Chris Whatuira and Shaavone Brown have found their dream job working at Te Wherowhero Lagoon as part of the Tairawhiti Economic Support Package Redeployment Programme.
Both were more than a little hesitant when they got the call-up for kaitiaki (guardianship) work.
“I thought it was going to be working the gardens around the city and I would have done that because I really needed a job, but it wasn't something I would have chosen,” Chris said.
But when the Rongowhakaata grandmother of six — “with another on the way” — heard it was to be part of the restoration of Te Wherowhero Lagoon with iwi she couldn't believe it.
“That just buzzed me out. To hear the history about the place we are working at is just beautiful.”
It was a similar situation for Shaavone, who is also Rongowhakaata and connects with Whakato Marae at Manutuke.
She visits the marae often to visit the grave of her brother.
“I was really worried about what the job would be and then I find out it is actually my dream job. It feels amazing to be chosen to do this.”
Manutuke has always been a special place for Chris but when her nan passed away she lost the urge to go back. Twelve years later, she is making that reconnection again.
“This is something I want to share with my moko, too,” Chris said.
“This is my whenua (land), my home and I feel a strong connection with it . . . it's a pretty powerful feeling. I feel absolutely privileged to be here.”
Te Wherowhero Lagoon is a special area for iwi. It is the resting place of the Horouta waka, home to the endangered New Zealand dotterel and considered a pataka kai (traditional food cupboard).
“The work that we do is very rewarding but at the end of the day we can look back at what we have done and feel very proud of the difference we have made,” Chris said.
“Every little bit we all do out there is so important. At the end of the day it is for our future generations, otherwise it would be lost.
“And a big part of that is learning the stories and history of the whenua we are working on.
“Every day we are learning something new and I love to take that home and share it with my whanau. It is an amazing feeling to think that we are walking where our tipuna once did.”
Shaavone also loves to share all she is learning with her own household.
“I didn't know a lot about our history and this is such a massive opportunity to learn. I go home and tell my partner.”
She has distant memories of visiting Te Wherowhero as a youngster, getting cockles and other kai with whanau.
“For me this is connecting with my whanau and especially the ones we have lost. We are doing what those who came before us used to do as well.”
Both women say key to the restoration is Rongowhakaata Iwi Trust taiao fieldwork lead Soraya Pohatu, who has for many years worked to protect and restore the lagoon as well as other areas.
“It is amazing what she brings out,” Chris said.
“She is so passionate about caring for our environment and we have learned so much. The knowledge she has is incredible.”
Shaavone says the whole crew learns so much from her.
“Sometimes I feel like I have won Lotto doing this,” Chris said.
“This is something we can pass on and hopefully one day one of our children or moko will do the same.”
But she feels the three-month programme is only the tip of the iceberg.
“It needs to run much longer. There's just so much to learn and do in such a small timeframe.”
The Te Wherowhero Lagoon project is a joint initiative between Rongowhakaata, Ngai Tamanuhiri and Gisborne District Council. Fourteen cadets are working full-time at the lagoon while also learning tikanga Maori and more. The contract is managed by Recreational Services.
■ The $23.755m Redeployment Programme is funded through the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, administered by the Provincial Development Unit and managed by Gisborne District Council. All those on the programme go through the Ministry of Social Development. So far, 236 people have been redeployed across the programme, exceeding the initial goal of 220.