Te Āwhina Marae in Motueka is about to welcome whānau into 20 new homes, a papakāinga built to bring them back to the whenua — and to each other. Miriana Stephens, a trustee and chair of the marae redevelopment project team, tells Siena Yates about the project.
When I was growing up, the marae was my home. It’s where I learned to be the best bedmaker. I was married there, my grandparents both lay there when they passed away, and my kids were christened there too. So the connection for me is really strong.
I’ve also seen what it can do for other people — how it can uplift them and be a place they’re proud to belong to. To me, the marae is the place where we get to be who we are: Māori and proud. It’s where our tikanga, practices and customs are carried out by us.
I was born in Motueka. My mother had me when she was young, so I was raised by my grandparents. That was the greatest gift. They were farmers — they farmed the good things in life: tobacco and hops. They were also very heavily involved in the marae and very community-focused.
My cousin had a good saying which sums up what my grandparents, and a lot of people at the time, stood for. It was this: “If service is beneath you, then leadership is beyond you.” When seasonal workers or visitors came into town, my grandparents would give them kai and clothing. They spent a lot of time supporting and helping others to connect with the community. They didn’t have much in terms of resources, but what they did have was aroha and that commitment to service.
The hub of all that activity was the marae. There was always a lot happening down there, whether it was growing gardens, hosting people, or just the community getting together. As seasonal workers (mostly Māori) would come into Motueka, our hall would be a gathering place for them to have their dances, play cards and practise te reo. We ate and slept in the hall.
The marae also has an Anglican church that was built in 1897. It’s one of the oldest churches in Aotearoa. So a lot of our community would come in for their spiritual sustenance and practise karakia and whakamoemiti. I remember there were a lot of hui held at our marae as well, in the days when our hapū and iwi were working to get our lands back.
A Pākehā farmer once told me that, when he was a young kid, he and his brother and their mates would hang around outside the marae gates on their bikes, because it was actually the hip place to be in town. Everyone wanted to be there.
So, Te Āwhina has always been a living marae, a community marae, even though a lot of people had to move away out of necessity, to find jobs and income, as part of the urban drift. Now, it’s time for our whānau to return to their whenua, especially as times get tough. They see how important it is to be a part of a community, their whānau and hapū. Providing good housing and jobs is important to support their return.
We have kaumātua living together here in six kaumātua homes that were built in the 1990s. And now we’re about to welcome whānau into 20 new homes that will extend our housing options to create our new papakāinga.
It’s really exciting to be coming together in an intergenerational way because, traditionally, that’s how we lived as whānau and hapū.
I think a lot about how I grew up with my grandparents, and I’m hoping we can get back to that idea of “a village raises a family”, and not just for the kids but for our kaumātua and others who might be struggling with loneliness and anxiety.
We started the papakāinga project in 2019 and secured just under $13 million in funding from Te Puni Kōkiri in 2021. When you have projects of this scale and need to access funding, you need to have really good people, systems and policies in place, and a proven track record that can give an investor confidence that you can deliver.
Our whānau and hapū belong to many entities like our iwi, Ngāti Rārua and Te Ātiawa, as well as Wakatū Incorporation and Whakarewa Trust, which all have good track records of delivering outcomes. We’re fortunate as a marae to harness that expertise.
You also need someone who’s willing to be a squeaky wheel, who won’t give up when they’re being told, “No, that’s not possible”, or “No, we can’t help you”. Someone who will ring someone in Wellington every week and see your proposal through — and who can constantly adapt. Tenacity, respect, and drive are important. You don’t want to be a hōhā, but I think investors want to see persistence, good energy, and commitment.
So, we had the vision, and we had the team and the systems in place. Then we had the courage and the confidence to back ourselves, and that’s what our funder, Te Puni Kōkiri, saw in us.
Stage One of our plan was moving our kōhanga and setting up a health centre. We’ve completed that. Stage Two is the papakāinga development. Our progress is quite advanced. We have 20 new, two- to four-bedroom rentals under construction, with the first four due for completion this month, another eight due by Christmas, and the rest due by February next year. We also have a shared community space for whānau being built.
As well as housing, we want to have things in place so the marae can continue to thrive in new ways: our health centre, our kōhanga, and a space for our arts. All of the things that are important to us as whānau. So we’ve undertaken an ambitious multi-stage programme to make sure the marae and all its facilities can provide those things.
At the start of our project, we did a lot of research on the housing needs of our whānau. Housing here, like everywhere else in New Zealand, is too expensive. So we wanted to build these whare with affordable rents for whānau, those who were already living in Motueka, and those who were living elsewhere and wanted to come back home and reconnect.
To live on the papakāinga, it’s important that you have whakapapa or a connection to this whenua. We had an expression of interest process and have had to do things like credit checks and police checks. But it’s been respectful. Many of us have had challenges in our past and we don’t want to discount anyone. It’s just about having an honest kōrero about where we’re at.
So we’ve been reasonably open, but one thing we’ve been very direct about is saying: “We can offer you affordable housing, but how will you reciprocate?”
There’s a responsibility that comes with being in the papakāinga. Whānau must make a commitment to serve the marae. Some of our whānau undervalue what they can give, so we had wānanga beforehand, too, to go through some of the opportunities and ideas.
It could be working in the māra kai, being on the paepae, doing the karanga, working in the arts or in health — our people have many skill sets. It’s just about caring for and helping one another and building a new future for the next generations.
There are many different opportunities that come with living this way. My aunty often talks about how, if we had kai and there was excess, we’d give it to others. When we were farming, one farmer might buy one thing and another farmer would buy the other and then we would just share and rotate the tools that we needed.
We now live in a world where we think everyone has to own a lawnmower or their own car, but we could actually share these kinds of resources. Or we could have a community facility where visiting whānau could stay and kids could do their homework. We wouldn’t have to build homes with a study or spare rooms that are empty most of the time. It’s just getting back to living with what you need, instead of accumulating a lot of stuff.
Our relationship with te taiao, our natural world, is also really important to us in the build process. We’ve been measuring our carbon footprint and looking carefully at how we’re managing waste. The papakāinga has solar energy, tanks to collect rainwater for gardens, and our landscape design includes native plantings and fruit trees.
Most of what we’re doing isn’t new. Growing up, I didn’t know rubbish bins existed until I went to school because my grandparents were already doing zero waste, recycling and upcycling. It’s crazy because I used to think: “Oh my God we’re so poor!” But now I know better. And I hope we can bring some of those things that we think of as old school, back into new ways of doing and being.
Our long-term vision also includes building a new space for our arts and extending our carving school. We’d also love to have our own education needs met, by whānau for whānau, so we’re planning for a trades technology academy with accommodation. We’re returning to the Māori trade training schemes of the 1970s, but with new technologies such as solar energy and cyber security. And then the final stage is a new wharenui and wharekai, and new auxiliary buildings, such as offices and an events centre which are in the pipeline as well.
So we’re building on what’s been done in the past, for what we now see as our future.
It’s not for the faint-hearted. We’re volunteers, because we all have this absolute connection to and love for the marae and our whānau. And while there’s a lot of exciting stuff, it’s also scary because we’ve just been learning and giving things a try as we go. We don’t have all the answers, but I feel like we’re learning a lot and that’s exciting.
We still have a lot to do, but what I’m really loving is the fact that our whānau are into it. They’re excited and really hopeful that we actually can come back to living together as a community and supporting each other better. As I’ve said, it takes a village to raise a family and a people — and I think that this is our time.
Miriana Stephens is of Ngāti Rārua, Ngāi Te Rangi and Ngāti Ranginui descent. She has four children and lives in Motueka. Miriana is a trustee of Te Āwhina Marae and chairs its marae redevelopment project team. She’s also a director for Wakatū Incorporation and has an executive role as the general manager of AuOra, the research and innovation business of Wakatū. Miriana also serves as a trustee for Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Rārua, the Riddet Institute, AGMARDT and has recently joined the Pou Herenga advising He Pou a Rangi, the Climate Change Commission.
As told to Siena Yates, and made possible through the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.
If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.