For Porirua writer Rangimarie Sophie Jolley, the pandemic has generated a deep hunger to reconnect with whakapapa and whenua in Waikato. But, despite that longing, she and her whānau have decided they won’t be going home this summer.
As we slip into our long, warm Aotearoa summer, my fear of Covid grows. From my house in Porirua, I dream of our awa Waikato winding through the King Country, carrying soothing, cool moments across the whenua. I have such a longing to see Taupiri, my tūpuna maunga.
But my fear is like a hungry little rat, burrowing and gnawing at my dreams.
Two years ago, my daughter was playing at kura when her legs began to tingle. It was the start of a severe auto-immune response to a common cold. At just nine years old, she was left paralysed. She’s now 11 with disabilities that affect her respiratory system and her immunity. I am her only caregiver.
When your child is unvaccinated and in the high-risk category, navigating the perils of a global pandemic is a full-time job. We don’t ever get to leave the house without first calculating how her immune system is behaving or how close Covid is to our community, and carefully weighing the dangers.
Because of her age, my daughter can’t be vaccinated until high summer, once the beaches have been filled, the summer festivals have happened, and everyone is on their haerenga home. I’m creating an itinerary of safe places we can go to before that time.
One of my more furious calculations is how likely the people around us are to be vaccinated. Following the advice of our numerous doctors, I’ve made a rule within our immediate and extended whānau that only vaccinated adults can come into our home. I’ve had to explain how threatening the desire for personal freedom can be to the desire of others to live.
The consequence of allowing an unvaccinated, potentially infectious person into our space is deadly. That’s just a fact. As well as my daughter’s disabilities, my 60-year-old mother is a recovering smoker who was paralysed by a rare form of melanoma cancer.
We’ve ensured that our whare is as safe as it can possibly be for my daughter and my mother. It provides us with an oasis, in the midst of a pandemic that has terrified the world. We’ve relied on the safety of home more than ever before.
But home has become a loaded word during these two years of pandemic life. At the beginning, home seemed to be our house in Porirua. But after government-enforced regulations around how we hide from this insatiable beast, many of us have felt the pangs for home reverberate from a deeper space.
When the first lockdown was announced, we cut short my daughter’s in-patient rehabilitation stay in Tāmaki Makaurau, and rushed back to be with our immediate whānau.
Within the first real solitude of our adult lives, my brothers and sister and I began to unravel the meaning of home. We started seeking the stories and names of our tūpuna. My siblings embarked on wānanga study and, through that, we learned more about our ancestors, including those such as Te Puea Herangi.
It was devastating to read of the work she did during the influenza epidemic of 1918, and to draw comparisons to our very privileged experiences. I started collecting our whakapapa in spreadsheets and made it all the way back to Māui-tikitiki-ā-taranga.
Home began to mean home: Tūrangawaewae.
We emerged from lockdown wondering if the rat race was really worth it. We each began to realise that, no, it truly isn’t. As we journeyed through the various stages of decolonisation, we realised that many of the things we prioritised before the pandemic are trivial on the scale of things that really matter. We all experienced a deep longing to return to our hau kāinga in Ngāruawāhia.
But our freedom to travel there has consequences. We are the people that the restrictions and the mandates exist for. We are the reason why those working hospitals, shops, schools, movie theatres and cafes have to make sure their staff are vaccinated.
The mandate exists so that we can move through our communities safely and be given a chance to leave the house. To go to our regular doctors’ visits, attend kura, take part in physio, see friends, and experience the vital components of life with a significant physical disability.
These are especially important when disability has already restricted us, from swimming, playing and enjoying the summer, as our sand and water-hungry feet so badly want to.
And although we yearn to embark on our haerenga home, we live an eight-hour drive away from Ngāruawāhia. Even though we’re fully vaccinated, we’d have to drive through numerous cities and small towns to arrive at our hau kāinga and reconnect with our whakapapa and our whenua.
And so we’ve decided we won’t do that, during the peak of this summer, when everyone is finally trying to enjoy their moments in the sun, because we know how dangerous that would be.
It’s not only for our immediate whānau. We must acknowledge, too, the danger we pose to others from moving around the country when so much about how this summer will play out is yet unknown.
Imagine finally finding your way home, and endangering your whakapapa because of it. I can’t think of a single ancestor or descendant who would tell us that it was worth it.
It takes a long time to be ready to reconnect with your whakapapa in the face of intergenerational trauma. It’s a journey that holds many starting points and winds along many fractured roads.
But we accept that, this summer at least, we won’t get to experience the moments of whenua whakapapa that haunt our Māori hearts and minds.
When I long to see my tūpuna maunga, I pause. When I imagine the weaving piko of our tūpuna awa, I pause. Before I invite myself through the gates of Tūrangawaewae, I pause. When imagining the vision of faces that look like mine, living out my “Ka Pioioi” fantasies, I pause.
Our whakapapa needs us to make decisions that will benefit it, and not endanger it — even if that means waiting a little longer to finally go home.
Rangimarie Sophie Jolley (Waikato-Tainui) is a writer of prose and poetry based in Porirua, Wellington.
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