Mary: Mamas know best

Stories / Mary: Mamas know best

From small beginnings 20 years ago, the Pacifica Arts Centre has developed into a vibrant, people-centred, arts space and much more.

At its warm heart are the Pacifica Mamas – a group of matriarchs hailing from all over the Pacific who meet regularly. They communicate in a variety of languages, but their true eloquence flows from their creative hands.

The Mamas’ studio produces an extraordinary array of weaving, fibre flowers, tapa and tivaevae quilts – visible expressions of their shared Pacific heritage. Bright recycled plastic leis appeal to the hundreds of schoolchildren who visit the centre each year and learn to make them. Many of these are urban Pacific kids disconnected from elders and grandparents.

Understanding the Pacific way

The centre was developed by Mary Ama through her work on the Waitakere Council’s Pacific Islands Advisory Board. She’s 68 and "officially" retired, but it’s hard to imagine this energetic Cook Islands mama ever slowing down. Ironically, her original idea was aimed at non-Pacific people, using the arts to create more understanding about Pacific traditions. Now, while all are welcome, the centre focuses more on Pacific people.

At 40, Project Manager Tu Raa is a "mama in training". She’s also a storyteller, musician, and most importantly, a mother of three.

Tu’s own mother arrived in New Zealand from the Cook Islands at the age of nine and became a solo mother in her teens. Life in what was then the Bible belt suburb of Mt Roskill didn’t leave much time for cultural activities.

“It wasn’t until I was 13 that someone at school told me I should join the Cook Islands cultural group,” Tu recalls. “Then at 18 I was asked to sell Cook Islands CDs and I credit my immersion in the language to that.”

Building a legacy

Tu wants her “fruit salad” children (she calls them that because they have British and Samoan heritage on their father’s side) to grow up valuing their cultural heritage.

Her eldest, 14-year-old Felix-Foxx Burnell, hasn’t yet been on a plane, much less to the Cook Islands, but he’s been part of a cultural group since he was three. Last year he was chosen to do the pe’e – the welcoming chant – for the 15,000 young performers and their families attending the centre’s annual cultural festival. While it was a nerve-wracking experience for Felix-Foxx, he says that being asked to do it was a real honour. Currently he attends a Tahitian drumming class at the centre.

Tu says she is legacy-building for her children.

“I’d like them to learn as much language as possible. But more importantly, I teach them values – ones that I’ve learnt over the years. They are cultural values, but they’re also universal.”

Felix-Foxx grins wryly. His mum has left nothing to chance. “We have six values Mum makes us refer to every day – to have love, to be respectful, to have honesty, to listen, to be patient and to be humble,” he recites without hesitation.

They are values he gets plenty of opportunity to practise at home in a 12-person four-generation household that includes his great-grandmother, his mama (Tu’s mother), her husband, his mum, siblings, cousin, aunties and uncles.

“It’s a mad house,” laughs Tu, noting that it also makes the transition from home to work each day quite easy.

A special role model

At the centre Tu is surrounded by her elders, and Mary, who is still very much involved with the Mamas and is a special role model.

“Mary is just a font of amazing knowledge, being brought up in the islands and raised by her grandparents. I have never met a woman who works as hard as she does – and I’ve worked seven days a week. I’ve seen Mary walk with prime ministers and leaders of nations, and then I’ll come down here [to the centre] and see her engaged in hard physical labour.”

Investing in the future

For Mary, it’s about looking forward.

“Our younger generation are our investment for the future of our culture,” she says. “If we don’t invest, we will have a sad story to tell in 20 years’ time. We won’t lose our culture but I don’t think we will keep the true value of who we are. And before you can be anything in the world, you’ve got to know who you are, have pride, and accept yourself.”

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This story is part of a series exploring intergenerational relationships. The Connecting the generations series is one way the Mental Health Foundation helps people prepare for a later life that has meaning, purpose and joy.