland. Their installation on Dialogue Between Beliefs and Belongings caught my attention. It serves I feel as an apt concluding note to these reflections on tūrangawaewae:
“I build beliefs in spaces where I don’t belong; I belong in what I believe; I am what I build; I belong here where I believe and inhabit”
“Magical uprooting is part of a process, our process, the first step towards unknown places”, the artists wrote. I sense the magical part of uprooting is that it offers the potential of re-rooting or re-planting your roots in a new ground. I know my rhizomes are happy being rooted in their Cretan soil while their little tentacles send me nourishment all the way in the south pacific, sprouting new roots here too.
(photo by author)
With deep respect and much love to Whaea Lynda Toki who has been my kaitiaki all these years here in Aotearoa. She made it possible for me to find a second home where I feel welcome by the tangata whenua. I am forever grateful.
A special acknowledgment to Whaea Te Mamaeroa Cowie for gifting me this most beautiful Karanga Whakawatea. I will remember her patient efforts and great sense of humour in helping me to pronounce it properly in te reo which involved learning how to project my voice clearly and in tune. I felt it like an act of meditation.