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‘Ka mua, ka muri’: Walking backwards into the future

Saturday 5 March 2022 | Written by Thomas Tarurongo Wynne | Published in On the Street, Opinion


‘Ka mua, ka muri’: Walking backwards into the future
Columnist Thomas Tarurongo Wynne. Photo: CI NEWS/16040843

When western thinking arrived in what would soon be called the Cook Islands in 1903, Missionary advanced the way we saw the world, the way we saw ourselves and the way we saw time had already begun to unfold as we unravelled all our traditional knowledge, customs and ways of knowing and put them in a box handed to us by our colonisers with the word “etene” on it.

Our taunga korero, taunga tatau, rakau, akateremoana, akiro, tapa, and wisdom, would be placed in this box never to opened again. And if it was heathen, or Etene it was evil, unclean, and of the devil. And yet here we are, in 2022 as traditional voyaging continues, tattoo continues, carving and tapa continues as does our traditional medicine and song and dance albeit transformed to suit the tourist’s palate.

‘Ka mua, ka muri’ – Walking backwards into the future – is a Māori proverb that aptly describes this traditional idea of looking to the past to inform the future. Western thinking is that the future is in front of us, this Va or space to be explored, and it is empty but for our goals, dreams, passions and ambition. But Ka mua ka muri speaks of us walking into the future with our back to it and as we look back and not forward what do we see – all our Tupuna, our past experiences, our ancestors, Te Atua and all those that have since past looking to us and us to them as they guide us on our way forward.

I never really understood this Kama’atu till I was out one day on the Vaka Marumaru Atua, and Tetini Pekepo was on the Oe as we were sailing quickly to the horizon for a day’s sail and training. ‘Come’, he said, ‘let me show you something,’ as he grabbed the Oe, and turned back from the front of the Vaka to standing staring back at Rarotonga. I can navigate her looking back, he said and with that this korero dropped into my heart and made sense. Looking back at the majestic peaks of Rarotonga, Ti was able to steer that Vaka because the Island became his reference point and with that the lesson for the day was done.

What is your reference point? And do you look forward to the future or as our people in days past so we get that great counsel of wisdom and knowledge with Te Atua paramount, Io, the Supreme and only God guiding us to our destination. I was reading a journal by Lesley Kay Rameka called Kia whakatōmuri te haere whakamua. In it she explores this idea of Maori cosmology and time and says, “The past is central to and shapes both present and future identity. From this perspective, the individual carries their past into the future. The strength of carrying one’s past into the future is that ancestors are ever present, existing both within the spiritual realm and in the physical, alongside the living as well as within the living”.

Even with our Christian teachings, so many of us have felt the presence of those past and at times a sense that they guide us as we navigate the seasons and oceans of our lives. I know at times in dreams they have come to me and the words have given me clarity in critical times for critical decisions. For me I ultimately rest on Te Atua for the final word, nonetheless I can’t as a Maori escape from who I am and all that I am connected to no matter where in the world I may be, because my identity – past, present and future – comes from akapapa links – to the past through ancestors, to the present through family, and to the future through my children and now grandchildren. Akapapa is not only about personal identity, but also about connection.

For us as Maori when we are connected, we are strong and vibrant, and when we are disconnected, we drift aimlessly like debris floating on ocean swells tossed about from one wave to the next. And that’s why our language, and our culture, our Reo Maori is so important, as I enrol for another course at the Center for Pacific Languages in Auckland.

As this pandemic grip our nation and here in Aotearoa, I am mindful that when our leaders look for wisdom and look for guidance, all they need to do is turn and they are there, ready to provide the counsel they need so we all are safe and well. Never in my lifetime have the decisions made by the very few had such a significant impact on my daily life and our daily lives. Can we continue then to pray for them, to ask for wisdom, to ask that they get good counsel, because we all are counting on it.

Sometimes the answers we so desperately seek are right behind us … all we needed to do was turn from our own selfish ambition, and listen. Something I have learned to do and trust more in this season of my life.