Drive northeast for just over an hour from Whangarei, head towards the coast and you’ll descend a narrow windy road to the small settlement of Whangarūrū. A hundred or so houses are scattered along a neck of flat land between Bland and Tuparehuia Bays, the tranquil buffers to the Pacific Ocean beyond.
This is where Miriama Matene returned nine years ago when life got too tough elsewhere. Hers is one of the first houses on the edge of the settlement, nestled among trees on a spacious well-kept section.
“I came home because it was the only place that I knew I’d be safe. I don’t struggle anymore, I’ve got food in my gardens, I’ve got chookies that lay eggs.The land is ours, we own it, it’s papakāinga. That’s what I love about this place and I will die here,” she says.
Miriama’s iwi, Ngātawai, has manawhenua and manamoana of much of the northeast coast of Te Tai Tokerau. She grew up in the settlement, one of the Pita whānau of eight girls and two boys.
The move home brought peace. She says she changed from a social butterfly to a bit of a hermit. But her physical health took a knock back. At that stage she didn’t know enough to connect her respiratory illnesses with her living conditions. Using a long-drop toilet, taking cold showers outside, fetching water from a bore were just what she was used to.
It wasn’t until she was very sick that she came in contact with Ki A Ora Ngātiwai. The provider co-ordinates Te Puni Kōkiri’s Māori Housing Network Community repairs alongside health and wellbeing services for the Ngātiwai rohe.
“I was in hospital and this beautiful wahine came to me, and asked had I ever heard of Kia Ora Ngati Wai Health? And my reaction was what does Ngatiwai have to do with anything? And they said ‘you’re mistaken, it’s not to do with the iwi. Go and see them’. I went ‘yeah yeah yeah’”.
Māori Housing Network service provider for home repairs
Ki A Ora Ngātiwai, based in Whangarei, run mobile health services to rural communities in the rohe. Miriama received her first home visit shortly after that hospital stay seven years ago. It was the beginning of a relationship that “changed my life to be honest”.
Like Miriama, Bella Thompson’s marae is Tuparehuia down the road in Whangarūrū. She was brought up not far from there, raised five children and has 34 mokopuna. She admits she has never really left home because she loves working in her community.
A former ambulance officer, Bella now holds the safety net at the top of the cliff, catching her people before they fall. She connects them with the services that support them to live healthier, happier lives. A member of the Ki A Ora Ngātiwai Trust Board, she is the community liaison for the house repairs programme.
“You’ve got to have lived here and know the whānau well enough. It’s not just building a relationship at the time, it’s having had a long relationship and if you have trust it takes you wherever you want to go. The success of this whole programme is built on that,” she says.
Bella was one of the main instigators in getting the home repairs programme off the ground there.
“Establishing the health service was the first critical step for our hapū and whānau. Then we looked at what continues to cause our people to be so unwell.
“We can provide treatment but then some go home to very substandard houses.
They’ve got no toilet facilities or running water. Some of our kaumātua and kuia here have to tread through mud to get to their homes and their roads are pretty bad because they’ve never been able to maintain them.”
A few years ago they took matters into their own hands. Despite scepticism from some who’d felt let down in the past, a rōpū of kaumātua and kuia went to Ki A Ora Ngātiwai and together they put in a proposal for their first home repairs contract.
They received $319,500 in 2017 and within a year had fixed up 11 homes including Miriama Matene’s. Miriama says at first she had her doubts about the contract.
“I really thought it was a big have. I said if I sign this and you sign it, it will get done? And Bella goes yes Miriama, so I go okay, and six months later waalaa! Got everything done, way and beyond.”
Safe electrical wiring, a pump to bring water inside, a califont to heat it – humble improvements perhaps but a world of difference to Miriama.
“So far, so good, wonderful. I used to have to walk to the bore for water. It’s not very far but it’s a long way in the middle of winter and it’s pouring down with rain,” she says.
“Not going outside, not getting wet, I’ve only had one episode of my asthma since it was all done. Usually I would’ve been to hospital about three times by now.”
With a second $418,000 contract for work this past year, the Trust is close to completing repairs to 12 more houses. Scepticism has dwindled, word has spread and there is now a waiting list of 25 houses, pending further contracts. Those numbers are likely to be just scratching the surface as Ki a Ora Ngātiwai has so far only looked at one part of the rohe.
Home repairs for lasting health benefits
The Trust’s CE Lynette Stewart (Ngātiwai) says this demand underscores the massive health needs they are seeing in their clinics. Some, like undetected diabetes or respiratory problems, go back years and are linked, unequivocally in her experience, with poor housing, poor water reticulation and lack of sanitation.
“A couple of the nurses and medical staff reviewed our housing assessments and they knew those whānau who had serious respiratory issues and others who had diabetes, so we were able to prioritise those who were in greatest need,” she says.
Lynette, like Bella, has lived too long in the community and understands its complexities too well to think that imposing a quick fix would have any lasting benefit. She believes that kind of imposed help can be paralysing for people. Better to support whānau to get where they themselves want to go.
But it can take time to get to the point where whānau feel their needs are worthy of priority ahead of others. She has been amazed time and time again by people who “feel they are unworthy of anything upward to what they have been living with for years”.
“When whānau open up and talk to us, what has floored me is the number of times in the conversation we will hear a whisper of hope coming through. But they don’t express it as ‘I want this’ and ‘I want that’, there is no sense of entitlement,” she says.
Lynette hears that whisper of hope in an invitation into a home, or a visit to one of their clinics, a hope that her team will pick something up without, as she puts it, the person having to beg for it.
“I say to my team ‘don’t ever come back to the office without making sure you have listened to that whisper’.
“There was this one woman I was talking to and she took a deep breath, a deep sigh and said ‘I would like to have a shower’. She then goes on to explain ‘we have a tap outside, it’s ok in the summer time but it was pretty cold in the winter’.
“Now those are the whispers of hope that I am talking about. We sit with whānau and hear them. We see them for who they are, as someone who is longing to do something about their home’s state of disrepair and needs support for that.”
Getting the kaupapa right
The kaupapa extends to everyone involved in the project including tradespeople. Criteria for the job goes beyond perfunctory repairs to building relationships and a willingness to pass on skills and knowledge to some of the younger whānau. Rangatahi are encouraged to contribute their labour while learning on-the-job skills.
When the first contract came in Lynette and her team interviewed tradespeople one by one to make sure there was buy-in for the mahi. She did not want whānau belittled, treated like a ‘charity case’, or pushed around.
“It’s worked out really well. We’ve got skilled people who also have a sense of real excitement that they are part of changing the lives of others,” she says.
Every one of the tradesmen who worked on the first round was on their books again for the next round of work.
Once the work’s done the changes are obvious. When there are no longer ten buckets around the house to catch water from a leaky roof, when windows are realigned, when an ambulance has not visited a house all winter, everyone can see it.
But there can also be more subtle changes in whānau when the tradespeople have left. Back at Miriama’s house, for example, she and her sister are full throttle into some serious DIY.
They have ripped the mats out and are debating whether to seal or carpet the floor. A cousin has fixed the septic tank and put metal on the muddy driveway.
“We’ve nearly finished painting the bathroom. We’ve got to paint everything and let it dry. If the water gets in underneath it, especially the sealant on the floor, it’s pointless. Then we will be starting in the other bedroom and finishing that off. When it’s summer and it’s warmer we’re going to come in and bang, bang, get it all done!”
Hope is no longer a whisper in this whare but something that can be grasped and shaken into noisy life.