Mahi Aroha: Māori work in times of trouble

Following the Canterbury earthquakes, Māori Wardens mobilised to door knock and deliver food, water, and other resources. Photo: Leonie Wise, Unsplash.

Building Better researcher, social scientist Dr Fiona Cram (Ngāti Pahauwera) recently investigated the response of Māori to both the 2010 and 2011 Canterbury earthquakes and the 2020 Covid-19 lockdowns. Her research was focussed on “mahi aroha” – work done by Māori out of a love for the people.

She said that the Canterbury earthquakes prompted expressions of mahi aroha during a natural disaster emergency. Similarly, the Covid-19 level 4 lockdown that began in the last week of March 2020 showcased Māori caring for one another during a pandemic.

“Whether people were paid or unpaid, out in their communities as essential workers, or broadcasting via the internet from their living rooms and kitchens, Māori around the country engaged in mahi aroha.”

However, Fiona cautions that while celebrating the capacity of Māori to move swiftly and effectively to care for others, the past two decades have seen an overall decline in the time Māori have been able to devote to mahi aroha, particularly voluntary work.

“The decline in Māori home ownership and access to secure, affordable housing is a key challenge to Māori capacity for mahi aroha. We need to consider Māori responsiveness during times of crisis and how access to housing might help ensure that this capacity continues into the future.”

Fiona says mahi aroha is a part of Māori cultural identity and sense of self-worth. In performing mahi aroha people are upholding the mana of others, and through their actions their own mana is enhanced.

“During the lockdown, Māori recognised that the kaupapa of sustaining Māori vitality was under threat because of their knowledge of the devastating impact of previous epidemics and pandemics on Māori communities.”

Canterbury earthquakes

At the time of the Canterbury earthquakes, just over 7% of the Christchurch urban population – nearly 26,000 people – were Māori. Many lived in the Eastern suburbs which were the hardest hit and the least economically secure to weather the disaster.

“They had to rely on their Māori-centric networks, including their whānau and those in their neighbourhood, over the long periods of disruption. Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu took a leading role in coordinating the Māori crisis response, under the leadership of the then Chairman, Sir Mark Solomon. This leadership was seen as a key component to the success of the coordinated emergency response facilitated by the Rūnanga. The Rūnanga also leveraged their pre-existing community linkages, internal infrastructure, and relationships with a tribal network that spanned the country, and established engagement channels with government agencies.

“This included the mobilisation of health practitioners to provide health care to those in the hardest hit suburbs and the establishment of a 24-hour telephone contact service to provide information and assistance more widely.

“Resources were stored, packed, and distributed by volunteers working at the Wigram operational base of Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu. Māori institutions and organisations, such as Kura Kaupapa Māori and marae, also enabled the coordination and distribution of support. Once they had passed post-quake building inspections, marae became important hubs from which volunteer groups, including Māori wardens, Red Cross, and the Christchurch City Council, coordinated their activities and fanned out into the city. The Māori Wardens, for example, door knocked and delivered food, water, and other resources, including baby clothes gifted by Tauranga iwi, to those in need.

“Marae also became safe havens, extending hospitality to community members and shelter to those displaced from their homes by the earthquakes.

“A lesson from the 22 February 2011 earthquake is about the empowerment of volunteers who can connect with community and respond on the ground. However, tikanga about face-to-face manaakitanga stretched whānau in the post-earthquake context, where many were struggling just within their own households.

“Instead, social media came into its own as a way people could remain connected both locally and internationally. Values of manaakitanga and whanaungatanga were enacted in ways that were manageable and realistic for people,” says Fiona.

Fiona says that overall, the Canterbury earthquakes prompted immediate and coordinated culturally-attuned collective responses, that put into action cultural technologies to support collective resilience and restoration. People were united and coordinated in their responsiveness, in a show of kotahitanga (togetherness) that enacted kinship obligations in times of disaster and need and gave full expression to mahi aroha and Ngāi Tahu’s host responsibilities.

“Fitting Māori communities for future disasters needs to concentrate on clarifying how Māori responses coordinate among Māori, and work in within the wider and pre-dominant non-Māori response. The vulnerability of Maori to future disasters through ongoing economic marginalisation cannot be overstated.”

Covid-19 lockdown

The Covid-19 level 4 lockdown lasted five weeks. It was followed by two weeks of level 3 lockdown. While the level 3 and 4 lockdowns were reasonably brief, when it began no-one knew how long level 4 would last.

In appreciation of the increased vulnerability of Māori during this time – potentially to both the virus and to the hardships caused by pre-existing conditions such as poverty and precarious housing – Māori quickly swung into action.

Across Aotearoa New Zealand, iwi, health, and community organisations have made big and small decisions with or without government support to defend their areas from community outbreak and to assist their people in hardship.

“Gatherings at marae were seen as potential hotspots for the spread of the coronavirus and some hapū and marae committees took the hard step of closing their marae. This was a difficult decision, particularly because of its impact on whānau who experienced the loss of loved ones during the lockdown and would otherwise have held tangi (funeral rites) at their marae.

“When marae remained open the guidance from the New Zealand Māori Council about tangi was about social distancing, mask wearing, and hand washing, with the Council saying, ‘Tangi is something that must continue, and our only advice is to remain alert, calm, and follow the available health advice’.

“In order to keep people safe, many marae adapted their tikanga and kawa in the face of the pandemic, for example, using ‘long-distance’ options as alternatives to hongi.”

The health advice was for the cessation of tangi under the level 4 lockdown, with a resumption under level 3 but with a limit of 10 attendees. When this limit was left in place for level 2, a backlash from Māori led to the government introducing a ‘rolling’ tangi limit that would allow more people to attend.

“Many hapū and communities also took steps to keep people safe by staying contained and/or isolated during the level 4 and 3 lockdown period. They used checkpoints to ensure that only locals entered their community as a way to prevent the spread of any Covid-19. The checkpoints were staffed by volunteers and often operated with the cooperation of, and at times the presence of, the police,” says Fiona.

Many individuals and whānau who were confined within their household bubbles took to social media to share their expertise and knowledge, and encourage and uplift people.

“There were many, many examples of whānau distributing manaakitanga across their social networks, and many were profiled by Te Ao Māori News. Māori celebrities also joined in, serving up te reo lessons that embraced diverse topics from storytelling to games. All this served to encourage others into this mahi aroha, as they realised that they too had something to share with whānau during lockdown. The outcome was a vast, distributed web of mahi aroha that shored up people’s collective resilience to endure the lockdown.

“Māori and iwi organisations also leveraged their networks to quickly mobilise support for their communities. In mid-April, an extra $15 million of government funding for the three Whānau Ora Commissioning Agencies was announced. The Agencies then worked with wholesale suppliers to ensure that whānau, especially kaumatua, had kai packs and winter packs. As Whānau Ora services and organisations were deemed essential services during the lockdown, other resources to support whānau could also be deployed by Whānau Ora and Māori health providers. The Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency arranged wellbeing checks for whānau, as well as the delivery of hygiene packs to whānau, with a goal of delivering 120,000 packs by the end of April 2020.

“In Te Waipounamu, Whānau Ora navigators supported 800 whānau with kai and 600 with paying their power bills, as well as delivering over 20,000 hygiene packages. An additional $30 million was also made available by government so that health providers could provide a tele-health service alongside financial assistance to whānau to ensure their health needs, such as prescriptions, were met.

“Northern Region DHBs, for example, partnered with iwi and Māori health providers to deploy 120 new community health workers as part of a Ngā Kaimanaaki service to support whānau wellbeing.”

Many Māori and non-Māori businesses also offered support and resources to communities during lockdown. This support from businesses reflects the increasing embeddedness of Māori and iwi organisations within a wide network of resources and people within their community, as well as the growing presence of Māori businesses across the country.

Housing and Māori capacity for mahi aroha

“The initial Covid-19 lockdown was relatively short, and the Māori pandemic response lasted the distance. However, it is unclear how much more pressure could have been taken by those who were out in our communities as well as by those who were confined to their household bubbles. Some households are overcrowded and the lockdown made life for many even worse.”

Fiona says the lockdown also caused increased levels of isolation, anxiety and mental health issues and, for some, it triggered trauma.

“In the Christchurch earthquakes it was hard for Māori whose houses had been damaged or destroyed to offer home-based manaaki to others. Similarly, anecdotal evidence from the initial Covid-19 lockdown suggests that those best placed to engage in mahi aroha were those whose housing was affordable and secure, whereas those most vulnerable were whānau impacted by housing unaffordability and tenure insecurity.

“Since the early 1990s, when Māori bore the brunt of neoliberal economic interventions that gripped the country, Māori have struggled to regain our reputation for high work-force participation rates, high home ownership rates, and our strong foothold on pathways back to economic, cultural, and social security in our own land.”

In their report on volunteering and donations findings from the 2016 NZGSS, Statistics New Zealand writes, ‘people living in owner-occupied dwellings were more likely to volunteer for organisations than people who rented’.

“While this report does not detail ethnicity differences, the lower rate of home ownership among Māori compared to Pākehā might be expected to have a similar impact, with Māori having more capacity for unpaid work when they have the security of tenure afforded by owner-occupied housing. However, Māori home-ownership has continued to decline, to stand at 28%, compared to 57% for the general population.”

Read the research

Cram, F. (2021). Mahi Aroha: Māori work in times of trouble and disaster as an expression of a love for the people. Kōtuitui: New Zealand Journal of Social Sciences Online. 15pgs. Published online 17 February 2021. DOI: 10.1080/1177083X.2021.1879181

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Date posted: 3 August 2021