Welcome to Rongotea, a village of 600 people organising to fight a pandemic (Image: Amanda Hodge – @amandahodge_itsthelittlethings)

‘Rongocare’: How a small NZ village is helping its people through the pandemic

Rongotea has created a pandemic support network with not much more than a cellphone, an email address and goodwill. Liam Hehir explains how it works, and gives instructions on starting your own.

I live in Rongotea, a small village in the Palmerston North commuter belt. Its people are a mix of professionals working in town, people staffing the various businesses that serve local farmers and seniors who have lived here forever. About 600 souls, living on eleven cherry blossom-lined streets named after English rivers. 

Rongotea isn’t really known for much, other than the fact that it once had seven churches and no pub, earning it the nickname of the ‘Holy City’. There is a pub now and the number of churches has declined to four. Just a coincidence, I’m sure.

Village life isn’t for everyone, but one thing it does have going for it is a reservoir of social cohesion. So when a friend suggested that we get a mutual aid society going to support our vulnerable people through the pandemic, I knew instantly that it would be doable. A few phone calls and a village Facebook post later and “RongoCare” was underway.

How the network works

A phone was acquired and a sim-card obtained for the Rongotea ‘hotline’. Each of the volunteers will take a turn being the ‘operator’ and, when they get a request for help, they’ll circulate the request to the wider group. A roster has been drawn up, and we’ve got it covered through to August without anyone needing to take more than one turn.

Before you ask: yes, a protocol has been established for the thorough sanitisation of the phone and its safe handover as it rotates through the village. 

Rongotea has always had a bit of community spirit (Image: Amanda Hodge – @amandahodge_itsthelittlethings)

What help can people get?

Nobody is expected – or allowed – to do anything dangerous or which they are unqualified to do. RongoCare is not about home help, it’s about being neighbourly in a time of crisis, without making things worse. Accordingly, the type of thing we will be doing for each other are things like grocery and prescription runs, as well as phone calls to the self-isolated to check in on them. 

There will, obviously, be no close physical contact in the delivery of these services. Any items are to be left on doorsteps with phone calls to confirm completion of the task. We don’t want to make things worse when we’re trying to make them better.

And, importantly, it needs to be clear that there can never be a guarantee somebody will be available for any specific job either. We all have to take care of our own families first. But the idea is that with some coordination, we will be much better at looking out for each other while we can.

Getting the word out

Not everybody in the village uses Facebook. A flyer with the hotline number and email address was drawn up. Since we don’t have letterboxes in Rongotea, however, it’s a bit tricky to distribute. 

At this stage, we’ve put them in the windows of local businesses. The Rongotea Times newsletter will also carry a notice. The school has also agreed to get the word out. The local has also volunteered to put the word out through its channels as long as it is open.

There’s less to it than you think

When I got this going, a few people mentioned how great it would be if we could have an app to manage it all. But, in truth, it’s not that hard to get an old phone, an email account and a spreadsheet going. The hard part is the social capital you need to draw on.

The internet, for all its wonders, has been terrible for shared community life. How many of us know our neighbours? Even in places like Rongotea, where some cohesion still exists, we don’t have the solidarity that our grandparents could call upon to get them through times of trial.

But perhaps social media, so rightly blamed for the devastated vineyard of our local neighbourhoods, will now redeem itself. We can’t be physically close to each other, but we have the tools to remain in close contact regardless. Let’s put them to use.

You can do it too

We need to help each other through these times. Most people are good people and want to help. But one word of advice: don’t try to do it on your own. This virus is a collective threat and it’s going to require a collective response. Or collective responses, rather, since each community is going to have its own unique circumstances and challenges. Face it together and don’t wait around for the government to tell you what to do.

You probably don’t live in a literal village. But whether it’s a street or an apartment building, you live in and around other people. Establish those ties and you will eventually find yourself sharing more than geography. 

We’re still muddling our way through, but if you want to chat about it, feel free to drop a note to RongoCare@gmail.com.


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