Thursday, 23 November 2017

Weaving a Sleeping Pod for a Baby -Wahakura

I did the scary big thing -I attended a Maori Womens' Weaving Course.

I am not Maori.

But they let me in.

They did have some questions, such as what is your general experience with Te Ao Maori (Maori culture) and do you have a tribal connection?

I passed the first part being a curious soul and an employee of the Ministry of Education (a teacher). Teachers in NZ are expected to know basic phrases and to be able to pronounce children's names and place-names with ease. My tribal connection is Irish, and in the wonderful understanding of Maori that was considered good enough.

There is a huge understanding between Irish and Maori. Both were marginalised by invaders -both understand about family-strength and both laugh and sing a lot.

Image result for Harvesting flax for weaving NZ
The correct way to harvest flax. Leave the three in the middle
(that's the family unit) and take the ones on either side cutting on an angle.
 Photo credit
Flax in NZ is mostly wild and coarse. it grows freely around wetlands and is known as useful landscaping vegetation as it soaks up water from marginal land. The flax here was used for rope-making. It has none of the finesse of Irish linen and cannot be spun or woven for cloth. When the British Navy began sending ships to scout out NZ's potential as a British Colony the first thing spotted was all the flax. Maori men were used to harvest and bundle it up and were to arrive with the flax back in Britain. it caused huge offence to Maori as harvesting and weaving were essentially the domain of women. The British were then embarrassed in return as the flax proved unworkable for anything other than rope.

If you are uncomfortable reading about women and their monthly cycles then skip this next paragraph.

Kuia (female elders) will insist that women in their monthly cycle do not harvest flax. This is part of tikanga (protocol) around flax. Women who are hapu (with child) must not harvest either. This is for practical reasons as well as tikanga. 

Looking at the sides of the wahakura.
Harakeke (flax) has been woven by Maori women over the centuries and is now an established art-form in its own right. Some artists choose to dye their flax and add shells as ornaments.

Our raranga kaupapa (weaving process) was developed from a simple style of quick green-flax weaving used for baskets and brought into the 21st century as a simple sleeping pod for newborn infants.

Image result for Metiria Turei with wahakura
Metiria Turei with Sifatama Tamu. Photo credit The Spinoff.
The version shown in this picture is a little different from what we all made but essentially the idea was being born and with the publicising from former Green MP Metiria Turei, the wahakura was established.

Our tutor was very firm on following the strict guidelines on construction as she was representing a body of research as well as the cultural sensitivity of the weaving. Our wahakura have naturally occurring holes at the crossing of the flax leaves allowing air circulation. 

How do you use a Wahakura?

Baby is placed in the woven bassinet with only a fine woollen shawl tucked around it and mum and dad sleep either side of the baby in bed. It solves the problem of co-sleeping and the prevention of smothering the baby. The statistics presented to us on SIDS were harrowing.....and higher for Maori. Co-sleeping with the baby was considered normal for Maori (and Irish if I'm honest) so long as all were safe from alcohol, drugs and smoking. The SIDS statistics show that families using the wahakura have much lowered rates of sudden infant deaths.
Wahakura on the bed.
The wahakura will take a few weeks to dry out and become yellow. When it does it will become less pliable and stronger. We were issued a firm foam mattress each. I, as you all know, will be organising woollen shawls too.

It is expected that we each make more of the Wahakura and donate them to families and organisations who help. That is the payback for this funded course.

Wahakura top plait bind-off.
The women in the group were all leaders of their own small communities and therefore strong and committed. On the second day of the two-day course they were gently teasing me for being "an eejit" with my mistakes. I got the pod made ....not beautifully, but finished. 

Wahakura waikawa completed.

Nau te rourou -with your basket
Naku te rourou -with my basket
Ka ora ai te iwi -the iwi will thrive

Many many thanks to the Whaea who helped me and the Wahine who fed us and looked after us.

Iwi -tribe
Kuia -Maori woman elder
raranga -weaving
kaupapa -understanding
harakeke -flax
tikanga -protocol
wananga -course
Whaea -Auntie (woman of some standing)
Wahine -woman

In this text I omitted the macrons over the letter "a" where the vowel is lengthened. I apologise for not adjusting my keyboard settings.

Fiona MacBride

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