Photos by the author, design by Archi Banal
Photos by the author, design by Archi Banal

ĀteaMarch 6, 2023

Weathering the storm in Mangamuka: ‘This is not a pity story. It’s a strength story’

Photos by the author, design by Archi Banal
Photos by the author, design by Archi Banal

Rural Māori communities like Mangamuka in the Far North have been bearing the brunt of climate change for years, and resilience in times of crisis is a way of life. Cyclone Gabrielle was no different.

Reina Penney switches pōtae between chair of Mangamuka’s Kōhanga Reo and Primary School, and Kaiwhiriwhiri Kōrero of the national Māori housing advocacy group, Te Matapihi. Reina lives with her husband and whānau off-grid, fully self-contained in Mangamuka, and is often frustrated by the stigma associated with homelessness and the lack of resources to support more people to become self-sufficient in the North. She says that in the latest storm, some of those whānau considered by the state to be living in “temporary housing” were actually some of the most resilient. Reina shares insights from the pā harakeke about what we can learn from those who’ve been living with the pressures of climate change for a long time.

As told to Nadine Anne Hura. This article is the second in a series of short features profiling New Zealanders who are often overlooked in news coverage.

On the Friday before Cyclone Gabrielle hit, I reached out to Te Hau Ora Ō Ngāpuhi and this amazing guy called Te Uri drove through the middle of the storm to meet me in Kaikohe at the distribution hub. We picked up about 15 kai packs so I could deliver them to all the kōhanga mums. They’re the ones I was worried about. I know not everyone can afford to stock up in an emergency. Some whānau are not the sort to put up their hand and ask for help either. In fact, the ones who most need help are often the first to say “give it to someone else who needs it more”.’

That’s why we gave kai packs to everyone, universally. That way people wouldn’t feel whakamā about accepting. Support shouldn’t feel judgmental, as if we’re saying we don’t think you can take care of yourself.

That was one of our key learnings as a community; just the importance of manaakitanga. On Sunday, even though we didn’t have much to offer other than a whole lot of aroha, we went out to do welfare checks. There were trees down blocking the road and people trapped in their homes, no power, no comms, food running low. They were just happy to see us. They were scared and confused and that contact from the outside world was everything.

Community debrief in Mangamuka: Reina helps to gather and record key learnings from the Cyclone Gabrielle response. (Photo: Nadine Anne Hura)

Civil Defence dropped off three packs of mince, but I’m sorry, that’s just not enough to feed our community. We did the best with what we had, but some still missed out. It feels heavy when that happens. It doesn’t feel good. Why aren’t marae and hapū directly resourced as soon as a state of emergency is declared? We know how to feed the masses on a budget. We’re used to it, and I can tell you, three packets of mince ain’t going to cut it!

Māori providers need to have the same status and be resourced on a par with Civil Defence. Why do we have to go through another agency to get help? They don’t know what we need. I’m not even sure they know how their policies work. Some people got support, others didn’t. We got the run-around, sent from one place to another, and I thought to myself, this is crazy. Their systems don’t work for us.

We’re not asking for handouts. It’s just about support that works for us. What do the solutions look like? It’ll be different for every hapū and every marae but the point is the solutions need to come from within. We are the best placed because we know our people. And you can see how marae work, how efficient we are. We do the same job as Civil Defence, we look after everyone, Māori and Pākehā. We don’t discriminate. 

Reina Penney: “Self-sufficiency full stop and forever” (Photo: Nadine Anne Hura)

If you resource an agency that doesn’t know our community, that money will just go down the drain. It creates dependency and no one wants that. I guarantee that if marae are resourced to prepare for climate change directly, every tiny little bit will go towards sustainable long-term solutions. Nothing will be wasted.

I work in the homelessness space. There are a lot of whānau who live off-grid up here. They might be invisible to the state, they may not have material wealth, but they’re not homeless. They’re living on their whenua. They’re able to take care of themselves. When you look at it that way, seeing all the challenges they face, especially with climate change, you realise how amazing they are. This is not a pity story. It’s a strength story. 

That’s the positive out of this. Some whānau weathered this storm really well. We’ve got people in converted containers, buses, shelters that might be classified as “temporary”, and a lot of them were able to help others. Whānau who had already made themselves self-sufficient are actually the heroes of this story. They’ve done it without government assistance too. It might not be flash, they might only have a little solar unit that cost a few hundred bucks, but it’s enough to be self-sufficient.

This is what the future looks like. It’s not temporary, it’s not precarious and it’s certainly not homelessness, it’s rangatiratanga. 

When officials say they need to come in and do an assessment of a whare to see if someone qualifies for support, a lot of whānau aren’t interested in that. That’s an intrusion. Our people don’t trust government agencies. They don’t want a notice to fix from the council which they can’t afford. Or a red sticker telling them they have to move. WINZ announced a temporary accommodation benefit, but it discriminates against rural communities because you have to move away to access it. People would rather go without. 

Mangamuka community distribution hub, still in full swing almost a week after the cyclone.(Photo: Nadine Anne Hura)

To be honest, Gabrielle wasn’t the worst flood we’ve seen. This isn’t our first rodeo up here in the north. We’ve been facing climate change for a long time now. It’s just another thing adding pressure to the situation. But the last thing our whānau want is for people to feel sorry for us. We’re survivors. We’re creative. Who is defining wealth and poverty and “vulnerability” anyway?

The best housing solution is to support whānau to have rangatiratanga on their own whenua so that they can be resilient in times of crisis. Self-sufficiency full stop and for ever. We shouldn’t be dependent on infrastructure that is so vulnerable. We need to prepare for simplified, localised, self-sufficient living. Everyone needs to be on solar. Marae need to be on solar. Not even generators. Generators need fuel and when the roads are blocked and service stations closed, what then? 

With solar, if you run out of power, well that’s it. E moe! Go to sleep! There’ll be more when the sun comes up tomorrow.

Reina Penney: “If you run out of power, e moe!” (Photo: Nadine Anne Hura)

This is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.

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