The power of orange

Published on Thursday, 16 April 2020

You get the impression that Sheridan Waitai would do whatever it takes to protect her Muriwhenua Tika whānau from getting infected with Covid-19.

“It’s intense. But we were determined at the outset that no-one here gets left behind. We need to protect our whānau, our marae, our schools, business and community”, she says.

Sheridan is part of a dedicated team of volunteers, kitted out in orange hi-vis gears, who have put their lives on hold to keep Covid-19 out of their remote community.

Raised by her kuia, Saana Murray, Sheridan recalls vividly the devastating impact the flu epidemic of 1918 had on the Far North.

“My Nanny told me about her grandfather, who took a horse and carriage through the community, picked up the dead at the gates of home and helped to bury them. Among the dead were more than 23 children, whānau broke off weather boards from their homes to build coffins for their tamariki. There are mass graves here and across the harbour for those who lost their lives during the flu epidemic.

“If Covid-19 got into Te Hāpua it would just rip through our whānau. We’re never going to let our fires of our ahi kaa go out like that again,” she says.

Ngāti Kurī were quick to respond to the Covid-19 crisis. It helped that Harry Burkhardt who’s the Chair for Ngāti Kurī is also the Chair of the Northland District Health Board.

Sheridan says, “Ngāti Kurī saw the writing on the wall early, prepared a pandemic plan and joined forces with Te Aupōuri. Our community effectively went into lockdown before the rest of the country.”

With financial support from Te Puni Kōkiri, more than 100 sanitation packs went out to kaumātua and kuia swiftly. The kaumātua packs included a simple message that began with: “You are very important to us, we want to ensure you stay safe and protected.”

Sheridan says, “We wanted to tell them not to be scared and that they weren’t alone despite their physical isolation. We set up an 0800-number so whānau could contact us if they needed anything.”

The volunteer teams have worked hard to both protect the region and sustain the people.

Iwi-run road patrols are operating 24/7 at Te Hāpua on State Highway 1 with the support of Police. Iwi are determined to keep non-residents out and to eliminate non-essential travel.

Sheridan says they’ve received some flak about the patrols but 99 percent of locals are supportive, “If the baking stops rolling in, there’s something wrong. Most locals are saying they’ve never felt so safe”.

Three weeks into the lockdown, there are no reported Covid-19 cases from Kaitāia north.

The iwi volunteers set up a supply centre at Te Kāo Store. From here, they order, pack and distribute groceries to whānau in the community. Last week, they delivered kai to 735 households. Sheridan says around a third of the whānau in the Far North are out of work.

“The recovery is going to be tough. We were poor when we started,” she says.

Drought conditions in Northland are an added pressure on whānau and local businesses. With the support of Civil Defence, Ngāti Kurī has delivered 560,000 litres of water to those that have needed it since the lockdown.

Sheridan hopes the lessons learnt from this emergency will endure.

“We’ve seen an abundance of generosity and collaboration at a regional level. We’ve looked across, shared the space and got the work done. Our “mahi aroha” whānau bring massive courage, kindness and selflessness, there is no place I would rather be.”

Before the lockdown, an orange ribbon tied to a rural letterbox was a sign that a household in Muriwhenua had opted to self-isolate. The ribbons are still a common sight and a reminder for volunteers delivering supplies to practise safe distancing.

Sheridan says she deliberately chose the colour orange to represent pīngao: “Pīngao binds our foreshore and seabed, when she is orange it means that she is in her wisdom. Just as this crisis has brought our people together, we have also drawn on the wisdom of our ancestors.”

“We need to keep this better form of whanaungatanga going as we move out of lockdown.”

Photo caption: Sheridan Waitai relaxing with her kurī, Ruby

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