A cultural education

Learning more about the Māori world enriched the lives of Garth Flores and his family when they moved from South Africa to Levin.
A cultural education


Before most migrants come to New Zealand, all they know about Māori culture is the haka (war dance) that the All Blacks perform before playing a game of rugby.

Garth Flores, his wife Marietjie and their three children were no different – but since moving in 2015 from South Africa to Levin, they have gained a deeper understanding of how Māori people see the world.

The Māori culture is very different to life in South Africa, Garth says. “The Māori people have a strong family ethos and they look out for each other. Western culture is very individualistic, and in South Africa it was even worse: people have big fences around their houses and often you don’t even know who your neighbours are.”

Their two sons love hearing stories of how Māori warriors and explorers sailed to New Zealand in waka (canoes). Garth says he was jealous that many Māori people can trace their heritage (whakapapa) back to the first ancestors who stepped off those canoes.

“Then somebody said, ‘Your kids and grandkids will be able to whakapapa back to you and your wife, as the first people in the family who came to New Zealand,’ and I thought that was pretty cool.”

The family lived in Bloemfontein, a city of approximately 400,000 people, before shifting here. They chose small-town life over traffic and high housing costs, so Garth did not apply for jobs in large cities.

“For us, Levin was ideal because it offered country life. We love the mountains, it’s close to the beach, there is a great library, an aquatic centre, and different clubs,” Marietjie says.

Deron (10), Amilee (8), Owen (5) and Alisha-Rose (18 months) enjoy a wide range of activities: music, gymnastics, ballet, Girls’ Brigade, soccer and swimming. Keeping track of everything must feel like a full-time job.

But it is a great way to meet new people. Garth says in a small town, you see the same people during different sporting seasons. “You’re building connections with the community, because it’s their kids and your kids playing together while you’re having a chat with other parents on the sidelines,” he says.

He works for Horowhenua District Council as a civil design engineer, designing and monitoring water projects. In South Africa, his projects often involved bringing water systems to people who had never had running water or flushing toilets. Here, there are different challenges.

“The infrastructure is quite old and it’s been battered by various earthquakes, or it’s been stretched in terms of its useful life and we’re trying to play catch-up with pipeline renewals­­,” says Garth.

He had to be persistent, applying for 10 jobs before he got an interview. It felt like a leap of faith to take a job overseas, after only meeting his employer through a Skype interview.

“I said to them straight, ‘I can’t guarantee anything, I need to get there and work for you guys, but if you’re a good employer, I’m going to be loyal and committed.’”

The council arranged for someone to meet them at the airport, provided two weeks of accommodation, and organised a local engineer to mentor Garth.

“That really spoke to me, saying they’re not here to take advantage of me. They see me as an asset that can be useful to the community.”

Garth and Marietjie’s Christian faith was vital in helping them settle in. When they joined a church in Levin, says Marietjie, “people invited us to meals and showed us around. They provided meals, and toys for the kids while we waited for our containers. That was a great support to us.”

As Garth went to work, Marietjie was busy home-schooling their children (teaching them at home), as she did in South Africa.

“The home-schooling community in New Zealand is very good, and very organised. The only downside is most of the people live near Palmerston North, so it means more travelling to get to the special activities we do together. But there are a few more home-schooling families in Levin now,” she says.

They miss their families very much, but were happy to leave behind South Africa’s violent crime. Garth says, “We needed to get used to sleeping in a house that wasn’t behind a high electric fence and burglar bars. Even now, I still check the windows are closed and the doors are locked.”

Now, Marietjie happily goes running by herself. The family enjoys outdoor activities such as bush walking, and learning the Māori names for trees and birds.

It is common in South Africa to hire someone to help with cleaning, but that is more expensive here, Garth adds. “The whole family has to do chores now, and everyone has a little job. We’re learning as a family to work together to do the housework.”

The move was very expensive, says Marietjie. “The rand is not worth much here. Bring the furniture that you really like, because it’s quite expensive to buy it here. It saved us some stress as well; we didn’t have to look for everything once we were here.”

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