By Lucy Craymer
WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Jacinda Ardern on Tuesday bid an emotional farewell on her last day as prime minister, speaking of the kindness and empathy New Zealanders have shown her, but said she was ready to be a sister and a mother.
Days after stunning the world by announcing she had "no more in the tank" to lead the country and would step down, the 42-year-old arrived at a gathering of politicians and Maori elders in the small town of Ratana, north of the capital Wellington, and was instantly surrounded by supporters seeking photographs.
"Thank you from the bottom of my heart for the greatest privilege of my life," Ardern told the gathering in a speech.
She will resign on Wednesday and be replaced by the new Labour party leader, Chris Hipkins.
Ardern, along with Hipkins and opposition politicians, were making an annual visit to Ratana, where a weeklong celebration is held for the birth of Maori prophet Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana.
Wearing a black dress with her shoulders covered in a traditional Maori cloak, called korowai, she led members of her party onto the community grounds as a brass band played. The speeches and accompanying songs and dances that followed saw elders speak with humour and warmth about Ardern.
"Thanks so much for teaching us to love quickly," one elder told Ardern.
Ardern responded, saying she that hadn't planned to speak but that those there refused to give her an out.
"My overall experience in this job of New Zealand and New Zealanders in this job has been one of love, empathy and kindness,” she said.
The left-leaning global icon gained attention for bringing her baby to a United Nations meeting and wearing a hijab after a massacre targeting Muslims. Although she became a target for hate and online abuse by right-wing extremists on social media, she said she was leaving the job with love in her heart.
"I want you to know I leave with a greater love and affection for Aotearoa New Zealand and its people than when I started."
Before heading onto the grounds, Ardern faced the media for possibly the last time as prime minister, smiling broadly as declining to answer political questions, saying they were now the responsibility of her successor.
"I am ready to be lots of things. I’m ready to be a back bench MP (member of parliament). I’m ready to be a sister and a mum,” she said.
Her daughter Neve is 4 years old and starts school in June.
Hipkins, the country's former COVID minister, was the only person nominated to take over as Labour Party leader. He was first elected to parliament in 2008.
(Reporting by Lucy Craymer; editing by Praveen Menon and Gerry Doyle)