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Emma Espiner: When the rules are different for Māori

Emma Espiner struggles to appreciate a system that allows a dangerous highway right outside her ancestral marae, but would have completely different rules for a childcare centre, conference facility or a retirement village

We buried my grandfather last month. He was laid to rest with my grandmother two decades after she passed. I was 13 when she died and I don’t remember much about her tangi, but I remember when Koro kissed her forehead as the lid was brought down on the final morning “Goodbye my love".

My ancestral home is at Kuku in Horowhenua, alongside State Highway 1.

By ‘alongside State Highway 1’ I mean: almost literally on the road. When we went to sleep at night, the roar of trucks was ever-present. During my grandfather’s poroporoake, the speakers were interrupted by tyre wheels screeching and 16-litre engines grunting. At the service, during our eulogy and throughout the hymns, the highway.

It's been four years since I’ve been back. On that occasion, it was my grandfather’s 90th birthday. He’s an outlier among his generation, to make it beyond 73. That’s the average life expectancy for Māori men, trailing non-Māori by seven years.

I don’t know why, but I had different eyes this time. Maybe it’s because my daughter is five now, and every time she was out of my line of sight my heart would clench and I’d think about that road.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been working in Māori public health for the last few years and I’ve seen patterns that I can’t unsee. Because it’s one thing to hear ‘institutional and structural racism’ or ‘history of colonisation’ (at which point many non-Māori grit their teeth) and it’s another thing to unravel it in real time, at home.

Roads tell us about what we value. They meander over speed bumps through affluent suburbs and rush through rural townships, on the way to something else. They take us to where we’re going and their design is not by accident.

You ought to see this road. Remember when the people of Grey Lynn were up in arms about a Bunnings being constructed? This was back in 2013, and the community swiftly raised more than $40,000 to fight the development (which went ahead, by the way). The community were opposed to the ‘look’ of the store, which would be ‘incongruous' alongside 19th Century housing. There were concerns about traffic, accidents and congestion.

Roads tell us about what we value. They meander over speed bumps through affluent suburbs and rush through rural townships, on the way to something else. They take us to where we’re going and their design is not by accident.

Our road is a nightmare. 100kmph. Passing lanes right outside the marae, and no turning bay for cars coming into the complex. When we take our dead to the urupa we need a police escort. We cross that highway, playing chicken with the cars - because there is nowhere safe to cross. We walk alongside it for 200 metres in the baking sun, the pouring rain, and with the motorists passing within half a metre of our babies, our old people and our honoured guests. Mostly, they don’t even slow down.

I struggle to appreciate a system which would never allow a road like this outside a childcare centre, conference facility or a retirement village, but when those functions are served by a marae, the rules are different.

It’s one thing to hear ‘institutional and structural racism’ or ‘history of colonisation’ (at which point many non-Māori grit their teeth) and it’s another thing to unravel it in real time, at home.

In the 1980s my grandmother fundraised to construct a modest structure linking our whare tipuna to the whare kai so that our manuhiri didn’t have to sit in the rain. In 2019, she is still remembered for this achievement, and for ‘fixing up’ the ablutions block. She achieved this by arranging housie nights down in Porirua. All the cousins and aunties and uncles would drive down and collect the night’s proceeds and then, little by little, enough was raised. These renovations were the last major upgrades to our marae.

In 2017 Māmari Stephens wrote about a ‘shadow’ over marae. She reflects on legislation which isn’t written with us in mind - building codes which don’t understand the role of marae, exhortations for earthquake strengthening and health and safety upgrades which are blind to the financial stressors of simply keeping the thing going. There are threats of demolition which lawmakers fail to appreciate as being more than just destruction of a building, but the severing of links to history and family and community. To this litany of both intentional and benign causal factors for injustice, I’d add our roads.

There’s another thread to this story. Plenty of Māori could berate people like me for happening upon these issues only when they come to affect me personally. Your daughter was at risk, what about ours? My cousin Courtney and her husband Moe who gave up many things for the privilege of caring for our Koro in the last six years of his life, they might wonder where my concern was when their daughter was dodging cars in the car park - she's the same age as my girl.

People say that change is coming and mostly I agree, but it can’t be shallow. What’s the point of a million Māori speakers when the spring from which Te Reo Māori me ōna tikanga are derived has been drained to dangerously low levels, and the laws which govern us don’t make the effort to understand us.

Tangi bring us home. This one brought me home to the stories of grandparents who not only helped to physically rebuild our marae, but who filled the paepae with orators when there was nobody left to speak. My Koro, who learned Te Reo in his 50s so that he could fill this role, and mentor enough of our young people so that, at his tangi, the speeches soared. They almost drowned out the sound of the traffic.

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