A warrior’s farewell

Rugby fans – admittedly a minority in Guyana – will be familiar with the Maori haka, made famous by New Zealand’s legendary All Blacks rugby team. Rugby fans will also be familiar with Jonah Lomu, one of the game’s all-time greats, who died suddenly of cardiac arrest, aged just 40, on November 18. In one fell swoop, New Zealand plummeted from the euphoria of celebrating the retention of the World Cup in England, on October 31 – with Jonah Lomu on hand to witness their dominance – to the abject misery of mourning the loss of one of the country’s favourite sons.

The haka, with its rhythmic chants and aggressive posturing, including stamping feet, slapping hands against the body and thighs, and sticking out the tongue, is best known as an ancestral war dance or challenge, but it can also be a ritual of welcome for distinguished visitors, a celebration of a great achievement or a farewell at a funeral. Respect is a constant.

The haka, as performed by the All Blacks, is a challenge to engage in oval ball combat. True to its origins in the Maori warrior tradition, it is meant to intimidate as much as it is a statement of strength and power. The best haka are intense, fierce, bloodcurdling even, and spine-tingling, so imbued with passion and commitment are they.

When Jonah Lomu died, it was not just New Zealand but the whole rugby world that was plunged into deep mourning. And it was not just because he died so young but also because the huge, supremely athletic winger was an awesome force of nature who captured the imagination of all who saw him play. He is perhaps best remembered for the 1995 World Cup, in which he scored seven tries, including four against England in the semi-final, the most famous one being when he ran through, not past, the defending fullback, like a charging rhino at full pelt. At that tournament, he was only upstaged in the final by the Nelson Mandela-inspired South African Springboks.

The youngest ever All Black, capped at 19 years and 45 days, Jonah Lomu played 63 Tests for New Zealand, scoring 37 tries. The 1995 World Cup made Jonah Lomu rugby’s first global superstar and his exploits helped to bring about the professionalization of rugby in 1996 and spread the appeal of rugby around the world.

The Kiwi giant of Tongan heritage, born of humble origins, found a way through sport to escape a troubled upbringing on the mean streets of South Auckland to achieve fame and fortune, whilst retaining a gentle humility; all this making him a terrific role model for disadvantaged young boys and girls of Pacific Island heritage and, indeed, for young people in New Zealand regardless of background.

When a rare kidney disease curtailed his international career in 2002, he subsequently became, among other things, an ambassador for Unicef New Zealand and a patron of the charity Kidney Kids NZ. It would be fair to say that Jonah Lomu elevated and transcended his sport in the manner of all sporting greats.

So, on Monday, November 20, some 10,000 people assembled at Eden Park, Auckland, New Zealand’s home of rugby, to bid farewell to their fallen warrior. The ceremony was streamed live by the New Zealand Herald and is available for online viewing. Google it and look especially at the several haka performed in Jonah Lomu’s honour.

They are powerful, poignant statements of respect and love, almost counter-intuitively so, given the ferocity with which they are executed. Look, in particular, at the one by the old boys of Wesley College, Jonah Lomu’s alma mater, as his coffin is borne to the hearse. Witness the barely suppressed emotions of the big, strong men carrying the coffin, including former All Blacks Michael Jones and Jerome Kaino, as they struggle to hold back the tears, with those rendering the haka holding nothing back in a dramatic, cathartic tribute. Look then at the next one, performed by the legend’s former teammates and members of his old clubs – another fierce haka, with all the emotions of the moment writ large on their features. Finally, see the homage of the current students of Wesley College, full of youthful exuberance but no less intense than those of their elders.

You do not have to be a rugby fan to be moved by the palpable outpouring of emotion. And you do not have to be a cultural anthropologist to be struck by the almost primordial emotions aroused by this indigenous ritual, performed by all colours and all ages, bringing together the various strands of Jonah Lomu’s heritage, identity and life – and indeed, New Zealand’s own heritage and multicultural identity – as rugby’s most famous number 11 was fittingly accorded a warrior’s farewell on his way to join his ancestors.

 

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