Māori nurses use waka ama to heal and reconnect to their awa

By Marena Mane

Following Covid-19 demands, a group of Māori nurses at Whanganui Hospital have discovered a way to de-stress from their busy schedules.

They've established Awa Ora, a new waka ama women's team, and it's particularly special for some of them following a near-death encounter on a waka last year.

As members of this new team, they have been able to recover and reconnect with their awa.

Stephanie Paranihi, a member of the Awa Ora women's waka ama team, recalls all six of them flipping out near the bank and being washed out to sea, where they remained for a time before being rescued by the coast guard.

“It was a bit of a scary moment. We thought we were going to lose our lives. It took us a lot of time and confidence to get back on the water,” she says. 

“To be honest, there's still a little bit of trauma there. So it takes us a few karakia to get back on it every night but we do it,” Paranihi says.

Rihi Karena nō Ngā Wairiki Ngāti Apa says three years ago, pre-Covid, she had been doing waka ama until they had an incident on the water that tore their confidence.

“We got back on the waka again and decided that we would get a women's team together,” she says.

The need to de-stress 

Susie Wakefield nō Ngā Wairiki Ngāti Apa me Te Atihaunui a Pāpārangi, a clinical coordinator for theatre services at the Whanganui Hospital says, “I really find this a way to release and start fresh for the new day tomorrow.”

“It's kind of a nice way to talk about our day and work through some of the troubles that we’ve had,” Wakefield says.

Te Waimoko Edmonds nō Ngāti Ruanui me Ngāti Ruahine, a student nurse, says given her name she has always been drawn to water. “We all come together as one and we're a unity and, when the water is flowing, we flow together.”

“It’s a place where we don't have to wear a mask and we're working together all the time,” she says.

Cinda Baker, the manager of the Covid medical ward, says keeping staff, patients, and whānau safe is stressful and tough, especially when whānau aren't able to visit their loved ones.

“It's trying to keep an even keel for staff and for whānau,” Baker says.

Baker says Waka Ama spiritually heals her, gives her a place to release her frustrations, and keeps her healthy all while spending time with her paddling buddies.

Lorraine Tyson nō Te Atihaunui a Pāpārangi, who works in the stroke unit, says it's difficult to see patients who need their whānau to help them heal, and she, like the other women, finds waka ama to be a stress reliever.

“We're not allowing anyone under the age of 16 on the ward. So a lot of them got babies in there ... it's hard for them.”