The resurgence of māra kai Across New
Zealand, māra kai, or gardening for food, has deep spiritual and cultural connections buried in the soil. After being lost to indigenous Maori for years, these practises are once again becoming focal points of local communities
In the origin stories of New Zealand Māori, the sweet potato arrived in the land after it was stolen from the celestial gods to be brought back to earth and grown. There are songs sung about it, stories passed down from generation to generation. Now those stories are in the guardianship of the ancestors of early Māori who tilled the land with unique knowledge to ensure their food, their ‘kai’, grew and sustained their community.
But over generations that knowledge of how to grow food was lost, says historian Wiremu Puke from local iwi Ngāti Wairere. His goal was to help reconnect people with the land, Papatūānuku, to ensure that the connection to the past did not fade. To find that spiritual and cultural knowledge, it had to be unearthed from the soil.
Eight years after the vision was first discussed, Te Parapara opened in the Hamilton Gardens in 2017 as the only functioning traditional productive garden of its kind in the world. It was dedicated to upholding and championing the connection between food, gardening and ancestral Māori knowledge.
“You get a snapshot of the spirit world of the ancestors,” says Puke, Te Parapara: The kumara garden at Te Parapara in Hamilton
who is kaitiaki, or guardian, of the gardens. Every part of the garden is embedded with spirituality, he says.
“When people connect with land it is real on all levels.”
The garden was rebuilt based on archaeological evidence of what had been in the area before, a reflection of the ancestral knowledge that was recovered.
“The garden has become an important learning tool for the community, a place of reflection and a place to inspire,” Puke says. “The hope is to plant the seed of knowledge in young people so that this knowledge carries on.”
“We learn every year from the garden. There are a lot of significant gaps that are missing in the history of gardening. You don’t know these things until you do them.
Te Rangikaheke Kiripatea knew his family history, of how his father was born on a small island in the middle of Lake Rotorua. Of how that island became a strategic kūmara plantation for his people.
But he never envisioned his retirement would involve following those footsteps. These days, rather than putting his feet up, he puts them into gardening boots, and gets his hands dirty planting and harvesting kūmara for hundreds of people in need.
“It’s my purpose for waking up in the morning. It’s what gets me out of bed,” Kiripatea says.
The Kai Rotorua project he helped found is built on the idea that reconnecting people to Papatūānuku, to the land, can create a resilient, well-nourished, well-connected community.
“Māori had beautiful gardens. Then something came along and interrupted it. We don’t have that anymore. We are disconnected. The only way to reconnect is to teach people,” Kiripatea says.
He decided that the kūmara was the place to start. It had history and was steeped in significance. It is still a staple of the local diet.
“Māori people love kūmara.”
The more kūmara he grew, the more demand he discovered. The project recently donated 900kg of kūmara grown in the project’s gardens to a local school. They used it to make soup and then donated it away to communities who were struggling.
“Especially with Covid-19, we hear so many stories of people in need. But also, stories of people learning to plant their own food.”
Everywhere he looks he sees people wanting to learn traditional methods of gardening. It has led the project to expand its vision with plans for a community hub with a seed bank, cafe, commercial kitchen, kūmara bank, food forest, education spaces, food storage and distribution.
The project has hosted visitors from around the world and letting them get their own hands dirty in the kūmara harvest and absorbing indigenous expertise.
“There is traditional knowledge that comes with planting and growing. We are just reviving those and putting it back in place.”
Jade Temepara’s role in that revival came in the form of five generations of seed potatoes that were passed down to her from her grandfather. After his garden was destroyed by the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, he tasked her with keeping the special indigenous variety alive.
“They are so rich in history that I have been in love with seeds ever since,” she says.
Her passion for gardening and growing food for her own whānau (family) helped her realise the potential mara kai has for looking after the wider community. That evolved into helping young families learn to grow and produce their own vegetable gardens with a sponsored $100 to buy their garden essentials and a mentor to provide guidance. Once they have recouped their savings through growing and selling their produce, they would hand over that $100 to a new family.
The idea was to take the skills and knowledge given to her by her grandfather and pass them onto families to enable them to become self-sustaining and save them much needed money.
“I saw their big gardens and knew this was the way to help them. It starts with one small change and this can make a huge difference.”
She says mara kai is about so much more than just feeding people.
“It is an essence of hard work, stories, oral traditions and a reason to keep the environment clean and protected.”
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