Kai (food) is rongoā

What we ingest (eat, drink) such as healthy kai (food), as well as crystal clear water, and clean air are the first and most essential forms of rongoā. Kai rangatira (food for the esteemed), takes on an important function for those who are ill and nearing death. Many Pae Herenga whānau manaaki storytellers shared stories about an ill kaumātua wanting to eat or taste, a specific food, one last time. These foods may have been a favourite kai in their childhood or youth. Seeing these foods, tasting them, and smelling them, one last time can bring to life special childhood memories of loved tūpuna (ancestors) who have since departed from this physical realm. Being reminded of these happy occasions through eating and tasting these morsels, or drinking the clear, cold water from a special river or spring can comfort the wairua (spirit). Whānau manaaki can feel deep joy and peace when they satisfy the heartfelt longing of a kaumātua who yearns for something they enjoy. Many whānau manaaki who were interviewed in the Pae Herenga study spoke about the way they used food within their caregiving practices. We share their stories here.

Whaea Kiripai shares her reflections on how she cared for her mum when she was nearing the end of her life. Kiripai’s story ‘He Whaea o te Ao’ provides a good example of how important it was to her to care for her mother, in just the right way, when she was māuiui.

‘He Whaea o te Ao’ by Kiripai Kaka

Click here to read transcript if preferred

This digital story has a commentary provided by Tess

Stella: So, Tess what do you think we can learn from Whaea Kiripai’s story?

Tess: Well feeding someone when they’re unwell is a very um I think sacred ritual and it involves kairangatira, or ah food for the esteemed. And in terms of caregiving, this is a particular role that some people in a whānau hold, and in this story, it was Whaea Kiripai’s right to hold that. And food for the esteemed ah, is usually anything from seafood to ah the particular porridge that she’s talking about there or it could be rotten corn, mutton bird anything like that. But also, it’s a story about grief because Whaea Kiripai talked about how she um really felt the pain of her mother not being able to enjoy these ah beautiful foods that she herself had given the community. And so, I think it also highlights that grieving happens throughout the ah illness to death’s journey and not just when someone dies.

Stella: So, what do you think health professionals can learn from this story?

Tess: Well I think health professionals can learn that we, and appreciate that we, enjoy kairangatira; that it’s important to uplift the mauri of a person when they’re unwell. It might not be a huge meal, it might just be a little taste, but these foods are associated with memories of our past, our ancestors, our lands and our families and being compassionate and understanding about our need to have these foods in a hospital setting or a hospice setting or any other place where we might need care of health professionals is an important contribution they could make to making whānau feel safe and secure.

Kaumātua Tau shared his perspective of what rongoā means while highlighting that kai is rongoā:

Rongoā is from just listening, you know, to the herbs and the medicines, and it all whakapapa[s] back, eh? It all goes back to Tāne. We use the karakia, yeah, for the plants. So, it’s all part of the whakapapa. So, say the understanding would be when we get sick that we go to our tuākana [the plants] to get the, you know, to get the health care. Āe, it’s a part of our healing so, it’s part of us and it’s helping us, it understands us. And funny enough, just thinking, we had one guy when we were at [name of health centre] and he was on a diet. And, he was getting sick, and he was pale, and he was eating all this good food. And then I just tuned into him and I said, ‘Did they tell you to get a good feed of puha? Have a boil up, take the fat off?’ He looked at me, and so he did and he was better. So, because the healing’s in your own kai, eh? You know it’s not in the food that they prescribe for diets [that] may be good for Pākehā. Yeah, it was lovely. His āhua changed, eh? But yeah, I said, ‘Go back to what your body is.’… The plants [from the ngāhere]… [The rongoā have come down through] Tāne and… his brothers’ lines, eh? The plant roots and stuff like that.

Kai holds memories for whānau. Pato explains for whānau who are nearing the end stage of their life she will offer them the more traditional kai that they are familiar with:

Yeah, I just try and get the kai that they’re used to, that they’ve had before. Because sometimes when you’re terminally ill, well I find, they go back a stage. So, when they hit that stage, I get the kai that they know.

… if they’re elderly, you know, I try and look for the kai that is for elderly. Like puha, mutton-bird, you know, those sorta things.

[I make] tuna [eel]…yeah, I take tuna ’cause my son goes eeling. So, I take my patients tuna if they like tuna… [I] fry it up. Deep fried, they like it deep fried, eh? In flour. Somehow, I’ve never had it that way myself [laughs].

Pato (health care assistant) also provides some traditional kai and encourages whānau to cook for their loved one:

I just go and get pūhā, or go and get watercress, or something like that… I give it to the family, “Here, cook this up for Nan, go cook this up, here’s a pūhā, here’s a tuna.” Yup.

Kaumātua Arena and Kuia Hana identified in their Pae Herenga interview that when someone is nearing the end of their life, often they like to eat kaimoana, so the whānau will provide this for them. Kaumātua Arena reflected

“They seem to crave for those things they used to have when they were young. You know [the memory longing] always comes back”.

Coline described how her extended whānau liked to tautoko her father by bringing around the kai he liked to eat:

He does like his, you know his boil ups and things like that, duck and whatever, whenever we can get it yeah. He’ll love that - he’ll love that… he had duck last week, my cousin came and cooked duck and he loved it. Because I don’t know how to cook duck, I only know how to eat it… Yeah Dad’s a duck shooter, way back. So, it’s traditional for us but I only know how to eat it at the moment.

Whaea Rui (health care professional) spoke about the importance of kai at end of life for kaumātua, particularly highlighting the flavour of specific foods:

So, it was very sad that she [Mum] went into hospital. She went into [name] of hospital because there was no geriatric service there until she died. And one of the important things, I think, is food with our elders. All she wanted was kāuka, the cabbage. So, my nephew, we always said he had the sweet hand for picking kāuka, ‘go out and pick it and bring it home and cook it’ and she just loved it. Oh! And she’d eat a couple, yeah… Just boil it with a bit of meat just to get the, [flavour]. And that’s all she wanted. But I don’t know how many people eat that now even.

Matua P. (community health worker) commented on the diversity of whānau and what they want to have at the end of life. However, he identified that kai was still one of the most common forms of rongoā gathered and prepared for people at the end of life:

[Whānau] well they are still diverse, but it’s about a lot of things. It’s about kai, you know. The different types of kai that they, they have… Well I mean we’ve got toheroa, you know… I just say to them, well you know, ‘Go out and get a cup. You know you don’t need much. Just to taste.’ You know so it’s those little things…

When asked about her thoughts on the support that can be given to those who are at end-of-life, Kuia Hana spoke about her approach. She also reflected on what the māuiui person often asks for at end-of-life:

That is my first and foremost is to the Lord. He guides what comes out of our mouths so long as it is pono (true), tika (correct). He guides us and me especially because, as you say, I have been working in that area for a while. And, you know you don't look at them as being māuiui (sick). You look at them as a person, you know? You're there visiting a person and they are alive. So, the kōrero (talk) is about what they've done or ‘what would you like, can I get you something to eat and I get you a cup of tea?’ Connect. And, then they go, ‘oh Whaea (formal address for female), I want some kaimoana (seafood).’ You know and you always hear that story. Everybody wants that the taste of kaimoana, and all it is just a little bit. You know they’ve been out there fishing for hours come back with this big fish and they only want the juice, little bit of juice and they’re happy. And those are the things that we try and do for our people, you know, that's māuiui (sick), that's, yeah, nearly time, especially when they want that because you know ‘oh Lord they are really coming.’

This is in me; I'm not saying it out to them I'm saying, ‘Lord I know’. And I guess since I've been up [name of place] here it's more so. And more so since, I've grown since I've started that (name of trust) because [the name] means to walk arm in arm together. And if I am ahead of them somethings wrong, you should all be equal. And to be treated like equal, that's what I believe in. So, you know that's my whakaaro (thoughts). And then I get the lead from Arena [husband] because he's my kaumātua, he’s my boss… he is the man and he is our kaumātua for Ngāti [name] (tribe from place). Unless he asks me a question or asks me something, I will answer, but I don't interfere with what [he does]; but we both know our mahi with our people who aren't well, but treat them as human beings as they still are.

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