A new book by Lisa Cherrington and Sarika Rona, The Awhi Warrior, helps families talk with their tamariki about the difficult emotions that arise when we are separated from the ones we love. In this beautiful story, Nanny Mihi helps her moko Teina discover the power of the atua of te ao Māori to nurture and help him care for himself and others through tough times. The authors answer our questions about their new book.
What prompted you to write this story?
LC: Well, it was two things for me. One, a friend had just returned from overseas and she posted a photo on Facebook of her moko standing outside her house at the fence-line because she was in ‘isolation’. It was such a sad post about how she had to talk to them from the window. It was a poignant photo, too. It made me think about how kids understand all this.
Two, in our Māori psychologists Facebook page — and in a ‘zui’ — there had been discussions about how we respond to Māori tamariki and whanau impacted by these new restrictions. My response was I would write a story about how we can connect to each other and the atua in other ways. And I think it was then that we thought a book or resource should be created. I asked for ideas and got feedback on the drafts, which is where Sarika came in and made a considerable contribution.
SR: Ae, the discussions around COVID restrictions were happening and Lisa put this project into action. A large portion of my mahi is with children and in education and I felt inspired to be able to contribute to a resource that could be used to support our tamariki.
What is the message at the core of the book?
LC: Connection! Connecting to the atua and te tai ao (the environment); connecting to each other; the power of karakia; the power of connection a tinana, a wairua, a hinengaro, a whanau (a holistic approach connecting physically, spiritually, emotionally and relationship-wise).
So the story goes beyond COVID?
SR: Ae! Although the situation surrounding COVID may have been a catalyst in writing this pukapuka, the idea of connection and how we can do this to help ourselves is an old whakaaro. The feelings of isolation were real for so many of us, and the book was an opportunity to express these feelings. I was missing my Nan and Koro; it was a new feeling not being able to just walk through their door, but it was them who reminded me about all the wonderful ways we can still connect and how powerful connection is when we remember to check in on each other and to check in with our taiao.
What conversations do you hope families will have as they read this book together?
LC: Everyday ways to connect to the environment, atua and each other. Reading it together, learning the karakia and CONNECTING.
SR: The hope is that whanau talk about how they each find comfort in connecting to the environment, atua and to each other in its many forms and prioritise this. Having something to focus on, such as the pukapuka, can be a bridge to conversations around what it is that they may be feeling and what can we do to help ourselves.
What were the special challenges for tamariki around COVID restrictions?
SR: For tamariki, especially, there were so many changes . . . to their whole world, their safety nets and those of their whanau and friends; what they saw, heard, felt; what they could do. That all changed.
Why did Te Tihi Trust decide to publish the book?
LC: I approached Materoa Mar, the director of Te Tihi o Ruahine Whānau Ora Alliance, with the idea of a children’s story that could be useful for whanau during lockdown. My idea was to get it out as quickly as possible for whanau to have while we were in lockdown. Their immediate response was yes, because Te Tihi work with whanau, and being able to provide a range of resources for them is what they do. It just took a little longer than I expected! I thought that we were going to print a little brochure type of book that could be distributed in two weeks. I hadn’t though about a proper publisher! Lol.
SR: Ha ha same! I did not at all envision this is how it would all eventuate.
Is there a message here for adults?
LC: Absolutely! My experience working in therapeutic spaces with tamariki and rangatahi is that often the questions and stuff you might do with them is the same stuff pākeke enjoy. It’s a bit like going to a children’s movie that has messages and layers for both tamariki and pākeke. Mahi a Atua is an intervention, a reclamation, a philosophy, a movement about ‘indigenising your space’ using traditional custom stories, aka pūrākau and connecting to the atua. It is about whakapapa and identity. So this story works at all those levels — whakapapa and connection to the atua — which for many disconnected Māori pākeke is still real, and reading a story to their kids can help in their own journey of reconnection.
SR: Tautoko ano! As with many children’s books and movies there is always a message for the adults to engage and think about too. They may be reading with their child and thinking about how they are connecting to the kupu.
There has been a lot of news about the deterioration of the mental wellbeing of children, especially, over the last two years. What impact has this had on your work?
LC: There are so many layers to this question. The focus on just ‘mental health’ is a part of the problem and hence why the need as Māori practitioners and artists to promote our connection to spirit/wairua and the atua.
So part of the problem is this division of health into separate ‘parts’?
SR: Ae, it would be more helpful if our health needs had a collective focus, on our whole beings, our whakapapa, our wairua and how we listen to and support each other’s needs to be well. There needs to be an understanding that how our children grow and develop is influenced by how we connect with them AND how we connect with our environments — including our communities, schools, places of work, etc.