27 September 2022

Opportunity to work with Māori draws Octavius to Aotearoa

People & Culture

Fulbright Scholar Octavius Jones chose Aotearoa for his PhD studies because he wanted to better understand the way the natural world is viewed through the lens of te ao Māori for his thesis focusing on Indigenous relationships to moana (the ocean).

He searched globally for a country where he could work with an Indigenous community which had a strong reputation in the educational field and where Indigenous women played a key role. In addition, he needed to connect with a marine ecosystem. Aotearoa New Zealand topped what was a short list of appropriate options.  

An African American in his thirties, he came with a rich background working and living with Indigenous communities in other parts of the world, particularly Africa and South America. His CV includes work with NGOs in Africa, the US Peace Corps in Washington DC, and time as an adjunct professor at Colorado State University.  

For Octavius, international education is not just about what you learn, but also about what you can contribute to others.

International education truly enriching 

Based in the School of Māori Studies at Victoria University of Wellington Te Herenga Waka, Octavius says his international education experience has been a truly enriching one, thanks not only to his academic environment but also to the wider community he became a valued member of.  

A key part of Octavius’ research is digital storytelling with Māori and African communities, encouraging them to articulate their relationships with the ocean. “What does that mean in this time of climate change, climate anxiety, climate protest by our youth, what they’re saying about how they feel about the future. Our access to ecosystems, to kaimoana (seafood), to different practices.”     

“It’s all about whenua – space and place. For me, and others in the African diaspora, we still hold the mana of the country we come from. I’m exploring cross-cultural relationships between Māori, Pasifika, and other Indigenous people, and what that means in the context of climate change and rising sea levels.  

“If Indigenous people become climate refugees, what will that mean for their identity and their connection to the whenua (land) and moana? How will we preserve our stories and experiences for future generations?” 

Octavius says he’s had a wonderful experience in Aotearoa, despite complications caused by Covid. No sooner had he started his research in March 2020, than he got stranded in the US after returning home for his brother’s wedding. It would be another year before he could return to Wellington.  

“Part of the reason for coming to New Zealand was to learn how we can be good ancestors. My studies not only look at the past, but also to the future. There is a future beyond the climate crisis, and I want to help make it a good one for humans and non-humans.” 

Connection, creation, collaboration 

Not long after his arrival, Octavius came across Black Creatives Aotearoa (BCA), a volunteer-run community arts organisation dedicated to supporting creatives of African and Afro-Caribbean heritage in Aotearoa New Zealand. It was a place where he felt he could belong, could challenge himself, and could give back to the community.  

“It’s all about connection, creation, and collaboration, including with Māori and Pasifika communities. ”Always ready to soak up new experiences, he has taken on many roles with BCA including Wellington lead and LGBTQIA lead.  

“It was serendipitous to find them as I arrived. I realised that Aotearoa contains so many diverse communities.” 

Octavius believes there are huge benefits to New Zealand in welcoming and nurturing international students. “As a student and a teacher in Aotearoa, I bring all the stories and experiences of an African American who grew up in poverty and exceeded everyone’s expectations. I am passionate about letting other traditional and non-traditional students know they can have their dreams too.” 

“Gaining an understanding of, and connection to, a global community will make any culture or society more resilient to many of the global events we are facing, both natural and man-made. There is no future for any country that doesn’t embrace the concepts of global citizenry.” 

He says international students have helped to build a diverse and resilient community here and that he has been enriched by his experience. 

“I’m honoured that Aotearoa New Zealand is part of my life journey.” 

Octavius was one of the students invited to collaborate designing a new type of graduation gown that reflects the values of a New Zealand education.

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