Healthy Families Rotorua, Te Arawa Whānau Ora, Kai Rotorua, Toi Tangata, and local experts have collaborated to revitalise traditional Māori food storage practices.
The rōpū is planning to run a wānanga to explore established rua kūmara (storage pit) in Rotorua. Participants will then create one to store the kūmara which the Healthy Families Rotorua team helped harvest recently.
The man behind Rotorua’s kūmara revitalisation is Te Rangikaheke Bidois from Kai Rotorua. He says growing kai, particularly the kūmara, goes back to his whakapapa. His father was born on Mokoia Island where they grew kūmara all year round. The whānau eventually moved off the island to Pikirangi on the lake’s edge, looking back onto Mokoia. Here they remained until 1962 when the land was taken under the Public Works Act to build the Rotorua airport.
“It’s interesting because going through the thread of life is the kūmara vine,” says Te Rangikaheke.
Indeed, the kūmara vine has unwittingly weaved itself into his life. He next came upon the kūmara while working on the television series, Country Calendar. The producer wanted to do a programme on growing kūmara the traditional way. Māori language advocate, Cathy Dewes, suggested Te Rangikaheke visit Ringatū leader, Monita Delamere, in Te Kaha, where they had long grown kūmara based on their tikanga. Monita agreed to be involved and Te Rangikaheke once again immersed himself in the kūmara during that period.
Many years passed before he was once again reconnected with the kūmara. It was 2014, and Te Rangikaheke had just retired and was pondering his next move.
“I went down to my cousin’s place, and she asked me what I was going to do now. I told her I was thinking about having a go at the maara kai. At that very moment, a man walked in her door, and she said, ‘Well, this is not a coincidence because Mr Maara Kai himself just walked in the door.’ That koroua was Mr Bernie Hornfeck. And so, our journey together really started at that point,” says Te Rangikaheke.
Bernie told Te Rangikaheke about the maara kai they had established at Mātaikōtare Marae on the outskirts of Rotorua, and the latter would bike out from town every day to work the maara and bike home again.
“I guess that’s where I got my tenacity from, but it was always there. Going back to the whakapapa, they all had it going back through their own history.
“We continued doing the maara and then an opportunity came up in 2016, where we put 68 backyard gardens across Rotorua. The Rotorua Local Network started up and I was asked to join that organisation, and I really started to feel this passion for growing kai. I knew that I was going to stay in that for the rest of my life.”
Te Rangikaheke retells a conversation he had with his mokopuna, Waimirirangi, recently.
“It was really funny because my mokopuna said to me a couple of weeks ago, ‘Koro, where do you want to die when you die?’. And her mother said, ‘Waimirirangi, you stop that. Cut it out.’”
Unphased by the growling, the youngster leaned closer to her koro and repeated the question in a whisper.
“I said to her, ‘Well if could, I’d love to be able to die in the maara kūmara.’ And she said, ‘Really? Harvesting or planting?’.”
Te Rangikaheke laughed out loud as he recounted the exchange with his mokopuna.
“If you can get that engagement with our mokopuna and you can get them interested in what we’re doing, it becomes more than just a community thing. And so, the kūmara has become the thread.
“This place here (Te Puea Orchard) has really settled me into a mould and allowed me to give expression to that passion. And give expression to bringing people to the maara kai, and working with people, and especially rangatahi.”
A local high school had a large group of students who were disengaged and did not want to be at school. They reached out to Te Rangikaheke for help. He now goes into the school to speak with the group of students on Monday, and on Thursday they go out to Te Puea Orchard to help in the maara.
“Mondays and Thursdays are the two highest attendance days for those girls. I think that speaks volumes. They just love coming here. And so, that helps to energise us, get that passion going, and keep going. You look forward to waking up in the morning – well I wake up in the morning and think, ‘I’ve made it another day. Neat all right.’
Still passionate about kai sovereignty at 75 years old, Te Rangikaheke concedes he is nowhere near some of his contemporaries.
“Bernie’s 98 now, and he’s still going. That again is that passion. It gives you that drive to continue. I’m only a kid compared to those guys. Even my old friend Joe Gock in Auckland. He developed the kūmara we’re harvesting. He’s 98 as well.
“That passion allows you to go into other areas. I’m being pulled all over the place to speak at conferences and seminars. And that also helps with drive and passion. But at the end of the day, it always comes back to engaging with your community. And in our case, with whānau, hapū and iwi.
Te Rangikaheke is also enjoying his newfound relationship with the maramataka.
“My bed is facing west. Without a miss, every time Rākaunui starts coming up – over the east and goes to settle in the west – it’ll wake me up. This beautiful big Rākaunui straight in through my window. I say, ‘Yes, I’ll be joining you soon. Go away.’
“But you’ve also got to have a sense of humour about it all. You have to be able to smile at the things your mokopuna talk to you about and allow yourself to be free to have those conversations. I think that’s hugely important.
“That’s what te taiao has opened for me. It tells me to be open to everything, be engaging with everything, and just be kind. I’m not all that kind all the time. I can be a bugger and a nuisance. But in general, being involved with the taiao has enhanced everything that sits around the kaupapa. It has enhanced everything that sits around me, and it’s an absolutely brilliant way of doing things,” says Te Rangikaheke.
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