By Briar Pomana
(Ngāti Kahungunu, Rongomaiwahine, Ngāti Rakaipaaka)
Manaakitanga is a fundamental personality trait you have to adopt if you want to consider yourself Māori. Commonly translated as hospitality and care, manaakitanga basically is about not being a dick and looking after those who come into your care, your home – anywhere where you happen to be. My closest cousin’s name is Manaaki and my name is Awhina. With names like these, our mums always make sure we remember it.
Manaaki and I grew up together on Whetumarama Street, just down the road from our little country school Waimanawa. Our school is pretty tiny and only has ten or so Pākehā families, who mostly live out of town in the farmlands. Our mate Gigi is one of ‘em whities and she’s become a part of our little crew. I remember my Aunty Deb having a good laugh as Manaaki and I rocked up to her place with our token white mate Gigi. After giving her a big kiss on the cheek, Aunty made the joke that Gigi better watch out or the two of us would eat her for afternoon tea.
We walked inside and were immediately struck by the smell of laundry powder and fresh bread. We took Gigi straight to the bathroom, washing our faces and hands. Gigi soothed her face as we passed her one of Auntie’s face cloths, carefully folded by the sink. As Manaaki flicked the jug on, Aunty began scaling the kitchen counter, reaching up to the highest shelf, pulling down a ClickClack container of home baking. Aunty usually keeps her stash up so high and behind an ice cream cone box because Uncle Boogie is too short to reach it. Otherwise he'll inhale everything before we even get a peek.
When Gigi introduced herself to Aunty Deb, she called herself Georgia. Manaaki and I were still wrapping our heads around the fact that Gigi wasn’t her ‘govy’ name. We were going to ask but thought that it was another Pākehā thing, like calling their parents by their first names, slamming doors, refusing to eat anything but pizza and chicken nuggets – you know the classic stuff that would make us just about faint.
Aunty Deb was the best baker hands down in the entire village. That’s what Manaaki and I had told Gigi anyway. As she sat at the head of the table, Manaaki and I bent and bowed around Aunty’s table, setting napkins in place, carefully placing butter dishes and jars of homemade jam atop macrame doilies. Gigi seemed to be enamoured by how synchronised and rehearsed we were. We had seen this dance many times before, and were essentially copying our parents' routines.
When the jug erupted with steam, the four of us sat around the table admiring the glorious spread Aunty had put on for us. It's an old-school Māori thing to always have home baking in case of manuhiri (visitors). My mum usually always has a brownie or a batch of shortbread biscuits and Manaaki’s Dad is a diver so kaimoana is never far from reach. We initially wanted to take Gigi over to their house, but Manaaki’s Dad and his fish heads in a pot deterred us. Aunty Deb told us to help ourselves, and that there was plenty of savoury kai in the fridge.
Aunty had made three slices, one ginger, one rhubarb and one rocky road. There were also cheese and chilli scones which, I had begged Mum to make after trying them at Nanny Dot’s high tea birthday. Aunty is really into pickling and preserving, and so an array of stout jars cluttered the table. Like any good afternoon tea, there were biscuits galore and a teapot older than Manaaki and me combined.
As Manaaki and I dove into our plates of kai, we watched Gigi look around the table, almost scanning the scene. Aunty must’ve noticed too, because she stopped eating and asked Gigi what she was after. Gigi looked at Manaaki and me as if we could read her mind. We all looked at her with blank stares as she sat silently with nothing on her plate. Gigi asked Aunty if she had any plain white bread, margarine and sprinkles. Aunty scoured the back of her baking cupboard looking for sprinkles. She found some hundreds and thousands at the very back that were god knows how old. Manaaki and I had to wait until our mate got her bread before we could continue. Aunty placed the slices of bread, a pound of butter and the container of sprinkles in front of Gigi. Gigi sniffed the bread and made a sour face. Manaaki and I pretended that we didn't notice. Luckily Aunty had gone back into the kitchen and hadn’t seen the face herself. After watching her examine the butter and sprinkles twice over, I had had enough.
I word-vomited out onto my poor Aunty’s table. I remembered all those times I’d witnessed girls like Gigi scoff and pinch their noses at what we had in our lunch boxes and I snapped. Gigi, Manaaki and Aunty sat dumbfounded as my voice whipped lashings at Gigi. Her face turned brighter than the raspberry jam in front of her, and the plate with bread that looked make-believe was pushed away. Gigi muttered something under her breath about how she doesn’t eat this type of food, which reminded me of a sleepover at Gigi’s house. It was here that I discovered why white girls in my netball team and at school were always so slim – their parents couldn’t cook. Of course Gigi would turn her nose up at Aunty Deb’s kai, because her idea of a snack was tasty cheese melted in the microwave on some white bread, and dinner was those frozen lasagna squares from BP.
Auntie pinched me hard under the table. I jumped in my seat and banged the tops of my thighs. Gigi fled to the door and wailed as Manaaki gulped down the rest of her tea and ran after her, with Gigi’s backpack banging into her hip as she struggled to get it over her shoulder.
Ten minutes later, Manaaki walked back alone. I was drying the dishes carefully, as Aunty stacked them venomously in the dish rack. I was avoiding eye contact at all costs. Aunty Deb doesn’t ‘do’ tears, least of all from little Pākehā girls who were visitors in her whare. I knew that I had crossed a line and that my mother would be hearing all about it.
As Manaaki strode into the kitchen, Aunty and I fell silent. Only the clang of a couple of mugs and clatter of some cutlery could be heard. Manaaki helped us finish off the dishes and shake out the table cloth in the garden for the birds. Still no one had spoken. Aunty wiped down the bench and grabbed the packet of ciggies from on top of the fridge – so Uncle Boogie couldn’t steal them. Manaaki and I went to slump into the couch in the lounge when we heard Aunty Deb call from the deck. The cicadas seemed to rejoice in the fact they’d get their hourly nicotine hit.
Auntie ordered us to sit down on the rickety outdoor seating as she took big tugs from her smoke. She looked us up and down and told us that she agreed with what was said but that it wasn’t tika or a part of how we were raised. Manaaki and I nodded solemnly. Out in the backyard Uncle Boogie was busy fixing the chook house. Uncle Boogie was a Pākehā, and Aunty said she could’ve walloped him the first time she brought him home to meet the whānau. This was back when he was still known as Patrick. She said unlike Gigi, he couldn’t stop gorging himself on the shared kai, and that he nearly ate our poor Nanny out of house and home.
Manaaki let out a giggle which was quickly snuffed by Auntie Deb’s stern advice. “Our manuhiri are our top priority when they come into our space.” She said that we must make them feel welcome through kai, care and manners, because that is what we do as Māori. As we nodded our heads again, we were told to go and mihi to our Uncle and walk back to our own homes. I knew as soon as Auntie Deb had finished her smoke, she’d be on the phone to our mums, telling them we ran Gigi out of her home. Manaaki and I walked slowly down the driveway and towards Whetumarama Street.
That night, I speed-dialled Manaaki before bedtime. We had both been given lectures and punishments that weren’t glamorous but appropriate. Manaaki was going to be helping Nan and the other oldies at housie for the next few weeks, and I was going to be on pot duty at the iwi meeting on the weekend. Both chores were chosen because they entailed manaaki ki ngā tangata, or the care of others.
For the rest of the school year, Manaaki and I were shunned by Gigi, but that felt right anyway. We don’t think she told her parents, because otherwise they’d be down at Auntie Deb’s house making a right ruckus. We waved our white flags at the breakdown of that weird little friendship willingly. There’s been many times where Manaaki and I needed to live up to our names, despite people being ignorant towards our food, ways and our culture. We remember what Auntie Deb said, we manaaki, we awhi and we make sure anyone that comes into our space, including our whenua, feels welcome, fed and looked after. That’s what we do as Māori and as a whānau. It is tika.