He waka eke noa

Literally translated, this whakatauki (proverbial saying) is the canoe which we are all in without exception. The meaning is a bit deeper than this and the whakatauki refers to the collective consciousness that affirms belonging in a group.

Waka is often used as a metaphor for a journey. In this blog I draw upon lessons learned while going out for a paddle on a waka ama (outrigger canoe). I was a paddler many moons ago.  I was not interested in competition, but I enjoyed the experience of being on the water and doing something that reminded me that my ancestors were ocean voyagers. It was during an early evening paddle that I watched a full moon rising and casting its light on the water in front of our waka. When we stopped to rest and look up at the large yellow orb, it was truly a magnificent sight.

I was reminded then that when we are in a waka, there is unity in a shared purpose. So when I was offered the chance to go out for a paddle, I was a little bit apprehensive and excited at the same time. Would I remember what to do and would I get wet? I took a towel just in case. I forgot my hat and only just remembered to grab my bottle of water.

There were five of us and two x two person waka. I sat in the shade of a tree and watched as the other four went out and came back again. I could still hear their voices bouncing over the water even though they were so far away across the other side of the channel, I could barely see them. When they came back, they swapped around and I was paired off with a more experienced paddler. As we two paddled slowly out into the channel, my friend told me that it is harder to paddle in the shallows so we headed out toward the deep blue water. I was apprehensive about that because I am not a strong swimmer and I have had the experience of tipping out of a two person waka in the middle of a channel once before. It was purely deliberate on the coach back then as he paired off two inexperienced paddlers knowing we would tip out and then came alongside us in his waka to instruct us how to help one another climb back in again.

Once you get into deep water, the speed is exhilarating but there is still the chance you may tip out and you have to keep your upper body level so you don’t lean too far to the right. We soon found ourselves on another sandbank and had to turn the waka around and headed back to shore.  The paddle back was easier with the current pushing us and we moved swiftly through the water.  It was then that the sweat started dripping into my eyes. I could not wipe it out as I had both hands on the hoe and I just wanted to get back to the shore. I closed my eyes and squeezed the sweat out and kept going. I trusted that my back seat driver was watching where we were going.

We finally made it back to shore and I jumped out into the water, my legs were a bit wobbly. I had forgotten that aspect and nearly stumbled over backwards into the water. I managed to right my balance by grabbing the cross bar and giggled to myself. This brief paddling session held many lessons for me. The first lesson was about maintaining balance. The second was that the canoe moves faster in deep water but you may feel out of your depth and the possibility of tipping out is always present. The third lesson was that sometimes you cannot see where you are going and you have to trust the person who is sitting behind you to guide the way.

As a metaphor for the doctoral journey; waka ama reminded me that we need to keep a balance between work and play. If we don’t make time to rest or play we may tip over from exhaustion. I certainly felt my muscles tensing and straining as we pushed the waka over the sandbanks into deeper water.  Once we were in the deep blue it did indeed get easier and I got a little bit complacent. This is neat I thought as we suddenly lurched onto a sandbank again.  There are lots of starts and stops when you are doing a doctorate. Sometimes things are not always smooth paddling. Obstacles present themselves and many times during my journey I was literally stopped in my tracks, right up until the examination itself.

The third lesson was about trusting those who are guiding your journey. Supervision is a tenuous relationship. It requires trust and patience on both sides. Often I was at odds with my supervisor’s advice and felt as though I had no choice but to go with it even if I didn’t fully understand it. The same thing happened in the waka. My guide was watching where we were going, and every now and then I felt the dip and drag of her hoe as she changed the direction and the front of the canoe moved accordingly. With my eyes stinging from sweat I paddled blindly at times trusting my guide completely and reflecting on this, I had to do the same with my supervisor and trust that she had my best interests at heart.

A couple of weeks later I was part of a workshop sharing the results of a piece of research that we doctoral candidates had taken part in on career pathway planning. We listened to the results and discussed them as a group and then we went into a wānanga where we were shown how to use the PATH tool to make a map of our career plans. It was a fascinating exercise and somehow my waka ama experience ended up on my map. I had set a goal of Mokopuna ora and the title of the plan is Tirohanga Tupuna- Ancestors vision. I used drawings to illustrate how the natural environment is central to the health and wellbeing of myself and my descendants.

Everyone presented their plans very proudly and talked through some of their goals and objectives. Many of us became tearful while speaking about our dreams and hopes for our families as we make sacrifices in order to complete our study. The exercise was really absorbing and we were also given a beautiful lunch and spoiled completely by our hosts MAI Ki Tamaki who continue to give support in so many practical ways. I am completely grateful to be part of the MAI programme that is active in Universities right across Aotearoa, and as an alumni group collectively we can make our wānanga continue to work despite the funding cuts to the programme. There are some very creative thinkers among us.

I am now on the home run to complete my resubmission later this year and have started to implement my PATH plan by joining a gym and engaging with a personal trainer and a nutritional coach to help motivate and support me to achieve my vision goals. I might even join an waka ama club and start paddling again.


  1. Kayla

    I really enjoyed reading this post, thank you for sharing. I loved hearing of the lessons you received from the waka amo. Reading this inspired me to write in a blog style when journaling, if not write a blog myself. I often get caught up in recording all the details so that I remember them, as opposed to recording the lessons I gained, that truely important moment. I hope things are going well for you 🙂


  2. Nicola Robb

    I really enjoyed this. I stumbled across it while planning a programme to support Work and Income clients into work. We’re using waka as the metaphor for our journey, for many reasons, not least of which are the shape of the room – long and skinny – and the lessons I have learnt about myself, relationships and life in general through my own paddling journey. I am really interested in the PATH tool you mentioned for making a map of career plans. Are you able to point me in the direction of what this is?


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