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Twelve Questions: Dr Waiora Port

Sarah Stuart, The New Zealan Herald

Dr Waiora Port was on the door at St Matthew in the City 19 years ago this week when the congregation welcomed Nelson Mandela to Auckland. The 82-year-old academic got her first degree at 60 and her PhD at 75.

Waiora Port was so nervous meeting Nelson Mandela, she had to be reminded she was there to karanga for him. Picture / Greg Bowker

1. How would you describe your childhood? I spent the first eight years of my life in the Far North, in Manukau, Diggers Valley and Ahipara and in 1940 we moved to Auckland. My father and mother had decided to go where my father could get a full-time job, which he did at the Hume Pipe Company in Penrose. We didn't like being brought to the city into a very old, dilapidated house in Cook St which at that time was in the slums of Auckland. Many Maori families at that time were living in one room and sharing facilities with others. My mother had very high standards and brought us up so well. Three times a week she marched us up to the Victoria Park Market for free showers. We had wonderful neighbours. Up north we were called the Pakeha kids because of our dad but in Auckland we were black Maori kids. I didn't like that much.

2. What did your parents teach you? Our parents taught us that we were always part of a family, community and we had to do our best to make our contribution to this family and community. We had rules and my dad, who was not religious, but his golden rule was do unto others as you would have them do to you.

I still live by that. Our mother had been taken away from school to help with her younger brothers and sisters and I believe she felt strongly about we girls having a good education and encouraged us to seek this.

3. Did you speak te reo? My grandmother lived with us and she couldn't speak English. I remember walking her up to George Courts on K'Rd and helping her get a job looking after the teapots. I had to do the talking for her. I worked there too, for years, in the beautiful tearooms. I still make the best club sandwiches my daughters wanted them for their weddings. We kids never spoke te reo. We went to a native school and there was not one Maori word spoken. I became the perfect example of a brown Pakeha. It wasn't until my mother died when I was 34 that I realised I had this huge hole in my life and I started going to classes.

4. You were a teacher but gave up when your children came along: was that difficult for you? Oh yes. I used to wish I lived on a kibbutz and could teach all day then enjoy the children in the evenings. But it was the thing in 1955 for me to fold my tent and quietly stay at home and have my baby and look after it. I gave up sport and I didn't question it. My husband felt that a man supported his wife and she should be at home looking after the children. I was 40 when I went back relieving and he was not happy about this and would not allow me to buy anything for the house with the money I earned.

5. Did you have a happy marriage? Oh very. Garth was a very, very clever person and we loved bringing up our children. He was so kind and generous and we had five daughters together. We were married 60 years but he died of prostate cancer seven weeks ago. He'd been sick for a very long time. Of course there are moments when I wallow, there's no doubt about that, but I just get up and get on with it. We lost a daughter, Mary Rose, to bowel cancer when she was 43. That was the worst thing that ever happened to us and harder than my grief now. At the time she was found to be really sick I'd been asked to do a PhD and they wanted me to do it about cancer and DNA testing and how Maori feel about new technologies like that. I almost gave it away but after she died it helped fill that terrible time.

6. Why did you begin university in your fifties? I wanted a BA by the time I was 70. I'd left Grammar thinking I was not really very bright, had failed school certificate and had to get a (dispensation) to go to university. But teaching had given me a lot. I was running a bilingual unit at Richmond Rd School when a lecturer at the university whose son was in my classes suggested it. I'd thought yeah, I'd always wanted to but never got around to it. My youngest daughter and I went together and in my first year I got two A-, two As and two A+!

7. How difficult was it being a mature student? It was not difficult at all. In fact it was exciting. I was 55 years old and felt the students and lecturers would not want such a mature student. Well the Maori students were just wonderful. They treated me with such respect and were always solicitous for my welfare. I did find that some tutorials in other topics were not so friendly. I went part-time because I was also supervising a kohanga reo but I just loved university. It was as if someone had given me all these sweets. And the more you learn the more you realise how little you know.

8. What is your greatest strength? My greatest strength is that I am flexible and practical. I can manage a team or work as a team member. I am happy with either. I know although I have my moments I am extremely calm in really serious situations. I don't believe in post mortems. I believe in going immediately into fix-it mode. I love people. I care about people.

9. And weakness? Where do I begin? I am a procrastinator so I need constant pressure to get me going. Therefore the more I have to do the more I do but I constantly need pressure to really get down to business. I sometimes go at things, as my mother used to say, "like a bull at a gate". At 82 I have not changed. I talk too much. I hate housework but because of my mother I know how to do it well, or see that it is done well.

10. What does faith mean to you? My Maori grandmother had an innate spirituality which was enhanced but not dominated by Christianity. She had karakia for the garden, for the sea, for the river, for when she worked with harakeke. She had been an Anglican because the first missionaries in the North were. I have since childhood been influenced by my grandmother's spirituality and the way in which she lived. I have a strong faith built on the teachings of Jesus Christ which I live by. He is my friend whom I consult at many levels. I love the ritual, the music, the poetry of my Anglicanism and I love to acknowledge the majesty of Tane Mahuta, Tangaroa.

11. St Matthew's is the most liberal of Christian churches: has that affected your faith? I haven't got a closed mind but I've had to sit and think about it. I believe that Jesus was the most open person and everything he did was about compassion. I believed everything - that Jesus rose from the dead, that there's three in one, but I've now had to rethink. It's like everyone's lived with the Emperor's new clothes for a long time, and now we have to think about it.

12. What do you remember of the day you met Mandela? We had thought when [the vicar] first told us he was asking the Government if Mandela would attend a service of people who had fought against apartheid that he was in a dream world. Henare Te Ua and I had been asked to greet Mandela at the door and I was to karanga on his behalf. What an honour. I was so moved and awestruck that I had to be reminded to do it. We shook hands but I didn't feel at that moment that I was his person. It wasn't the people who were chosen he wanted to meet, it was those who were just there. He went to where the children were, as if he was disregarding all that ceremony. We'd been told we weren't allowed to do this or that but I should have hongi'd him. He loved people and I think he had an eye for the ladies. There was something magic about that night, meeting the person that we had all looked up to.

• St Matthews in the City is commemorating Mandela's visit on November 13 with a 7.30pm talk by the High Commissioner for South Africa on 20 years of freedom. Koha to attend.

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