When it comes to our tikanga (practices) as Māori, do we really understand why we conduct ourselves in a particular way? Tikanga were not intended to contribute to poor health. If anything, they are intended to ensure positive communal wellbeing. The term ‘tika’ literally means ‘correct’ and ‘proper’, and in practice, tikanga is about doing the right thing.
The other week I had an experience that sat with me for a few days. It was a moment that highlighted to me how we can blindly apply tikanga in ways that are detrimental to us.
I went to a cafe with a few friends. Our meals turned up and I had half of a cup of sauce all over my kai. I finished most of it except for the part covered in the sugar-laden, artificially flavoured and coloured, man-made kīnaki (sauce). Then of course I got a few stares about not finishing my kai, and as the tikanga goes, “kaua e moumou kai” (Don’t waste food). Despite the looks and comments I didn’t finish the kai and left feeling a bit whakamā. I just couldn’t justify doing something that compromised my tinana and hauora for the sake of sticking to somebody else’s concept of tikanga. Afterwards, I began to wonder why Māori would have tikanga that justified a behaviour of overeating. Or, was this simply a matter of its poor application?
When we talk about tikanga and kawa we can spark a whole debate about what these terms mean but for the purpose of this post, I thought I’d distinguish between the two from what I understand. When it comes to tikanga, these are the practices and customs that we undertake. These include things like not sitting on tables, not stepping over people, or not placing the tongue of your taiaha to the ground. There are a whole range of tikanga that exist, and they can differ from marae to marae, hapū to hapū, or iwi to iwi. Kawa, on the other hand, are the sacred protocols that we follow. This includes the process for conducting pōwhiri on the marae. Kawa are protocols that have a connection and whakapapa to atua, and for this reason, kawa do not change. I see a clear distinction here between kawa that are sacred and defined by atua, while tikanga are influenced by society. Tikanga are then practices that evolve over time as a reflection of our community’s way of expressing kawa.
The expression “kaua e moumou kai” is generally used to ensure people do not waste food. If we think back to a time of communal living, where our food was grown, harvested and hunted ourselves, the value of our kai was very high. Every single part of our kai, from bones, to organs, to roots and leaves, all had a purpose; and anything extra was stored for another day. To waste kai in this setting would undermine the work of your whānau, and had the potential to place the community at risk in times of famine. The same concept applied during the Great Depression when access to resources for kai was limited.
Another example takes a different perspective at the words “moumou kai”. The Tūhoe whakataukī describes the character of its people:
“Tūhoe moumou kai, Tūhoe moumou taonga, Tūhoe moumou tangata ki te pō”
“Tūhoe wasteful of food, Wasteful of treasures, Wasters of men to death”
Rather than to describe Tūhoe as wasteful, this whakataukī affirms their high level of generosity for giving food and taonga to manuhiri, and their determination to pursue their enemies. In this context, my experience would actually testify to the generosity of our cook to feed my friends and I. However, this goes back to another concept of manaaki manuhiri, or the practice of caring for guests. Is serving diabetes on a plate a practice of uplifting the mana of your manuhiri? I say it is not.
I’ve come to the conclusion that tikanga have a rationale and purpose for their use, and it is critical for us to understand this. In some cases, I think we continue with the behaviours that our tūpuna established without fully understanding why they were first instilled. Following others for the sake of following is a risky business. If we lose sight of the purpose of our tikanga, then we lose its intent for doing the right thing. So, if you filled your plate with too much food, then save what you can for another day, or feed somebody else—kaua e moumou kai. However, that is not an excuse to justify finishing more than you need, or pressuring your friends and family into emptying that bag of chips, or finishing the last of that drink.