Mutual sustenance: Goan women and the Catholic church in New Zealand

First published in Goanet Reader Sun, 30 Apr 2006 and also published in the Indian Catholic May 21,2006

On December 3 2005, Catholic Goans in Auckland, New Zealand celebrated the Feast of St Francis Xavier with a mass in Konkani, the first time such an event had been held in New Zealand. For those who don’t know, Francis Xavier was actually born in the Spanish kingdom of Navarre. He arrived in Goa in May 1542 and went on from there to Cape Comorin in the south of India, spending three years working among the pearl-fishers, or Paravas, of the Fishery Coast. His journey took him to the East Indies, to Malacca and the Moluccas, and, finally, in 1549 to Japan. He died on December 3rd, 1552, as he attempted to enter China and was buried. Within a few weeks his body was recovered and found to be perfectly preserved. It was brought to Goa and received there with devotion and enthusiasm leading to his beatification by Pope Paul V in 1619 and later his canonization by Pope Gregory XV, on March 12th, 1622. He is now the patron Saint of Goa. This event led me to wonder about the significance of religion and faith among Goans and how this sustained them during their migration and settlement in other countries.

In terms of  the New Zealand population, there is growing cultural, linguistic and religious diversity. Three trends are apparent: first, that religious participation by White or Pakeha New Zealanders is declining while changes in immigration policy have resulted in the introduction and growth of both diasporic religious traditions (such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and so on) and an invigoration of Christian denominations. The 2001 Census noted that more than half the New Zealand population identified with a Christian religion (Anglican, Catholic and Presbyterian dominating) and the largest non-Christian religions were Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Spiritualism and New Age religions.

In my research among Goan women in New Zealand, what became apparent to me is that while Goan women have become detached from their homeland (all participants were born outside of Goa) they continue to have a link with the homeland while surviving in, and engaging, a foreign culture. Also religion and cultural identity are tightly inter-connected. There is academic debate about whether religion is a core attribute of culture or whether it functions within it, is more prominent than culture or in the background. I found many women in describing their identity, forgot that there are Hindu and Muslim Goans.

My description would be Goan Roman Catholic. Primarily being Goan is being Catholic because all the Catholics normally came from Goa, which was one of the Catholic states of India (Lorna).

As I grew up you grow out of church and praying and you go the other way kind of thing, but that was very strong, I think the Catholic faith, which stayed throughout. I mean even now you just link up being Goan and Catholic together (Rowena).

Crossing borders as migrants do involves not only physical borders but also emotional and behavioural boundaries. Becoming a member of a new society stretches the boundaries of what is possible because one’s life and roles change, and with them, identities change as well. This involves trauma and then incorporating new identities and roles becomes necessary for survival.

For many Goans in Auckland, the Catholic religion and church provided a mechanism for coming to grips with a new environment and assisted the transition to living in New Zealand. They could mix with other ethnic communities while at the same time maintain their culture and faith, that is it provided a bridge connects Goans to other Catholics while who shared similar religious beliefs and values even if they were culturally different.

Thus Churches provide a vehicle for helping Goans participate in New Zealand life rather than isolating them. In the case of the Catholic Church Goan migrants were already familiar with the rituals and structure and the church provided a supportive and welcoming space for them as immigrants. As someone who grew up in New Zealand, our youth group provided a wonderful source of friendship and fellowship for me and my two sisters.

Churches provide not only institutional spiritual comfort but also practical support. For example when we first came to New Zealand, our family was able to buy what is now called ‘retro’ or ‘vintage’ through the recycling process of the mini-market where you could buy other parishioners unwanted clothes.

Churches have also responded to new migrants by attending to and incorporating religious practices that are culturally significant for immigrants; for Goans this includes celebration of the Feast of St Francis Xavier, the patron Saint of Goa. Thus immigrants have infused change and a rich range of experiences in the churches they have joined within their receiving communities. I also remember with delight the Samoan choir who would sing in Samoan and English elevating our services to celestial heights once a month.

Integration into New Zealand is made so much easier by belonging to a ‘mainstream’ faith, providing entry into New Zealand society and enhancing integration and acceptance for participants into the dominant society in a way that people from minority faiths don’t have access to. Because Catholicism can be accessed within mainstream society, it can mean that not as much energy is required to maintain the faith. I remember at a Muslim women’s Hui I attended last year the major efforts Muslims went through to obtain halal food, such as going to farms and butchering their own animals.

Furthermore, faith, prayer and networks from the church also provide the support to aspire and do well in New Zealand. Flora felt strongly that her transition and survival in New Zealand was due to her faith and the help of the church.

You know the help came from God, you know through the Church (Flora).

There is a risk of complacency in extending ourselves beyond our own faith and ethnic communities once we grow in size as a community. As ethnic communities increase in size they move from being multi-ethnic religious communities and later establish themselves into ethnically-specific religious institutions. Rowena developed a new network of support through her church, which went beyond Goans and was a lifeline:

I started going to a mothers group there and I met a lot of other Malaysian and Indonesian and Filipino women and we would go and have coffee together and that kind of thing and my social life. I got quite involved with the Parish and doing work for the Church because I mean I really didn’t know many other people. I did meet a lot of elderly parishioners they were wonderful they would come and give me flowers, chocolates and really spoil me because they knew I was on my own and they were wonderful (Rowena).

For many early Goan migrants the lack of a community meant that her faith took on great importance and in particular prayer:

Like prayer did help me it honestly did, because you are alone, you are alone a lot of the time. Even though there are lots of people, you can still be alone you know (Sheila).

Therefore it can be seen that religious institutions provide spiritual resources that offer sustenance through the tasks of adjusting to living in a new country. The recognition of faith is well recognised in the United Kingdom where it is recognised that “faith groups are part of the ‘glue’ that binds strong communities and we value the experience, skills and diversity they bring to wider society.”

In considering the New Zealand Immigration Settlement Strategy for migrants, refugees and their families it can be seen that Churches often provide many of the settlement resources and are linked with the strategy’s six goals for migrants and refugees. They are for migrants and refugees to:

  • Obtain employment appropriate to their qualifications and skills;
  • Are confident using English in a New Zealand setting, or can access appropriate language support to bridge the gap;
  • Are able to access appropriate information and responsive services that are available to the wider community (for example housing, education, and services for children);
  • Form supportive social networks and establish a sustainable community identity; Feel safe expressing their ethnic identity and are accepted by, and are part of, the wider host community.

This brief piece paper provides some new information about the place of religion among Goans in the diaspora by focussing on Goans who have settled in Auckland, New Zealand.

The Catholic Church has been a mechanism of integration, offering a two way exchange of support and energy through social support, spiritual and secular activities. The Church provides a mechanism for facilitating cultural continuity while simultaneously easing immigrants’ transitions into New Zealand. The Church has supported Goan migrants and in turn the presence of Goans has I am sure enriched the church itself (certainly in numbers, if not energy and dynamism. This paper demonstrates the enduring nature of religion as a social institution which plays a part in sustaining Goans through the settlement process, providing both spiritual resources (such as prayer, connections with other migrants and receiving community members) and practical help for managing both the psychological effects of migration and enduring the hardship of migration and settlement in a new country.

What does it mean to be Goan?

This piece was previously published in the Goanet Reader: July 29th 2005

Issues of celebration and connection, reflected in food and song

Food is one of the many things that make life not only pleasurable but memorable. I recently met a young Goan man who is completing a degree who asked me if I could come to his birthday party and share some sorpotel and vindaloo recipes as the celebration wouldn’t be a celebration with them, especially with him being so far away from home. This led me to reflect on the importance of food and consider writing something for Goanet Reader.

As you all know Goans have been a highly mobile population and are scattered all over the globe as a result of colonisation, and in a bid for a better life and education for their children. At the beginning of the millennium I undertook a research project to explore how Goan women in Auckland New Zealand coped with the dual transitions of migration and motherhood as becoming a parent in a new county is a common aspect of migration which is also under-researched.

It is well known that migrants draw on cultural resources and links such as the notion of homeland, language, religion, everyday social rituals such as food, drink, dance and song, family, morals, community, landscape, histories and occupations.

Researchers of migrant communities have found that connection with one’s ethnic community is vital for collective cultural maintenance. This takes the forms of being involved in community-type social networks in order to maintain their culture, taking part in ethnic institutions, making trips “home” and marrying within the community. These were all identified in my research as significant, but for this piece I have chosen to focus on the importance of traditional food in maintaining Goan culture and in relation to the perinatal period. I have also incorporated words from the Goan women that participated in the research (with deep and heartfelt thanks).

Food has a symbolic and social significance that is deeply embedded in a culture and is used to express many things such as love, friendship, solidarity and the maintenance of social ties.  The significance of food is heightened with migration, where it is the most resistant aspect to the acculturation process for migrant communities. Frequently, food is integrated into the host culture, as those Goans living in the United Kingdom or from Africa will attest to as seen by the incorporation of Indian foods into African and British communities.

Traditional food and celebration are pivotal to the construction of Goan identity and an important part of ‘everyday’ food, religious festivals, weddings and special events. Food also has historical significance as seen by the impact of Portuguese, Muslim and Indian cultures apparent in Goan cuisine. Conversion to Catholicism by the Portuguese meant that foods moved from being taboo to consumable and differentiated Goans from other Indians, making them more Western.

The special foods that go with events during the year are very traditionally Goan, for example we have Christmas sweets. Besides Christmas sweets, I associate eating Pilao on a Sunday and not just any other thing, very Goan. and having your fish curry and rice as well (Lorna).

 

Fish curries and coconut curries and I had learn to cook when I was quite young and I had wanted to get into the kitchen and dad would go to the marketplace and buy all this yummy fish and come home and cook it up and basically you’d eat Goan and things like that (Rowena).

Goan fish curry is ubiquitous in most households in Goa, eaten regularly and served with rice. Pilao is possibly from Muslim times prior to Portuguese rule, made with basmati rice and flavoured with whole spices like cardamom and stock. The Goan sweets that are mentioned by Lorna originate from Portugal and the Konkan region and they are produced and exchanged with friends and neighbours at Christmas time. Every sweet has coconut in it in milk form or thinly sliced. In Rowena’s quote below, food is a way of acknowledging the family and social ties:

We often had picnics, which had all the favourite dishes like sorpotel, xacuti, food were very important in terms of being social and the family (Rowena).

Xacuti is a complicated and painstaking Goan dish made with chicken or lamb that involves the roasting of all the seasonings before they are ground to a paste. Sorpotel is a ceremonial dish made from pork that is prepared for feast days, Christmas, weddings and other special occasions. The following anonymous poem does more to illustrate the place of sorpotel in the connections of Goans to ‘home’.

SORPOTEL

For the hotch potch known as Haggis, let the Scotsman yearn or yell For the taste of Yorkshire pudding, let the English family dwell. For the famed Tandoori Chicken, that Punjabis praise like hell But for us who hail from Goa, there’s nothing like SORPOTEL!

From the big wigs in Colaba, to the small fry in Cavel From the growing tribes in Bandra, to the remnants in Parel. From the lovely girls in Glaxo, to the boys in Burma Shell There’s no Goan whose mouth won’t water, when you talk of SORPOTEL!

And Oh! for Christmas dinner don’t you think it would be swell If by some freak of fortune or by some magic spell We could, as they have in Goa a bottle of the cajel And toddy leavened sannas to go with SORPOTEL!

In this poem, sorpotel becomes a metaphor for migration and connection to home. The names of the Mumbai (Bombay) suburbs, with their differing social capital, in the second verse illustrates that no matter where in the world a Goan is, sorpotel is the social leveller. Cajel refers to a distilled liquor made of cashew and toddy is fermented coconut or palm juice, which is frequently used like yeast to make sannas, a type of rice cakes made in moulds with a batter of ground rice, toddy, coconut and sugar and then steamed. The predilection for sorpotel has been influenced by the historical context of Goans being a colonised people and as such it is an apt metaphor for the richness of the culture located in a small geographic area.

Food plays a significant part in weddings as well, as seen by these words by Flora:

The day after the wedding, It was in my mother-in-law’s house they made that plain white rice with samarachi curry with dried prawns that is supposed to be a typical dish for second day wedding lunch, then third day at my mums place, it was the three days festivities. You must be knowing about that (Flora).

The samarachi codi refers to a curry made with coconut milk. Food is significant from the most private and everyday to the ritualised public celebrations like weddings. Such events and networking with other Goans or Christian Indians were another strategy for cultural maintenance.

Perinatal Rituals

Having a child is one of the most culturally and spiritually significant events for women and their families and the significance of this transition is validated through ritual. It is thought that cultures that have supportive rituals for new mothers have lower rates of postnatal distress (PND) and that women in Western countries are at high risk of developing PND Rituals reflect the vulnerability and special status of the new mother and include being restricted to the home, being given assistance, being given special foods and massage.

In Indian communities the experience of pregnancy and birth is traditionally marked by nurturing and celebration of the status of women who are to become mothers. This nurturing is highlighted through the giving of special foods and assistance. Movements of new mothers are restricted to the home for forty days due to their perceived vulnerability postpartum. During this forty day period, assistance is given with personal care and the physical body is taken care of through massage and ensuring the mother has an opportunity to relax. Parturition is thought to generate a state of hotness and therefore weakness. Grandmothers can play an active part in the preparation of special food and ensuring a nourishing diet that includes foods such as ghee, nuts, milk and jaggery1 which are given to return the body to balance.

This attentiveness and “endless care” that is received from the extended family (Shin & Shin, 1999, p.611) can be lost in the process of migrating. This celebration of the status of the new mother in ‘developing countries’ subverts the notion of ‘West is best’ and the backwardness of the East, that was taken for granted in my post-colonial upbringing. A recent article in NEXT magazine in New Zealand have suggested that rituals need to be re-instated to celebrate the status of motherhood (Sarney, 1999). Greta found that the shift from a social process of pregnancy to an individualised one a painful loss:

Everyone else does things for you and you know in that way you are just pampered. You get all these supposedly nourishing treats and foods and things you know. Like all these pulses and the sweets that you normally have. I’m not very sweet tooth, but I think they do help in a way you know. The nourishing factors. You know things like that. At the same time being here makes you think of all these things that you take for granted back home (Greta).

Focused individual care is given to new mothers, and family members take on roles in relation to food preparation and hospitality as in Lorna’s story:

You know you get your massages and things. Mum looks after the cooking because that takes away a lot of time and then you don’t have to worry about that. Goan things like moong, godshem and other lentils millet, tizan, and things like that, you know what that is. I guess you would have had that if you were coming from the traditional villages I’m sure, but ahh we have lost a lot of culture on the way. Yeah yeah I guess you also have many more people around you in India so that if you are busy with doing something someone else can entertain make the tea or conversation (Lorna).

Migrating reminded Lorna of the loss of traditions that began with the move from traditional villages to urban settings prior to the migration to New Zealand. The drive for upward mobility (in the Western sense) in Goa and the concomitant loss of traditional ‘old fashioned’ rituals has resulted in loss of forms of nurturance from many cultures.

Being separated from family and culture meant were impediments to conducting traditional rituals. For some Goan women it meant not having anyone to consult who was bicultural and could see the importance of special food. Migration can lead to separation from family and trusteed advisers leading to a ‘vacuum of knowledge’ . Rowena was anxious about the appropriate food to be eating and struggled to create a new frame of reference and develop a sense of what she ‘should’ be doing. Rowena sought guidance but ultimately was unable to cook any of the things that she thought might be useful because her husband worked long hours and there were no extended family members available to help her enact traditional rituals:

No, in fact I didn’t know what to eat, but the hospital kept saying eat a normal diet. Do I have to have spicy food? They said since you’ve been eating it all your life and during pregnancy, you don’t have to drink milk to get milk, just eat well. Because being alone I had to cook my own stuff, so I just continued eating my normal things (Rowena).

This example again highlights the tensions of attempting to fulfil cultural expectations but also fit into what was appropriate in the new culture.

Bringing family in to support rituals

Several participants brought mothers and mothers-in law to New Zealand because it was unusual to have a baby ‘by yourself’, to help with tradition, food preparation, care of the baby and allow the new mother to rest. Lorna, Greta and Flora chose to bring family members over where possible to provide both support and assistance with rituals. Lorna was fortunate in being able to bring her mother over to help out, and points out the alien notion of the individualising of a major life event like birth:

Then you come to a place with no-one around you, you don’t really know if you can make it alone. You know you are not very independent in a way, so it is unfamiliar to have a baby on your own. Yeah, so that’s why, so you just sort of have Mum over everybody has Mum over, it’s a Goan thing to do, it’s an Indian thing to do (Lorna).

Greta was supported by both her mother and mother-in-law who came to New Zealand to assist with care of the baby and other household tasks which included food preparation and advice. Greta’s example illuminates the richness and significance of cultural rituals in the postpartum period:

Fenugreek seeds and jaggery and coconut milk and she kept giving me that and I found that quite nourishing. I don’t know whether that would generate just the milk and also a sort of porridge made from semolina. So I would bake that and a drink that would help me clear up my stomach too much of gas so those things helped me a lot (Greta).

The importance of food to many Goan rituals and special occasions is emphasised in Flora’s recount of her child’s christening which emphasised the symbolic significance of the Goan connection to the earth through the serving to guests of chickpeas and coconut: Flora’s example highlights how she feels she needs to justify the significance or legitimacy of particular types of food to ‘Kiwis’ or have it legitimated by them. This perhaps represents a sign of her wanting to ‘fit in’. This could also be a way of justifying to white New Zealanders the attachment to things Goan:

Even for a normal party you see all Goan tradition, you must make this food you know, like for an auspicious occasion, like a Christening. Coconut in it, that is a must, you know a christening can’t go without that. The Kiwis, you know wonder what are we serving boiled grams (chickpeas) for on an occasion like this. My aunt was going around to all the Kiwi guests saying you know I’m serving coconut. I didn’t know what was the meaning behind it, but she was explaining you know chickpeas are the food of the soil, and coconut is also a food of the soil (Flora).

Therefore it can be seen that food plays an important role both in the private lives of Goans and the celebrations and life transitions such as parenthood.  One of the many strengths that Goans have is the capacity for celebration and connection with each other through food and song.  The internet and increased numbers in our global communities mean that we can more easily access whatever it means for us to be Goan.

The ‘small’ things count in caring

Editorial published in Kai Tiaki: Nursing New Zealand 8.10 (Nov 2002): p28(1).

KAI TIAKI Nursing New Zealand has recently carried narratives written by nurses discussing their experiences as recipients of health care, eg “My Journey of Pain” by Glenis McCallum (July 2002, p16). These experiences gave the nurses the opportunity to re-examine their practice and to reclaim their empathy.

Similarly, a personal experience provided the impetus to write this brief piece. I recently had the opportunity to re-evaluate my own beliefs about nursing and the importance of communication and caring when I witnessed my sister receiving care in a hospital maternity setting. What came across was the importance of the “small” things–the caring and the communication, and the importance of compassion and empathy. The sweetness of the person who opened the door to the unit and said “welcome to our world”. The rudeness, almost surliness, of the nurses who forgot to introduce themselves or tell us what was happening.

Rightly, there is much focus on nursing as a profession, yet is it possible that in this debate we have forgotten the small things that really matter to our clients -the things that make people feel safe and cared for?

This personal and professional interest was further piqued by two workshops held in Auckland recently that focused on maternal mental health issues. Both highlighted the important role nurses have to play when caring for women experiencing childbirth.

In the first workshop, organised by the education and support group, Trauma and Birth Stress (TABS), 170 consumers and health professionals gathered to explore post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after childbirth. The group TABS was formed by women who had all experienced stressful and traumatic pregnancies or births that had negatively affected their lives for months or even years after the experience. One of TABS’s aims is to educate health professionals on the distinctions between PTSD and post-natal depression so the chance of misdiagnosis is lessened and correct treatment is started quickly.

Speakers at the workshop included an international nursing researcher from the United States, Cheryl Beck. A number of New Zealand women have shared their stories of PTSD with Beck and have found telling their stories and having someone understand and believe them has been very therapeutic. Other speakers included TABS member Phillida Bunkle and Auckland University of Technolgy midwifery lecturer Nimisha Waller who spoke on how mid wives can assist mothers with PTSD.

In my role at UNITEC Institute of Technology, I organised the second workshop, which also featured Beck. Entitled “Teetering on the edge: Postpartum depression–assessment and best practice”, the workshop attracted around 100 nurses, midwives, GPs and consumers. A professor in the School of Nursing at the University of Connecticut, Beck has for many years focused her efforts on developing a research programme on postpartum depression. Using both qualitative and quantitative research methods, she has extensively researched this devastating mood disorder that affects many new mothers. Based on the findings from her series of qualitative studies, she has developed the postpartum depression screening scale (PDSS). Currently Beck’s research is focused on PTSD after childbirth and she presented her work to date. In September, there were 27 participants in the study, 18 from New Zealand and the rest from the United States.

The themes of her presentation were a reminder of the dramatic negative consequences of occurrences we as health professionals deal with frequently. Emergency situations arise and we all do our job, often without a second thought as to the future impact of our actions (or inactions) on the woman and her family.

Beck also spoke at the TABS work shop. The response to both workshops was really positive. Workshops such as these, where the long-term impacts of the health care experience are discussed, can act as a reminder for anyone working with women at and around the time of childbirth to critically view their practice and that of their colleagues. Themes that feature in the research are around caring, communication and competence–the very things that were absent in my recent experience of the health system. Women in the study felt they were not shown caring, communication from health providers was poor, and they perceived their care as incompetent.

Through her research, Beck poses the question so many mothers ask: “Was it too much to ask to care for me?” As health professionals, we need to ask ourselves every day “how can I care for the needs of this client?”, because nursing is not just a profession, it is a caring profession.

* For further information on TABS http://www.tabs.org.nz/