Regional | Australia

From zero reo to solo haka for Melbourne Islamic school

Shannon Bell (L) with the group who performed a flash mob haka to celebrate the Indigenous All-Stars v NZ Māori NRL game in Melbourne in February 2019. (Photo/Supplied)

Five years ago, Shannon Bell didn't have any reo skills and hardly any understanding of te ao Māori.  Last week, he showed how far he'd come in his journey when he stood alone in front of more than 650 Muslim students to perform a haka as support for the school community after the Christchurch shootings.

Late last Monday night, the Melbourne youth worker with Ngāpuhi whakapapa saw a Facebook post from Masiha Rayan‎, a teacher at East Preston Islamic College.

Bell, who has Ngāpuhi whakapapa, with wife Danielle at Uluru (Ayers Rock). (Photo/Supplied).

Rayan was looking for someone from the city's local Māori community to perform a haka as a show of support following the shootings.  There was just one small hitch, the school's end of term assembly was the very next morning.

The teacher said, "Tomorrow morning, our school is having an end of term assembly ... to show support and solidarity following the Christchurch shootings. We would love for anyone interested to celebrate your culture with us by performing the haka war cry at our assembly?

"As the Christchurch shootings affected both the Muslim and New Zealand communities," she said, "we feel it would be a wonderful sign of mutual respect and a great opportunity to build community and tolerance for us all."

Unfortunately, most people who saw the post were unable to help because of the short notice but wished the school well.

One well-wisher said, "What a lovely idea. If I was in Melbourne I'd love to help" and then shared a link to a Te Ao news article on "the haka as an expression of love".

NZ Māori vs Indigenous

NZ Māori vs Indigenous in Melbourne Love this flash performance! Like •• Pacificz

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Bell was in the group who performed a flash mob haka at Melbourne's Southern Cross Station earlier this year. (Credit: Māori Worldwide/Facebook)

However, as luck would have it, several friends from Bell's mau rākau group Te Whare Tū Tauā o Te Ara Hononga Ki Wikitōria were tagged in the teacher's post, leading to the pānui eventually popping up in the 27-year-old's social media feed.

Bell spoke to students at Melbourne's East Preston Islamic College last week. (Photo/Supplied)

The young man, whose mother is Australian and father is Māori, humbly says that he had the time and was happy to go along to tautoko the kaupapa.

"I will take any time I get to represent me and my whānau and share our culture," he posted on social media. "Aroha ki te tāngata. Love for all people. Mauri ora!"

Bell says he messaged the teacher, about 12 o’clock at night after he saw her pānui, and let her know he could come to the school if she still needed someone.

In the morning, he met the teacher and a couple of school captains and went with them to the assembly, where a local member for council and a couple of police officers were present to offer support to students and staff.

More than 650 students attend the school, which caters for Foundation through to Year 12 pupils.  The students come from diverse backgrounds, with 24 different languages spoken at home.

Bell told more than 650 Muslim students about his journey to learn about his Māori culture. (Photo/Supplied)

Although they had asked for a haka, Bell says he wanted to share some tikanga with them first and provide some background about haka.

"They were specifically asking for a haka," he says, "but I did a bit of a karakia, a waiata ... a kōrero around the origins of haka, how we use haka."

Bell says he also explained the reason he was performing the haka was "to show peace and solidarity with that community.”

He performed the haka Ka Mate.

Bell performed the haka Ka Mate as a sign of support for the Islamic school community. The school said they were left in "awe" witnessing it. (Photo/Supplied)

The school says the staff and students were left in "awe" after witnessing it.

"Can I please give a shout out to Shannon Bell who attended our school assembly with less than a 24-hr notice and did a beautiful performance of the Haka!" said Rayan on Facebook.

"Our staff and students were in absolute awe. A beautiful sign of solidarity and support and a joining of two communities."

Bell was congratulated by others on social media too, with one person saying, "Awesomeness Shannon Bell even one is better than no one and you proved you don't always need a team to Haka!  Thanks for stepping up.  Very pleased it turned out for the school and staff."

Another person commented, "Awesome Shannon Bell, proud of the journey you've been on to connect with your Māori-tanga."

Bell says he was told the children were very moved by the experience.

"The feedback that I got was that the little school kids were really excited to see something like that," he says, "They explained that they were kind of emotional after the karakia and after the waiata especially."

The waiata Bell sang was Te Po, a song he'd learnt through Te Whare Tū Tauā o Aotearoa.

Bell says the students felt a sense of peace and solidarity experiencing Māori culture. (Photo/Supplied)

He says the children "really felt that it was not just a sort of performance thing but it was actually something that was quite meaningful.

"They felt that sort of sense of peace and solidarity, which is kind of what I was aiming to achieve really.”

Bell says he was at work when a colleague scrolling through social media first told him about the shootings in Christchurch.  He says his first reaction was "devastation".  Later, he went to a local mosque with a Muslim friend from work to pay their respects. Since then he's been supporting some of the young Muslim people on his caseload process the events.

Bell has travelled back and forth to NZ since a child but has mainly grown up in Australia. (Photo/Supplied)

With whānau originally from Hikurangi and around Paihia in the North, Bell says he's been back and forward to Aotearoa since he was a kid but has mainly grown up in Australia. That left him, in his own words, a bit "sketchy" on Māori things "not really having any kind of te reo or actually much understanding of te ao Māori."

But that's changed over the past four or five years as he's immersed himself in mau rakau and gone on to do kapa haka and learn te reo Māori.

Bell says he wanted to reclaim a "sense of pride" by learning about his Māori culture. (Photo/Supplied)

So, when Bell headed to the school last week, he went with confidence and understanding of his culture that he once lacked.

He says it's "my stubbornness of wanting to reclaim what I felt had been taken from us a long time ago and reclaim a sense of pride."

Bell with a work colleague. (Photo/Supplied)

Bell says it was important to share his culture with the school to support diversity and be an example for the mainly African and Pacific Island youth he helps through his mahi.

"Within Melbourne ... [Australians] don’t celebrate diversity that well and we don’t often step outside of our own little bubble."

If you are from a different ethnic background he says you can receive criticism for standing up trying to express who you are.

Bell with Wurundjeri elder Aunty Diane Kerr and the Djerri Djerri Mob celebrating cultural diversity and highlighting the coming together of cultures. (Photo/Supplied)

He says, "I have copped a lot of criticism in the past for trying to show, especially indigenous people ... an element of respect and show it in a way that is meaningful."

It's because of this lack of regard for difference that Bell felt compelled to lead by example in going to the school to support their kaupapa.

Bell performing a haka at a friend's wedding. (Photo: Rachel Opie-Thompson/Facebook)

"I guess my biggest thing about that is young people," he says. "If they don’t see someone trying to set the tone or set the way, what are we asking of them?

"Especially, when I mix with the young fullas that are disengaged and are struggling even more so to find their identities - in Melbourne and being Māori or Pacific Island,” he says.

Bell with a colleague at a gathering to talk about their jobs. (Photo: Amber Palička/Facebook)

Bell says that when he went to the school he shared a bit of his journey through te ao Māori.

The message he hoped the students would take from it was to "be proud of who you are.”