Waikato Wellbeing Project Lots of Little Fires

Poutama Rites of Passage

Joe Wilson on March 2023

“I just love to see others beaming”

‘How can we continue to love and support our boys into their own burning and raging fire…’

At the base of Mount Karioi, a fire is burning…“The fire is a living example… a subtle way of building a sense of collective responsibility and pride…”

There is a break in the day and two boys walk up to and sit by the fire. They are calm, carefully adding dry wood from nearby fallen branches when needed. They move slowly and seem at peace. I wonder what they are thinking about, what they are feeling. The serenity of the moment is replicated around the camp. Tama and mentors are moving slowly and intentionally, some are playing music, some carving sticks and others just chatting quietly to each other.  As the wind shifts, the flames dance and the smoke blows into the two boys' eyes. The stillness is broken and the boys jump up yelling out to their mates cursing at the smoke. The pendulum swings, calm moves to chaos in a split second and ripples across the camp. The mood picks up and new activities are afoot.

Poutama Rites of Passage was born out of Whaingaroa in 2015. It is the vision of youth worker, Tiaki Coates (Ngāi Tahu), who felt called to explore what a community-led initiation for tama to transition into manhood would look like in a Te Ao Maori way.

Seven years later and with numerous rites of Passage successfully completed, the kaupapa is thriving and fluidly evolving to suit the needs of the communities it exists to serve.

“Well the reality is that most men haven’t been on a rite of passage. We are a generation of uninitiated men. We haven’t had that group of solid men saying welcome to manhood and come with uand we’ll take you on a journey and we’ll walk this path with you.” (Tiaki Coates)

Asking Tiaki how the kaupapa came about, he referred to his own experiences of transitioning from childhood to manhood;

“When I was fourteen I had this expectation that there’d be a community of men that would kind of pick me up from school one day and take me off on an adventure and tell me about how things were supposed to be, and that just never happened! I just really craved mentorship.”

Michael Moore (Ngāti Maniopoto), co-leader of the kaupapa breaks it down really simply;

I just realised it was probably the most important thing I ever needed in my life; a rites of passage into manhood. The thing that I never had and if I did have it it was in all the ways that were unhealthy”.

The kaupapa is led and managed by Tiaki Coates and Michael Moore. Both Tiaki and Michael have extensive experience in youth work, youth engagement and a deep understanding of te ao Māori. Kaupapa, tikanga and mātauranga Maori underpin the Poutama rites of Passage and creates the space for wānanga about relationships to self and others and for both tama and mentors to learn pūrākau about atua Māori.

Their shared perspectives and values on positive youth development, along with their individually unique engagement styles, allows them to navigate some delicate conversations and facilitate them in a safe and gentle way.

“The boys are ages 13 and 14. We get some mischief boys. We get some beautiful Māui figures. It's not about beating them down, like they’ve experienced all around their world, it's about supporting them to understand that they are ok, you know they are loved, they belong.”

Managing this space takes incredible skill and care, that much is obvious but it is the soft skills, the temperament, the experience and the social awareness that ensures this kaupapa is successful. It is as much the things that are not said and the subtlety exhibited in the responses to challenging situations that maintain harmony and balance and space for growth.

“The mahi that we do, all of it is cultivating safety for everybody in this kaupapa. The safety is not just for our boys but it's also for our men. It's for the community that are working in rites of passage with us.” (Michael Moore)

Tiaki is very open and realistic about the situation many young boys are facing in our communities and wider society;

You know most  of us have kind of stumbled along this path and the initiations, or the rites of passage that we’ve experienced, are often incredibly unhealthy and dangerous. They’re often peer led, they’re not community led and often don’t uphold the values of our family or our culture.” (Tiaki Coates)

The hope is that by having men in this community who are visible, caring, loving and supportive, the tama can feel a greater sense of belonging and connection to those around them. I ask the mentors why they are here. Some have a passion for and experience in youth work and see this as an extension of their mahi. Others felt a calling to do more, and just needed a way to connect with tama so they can be a visible mentor in the community.  No matter their reasons, they have all made a commitment to be here for the five day rites of passage as well as a mentor training course, completed earlier in the year.

“What we’ve discovered over this journey, with our men, is that they need to go through it first. So we started quite early on doing mentor training and building our pool of mentors that had gone through a rite of passage themselves and then they could come and they could lead the boys through it.” (Tiaki Coates)

Tiaki and Micheal have seen and experienced the effects of unhealthy adult male relationships and the intergenerational cycles down which they are passed. It is why they believe so much in the kaupapa and the role mentors play in the wider community. Having men who can help influence behaviors that create an environment and a culture that is welcoming of our young people… a strengths based approach that provides opportunities for them to shine and to see the untapped potential and light in each young person. Tiaki says having good men in the local community is massive;

“These men are in the community, so these men are from Whaingaroa, some from Kirikiriroa and Ngaruawahia and our boys are all from Whaingaroa, Kirikiriroa and Rāhui Pookeka.

To have men in the flesh just walking down the street in the bakery, at the sports club you know…in the kickboxing club. The picture is that there are men all around the community that they can look to, that can check in with them and can be like you know ‘hey bro, all good…? actual, like actual all good? And tune in a little bit deeper.”

Tiaki says the uniqueness of each mentor is the gift they bring  and their presence to both the kaupapa and daily life is their application of that gift. It is the same for our tama;

“What we’re doing here with these rites is encouraging that tuakiri, the tuakiri of our boys to be alive and thriving and for them to be discovering what it is for their unique tuakiri to be contributing to their community and to the wider world.” (Tiaki Coates)

Dailyn, a local youth worker based at the local Raglan Area School says how powerful the rites have been for him as a mentor;

“Usually I only have time to say ‘what's up, how are you’ but actually being able to come into this process and learn who they are, learn about what they like to do, the kind of person they are, the kind of person that they want to be. That has been eye opening.”

Dailyn laughs and says he honestly believes he has learned more from the tama than they have from him!

Brendan, a local newly qualified teacher, says how he feels the biggest thing we can do as mentors is just to whakaarongo, to listen, but with the intent to understand and not to just reply.

Caleb says he is simply here to be a friend, to let the tama know that there are men who do care about them in the community and to tautoko them when they need it.

I asked some of the tama what makes a good mentor and what advice they would give to anyone who wanted to be one. At first they struggled to find the words, but when I rephrase the question to ‘how do you feel when you are around these mentors on the rites of passage’ the words came more easily;

“I feel safe, I feel I can be myself and let my guard down”

“I know that I can ask questions without being judged or feel stupid”

“I like how they go first and open up about their experiences and feelings. It makes me think that I am not the only one who worries about things”

“I like how they listen and just care… yeah thats the big one, knowing there are people who care”

“It feels good knowing there are people who support us and want to helps us learn, learn how to communicate”

After five deeply transformational days, the kaupapa comes to an end. The magical realm in which they have been immersed for the past five days slowly starts to realign with the outside world. There is a feeling of melancholy in the air, but one full of hope and gratitude. Both tama and mentors describe the feeling as being akin to the one we get when we know we have been a part of something very special and that no one else can really understand unless they were there and experienced it too.

The rites culminate with a walk out from camp at the foothills of Mount Karioi down to Ngāranui beach and along the black sand to Poihākena Marae. Tama have become tāne and they walk together alongside the mentors who have invested so heavily in the kaupapa. Whanau and friends wait by the Kōkiri to welcome them back home as young tāne. They perform their newly learned haka with a power and passion that marks and tells the story of their transition from tama to tāne.

The boys are men, their rites of passage completed and the rest of their lives begin. What the future holds for each of them is unknown, but the everyday transitions from calm to chaos, of love to loss and the rollercoaster of success and failure are all guaranteed. How they manage the pendulum swings between these extremes will, in part, dictate the choices and life paths they choose to follow. This kaupapa has provided an incredibly special start to that journey and one that will live with them forever.

Reflecting on the kaupapa and on my own experience in youth work and education, I remember learning very early on that our rangatahi are not simply one homogenous group. Just as adults are unique and require individualized support and attention to achieve our dreams and aspirations, so too for our rangatahi. Like us all, they are shaped by the life experiences, circumstances and environments into which they are born and raised. For the most part, their needs, attitudes, perspectives and aspirations reflect these. Ultimately, none of us choose the environment we are born into, who our parents are, where we grow up and the adults who surround us. In the midst of it all, we just hope there are good people around us who really care, support us and provide positive opportunities for us to build a healthy and successful life.

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