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The Whare Kohanga (The "Nest House") and its Lore

The Whare Kohanga, or Nest House

The Whare Kohanga, or Nest House

This expressive name was applied to a hut specially constructed in order to accommodate a woman during the lying-in period. The origin of this custom lay in the tapu that pertains to birth in Maori belief, and so it was held to be highly necessary that a woman be segregated during such period. It is true that the treatment accorded to women of inferior rank at such a time verged on the barbarous, but segregation was ever imperative; it was not meet that man should enter or leave this world within a dwellinghouse. Be it borne in mind that the mode of treatment and ceremonial performances we are describing formed no feature in the lives of ordinary women, who had to be content with less comfortable quarters, less care, and less ceremony. In cases of families of inferior status there was no form of tohi or tua rite, albeit the condition of tapu still pertained to childbirth. This form of tapu connected with birth may be described as resembling the condition termed "unclean" in the Scriptures.

The Takitumu folk seem to have employed the name of whare puhi as a secondary name for the "nest house", according to one authority. The Tuhoe Tribe also used two names—whare kohanga and whare kahu. A lone note collected is to the effect that the Kahungunu folk applied the name whare kahu to a temporary hut in which a sick person was segregated; it was also termed a whare rauhi. When taken ill a person was carried from his dwelling-hut and placed in such a hut; or, in summertime or during fine weather, naught might be erected save a rude booth or breakwind. The term whare tupapaku is often applied to huts or tents in which sick persons are placed. This name was not, however, deemed a desirable one in former times. The word rauhi is about equivalent to our term "nurse." A woman told off to attend a sick person, or one who nurtures, tends, and rears children other than her own, would be described as a rauhi or wahine rauhi by Kahungunu folk. The word was also occasionally employed instead of the commoner term manaaki in connection with a leadingpage 14 man who was ever solicitous of the welfare of his people: He rangatira rauhi rawa atu i te tangata, ara he tangata manaaki i te iwi.

The "nest hut" was not erected in the village, but at some distance from it, and all such places were located where there would be no likelihood of crops being planted in the future; it might be an infertile piece of ground, or possibly on the margin of a stream. In special cases a cooking-shed might also be erected, and a woman employed to prepare food for the expectant mother and her attendants. We are told that two female attendants were provided for the expectant mother if she were of high rank. These attendants were known as tapuhi, occasionally as puhi. Tapuhi as a verb means "to nurse, to cherish, to tend in sickness or distress." Such women would be near relatives of the mother. Their task was simply to attend the mother and child; they took no part in the preparation of food, lest some malign influence affect the child, born or unborn. Only near relatives of the segregated woman would approach the hut, and a priestly expert when his services were required either to deal with a case of difficult birth or to perform a ceremony over the child. The attendants did not visit their homes during the period the mother was in occupation of the "nest house," this interdiction being due to the condition of tapu. Another effect of this prohibitory condition was seen in the fact that the attendants could not fetch food from the cook-shed, nor might the cook convey the prepared food to the tapu inmates of the hut. The cook would prepare the food and take it to a spot about midway between the cook-shed and the "nest house," and retire. The attendants would then come forward and take the food to their hut. The Maori tells us that occasionally it was necessary to employ three persons in order to convey food from the oven-side to an exceedingly tapu person. If the Maori lacked our forms of civil law and regulations he assuredly evolved many disciplinary rules and practices in place thereof.

A woman would take up her quarters in the "nest house," together with her attendants, when she knew that her time was near. A number of signs seem to have been relied on at such a time: for instance, she might remark, "Kei te pakinikini toku tuara," which seems to denote a numb feeling in the small of the back: this was one of the aforesaid signs. Should the weather be cold, then a charcoal fire would be kindled in the hut. This fire might be in the ordinary takuahi, or pit fireplace, or it might be in the peculiar and ingenious form known as an ahi tupopoto. This was what might be termed a self-burning stove, and it was contrived as follows: A length of such bark as that of the kahikatea (a Podocarpus) was obtained andpage 15 allowed to dry out. As it so dries such bark assumes the form of a hollow cylinder, and this cylinder was set up in a vertical position in the hut, its lower end being embedded in the earthern floor. This "stove" was then filled with charcoal, and this was set on fire at the top. The charcoal burned away slowly, and, as it did so, the bark cylinder was consumed at the same rate. Such a fire does not blaze and does not smoke—a great advantage in the chimneyless huts of the Maori.