Content warning: death, drowning, colonialism, earthquake
This summer, a 14-year-old boy drowned in the sea next to Sumner, New Zealand. He’d been swimming at the village beach one afternoon with a friend, in a stretch of ocean known for its strong currents. It happens almost every year; it’s usually people from the inner-city suburbs, who’ve made the drive out to the picturesque seaside village on sunny days, eager to soak up the summer heat. They don’t know what the locals know: the places where the rips and tides will drag you under and out into the cold Pacific waters.
I was staying at my mum’s house at the time. I haven’t spent a lot of time there since I moved to Australia for boarding school when I was 16. My own kind of grief—the kind that came from the abrupt end of childhood—kept me away. For the past seven years, I’ve spread myself across multiple cities, and been in general pretty unrooted. It was strange to spend an entire three months in a place filled with childhood memories.
A lot of tight-knit communities cropped up after the earthquake. Some lasted the test of time; others did not. I think Sumner did because of its geography, as well as the severity of the damage. It’s a while out from the city, with borders naturally defined by the hills between which it’s nestled. There’s really only one road in, which skirts the bottom of the cliff and edge of the ocean around from the neighbouring suburb. There’s one supermarket, a primary school, a church and a handful of restaurants, cafe´s and boutiques. It’s the kind of place where people wave as they drive past each other, where it’s safe for the swarms of kids who live up the hill—up past where the bus route ends—to hitchhike home after school. It’s the kind of place where parents feel safe letting their kids roam.
They didn’t find his body for a week. The day after he disappeared, I watched from my deck as volunteers and lifeguards took boats and jet skis out to trace the rocky outcrops at the bottom of the sea cliffs, searching for him. Someone crowdfunded enough for a helicopter to go out over the bay every morning for four days. My bosses, from the upscale restaurant I spent my summer working at, took their own boat out to search for him in the first few days. I read online that, in total, around 93 boats went out to look for him. The normally packed beach was almost deserted, with only a few tourists bumbling around. The locals seemed to keep their distance from the water too—even the regular, die-hard surfers who usually dotted the waves like lazy black seals morning and night.
Maybe they avoided the surf because his mother had parked a caravan and a tent next to the lifeguard station, where she slept every night when he was missing. It was an unavoidable, stark reminder of her grief—her monument to him. Every day for a week, I checked to see if it was still there, on my way past it to and from work. I never saw her. I knew people were taking her meals, and I often saw others clustered on the lifeguard ramp, watching the ocean. Sometimes they would wade in, but never past the knee.
On 22 February 2011, at 12:51pm, I was in the library at school in Christchurch when I felt the earth tense underneath me. Glass from the windows burst over my head before I had time to think. As books and bookcases toppled in crescendo around me, I staggered to a wooden door-frame, the blue carpet rolling under my feet. I thought I was going to die.
I don’t remember how I got outside. I sat with 500 other girls on the school oval, waiting for news. Reports were trickling in from people who’d managed to receive texts before the phone lines cut out: buildings had gone down, people were trapped inside, people might be dead. We sat in the mud for hours, waiting for our families, not knowing if they had been as lucky as we had.
When I found my brother, he was covered in brick dust. If he had been standing a few inches further back, he would have been crushed by a crumbling wall. Aftershocks continued to hit, and each time it seemed like the world was falling in around us. I saw dust rise up again from the city buildings as they shifted against the weight of the movement. I saw the ground split open, great gaping wounds of gravel and concrete and earth. I saw people lying on the street, crying, some covered in blood and dust. On the TV, I saw more people clustered in front of collapsing buildings, shifting around the rubble, calling out for the people inside. Everyone had some kind of lucky escape—except for those who hadn’t.
For a while, there wasn’t any power, water or plumbing. Portaloos were set up on each street. Schools were closed. There were 185 people-sized gaps in the fabric of Christchurch: everyone had lost someone, or knew someone who had. We were a city with no city. We lived in a metropolis of traffic cones.
We understand history as a series of traumatic events. Western-dominated history centres our collective-narrative around these: the crucifixion of Jesus, the Reformation, the French Revolution, the first world war. More recently, grief defines our identity in relation to events like Columbine, 9/11, the Arab Spring. Or a three-year-old boy, washed up on a beach in Turkey. Grief is a response to loss: of life, of lifestyle, of land. Different societies have different ways of knowing grief. We like to project the incomprehensible immateriality of our emotions onto something physical, tangible. Sometimes, through violence, like the Ma¯ori women who once showed their mourning by self-harming with obsidian and sharp shells, to ease the ferocity of loss. Sometimes, through monuments and memorials, like the Shrine of Remembrance down St Kilda road. Or through symbolism; the long-suffering history of the LGBT community is enshrined in the rainbow flag. Christians take communion to memorialise the death of Jesus.
Grief becomes a part of our identity. Colonies, in particular, are built on grief: societies structured around the loss of some and the profit of others. In its aftermath in New Zealand, Ma¯ori and Pasifika people have used communities and collective action as tools of resilience against the consequences of colonialism. These issues range from poverty, high incarceration rates and violence, to the continuing dissolution of language, culture and contested land rights. The persistence of community and tradition in the face of ongoing racism is resistance in itself: the continual absorption of grief into life, rather than the absorption of life by grief. The endurance of Ma¯ori culture against the force of Europeanisation is a part of New Zealand identity and society.
The proof of this was evident against the backdrop of chaos the earthquake brought. It was from the poorer and badly damaged eastern suburbs, with the densest Ma¯ori and Pasifika population, that the most significant grassroot efforts grew. The local iwi of Nga~i Tahu, specifically, felt a responsibility to their traditional land, and assumed a leading role in putting Christchurch back together again, through a community-based approach. They led the formation of the Ma¯ori Recovery Network, based on the principle of aroha nui ki te tangata—love to all people. This extension of their support to all those affected did something to reassert their traditional authority in the Christchurch region, and to cultivate a long- deserved sense of respect within the general society. They helped provide things like shelter and supplies, with several tribe members going around neighbourhoods with groceries, and checking in on vulnerable households. Volunteer teams were organised to help shovel liquefaction, working alongside other organisations to clear the roads and organise transport. They even opened their marae as centres of assistance and outreach facilities. Despite the obstacles the Ma¯ori communities faced, like a lack of cooperation and sensitivity from the civil defence force, they remained persistent at the centre of earthquake recovery. It set a standard and an example for other communities to emerge, or strengthen, like in the village where my mother lives. In the age of Western self-interest and individualism, we forget that humans are, by nature, social creatures: in the absence of grief, we forget why we need each other.
Kia kaha, we used to say during the months after the earthquake. Stay strong. This strength lies in the perseverance of Ma¯ori tradition through tribulation, traditions still harnessed by many local initiatives to combat social problems. Not just for post-earthquake resolutions, either: the boy who drowned had been part of an organisation called Bros for Change. It’s a program which aims at mentoring young people at risk, using Ma¯ori values, regardless of their background. Its founder, Jaye Pukepuke, describes it as giving kids a second chance, and creating real change. It comes back to the principle that people who feel connected and supported by their community will not fall into a maladaptive path. Delinquency and deviance are merely symptomatic of the inherent grief embedded in this system built upon inequality and loss. Community has become a channel of grief—whether for neocolonialism, natural disaster or individual tragedy—that Ma¯ori people have bequeathed onto us. It is resilience found in the most unlikely of places.
One morning, they found his body. The newspaper said he was found by an early morning jogger. He was washed up on the village beach, not far from where he’d been swept out. In the end, it hadn’t mattered how much people had done to find him. He found his own way home, on the backs of white horses. Later that day, I walked down the beach to the spot where the rip stole him. At low tide, you can walk between the slippery rocks and on the damp sand usually covered by the sea. I thought about how scared he must have been. I wondered if he called for anyone. Did his body get caught between rocks, or tangled in seaweed, holding him down while the tide tried to carry him home?
On the one-year anniversary of the earthquake, people placed bouquets in the tops of the thousands of traffic cones which redrew our city. On the fifth, they gathered to throw hundreds of flowers into the river that runs around the central park near the CBD. For the boy who drowned, they held a karakia—a funeral or religious chant—followed by a haka on the local beach. The surfing community organised a paddle- out just after. His family joined them on a lifeboat, while others dropped flowers in the ocean from the jetty. Christchurch knows what it means to lose a loved one. We have learnt from a much stronger example what it means to survive loss.
The inheritance of grief has given us the tools of community and resilience, at a cost. The relationship between Ma¯ori and Pakeha is still asymmetrical: colonialism now just manifests under new justifications and mandates. Grief is never temporary. It lasts as long as its memory; it sits like grit under even a stranger’s nails. We are made of the loss of everything that came before now: we are made of grief.
Art by Asher Karahasan