In te ao Māori (the Māori world) Te Whare Tapa Whā is a concept that speaks to how we all remain healthy, a holistic guide to taking care of the different pillars of our wellbeing. It’s represented by a house; the four walls that make the structure stable and strong are symbols for the four foundations of our health.
The first wall taha wairua (spiritual wellbeing) is about self-awareness and identity from the expression of beliefs, values, traditions and practices. Taha wairua provides a sense of meaning and purpose to our existence.
During lockdown Māori performing arts teacher Whaitiri Poutawa started hosting online kapa haka sessions every weekday from his Lower Hutt home, to ensure this wairua remained strong in his students even when they couldn’t be together.
Poutawa was previously opposed to teaching online. But he quickly discovered it was an opportunity to spread spiritual wellbeing far beyond his usual students. His classes suddenly included people from Japan, the US and Norway.
“When we started posting videos online, what it showed us was that we were relating to people all around the country and the world.”
He even composed a haka about the global pandemic to help his students understand and express their experience of Covid-19.
“Māori culture is an old culture. We didn’t write our feelings down, we made up a song about our feelings, we didn’t document what happened in history books, we did a haka.”
Now his students have their story of Covid-19 preserved in haka as an expression of their taha wairua.
Taha whānau (family wellbeing) is the pillar of health that comes from belonging. In Māori culture it’s about the wider social system that bonds a community together.
The Kai Ika project creates that bond by taking good food that was going to be discarded and redistributing it to vulnerable families and community groups. In Māori culture, the head of the fish is considered rangatira kai or ‘chiefly food’ and is treated as a delicacy – but in contemporary New Zealand much of the caught fish is not used. Kai Ika takes those valuable parts of the fish and makes sure they find their way to a hungry belly.
When New Zealand’s lockdown was initially announced – and recreational fishing was prohibited – supply disappeared. But then the commercial fishing industry came to the table.
“We went from having 250kg of food a week to 1000kg a week,” says Sam Woolford, the project’s leader. This food was then distributed to whānau in the community who needed it.
That need has inspired the project to invest in the expertise of the wider whānau and increase the communities long term wellbeing.
“Our next plan is to create a centre where we can get chefs out to the marae (the local community’s meeting site) and teach people how to utilise this valuable resource. That way the ‘chiefly food’ is not just for the chief, it is for everyone.”
The third wall of wellbeing is taha tinana (physical wellbeing). It is the recognition of your body as the physical vehicle for your wellbeing – the way your body grows, feels and moves, and how you look after it defines your mental health too.
Yoga teacher Taane Mete has always had a distinctly Māori quality to his teaching. However, when he had to move his classes online because of the pandemic he took the opportunity to properly embed te ao Māori values in his practice. Investing in the way physical wellbeing connected with spiritual and emotional wellness at a time when it was needed the most.
Much of Mete’s work has involved travelling overseas to teach. Now he feels a distinct calling to his own whenua (land), and a need to work on the wellbeing of the people of New Zealand.
“It is why I am soon taking this learning on the road, a two-week yoga tour I am calling Kia Nga Wai – the humble warrior. It is to bring a sense of healing to wherever we go. People need that, I think.”
The final pillar of Te Whare Tapa Whā taha hinengaro (mental and emotional wellbeing), is about looking after your heart and mind. Twenty years ago, Zack Makoare lost his son to suicide, so he knew how important it was for the youth in his hometown of Flaxmere in Hawke’s Bay to stay connected when Covid-19 arrived in New Zealand. When the community went into lockdown, his Te Taitimu Trust made sure that connection could continue online.
“Normally, a lot of our programmes are about doing work with them face-to-face. But, over lockdown, we had to change. We ran a lot of programmes on social media. It was about getting engagement – we did games and activities, we sang songs or waiata, we did exercises, we did quizzes.”
The trust also helped kids learn other skills over this time. They taught young people how to grow vegetables and how to cook. Makoare knew the community’s emotional wellbeing started with looking after those that needed it most.
“It was about trying to get our whānau (families) to reconnect and make sure they are in touch with somebody else.”