Stories: Hohepa, New Zealand
Sitting in my hotel room in Dublin's coastal town of Dun Laoghaire, I'm preparing to interview seventy-year-old, Hohepa. I have Irish musician, Fionn Regan, quietly playing in the background, and I can't help but notice Hohepa's energy. There is a child-like innocence and purity about him—in society, that energy stands out to me when I encounter it.
Perth, Australia-based, Hohepa is of Maori descent—indigenous New Zealander. A recovering alcoholic, Hohepa was fifty-years-old when he realized he had suppressed traumas. He sort out healing to find the root cause of his addiction—his childhood.
In Maori culture (which is also my culture) exists a tradition called whāngai: a type of non-formal adoption. Quite often, especially in the early-to-mid 1900s, Maori families gave one or more of their children to another family—typically relatives—for different reasons. Hohepa was adopted out this way numerous times.
He is softly-spoken and has a dapper fashion sense. I can't imagine him ever raising his voice—he is very gentle. He wipes his branded glasses with his navy collared shirt before putting them back on his kind face. He smiles to signal he's ready. He takes a deep breath as he prepares to answer my question, "How has love, or the absence of love, changed you?"
I can sense Hohepa's emotions as he proceeds to tell me about his childhood.
In 1953, Hohepa's mother, Tilly, gave birth to him outside of wedlock. Which was highly frowned upon in those days. Sadly, her father forced her to whāngai Hohepa to another family due to being an illegitimate child. Although not related to Tilly, the whāngai family couldn't have children of their own, so Hohepa was given to them. Tilly—not wanting to whāngai Hohepa—stole him back from his adoptive parents and took him home to live with her. But it wasn't long until her father found out and returned Hohepa to his whāngai family. Tilly made a second attempt to retrieve her son, although unsuccessful. As a result, Hohepa's adoptive parents moved to the other side of the North Island, New Zealand.
That was Hohepa's first whāngai family, with Joe and Margo.
For the rest of Hohepa's childhood, he was adopted by several different families, many times bouncing between the same three—the families of Joe, Doris, and Vana.
"When you keep being moved from home to home, it told me that they aren't the problem. That I am," Hohepa affirmed.
When Hohepa entered Doris' care, he recalls an unloving, passive-aggressive woman. "Doris never made me cry, but I never felt secure or loved."
He remembers being at the carnival by himself and riding the merry-go-round alone. And being Doris' errand boy—he was often woken during the night to run errands for her, which entailed walking alone to the local shops under the night sky. She received whāngai payments from Joe when Hohepa was in her care, which was the motivation behind adopting Hohepa.
"Whāngai is good but is misused," he adds. "And the collateral effect is huge."
When used appropriately, whāngai benefits the children the most. If their parents died, became sick, or were financially or mentally struggling, the children would be adopted by aunts, uncles, or grandparents and remain together—rather than being taken by the state and separated into European families. Sometimes whāngai was used as a gift to relatives that couldn't conceive. When whāngai is misused, it is typically for financial or selfish gain—or in Tilly's case—she was forced into it.
When Hohepa was moved between homes, his homes were temporary. Every time he finally settled in, he was taken to another family.
"New homes were always short term. You learn not to get attached. I couldn't love another person because they were taken away [from me]."
After almost a decade of being forced to give Hohepa up for adoption, he found Tilly and arranged to meet her in person. He lights up as he speaks of her.
"She was absolutely beautiful. I fell in love with her," he says with a tremble.
Fair-skinned, dark brown eyes and jet black flipped-bob hair, it wasn't long after their reunion when Tilly tragically died while pregnant with Hohepa's half-sibling.
He removes his glasses to wipe the tear from his hazel-brown eye, "I loved her so much."
Traditionally, Maori funerals are held in a Marae—a sacred cultural meeting house, and the families sit at the front with the casket, facing the attendees. Hohepa was in Doris' care at the time, and he was never acknowledged as Tilly's son—he wasn't allowed to sit beside his mother to say his goodbyes.
During his early teens, Hohepa was adopted by another non-related family on the west coast of New Zealand's North Island. He perks up as he talks about this family.
"They were absolutely beautiful. I loved being with them. I also had a community of other children."
Hohepa finally found a loving place to call home. Asides from Tilly, Manu and Skipper loved Hohepa as if he was one of their own.
"I was finally stable and loved."
After two happy years, Manu sent Hohepa to Joe to spend the school holidays with him—but Joe never sent Hohepa back to his loving family.
"My whole world fell apart. I was finally happy, and I was taken away again."
Joe, a staunch, shorter man, was psychologically abusive. "He always made me cry. I could never do anything right."
Hohepa shares his experience with severe depression until survival mode kicked in. Survival mode for him meant switching off and numbing himself so he didn't feel the pain.
Hohepa was finally free from the abuse when he was about sixteen years old—when Joe sent him to boarding school.
Throughout his adult life, Hohepa built a successful business flipping houses with his ex-partner. He admits to doing all the right things but couldn't understand why he wasn't happy.
"My mother died when she was thirty. When I was thirty, I was waiting to die to be with my mother. All I wanted was my mother."
After years of depression and heavy drinking—numbing his pain—at fifty years old, Hohepa finally admitted to being an alcoholic, joined AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), and went to rehab.
After six months of successful therapy, Hohepa checked out of the Sydney rehab clinic but had nowhere to go. Feeling like a burden to others, he refused to reach out for help. He decided to catch a train to Armidale (NSW) and start a new life. Upon arriving at the station, he realized he missed his train and felt like he had run out of options. While standing on the platform, he decided to jump in front of the next train instead. But, out of the blue, appeared a rail worker who told Hohepa that the Armidale train was delayed by three hours and would arrive shortly.
A glow of wisdom emanates from him. "That's when I knew that I was supposed to be here."
During Hohepa's twenty-year conscious healing journey, he learned everything that happens to humans from age zero to twenty sets you up for the rest of your life. Children that experience trauma and are unloved—the absence of love—carry those experiences with them into adulthood, which results in trauma responses, such as depression, being afraid to love another or addictions. And it's only when you get back to the core—the suppressed trauma—that true healing begins.
"I was looking to blame, but that doesn't resolve anything," he adds. "The solution was forgiveness."
"They [my whangai parents] did the best they could with what they had and with what they knew. I don't blame anyone. And I'm free."
Reflecting on his childhood, he understands how crucial his mother's love was—her love carried throughout his childhood and kept him going. And now, to this very day, her love still fuels him and gives him strength and motivation to help others. Hohepa now uses his own experiences to guide others toward their path of healing.
I think about Hohepa's comment, "I'm free." It holds a lot of weight for two small words. When you forgive, you free yourself and make peace with your past. Forgiveness isn't so much about the other person but is about freeing yourself. As the saying goes, "Holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die."
Hohepa makes a point about community being important to him, as well as to humanity. "Humans need community. We're built to love and be with others."
As I digest Hohepa's story—whether conscious of it or not—he longs for what brought him happiness and joy as a child: community and love. Is that what the soul truly longs for? For what made the inner child happy? Or for community and love? Or perhaps, it's the same thing.
Hohepa has experienced the absence of love countless times. While he is hard on himself for sometimes having bad days and "Not having it all together," I can't help but disagree. No one has everything together; no one truly has good days every moment. That is what makes you human. Life can take you so far away from your essence; the important part is starting the journey back to who you were before the trauma rewired you—back to your true self.