19 September 2023

Learning About Māori Culture in Rotorua | Study With New Zealand

Daniela Castillo
Masters of Civil Engineering at the University of Canterbury

Many years ago, my parents chose New Zealand as my study destination because they wanted me to learn English among other life skills. Fast forward a few years back in Colombia, I couldn’t stop thinking about New Zealand. The memories were so powerful that I decided to come back to study my Masters in Civil Engineering at the University of Canterbury. 

I remember when I first arrived at the airport. I was very impressed by everything around me but was also confused at the same time. Not only was I in a new country, but a country with its own culture that I would have to learn. New Zealand, as we know, is an English speaking country, but I quickly learned that the Māori language and culture is also important. They even have a week dedicated to Māori language! We are always surrounded by ‘totems’ and spiral patterns. I later came to learn that these are totems are called pou and the spiral patterns are called koru and they hold lots of significance on their own. 

Being curious about the country, I joined Education New Zealand Manapou ki te ao as a Student Ambassador, which gave me the opportunity to experience more of what New Zealand has to offer – including the rich culture. I was one of four students that was given the opportunity to travel to Te Pā Tu in Rotorua where I experienced my first hāngī during their Matariki celebrations alongside waiata and kapa haka. Let me explain to you, what all of this means.  

Matariki is the name for the cluster of stars which appear on the eastern horizon during sunrise. However, it describes not only a cluster of stars in the sky but also a celebration that gathers whānau (family) and friends to welcome the Māori New Year. The purpose of it is to reflect on the past, celebrate the present, and plan the future as a community. In Colombian culture we too believe that food brings people together. We always start with a small family reunion and after a couple of hours, the community from your surroundings comes to your house to celebrate and share the good moments – especially for new years eve!   

A hāngī is a traditional way of cooking food in a dirt pit dug in the ground. Foods include fish, pork, lamb, kumara, pumpkin and several types of local vegetables. The Hāngī is left in the ground for about three to five hours and after it is cooked it leaves such a delicious smoky and earthy flavour as I have never experienced before. We were treated to a very fancy hāngī that was cooked by previous MasterChef winners, but I imagine that tastes just as good traditionally.  

But before dinner we got to experience much more. At the very start we were welcomed by warriors in their traditional way. We were not allowed to film this part but there was very powerful chanting that made me feel connected with everyone. I remember participating in a ceremony to remember our recently departed. We all stood together in support around a live fire. This was such a strong introduction.  

We were then offered a kawakawa and manuka tea which warmed me right up, since we were outdoors at night in the middle of winter. I learnt that kawakawa has many medicinal properties and was used in medicine long before the introduction of pharmaceuticals. The best part? You can find this plant growing naturally just about everywhere in New Zealand.   

We even got to play Māori games and listen to waiata (song and chants) alongside kapa haka. This was some of the most beautiful performances I have seen, in such a small room.  

After living this amazing night with the most delightful dishes and the most warm and peaceful people around my table, I can tell you that is something that every student should try experience in New Zealand. As students who came from overseas, we have left everyone and everything that made us who we are behind, to become a new version of ourselves. I think we must learn the culture of the place where we are and be part of Aotearoa (New Zealand). Celebrations like Matariki are a great way to create bonds with the new land that will bring us new families, friends and experiences that will change our lives forever. 

I always believed that being a Civil Engineer was more than just building bridges or houses or venues. After being gifted with the opportunity to experience the celebration at Te Pā Tū, now I know how important is to acknowledge the tangata whenua (people of the land) and to respect Papatūānuku (mother earth) because that is where we come from.

A New Zealand Education enables me to explore wider life experiences, different cultures and opportunities as well as learn specific skills and knowledge.

Māori are New Zealand’s indigenous people. Māori customs and values for people and place are weaved throughout the life you will experience here.

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About the contributors
Daniela Castillo
Masters of Civil Engineering at the University of Canterbury