A series of interviews with people about the work they do.

Merle Metekingi is Kaitiaki Whenua at Te Kura-a-iwi o Whakatupuranga Rua Mano in Otaki.

Kaitiaki Whenua loosely translates to English as ‘the guardian of the land’. A large part of Merle’s job involves teaching the children at the kura how to grow food. The kura has students from year 0 to 13. All classes are taught in Te Reo Māori.

This interview took place walking around the garden during term-break.


Merle crop

Merle in the kura mara, April 2016

“I really like food and I think to have good food you need to know where it’s come from and you need to have an input into making it.”

–Merle Metekingi


Interviewer

I see you’ve still got your beans up?

Merle Metekingi

Yeah, I like to give the ground a rest, we’ll just leave these ones. These are Holy Beans.

Interviewer

Why are they called Holy Beans?

Merle Metekingi

Cause they’re from Israel. [She opens a bean pod.] Oops, no, that’s just a scarlet runner. The Holy ones are white. They’re a nice bean.

Interviewer

What are you working on at the moment?

Merle Metekingi

This is our down time, so when the kids come back on Tuesday, we’ll prep a bed for planting broad beans.

Interviewer

Already?

Merle Metekingi

Yeah. They’re actually pretty quick to grow. They’ll be ready by August probably. We’ll harvest them just before spring.

Interviewer

So who eats the food you grow?

Merle Metekingi

All the kids here. We have a thing called hoko kai where the kids pay $2, and the rule is they’ve got to come to the māra and take one or two things, it doesn’t matter what it is, but it has to be combined in the cooking. So the kids will come in the morning and they’ll pick, basil or parsley or some silverbeet and that’s got to be put into the hoko kai.

Interviewer

What’s hoko kai?

Merle Metekingi

It just means, like paid food. It’s $2 no matter how many kids you’ve got, so it’s just a koha really to help. At the moment there’s not a lot to pick, everything’s gone to seed.

Interviewer

You must end up with some interesting dishes.

Merle Metekingi

It’s more a garnish in the end. It doesn’t matter if they don’t actually cook it, it can just be on top of the main meal. It’s more about the process, they’ve got to come over, pick it, take it back to the kitchen to be prepped.

Interviewer

Does that happen every day?

Merle Metekingi

It happens Tuesday to Friday.

Interviewer

So just Monday they bring their own lunch?

Merle Metekingi

Yeah, one day.

Interviewer

That’s amazing, you need to get Jamie Oliver here, you’ll be world famous in no time.

Merle Metekingi

Yeah, I think it’s a good process, it doesn’t pay for itself of course, but it’s good.


harvest at the 'kainaval'

Harvest at the kura ‘kainival’


Interviewer

So are you employed to work in this garden?

Merle Metekingi

Yep, twenty hours a week.

Interviewer

Who employs you?

Merle Metekingi

The kura. This is the first time they’ve paid someone to actually run an enviro-science programme alongside their science teachers. We’re trying to get food as an academic subject. It’s a big move.

Interviewer

So it’s part of the kura’s curriculum?

Merle Metekingi

Yeah. It’s part of the school’s philosophy of staying healthy and eating well and being holistically well. The kids get to grow the food, look after it and eat it. It’s a whole circle. Instead of going to the supermarket. A lot of the kids have no idea really, where their food comes from.


 

yacon growing


 

Interviewer

Both my grandparents had enormous vege gardens and then my Mum and Dad never even grew a lettuce, but there’s been a change back to people wanting to grow their own food.

Merle Metekingi

Yeah, like my son, who’s 27 has asked me to help him put a garden in cause he’s sick and tired of the shit food from the supermarket. He was brought up on good food, cause I always grew stuff. So now at 27, he’s going back to garden planting and he wants me to show him.

Interviewer

Do you have job title?

Merle Metekingi

Oh yeah, it’s Kaitiaki Whenua, which means like, the teacher of the land.

Interviewer

What a beautiful title. What do you do all day as Kaitiaki Whenua?

Merle Metekingi

I work 9 to 2, Tuesdays to Fridays. The first half an hour while the kids are at karakia, I do prep: find out what classes I’ll have. Every day I get a schedule with which kids are going to come here – it could be five year olds up to eighteen year olds. And I’ll have different jobs for different kids. There’s some heavy lifting that the five year olds can’t do. But they love planting, you know putting the seeds in the ground.

Once the kids have left I do maintenance stuff. When you work with kids it’s very slow. So what could take me an hour alone, can take me up to three hours with kids. But you’re not just saying, do this, do that, you’re trying to teach them the process and the overall vision at the end of it, so they’re not just thinking why are we moving that pile of sawdust from here, to there and back again. So you want to show them what that cycle is and purpose of it, otherwise it’s a meaningless activity.

Interviewer

So over the year they see the whole life cycle of the garden.

Merle Metekingi

Yes, the whole cycle of growing. We also have chickens and they get to collect the eggs every morning, they feed them and water them. They’ve got the pigs that they feed. If they’re older they can watch the process of the slaughter, then the science teacher will do an anatomy lesson on the intestines of the pig. Then the pig gets taken to the chiller, then to the butcher, then it comes back.


chook


Interviewer

And so do you have a hangi?

Merle Metekingi

Yep, we have a permanent hangi pit. We do ten to twelve hangi a year for fundraising, it can take up to 300 individual food parcels. The kids get involved and prep all the food.

Interviewer

Would all that food come from the garden?

Merle Metekingi

No. This year we’re trying to grow enough potatoes and cabbage. We grew 40 odd pumpkin but they’ve already gone, so it’s quite a lot of area needed, and help, to grow all the food. But we do try – and we’re lucky, we’re very land rich. It’s Porirua Trust land and we’re allowed to use as much as we need or want.

Interviewer

How long have you worked here?

Merle Metekingi

I’ve been volunteering for 3 years and now I’m being paid, which is quite rare. This is a whole new concept. There’s a lot of gardeners that volunteer in schools but nobody gets paid cause it’s not work that’s valued enough. So this is a real movement towards valuing gardeners more.

Interviewer

How long have you been gardening for?

Merle Metekingi

God! I’m probably going 30-40 years now, I’ve done it for a long time.

Interviewer

Is that always what you’ve done for paid work?

Merle Metekingi

No. It’s just one of those things you can pick up no matter where you are or what country you’re in. I think that’s why I started it because you can always pick up work, there’s always a need. Especially as the population gets older, people can’t maintain their gardens.

Interviewer

What does your week look like?

Merle Metekingi

I dedicate Saturday, Sunday, Monday just to my clients – I still have 24 private clients – and from Tuesday through to Friday I’m here at the kura. Probably an hour after school I’ll work privately.

 Interviewer

And what day do you take off for your rest day?

Merle Metekingi

There won’t be one now, not this term coming. It’s a really busy term because I’ve got a lot of fruit tree pruning and a lot of prep for winter gardening.

Interviewer

Do you get tired?

Merle Metekingi

No, I don’t think so. Sometimes the body gets tired but I’m always keen to keep going, I never not want to go.

Interviewer

Does the work keep you fit?

Merle Metekingi

It would have to, cause you’re walking, hauling things around. It also keeps your mind busy because you’re always thinking one step ahead of what you’re doing.

Interviewer

There’s a lot of spatial work involved in gardening too.

Merle Metekingi

Yeah, you’re always thinking if I put that plant there, how much space will that take up in five years. I think that people who can do jigsaw puzzles can have really good gardens. You know, fitting things in!


Duck

“We have duck eggs, and then we have duck.”


Interviewer

Why did you start gardening?

Merle Metekingi

I think it’s really important. I really like food and I think to have good food you need to know where it’s come from and you need to have an input into making it.We can go and buy food but we don’t know where it’s come from, how long it’s been picked for – I think it’s important to be able trace the life of your food, where the seed is sourced from, how’s it been grown, what chemicals have been used to enhance its growing. We have no idea. You can’t read that on your packaging, it doesn’t tell you. You can’t control the whole process, but if you can control where you buy your plants or seeds from and what you feed them while they’re growing that’s a fantastic things.

Interviewer

Is the soil good here?

Merle Metekingi

Yeah, we’re on fantastic soil, river silt. It’s an alluvial plane so it’s just full of nitrogen and minerals, that’s why this place has had market gardens for years and years, everyone knew it was perfect for growing; it’s light, it’s fertile, we have high sunshine hours. We used to have good rainfall but we haven’t for a while, it’s been very dry.


soil crop


Interviewer

Do you have a favourite crop?

Merle Metekingi

Yeah, one of my favourite crops is broad beans. That’s a really rewarding plant – it’s nutritional and you can do lots of things with it. And the kids love podding them, they get a lot of pleasure out of growing broad beans.

[We walk over to a stand of rhubarb.] This here rhubarb has root-stock from my grandmother in Norsewood. Normally if I Ieave the country I’ll put it somewhere, so it was in my sister’s garden for a few years, and then we I came here I took root-stock and put it in my garden at the beach, then when I moved to town I put it there and now I’ve got it here. So it’s like a root-stock that’s travelled with me, on a journey.

Interviewer

What about a favourite time of the year?

Merle Metekingi

Autumn. Cause it’s the prep time. You’ve done a big summer harvest, you’ve looked after your plants and then autumn is time to get your thoughts together. The weather is settled too, so you’re not having to water anymore, you fertilise your land. It’s very peaceful, autumn.

Interviewer

Do you have any top tips for running a successful garden?

Merle Metekingi

If you can make it into a communal garden then it’s a winner. If you can open your doors and teach people the fundamentals, then your garden will take off, because you’ll get a lot of help. Gardening is high maintenance, people forget about that.

Also, shelter is probably the most important thing in a garden. Wind’s so destructive. Plants can cope with a lot of sun and lack of water, but the wind just hammers them. If you get some shelter against your prevailing wind, block it out, then one of your biggest problems is solved.

Interviewer

What did you want to be when you were 7?

Merle Metekingi

I wanted to be a vet.

Interviewer

What happened to that idea?

Merle Metekingi

I wasn’t a very good 7th former. I spent a lot of time eating in cafes in Palmerston North and to be a vet I’d have to go back and do 7th form and I didn’t want to. But then I went to arts school instead. I went to Ilam and did fine arts for two years, but I didn’t quite finish. I was majoring in sculpture.

Interviewer

A garden’s a bit like a living sculpture.

Merle Metekingi

That’s what I think, my garden is like a pallet, that’s how I paint now.

These are our ducks! We have duck eggs and then we have duck, to eat.


cute piglet

Not Honeydew, but a very cute kura piglet


 

This here is a big pile of untreated sawdust, so all our pig effluence and what they don’t eat goes into here and then it breaks down, we cover it which cooks it, and then it goes back into the mara, it’s contained recycling.

And this is Honeydew, our pig, nobody wanted him.

Interviewer

Why not?

Merle Metekingi

He just grew too big.

I planted these trees last week – this is our orchard. These are koha trees, different visiting schools have given us these trees. They’ll all have a whakapapa about them, when they came, why they’ve been donated here. Queen Margaret Girls gave us most of these trees. They come here and do a week’s course at the marae and we host them for a week.

Interviewer

What marae?

Merle Metekingi

Tainui. They can either go to Tainui or Raukawa, depending on which one doesn’t have tangi at it.

Interviewer

Do you belong to either of those marae?

Merle Metekingi

No, I’m from Whanganui, my dad’s from Whanganui and my Mum’s from Copenhagen. I’m a fruitcake. My marae is Putiki, just as you cross the river in Whanganui.

Okay, so this is the biggest project at the moment – we have got natural spring water here. We’ve stopped the neighbours pumping the water out for their water troughs and this is what we’ve been left with. We released 125 eel into here last winter and we’ve cleared it, we’ve chopped down poplars. This is a really significant stream because it meets up with the Rangiuru which is now one of the most polluted streams on the Horowhenua coast, so if we can keep this spring going and keep it clean, there’s hope that we can clean up where it feeds into.

We’ve done riparian planting, which is a planting that will keep the stream clean – Oioi which is like a sponge and stops all the bad shit going down the stream, and we’ll put flax in and we’ll create a habitat where things can live again like eel, our native fish, our crawlies.

This stream has been totally neglected for a long time, so this is the big plan. This is a project that the whole kura will be involved in. We want to turn it into a community project, it’s not just ours. This stream runs all the way down to the sea, so we want to do this part and then another kura do the next part, so we want to hikoi down. But this is what we can do at the moment.

Interviewer

Are the eels surviving?

Merle Metekingi

Some are, the kids found two the other day. Of course they can make their own journey, they don’t have to stay here, and it’s not a great habitat for them at the moment, because there’s not enough cover, so we want to get the planting up this winter.

Interviewer

What’s the best part and worst part of your job?

Merle Metekingi

The best part is working with the kids. The worst part is not having enough time with them, you only have four hours a day and we’ve got a lot of big projects on.

Interviewer

Do you feel like you can be your true self?

Merle Metekingi

Yeah, I can just be me, that’s what I love about it, I’d hate to have to put on different hats. Here, I wear one hat and it covers a big range. And I’ve got a lot of support from the kura for my vision. It’s amazing really. This kura is an immersion school so it’s mostly focused on the language. I think we’ve got the highest percentage of people speaking Te Reo anywhere in New Zealand.

Interviewer

Di Hakaraia said to me it was 50% of Māori living here were speaking Māori.

Merle Metekingi

Yeah, and that’s not counting kids, that’s just adults.

Interviewer

When you’re on the main street in Otaki you always hear Te Reo being spoken.

Merle Metekingi

Yeah. What I think about is we’ve got the language, we’ve got to look after the whenua, because if we don’t look after the whenua, there’ll be no language spoken because there’ll be no people. It’s a different head space for a lot of people to move into.

That’s where enviro-schools are really good to have, they’re an association and New Zealand’s got Māori enviro-schools. They teach sustainability, so we try and work that into lessons as well.

Interviewer

What’s your star sign?

Merle Metekingi

Capricorn.

Interviewer

If you didn’t have to work for money what would you do?

Merle Metekingi

This. I worked here for 3 years for no money and achieved this, so it’s a bonus that I can now work a concentrated 4 hours a day and get a lot more done. Yeah, this is great.


 

May 2016, interview by The Invisible Writer.

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