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The tohunga

Once there was a tohunga, an old priest taught in the ways of the old whare wānanga. His house sat amongst the native bush which blanketed the hills rising high above a small sea side village.

The tohunga had had a long life, filled with magic and knowledge of the universe, of constellations, sea navigation, natural phenomena, trees, plants, and medicines. These were the special gifts handed down to him through a long line of tohunga schooled in the same way. But those times had passed and so had that type of education. People from the village didn't visit the old tohunga or ask for guidance any more. They no longer came to ask for medicines, fishing, or weather advice. These things they got from newspapers, TVs and radios. The old ways were no longer seen as a way of the future.

And so in the years that followed the changes to the small community continued to progress. A new shop was opened, new roads were built making access easier than it had ever been before and the local school had begun construction on a new school hall. The tohunga continued to practice in the old ways he'd been taught and to listen to the dreams he knew were messages of guidance from his ancestors.

Sometimes the tohunga came down to the village to get fish or to visit the new shop where he could buy the things he needed. He was always welcomed by the parents and older people of the community who knew who he was, but the children of the village had no idea.

Some of the children laughed at the way the old man walked and muttered to himself. They made up a game they called, 'Old man rorirori' and chased each other with their arms out stretched.

One morning Turi, a young boy, was playing the rorirori game with his cousins outside the shop. They had seen the old man buying bread. Turi's father, Tama, saw what his son and cousins were doing and told them off. He was so angry he made them sit on a stool outside the shop while they waited for the old man to finish buying his things. When the tohunga came out Tama approached him, greeted him with a hongi and gave him some fruit. The tohunga nodded and smiled then turned to the boys seated in front of him. He raised his hand in front of the boys, his fingers wide spread, and muttered to himself. Then he turned back towards the way he had come.

The children sat in silence. "What was he doing?" asked Turi. "He was putting a spell on us," said one of his cousins. They looked at each other wide eyed, checking themselves to see if anything had changed. Tama sat down beside them.

Tama explained, "He's like a doctor who knows many different things, like weather, navigation or medicines. His job in the old days was to help keep the community healthy and to predict what the future might bring. His powers are beyond anything we could imagine."
The children had a look of guilt and amazement on their faces.
"Do you think he would be angry at us?" Turi asked his father.
"I don't think so," his father replied. "He probably had other things on his mind."
"He could predict what the lotto numbers are," one of the girls added.
The children's eyes grew even larger.
"I don't think he's interested in money", said Tama, "and I'd be a bit more respectful next time you see him."

The children quickly agreed.                                                                                                                                                                                     

The tohunga was sad when he arrived back at his small home that evening. The only highlight for the day had been a hongi with a young man he didn't recognise and the faces of young children he knew were the future. Thoughts of the future brought with them a sadness the tohunga had tried to avoid.

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It was coming close to the time of Matariki, when celebrations in the past had been a huge event. But those times had passed, people didn't celebrate the new year any more. Not the Māori New Year.

The tohunga felt tired and alone, he thought about his friends and relations who had passed on, he thought about his childhood, and the teachings of the old people. He then realised that his sadness came from the knowledge that these teachings would die with him. It was at that moment he decided that when Matariki first rose over the eastern horizon to herald the Maori New Year, he would set out on his own journey to the spirit world. This, he had decided, would be the time of his death.

Over the following weeks the tohunga walked the track that led from his small house to a place that he often visited. It was a huge clearing at the top of a cliff overlooking the village below and out towards the vast expanse of sea that met the horizon. During that time the tohunga prepared a bed of manuka and fern at this place, pointing it towards the sea where he knew Matariki would first appear. This was the place that he chose to take his last breath and leave the world he knew.

As the tohunga continued with his preparations so too did the small community prepare for the opening of their new school hall. Turi was one of the leaders of the kapahaka group which would be performing on the day of the opening.

Finally the week of the opening arrived, which was also the week that Matariki was expected to rise. The tohunga was ready and so too were the community. The tohunga was happy in the remaining days he had preparing for his journey.

But one night he had a dream, not of the new life he was expecting, but of a taniwha, a huge reptilian creature that rumbled and turned in the ground. Suddenly bursting through layers of soil and rock the taniwha ripped the earth apart. Hauling itself from a huge crater, it then smashed its way through the small village flattening houses, gardens and people, destroying everything in its path before slipping into the sea. After which, an enormous surge of water formed into an almighty wave immediately engulfing what had not already been destroyed. The people that hadn't run for the hills were washed out to sea and drowned. All except one young boy who stood on the tohunga's bed of manuka with his arms held out in front of him, his fists clenched. When the boy opened his hands, seeds blew from his palms scattering in the wind.

The tohunga woke from his dream in a sweat. Never had he seen a vision so clear. That morning, instead of following the path behind his house to the clearing he had visited each day, he headed to the small village below.

The tohunga arrived at the school just after the official ceremony for opening the hall was over. He walked straight onto the stage while everyone was still having a cup of tea.

"You people need to leave here, quickly, your houses will be flattened, many people will die!" he stated into the microphone.

The crowd of people fell silent, some of the smaller children hid behind their parents. Some people laughed to themselves, others turned their backs trying not to pay any attention. The principal walked onto the stage and tried to help the tohunga away, but he refused to budge.

"Go while you still have time," were the last words the tohunga managed before the principal helped him from the stage. The principal tried to offer the old man a cup of tea but he wasn't interested. Instead he walked out of the hall and away.

Turi caught up with the tohunga before he got to the school gates.
"Why did you say that?" Turi asked.
The old man was not in the mood for answering, but when he turned to see who was addressing him he recognised Turi from his dream.
"You tell them", he said, "Make them understand while they still have time."
"They won't listen to me," Turi complained.
"Find the strength."
"But I don't know how."
Turi's complaints fell on deaf ears because the tohunga had already turned back towards the hills.

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Turi returned to the hall to lead the kapahaka group in the festivities that followed. No one mentioned the old man, preferring instead to pretend that nothing happened. But Turi could think of nothing else. After the kapahaka performance was over and the crowd had applauded, Turi walked to the front of the stage.

"People used to listen to that old man, he was respected once," Turi said into the microphone.
People talked amongst themselves, but Turi continued. "We should listen to him, he was warning us of something." Turi didn't stay for the rest of the celebrations, instead he went home.

That night Tama sat on the edge of Turi's bed and talked to him.
"I was proud of you today, it takes a lot of courage to stick up for someone, to say what you think."
"But it didn't mean anything, no one listened to him, or to me," Turi said.
"Well, actually people did hear something, we talked about the old man afterwards. You were right, he was a well respected man in the old days."
"Do you think he's crazy, that's what people said to me?"
"I don't think so, maybe confused, anyway, we decided since we had so much food left over that we'd take a picnic up the hill tomorrow to share with him. What do you think?"
Turi was happy, he lay back in his bed looking forward to the next day.

When the community arrived at the old tohunga's house the next day his place was empty, so they continued up the pathway towards the top of the cliff which they knew would be a good place for a picnic.

They found the old man sitting next to his bed made of manuka and fern. Nobody asked about this, but instead they took out their food and shared it with him.

The tohunga could only smile at the children as they played in the long grass and at the parents as they talked and laughed. It reminded him of the old days. Some of the parents hadn't visited that place since they were children. They had a wonderful time remembering.

It was while everyone was relaxing that the first shudder of the earthquake struck. Children screamed, and as their parents rushed to protect them the earth shuddered some more. Then the full extent of the earthquake hit, throwing everyone to the ground. Luckily the place they were in was stable and didn't slip away like it did in the valley below. When the earth had stopped shaking everyone looked down to their community to see the full extent of destruction the earthquake had caused. Houses were flattened, the new school hall had collapsed, and roads had been ripped apart. The small village was hardly recognisable. Parents were crying with their children, they could say nothing except stare down at their ruined homes.

It was an hour or so later when they looked out to sea and saw the wall of water hurtling towards the shore. The tidal wave raced up over the land taking everything that had been left standing and smashing it to pieces. What wasn't destroyed before was now washed away with the sea. In a matter of moments everything the village people had known would never be the same again.

For the next year that followed rebuilding the village was the priority. From the day of the earthquake the tohunga put aside his desire to die. Instead he once more became a valuable member of the community. He helped to teach about the old ways of planting, medicines and stories of the stars that influenced the environment and people's lives. Parents, children, and old people learnt alongside each other as the community slowly rebuilt itself. Turi was particularly interested in the tohunga's teachings and spent many hours listening and learning from the old man.

After two years had passed the people of the village celebrated and honoured the old man for the many gifts he had shared with them. The tohunga felt that the past had once more connected to the present and so to the future. He also felt an overwhelming sense of happiness and accomplishment in his heart.

A while later, the tohunga had a dream of the people he'd known as a child. And he knew it was time to once more prepare himself for his journey. The tohunga made his bed of manuka and fern at the top of the cliff and when the stars of Matariki first rose in the morning sky, he departed for a new life in the world of the spirit.

Some of the stories and teachings of the old people departed that day with the old man, never to be seen or known again. But the seeds of knowledge the old tohunga had shared had been planted in the minds of the young people like Turi, to ensure that the ways of the old people would live on into the future.

(c) Wiremu Grace

A different version of the route Whātaitai took can be found on the Wellington City Libraries website.

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