Ashley Davies: Jonah Lomu goodbye is a lesson in emotions the Maori way

The haka isn't just for the rugby field ' ordinary New Zealanders sometimes perform it at funeral services. Picture: EPA
The haka isn't just for the rugby field ' ordinary New Zealanders sometimes perform it at funeral services. Picture: EPA
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We could pick up some tips about channelling feelings from Pacific islands traditions, writes Ashley Davies

Many people were saddened by the recent death of Jonah Lomu – not only because it was so untimely, but also because this powerful giant of a rugby hero had a particular appeal that extended far beyond his sport and his country. As he was a national hero in New Zealand, there will be a series of events to mark his death, and I’d bet the house that they will be among the most moving ceremonies we’ll have witnessed this year.

Tens of thousands of people are expected to attend the largest event, a memorial service taking place at Auckland’s Eden Park stadium on Monday. The New Zealand government is co-funding the occasion and it will be huge.

In the Auckland suburb of Manukau there will also be a special Aho Faka Famili – Day of the Family – event for the Pacific community (a broad term to describe Maori people and those from neighbouring Polynesian islands such as Tonga, from where the Lomu family originate) to pay their respects in a traditional manner. A private funeral wil be held on Tuesday.

One of the reasons these events will be so captivating is because nobody marks significant emotional moments quite like native Maoris, and we’d do well to take a leaf out of their book when it comes to learning how to channel extreme emotion.

Take, for example, the haka, the traditional ancestral war cry of the Maori people. There is no greater choreographed display of physical strength, combative prowess and fearsome togetherness and one can only imagine how it scared the bejesus out of unwitting foes – whether in actual battle or in the context of a bruising contact sport – when they first encountered it, or its original forms.

Compare, if you will, the effect of a group of Brits in shorts singing the insipid and (to many) irrelevant lyrics about saving a gracious monarch so that she can continue to reign over us, with a testosterone-charged war cry, whose translated words begin with: “I die! I die! I live! I live!/ I die! I die! I live! I live!/ This is the hairy man who fetched the sun/ And caused it to shine again/ One upward step! Another upward step!/An upward step, another/ the sun shines!”

Just reading those words gives me goosebumps. You simply can’t do the haka half-heartedly. It’s the antithesis of the robotic John Redwood’s buttock-clenchingly embarrassing attempt to mime a Welsh national anthem he didn’t even know at the Welsh Conservative Party conference in 1993.

With the haka, you have to commit completely, and with it comes that surge of collective emotion that binds a group of people together like nothing else. If you’ve never seen it performed to commemorate the dead, do yourself a favour and look it up on YouTube.

In one astonishing clip from 2012, soldiers from the 2/1 Royal New Zealand Infantry Rifle Battalion perform their unit haka as a salute to their fallen comrades. Wearing their uniforms, they surround the hearse, demonstrating the strength of their emotions in a way that suggests they are yelling at death, in fury and to chase away their fear of it, channelling their collective might to protect one another. When they finish, they stand silent for a moment, then withdraw, and the hearse drives away slowly, led by a priest. It is profoundly moving. You’d want these guys on your side.

In another video, the pupils of Palmerston North Boys’ School do the haka in a tribute to their teacher, Mr Dawson Tamatea, near the hearse containing his coffin. Again, because it’s a performance that can’t be done without really, really looking like you mean it, it seems to provide a healthy, contained outlet for those teenage boys to release their grief and anger.

Watch closely and you’ll see that some of them are almost in a trance-like state, the flickering of their hands continuing long beyond the end of the “performance”.

Another profoundly moving moment, informed by Pacific people’s traditions, took place after New Zealand’s parliament voted to legalise same-sex marriages in April 2013, and supporters of the bill broke into spontaneous song in the viewing gallery.

Again, if you haven’t seen it, look it up: it’s so beautiful. Using gentle island harmonies and rich, joyous voices, those celebrating sang a version of a Maori love song, Pokarekare Ana. Translate the lyrics and you have pure, soppy Polynesian romance: “The waves are breaking, against the shores of Waiapu/ My heart is aching, for your return my love… Oh girl, come back to me, I could die of love for you.”

Another tradition that I would love to import is that of whanau job interviews – “whanau” being the Maori word for extended family. I don’t know for certain how often it is employed in practice, but for cultural reasons, Maoris applying for jobs might be reluctant to speak too highly of themselves, and are therefore allowed to bring people from their community, family or colleagues with them to vouch for their character and experience.

I recently came across a brilliant case study of a whanau interview that didn’t go quite as expected. The candidate, Wiki, sat the first part of the interview alone, and then his whanau piled in. “I remember the look on the interviewer’s face; she thought this was going to take hours. But my whanau had decided that only two people would talk. First went my uncle, he turned to me and said: ‘Well Wiki, when are you going to get a job that you stick at? If you get this job are you going to stick at it?’ Of course I said yes. Then it was my aunt’s turn. She stood up and said: ‘And another thing Wiki, we were really disappointed that you didn’t stick to your study. If you get this one will you stick to your study?’ ” Turns out the interviewers loved what they heard and the applicant got the job.

I’m not claiming Pacific island culture is perfect – no culture is – but anything that helps people express themselves is of interest, surely.

I’m certainly looking forward to watching Jonah Lomu’s countrymen pay their last respects in a few days, though.